Everybody knows that if you try to get a cat to do what you want—sit up, fetch a stick, search for explosives—it will do nothing more than stare at you with contempt. That’s why console pitches to PC gamers tend to fall flat: we’re generally not as interested in hearing how a bunch of suits want us to play our games. Nvidia took a much different approach with the Shield, on the other hand, that seems to account for what PC gamers have in common with cats: give us great hardware and the freedom to do whatever we feel like doing, and we’ll show ourselves a great time.
And oh, what hardware! Closed, the Shield looks like a largish Xbox 360 controller, with a handsomely textured plastic chassis and contrasting magnetically-attached silver plate on top (called a “tag”) that can be swapped for glossy or carbon fiber tags (available separately at $20 each). The top flips upward on a firm hinge to expose the 5-inch, 1280x720 glossy LCD touchscreen display and controller surface. The layout of the controller combines the best of the Xbox 360 and PS3 controllers with dual analog thumbsticks, a D-pad, A/B/X/Y buttons, left and right analog triggers and bumpers on the shoulders, as well as five buttons in the center for system controls.
At 1.3 pounds the Shield isn’t lightweight, but the ergonomics are nearly perfect—including a smoothly contoured undercarriage that allows your ring fingers to rest beneath the device—so I was able to play well over an hour before any fatigue set in (and over ten hours on a single battery charge, although that included a half-hour sandwich break and finger yoga). Only the slightly recessed thumbsticks felt a bit awkward at first, but the slight arch in my thumbs necessary to work them actually made depressing them easier.
On the Engineering deck you’ll find the brawniest Android hardware you can fit in a jacket pocket, centered around Nvidia’s own 1.9GHz Tegra 4 processor (with a 5-core CPU and a 72-core GPU) and 2GB RAM. The Shield also includes 802.11n dual band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, an internal gyroscope and accelerometer as well as 16GB of internal flash-based storage and a MicroSD slot where I’m currently storing 32GB of movies, music, emulators, and disc images I ripped from vintage games (more on that in a moment).
But the real stroke of genius is the Shield’s unmolested Android 4.1 (“Jelly Bean”) operating system, by far the most popular mobile operating system in the world. All you have to do is pop open the Shield, hop onto your wireless network, and help yourself to any of the hundreds of thousands of Android games available through the Google Play store. The Shield wisely highlights Android games with controls and visual enhancements customized for the device and its Tegra 4 proc, as not all Android games support game controllers or control remapping, and not all the ones that do aren’t guaranteed to work well with the Shield. And you’ll want to be very wary of games designed specifically for touchscreens: while some are a pleasure, such as the enigmatic puzzle game The Room, there’s simply no way to comfortably play others, such as the Android port of the classic adventure game The Last Express which bizarrely only supports portrait orientation.
The games tailored for the Shield, on the other hand, play beautifully, with super-crisp detail and unflappable smoothness—especially first- and third-person action games such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, zombie abatement shooter Dead Trigger, and Max Payne.
The Shield’s most unique feature—no, make that its most downright bitchin' feature—is PC streaming. You can launch any supported game from your PC—via the Shield interface or Steam’s Big Picture mode—and play, oh, let’s say Dishonored, in the bathtub. Which I did. Or Tomb Raider on the couch. I did that, too. I won’t tell you where I played BioShock Infinite, but the main idea is that your PC does the heavy lifting and squirts the results to your Shield with—under ideal conditions—negligible latency. But Nvidia was right to label this a “beta” feature, because getting it to work is something of an adventure in itself. Non-Steam games need to be manually added to your Steam library in order to work, and the hardware requirements are extremely steep: You need at least an Nvidia GeForce GTX 650 (laptop GPUs aren’t supported yet), and your results will depend on the speed and sophistication of your router and the strength of your wireless signal. I used a $180 Asus RT-N66U provided by Nvidia, and even then, in the labyrinth of dead spots that is my home, it took a great deal of experimentation to figure out where to put it—and how far away I could move away from it—so that I could stream without excessive lag or hiccups.
That’s frustrating, but in a sense, it’s also inspiring. Because PC gamers have always been tinkerers, and we’re used to adapting hardware to our needs; at the very least, we’d rather have the option than not. Nvidia cut no corners on the hardware, so I was able to watch my MKV rip of “The Brothers Bloom” Blu-ray without recoding (using VLC). I played my FLAC files of Tomáš Dvořák’s tasty soundtrack to Machinarium through the superb speakers (which are better than most laptop speakers, though light on the bass). And by pairing the Shield with a Bluetooth keyboard for experimenting with command-line instructions, I was able to play the gruesome DOS classic I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream (with the $3.50 DosBox Turbo utility) from a ripped ISO of my dusty CD-ROM. I plugged in the Shield to my PC, and as it charged over the USB connection, I transferred a rip of The Neverhood through Windows Explorer and ran it on the Shield using the free “Windows, Linux, Unix Emulator” on the Google Play store—and played it on my living room TV via the HDMI-out. I used a PlayStation emulator to play Fear Effect on a warm night on my fire escape. I even surveilled my backyard with the AR.Drone 2.0 from Parrot, with a live color video feed from the hovercraft streamed to my Shield.
That’s not to say these feats were easy—not all of them were. But they’re possible, and don’t require “rooting” or workarounds as a result of file system lockouts. You have the same freedom to improvise and experiment that you expect from your PC or laptop—and don’t ever get from console manufacturers. Instead, you get the benefits of an operating system with an open architecture in a handheld that’s several orders of magnitude more sophisticated in hardware and design than any handheld that came before it.
If you have the desire and patience to exploit the Shield’s whopping potential, it’s a must-have—if you tried to take this thing from me I’d tear your arm off and make you eat it. If you don’t, it’s a tougher sell without reliable PC streaming and iffy compatibility with many Android games. Either way, the Shield is a magnificent funmaker that’s worth every penny, and if Nvidia can bullet-proof the streaming and continues to promote compatibility and support among developers, it has an even more glorious future ahead of it.