Nvidia Shield Review

This article was written originally by a member of our team who is no longer with The Drakkarium, John Zander.  

 

 

I remember watching the +NVIDIA broadcast from CES this year when the Project Shield video come up on screen; I instantly wanted one, even before the animation finished. That was all the way back in early January, and I was one of the first people to pre-order one (before pre-ordering was even open) in mid-May. Then came the long months of waiting as the Shield was relentlessly hyped, and seemingly relentlessly delayed. By the time it finally shipped on July 31 I was still excited... but not nearly as much as I'd been when it was announced.

Of course, the real question is: now that I've had the device for seven weeks, how is it? Well... it's awesome, but it's also pretty apparent that it's a first generation product. Here's why:

What Nvidia did right

Holy crap is the Tegra 4 fast! Seriously, this device runs pretty much anything I throw at it faster than any of the other devices I've used. Startup times for games are thrillingly fast, and there are animations in places I didn't even realize had animations. I think part of this comes down to the fan. Yeah, that's right, this device has active cooling and it's easily one of my favorite features. Anyone who's done much mobile gaming has seen how incredibly hot a phone or tablet can get during a gaming session; the Shield doesn't have that problem. At no time during a two hour long Dead Trigger session did any part of the device get even warm to the touch. And if you're worried that the noise from the fan will be distracting, don't. When the SOC isn't being pushed the fan is completely shut off, and even with it on you have to place it basically beside your ear in a silent room to be able to even tell it's on.

Holy crap ouch my ears are the speakers loud! And the sound quality is fantastic too. For gaming it's basically perfect: explosions and engine noises have a nice full rumble, and there's a nice amount of detail in the high end. For music it sounds better than you could reasonably expect while you're holding it, but if you plan to use it as a portable boombox (it's loud enough) the lows and lower mids are directional enough that the high end will be too present. Overall though, the speakers are better than I've ever heard in a full size laptop, and for a handheld device that's quite an achievement. Holy crap they got the ergonomics completely right on their first device! Go grab an Xbox 360 controller and pretend the d-pad and analogue sticks got swapped. Now lower the analogue sticks until the top of the sticks are on the same plane as the buttons. Now make it feel indescribably more solid, that's what the Shield feels like while you're holding it. Looking at the weight (one pound, four ounces) before I got my hands on it I worried that it would be uncomfortably heavy, (it is after all over twice as heavy as a wireless Xbox 360 controller) but Nvidia has done such a fantastic job balancing the weight that I can honestly say I have never found it to feel heavy (unless you're carrying it in a bag. You notice it then.)

Holy crap the standby time is fantastic! And the gaming battery life is as good as you can expect. I've never had the patience to test standby time until the battery fully ran down, but extrapolating out from the screenshot below gets you about eight and a half days. Gaming battery life is highly dependent on how graphically intense the game your playing is: if you're playing a 2D side-scroller like Canabalt HD you'll get much better battery life than you would if you were playing something with cutting edge 3D graphics like Riptide GP2 or Asphalt 8: Airborne, and even then you'd be hard pressed to get below five hours of gameplay, which is about the same as you'd get from something like a PS Vita.

notbad.jpg
The screen isn't quite holy crap level but it's pretty sweet too! I'm really picky about screens, and the Shield has one of the better ones I've used. The color accuracy is great, the brightness is great, and the pixel density is pretty great too. The reason it isn't quite holy crap level is that it has quite a bit of bezel, and 720p just isn't up to the same standard as the rest of the specs. If the screen was replaced with a 6" 1080p screen, well, drool....

Nitpicks and quibbles

The first thing I'm going to mention is the memory, because it's the only thing I truly regard as a problem: the Shield has 16GB of onboard storage and that just isn't enough. With modern games like The Bard's Tale requiring 3.5GB of storage to install 16GB is laughable. 32GB would be acceptable, but for a dedicated gaming system there really should be 64GB.

The next thing I have to mention is the haptic feedback. There isn't any. No vibration to acknowledge you pressed an on-screen button, no rumble when something explodes, nothing. I miss it quite a lot.

While it makes sense from a screen-size perspective, the fact that the UI is mostly a phone UI can be really frustrating. Apps like Hangouts block the entire screen when you're inputting text, Action Bars have fewer buttons than would seem reasonable, 3rd party launchers mostly suuuuuck, etc. Basically, since this is a primarily landscape device it should use a more tablet UI, it just works better that way (and I'll probably be rooting it and doing some DPI tweaks pretty soon.)

That's Hangouts. Seriously.
Next up are the scratches. They happen very easily, like really easy. The ones one the lid aren't much of a problem, after all they are designed to be replaced, but the ones on the soft-touch coating are problematic. This is just a softer soft-touch than I've seen before, literally dozens of scratches on the bottom, mostly from being sat on a nightstand. It gives me a sad.

Also, when you close the lid any audio you'd been playing stops. This seems like logical behaviour, except the speakers are so damn loud that you could easily use it as a portable boombox if there was an option to keep the music playing when the lid was down.

Conclusion

The Nvidia Shield is a fantastic device, but it's held back by it's very nature: it's the first of it's kind, there's literally nothing else in it's category. Nvidia wasn't able to learn from anyone else's mistakes. Considering that, and also considering the fact that this is the first device Nvidia is making and selling directly to consumers, the mistakes they made were exceedingly minor and I fully recommend it. If you are in any way interested in Android gaming you owe it to yourself to get a Shield, it just makes the whole gaming experience better.

Check back next week to see a rundown of the best (and worst) Shield optimized games