Impoverished Geek Review: Nvidia Shield

Earlier this month, I did something some might find a little crazy: I sold several of my game consoles. Having already made the decision to cut back on tv-watching, I then decided to cut my video game time down. In truth, I'd done that some time ago; I have cut back on the amount of gaming I do on a regular basis since October or November. Despite my reduction in game-playing, however, I still purchased every game I had the intention of playing, whether I wound up doing that or not.

So, what did I get rid of? The first two to go were the Ouya (hasn't been turned on much since I got it) and the Wii U (fun, but nothing that held my interest for long). The next two consoles I sold were my 3DS XL and PlayStation Vita. I was more hesitant to sell these. However, I haven't bought or played a 3DS or VIta game since the release of Weapon Shop de Omasse -- a game I didn't play once. Not due to lack of interest, mind you, but because I could not find the time. It dawned on me one day that the only thing I used the Vita for was Wake Up Club, a social alarm clock app that I don't think anyone else uses. Sure, I owned Lumines and Persona 4, but I wasn't playing them.

I was never a huge fan of either device in practice. I found the ergonomics on both of them to be a bit of a nightmare, leaving my hands cramped in a relatively short period of time. The Vita in particular just never felt "right" to me, and the touch panel on the back of the device was more of a hassle than anything else. I longed for a portable device with a contoller more in line with that found on consoles.

Enter the Nvidia Shield.

I'd actually reserved an Nvidia Shield last year, but cancelled at the last minute and put the money toward a PS4 instead. The device was getting middling reviews, and I didn't have a PC powerful enough to use one of its main selling points: game streaming. Furthermore, gaming on Android, like iOS, is a mixed bag: lots of games, most of them not great. This is further complicated by the fact that while the Shield has a touch screen, it’s not particularly easy to use. There’s a controller in the way. My main reason for considering the Shield was playing retro games via emulation, and since I have a laptop I carry with me everywhere, I already have a decent emulation machine. My opinion changed when I got a bunch of cash for selling my old portables. I decided to take a chance and give the Shield a whirl. 

The first thing you notice about the Nvidia Shield is that it’s heavy. Weighing in at a little over one-and-a-quarter pounds, it’s as heavy as a tablet. The Shield is solid and well-built, but there is no denying it is also bulky. It’s not the type of device you can stash quickly in a pocket. It’s much larger than most modern portables; I’d say is compares more to a device from the late nineties or early aughts. There is a plus size to that bulk, though: the Shield is much easier to grip than its competition. While the ergonomics still aren’t perfect, they are much better than those of the PlayStation Vita or 3DS.

In terms of technology, the Shield is pretty powerful. The 5-inch 720p display is bright and sharp. The speakers actually sound quite good, going toe-to-toe with the likes of the iPad and Surface. Games and videos sound great, though music is less than stellar. Of course, the Shield has a headphone jack, HDMI out, and Miracast streaming, so you can get better audio or video from an external device if you choose.

The Shield doesn’t disappoint from a spec standpoint, either. It runs the latest version of Android, KitKat. Its Tegra 4 processor chews through high definition video and produces stunning game graphics. It has 2 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of onboard storage that can be supplemented with a MicroSD card. Some games and apps refuse to run on anything but the built-in memory, but that’s an Android issue, not a flaw in the design of the Shield.

So far, the Shield has tackled every task I threw at it. I’ve used it to watch Netflix, YouTube, and Plex videos. I’ve played some Android games: Aquaria, Rochard, Jet Set Radio, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Each one ran brilliantly. I don't know of any Android games ported to or from the Vita, so it is hard to compare the graphics directly, but games on the Shield looked great and appeared to be as impressive as on rival portables.

Sadly, Android’s app market still lags behind the one on iOS, and mobile games aren’t usually designed with core gamers in mind. There’s another reason I picked up the Shield, and that’s emulators. The more open nature of Android means a multitude of emulators have been ported to the platform, and the powerful processors found in modern mobile devices are capable of emulating all sorts of classic hardware. The Shield handily emulates hardware as recent as the PlayStation Portable.
This is where my biggest issue with the Shield rears its head, though: the controller hardware is just far enough from great to present the occasional hiccup. The directional pad shifts in place, leading it to read adjacent directions to the one you’re pressing at the worst possible moment. The face buttons lack springiness, making them feel unresponsive. I’ve also had buttons occasionally double-tap from a single pressing. In addition, some games just refuse to recognize the analog triggers on the back of the device. There’s nothing more frustrating than a controller that doesn’t do what you want, and the Shield sometimes has that problem. It’s not as bad as the downright unacceptable controller that comes with the Ouya, but it is still surprising to see these issues on an otherwise well-designed product.

The most recent Shield update also give beta access to The Grid, a cloud streaming service for games. I’m not the ideal candidate for the beta test, but I was allowed to try it out anyway. I found the service to be quite good, all things considered. In fact, I think the video quality is better than the PS4’s remote play service, despite streaming from California instead of via a local network. There was an occasional hiccup while playing, but considering Grid’s beta status, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t have a PC with a graphics card capable of streaming to the Shield, but if the Grid is any indication, Shield’s home streaming feature is a useful one.

Nvidia’s Shield is a pretty impressive piece of hardware with a few issues that will hopefully be ironed out if a new version is released. If you like emulators or have a PC that can stream to the device, it might be worth the asking price. It won’t replace a tablet or outperform a mid-range laptop, and the Android game library can’t hold a candle to what you’ll find on other devices, though. If you already have a decent laptop and carry it with you, it might be more prudent to save $150 and buy a nice controller instead.

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The Nvidia shield rates a 2/5 on the Impoverished Geek Scale of Buyer's Remorse. It's worth checking out, but it's not going to be for everyone.

Posted on May 13, 2014 and filed under Review, Tech, Video Games.