So Nvidia has a new gaming handheld on the way, powered by its latest mobile chip and capable of playing Android games and streaming PC games directly from your computer. Should we be excited? Worried? Should we even care? Let's find out.
What is Project Shield?
Project Shield is a cool code name, chosen because of the shield-like shape of the plastic on the back of its 5-inch, 1280x720 HD 294 dpi retinal multitouch display. That display attaches to a console-style controller, and is used to display the Android games and apps, multimedia content and streaming PC games that the device will run. An HDMI-out port allows the unit to display games and videos on any standard HD television or monitor.
It's fair to call it an Android tablet with a small screen and a controller attached, though with the Tegra 4 chip and some killer audio design it'll be more powerful and sound better than any other Android device on the market.
Why Project Shield?
I'll let Nvidia co-founder and CEO Jen-Hsun Huag field this one, via the official press release.
"Project Shield was created by Nvidia engineers who love to game and imagined a new way to play. We were inspired by a vision that the rise of mobile and cloud technologies will free us from our boxes, letting us game anywhere, on any screen. We imagined a device that would do for games what the iPod and Kindle have done for music and books, letting us play in a cool new way. We hope other gamers love Shield as much as we do."
In actuality the device doesn't quite do for games what the iPod and Kindle have done for music and books. Android games are still downloaded directly to the Shield, and PC games must be running on a local system powered by an Nvidia graphics card. Still, I can see how they got here.
Is the Shield a Threat to Game Consoles?
Not any more than the PC is a threat to the Xbox 360, Wii U or PlayStation 3. Android gaming hasn't exactly made a huge dent in console sales, and the ability to stream PC games still requires a gaming PC to stream from. It's a PC accessory, rather than a PC game system.
Is the Shield a Threat to Dedicated Gaming Portables?
Not at all. Nintendo's portables have always been driven by software rather than hardware, and I don't see anyone passing up a 3DS in order to sample what Google Play has to offer. The PC streaming is an attractive feature, but I don't need an Nvidia-powered gaming PC to play Mario.
As for the PlayStation Vita, its biggest threat is itself.
Is the Shield a Threat to the Ouya?
If there's one piece of technology that should be worried about Project Shield, it's the Ouya Android console. The Shield will do most everything the Ouya does, features a version of the Tegra chip that's six times more powerful than the Ouya's, and will stream PC games on top of that.
However, the Ouya has several things going for it, most notably the fact that through its Kickstarter campaign it's already sold plenty of units. Developers have promised Ouya-exclusive titles, which ups the console's value. The Ouya is completely moddable — the Shield could be modded as well, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble. And then there's the cost — we've no price on the Shield yet, but there's no way it's going on the market for anywhere near the Ouya's $US99 price tag.
Project Shield Pros and Cons
The main reason anyone that doesn't use an Nvidia video card in their PC would use it for is playing the latest and greatest Android games, like Dead Trigger 2, pictured above. Backed by the power of Tegra 4 — the Shield will be the first device to utilise the system-on-a-chip — it should perform this task better than any other piece of Android gaming hardware out there, at least until the chips go wide.
Pros: Tegra 3-powered devices currently enjoy a stable of exclusive games that harness the chip's power and provide graphics and performance superior to standard Android devices. The Tegra 4 is six times as powerful as the 3, which could lead to even better exclusive titles, a boon to both Nvidia and Shield gamers. Every exclusive game for the Shield lessens the downside of this being an Android device, which is...
Cons: There are hundreds of devices that play Android games. Most of them come with their own screens. Most of them will hook up to the television to output video. Most of them will let you play games on the go. The Shield is optimised for gaming, which is a plus, but until those Tegra 4 exclusive games start rolling out there's not a lot to recommend the Shield over other devices.
