After last night's surprise reveal of Nvidia's Android-powered gaming platform Project Shield, we couldn't wait to go hands-on with the device ourselves to put some nagging questions to rest. Luckily we didn't have to wait long - today IGN got to poke and prod the console-in-a-controller to our heart's content, as well as demo a variety of gaming experiences.
High Build Quality
The device itself is a bit heavier and a bit bulkier than a standard console controller, weighing in at around one pound. An average-sized pair of male hands won't have any trouble stretching their index fingers to the trigers or their thumbs to any of the face buttons or analog sticks, but it does feel noticeably larger in-hand than an Xbox 360 controller. The four back triggers are set up exactly like the 360's, with two "bumper" triggers along the top and two analog triggers just beneath. The four convex face buttons feel satisfyingly snappy.
In fact, the entire build of the device itself feels solid and responsive. The concave dual analog inputs seem to have no noticeable "dead zone" and feel high quality. Five center buttons (including another obviously Xbox-inspired detail in the central 'Nvidia' button) are used for various key Android functions like returning home or returning to the previous menu.
The non-detachable hinged screen is very thin and adds little to the bulk and weight of the device. Specific screen specs are still forthcoming, but Nvidia has confirmed that it is a 5-inch 720p display. When the screen is flipped shut gamers can access the device's customizable cover plate. Like Xbox 360 face plates, these easily snap in and off the device, presumably allowing gamers to customize their Project Shield with a plate of their choosing.
The only real negative regarding Project Shield as a controller (beyond its size and heft) is the lackluster D-Pad. Classic gamers are once again out of luck - the device's digital D-Pad is wobbly and disc-shaped and seems ill-suited for fine 2D control.
PC Game Streaming
We also got a chance to see Project Shield's PC game streaming functionality - arguably one of its most alluring features. When combined with a gaming PC on a shared local network, Project Shield can remotely access any game you own, allowing you to stream and play HD games directly on the device. The company demoed Borderlands 2 running in realtime on the Shield from alongside a PC in the same room, demonstrating the low-latency streaming between the two devices. The game ran as if it was being processed and rendered right on the handheld. There was no recognizable lag between when commands were entered on the device and when they were reflected on the screen.
There are some caveats, however. In order to access the feature, users must have an Nvidia-based graphics card - 600 series or above - and have the company's GeForce Experience optimization software installed. When the Project Shield is paired, the software detects the optimal graphics settings for its 5-inch 720p display, emphasizing high-framerates to counteract the impact of wireless streaming.
Between the simple cost of ownership of an Nvidia 600-series desktop or 600M laptop and the cost of the handheld itself, there is a considerable amount of effort and funds required to harness half of the device's promise. But then again, Nvidia representatives made no effort to deny that Project Shield is a niche product. This is a product for a very specific audience of hardcore gamers. The question is: is the niche-within-a-niche the company is targeting large enough to make the Shield a growing, successful platform?
Project Shield's very brief Dead Trigger 2 demo is too short to truly get a feel for what the platform's Tegra 4 chip will be able to do graphically, but given that Tegra 3-optimized games are already approaching a level of visual fidelity akin to current-gen launch title, it's safe to assume that high-end 3D mobile games will look fantastic on the 5-inch 720p display.
Beyond a strange game design choice (in this Dead Trigger 2 demo your gun fires automatically when your reticle passes over an enemy), the entire experience controlled as one would expect. Right and left analog sticks allowed for full freedom of movement. Actions like prev/next weapon swapping and lobbing grenades could be mapped to any face or shoulder button.
Project Shield seems a natural fit for console-style mobile games with complex button inputs. But reaching across the device to interact with the touch screen felt awkward - this is not likely be a platform suited for touch-heavy mobile games.
Many Project Shield details, including a list of supported games, a final name, and most critically, a price-tag, remain under wraps for now. Nvidia plans to ship the device in Q2 of this year, so answers on Project Shield's remaining questions can't be too far off.
The rapid rise of tablet interfaces and touch gaming means that Project Shield isn't likely to disrupt the core mobile games industry in any major way. But at the right price, with the right list of supported games and with the seamless integration of PC game streaming this could be a very powerful console-in-a-controller for a specific audience.