When NVIDIA showed off the Android-powered Shield gaming console at CES this year, it was locked away under glass. In the meantime, pre-orders of the device have exploded while NVIDIA tweak the final product. We went hands-on with the new-look Shield at Computex this year, and it's pretty goddamn amazing.
So what is the Shield? Think of a fat Xbox 360 controller with a 5-inch clamshell screen bolted on, running stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. It's powered by NVIDIA's brand new quad-core 1.9GHz Tegra 4 processor, 2GB of RAM, tuned speakers and a gorgeous 296 ppi screen. NVIDIA called it the Shield to fit in with its superhero-themed product line.
The controller is much like any Bluetooth gaming peripheral you'd purchase: two analogue thumbsticks, four coloured buttons, a D-pad and two bumpers on the bottom of the device. An array of context specific buttons adorns the centre of the device, meant for volume control, navigation control and a dedicated gaming button.
The Shield runs stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with no UI skin in sight, and NVIDIA is working with game developers to get more games into what it calls the Tegra Zone. NVIDIA has had Tegra Zone for a while: since Tegra 3 chips were in Asus tablets mid-last year. It's meant to act as a hub for all the games that are specifically designed for the Tegra processors. That's what makes the Shield possible, and NVIDIA continue to work with game devs to get more and more Shield-optimised games. Expect this year's E3 to contain a few announcements for Shield-specific games.
Since NVIDIA showed off the Shield at CES Las Vegas in January, it has been tweaking what it will ship to customers. The changes aren't that visually dramatic, but they're certainly welcome for the people who pre-ordered it. Most of them are to improve ergonomics or functionality of the Shield, which is great for those who pre-ordered the thing.
It now has a more robust hinge on the 5-inch screen, a bit more space between the thumbsticks so your hands don't get cramped, the pads have been textured and lowered for better grip and ergonomics, and in terms of functionality, NVIDIA added a mini-HDMI port on the rear for video out, as well as an SD card slot for expandable memory up to 64GB.
All of this refinement, along with the awesome power of Tegra 4, comes together when you actually go to use the Shield. It's a beautiful gaming experience on that 5-inch screen and there's very little in the way of graphics lag thanks to the fact that a lot of games are specifically tuned for it.
We played a fairly intensive game in the way of Dead Trigger when we went hands on, and what you notice next to the quality graphics is the quality sound. Those tuned speakers make every gun blast and every shrieking zombie sound awesome. The speakers are super-loud and the bass is exceptional. So much so that someone needs to chat to NVIDIA about putting speakers like that on a tablet or a smartphone.
The Shield is also very comfortable to use. It's well-weighted, but not to a point that you'll get arm-fatigue holding it and the ergonomic improvements really make it a pleasure to play on.
There are about 60 Tegra-specific launch titles for the Shield, which is great for the platform, and one of the best features comes from its compatibility with NVIDIA's GeForce graphics cards.
If you have a GeForce graphics card in your gaming PC, the Shield can seek it out and use your gaming PC as a hub on your home network. That means you can stream all of your Steam titles from your PC to your Shield if you want to play somewhere else in the house. That's awesome news, and NVIDIA promises that the lag is minimal thanks to some clever maths it has going on under the surface.
On top of all that, NVIDIA is promising pretty astounding battery life, too. The Shield is packing a 28w/hr battery, which means that you'll get about six hours local gaming while something like Dead Trigger, PC to Shield streaming gets you is nine hours while playing so-called casual games like Angry Birds or Temple Run gets you a massive 16 hours of gameplay.
In a way, the Shield is what the OUYA console should have been: rather than throw Android games onto your TV, make the portable Android gaming experience better and allow HDMI out to put it onto your TV if you want, while throwing in compatibility with Steam games via GeForce streaming.
The Shield is a pretty awesome deal for $US349. If you think about it, a less powerful 5-inch Android device would run you close to $400 at the cheapest, and then you're looking at another $150 for a Bluetooth controller that isn't integrated to the device. The only issue is that the Shield is currently restricted to US purchasers only. NVIDIA has promised to open it up to other territories later on, but there's no date yet. You can always try and import one via various third-party shipping services which will cost you extra, but if you're really into your Android gaming, it's probably worth it.