Harnessing the technology that powers Nvidia's newly announced Grid, gamers will be able to stream games hosted on their gaming PC via the Shield. Last night's demonstration showed off Assassin's Creed III and Need for Speed: Most Wanted, two games that would never run natively on a Tegra chip, flawlessly streamed in real-time to the handheld, and then fed to a television via HDMI. Coupled with Steam's Big Picture mode, focused on games that are control pad friendly, the Shield will have access to a rather impressive library of top PC titles.
Pros: It's cloud gaming, only better. Where services like Onlive stream video of gameplay to the client, Nvidia's technology sends graphics data to the receiving device, which is then processed on the client side. It's sorcery if you ask me. The end result is clear, crisp and responsive PC gaming beamed remotely to the device.
Cons: First of all, this is technology I've not had a chance to play with yet, so for all I know it could actually be sorcery. Can I stream from my PC only via my home network, or can I access it remotely from a wireless connection? If I am in my house, I am more likely to sit down at my PC anyway. If I can use this at Starbucks, that's a different story.
The technology is nifty, but there's no indication that it will be exclusive to the Shield. In demoing the Grid last night, Nvidia showed a game being streamed to an Asus Transformer tablet. They talked about any device being able to handle the process. If any device can handle that process, surely it can handle the same PC streaming the Shield can, knocking off another selling point.
And finally, the streaming is Nvidia tech, so if you're not running a GeForce GTX card, don't expect your PC to play nice.
What makes the Shield different from most other portable Android devices is the game controller base. It's got "console-quality" (Nvidia's words) controls. That means dual analogs, four face buttons, shoulder and trigger buttons and a directional pad. It seems solid enough.
Pros: The familiar form factor of the Shield controller (it's only slightly larger than an Xbox 360 controller) means PC players used to plugging in a pad to play will feel right at home. It's also a boon for Android games that support gamepads.
Cons: Android developers aren't exactly rushing to hop on the controller bandwagon. Even the most popular third-party Android controller solutions only support a relative handful of games.
It remains to be seen how the controller will handle PC games that require keyboard input. Assuming it features Bluetooth, players will be able to connect a keyboard and mouse to the unit. I know PC gamers that would rather die than have to connect their traditional controls through a console-style gamepad.
The Shield connects to your television via HDMI, projecting your games and media onto a big screen to delight and astound passersby.
Pros: Controller plus television equals game console, right? It's like the Ouya, only more powerful and with the ability to stream PC games.
Cons: Almost every other Android device does the same thing. That, and without an expensive wireless HDMI adaptor, the controller is tethered to the television with a cable, and a good quality HDMI cable isn't nearly as yielding as your standard controller cable.
That, and I sure hope there's an option to turn off the built-in display while running video to the television.
My favourite feature of the Shield. I own a half-dozen mobile gaming devices, and the one thing they all have in common is crappy audio. The Shield features a unique bass reflex, tuned port audio system that delivers twice the low-frequency output of a high end gaming laptop. It should sound simply divine.
Pros: It's almost all pros here, baby. Audio has never been a priority for mobile devices — that's why the best games suggest you plug in headphones, and why accessory makers sell Bluetooth speakers. I've not heard the Shield in person, but I'm willing to believe based on dramatic rendering alone.
Cons: Games with bad audio will sound even worse.
Who's Going to Buy the Shield?
Aside from everyone in the Nvidia Twitch.TV chat room last night? Gadget freaks, certainly. PC gamers with Nvidia cards and extra money laying around? I'll probably pick one up — you know, for work.
Honestly I think Nvidia has its work cut out for it with Project Shield. It's a gorgeous little device, but what it does is a combination of something hundreds of other devices already do — Android gaming — and one thing that I'm not sure there's a big call for — streaming PC games to a portable device. I'd be more impressed if, like Razer's Switchblade prototype from January 2011 or Panasonic's aborted Jungle MMO handheld, the Shield ran PC games natively. As it stands I am curious, but not convinced.
So how do you feel about Project Shield now? Worried? Curious? Excited? Moments like these are why comment sections where made, ladies and gentlemen.