Nvidia Shield is Out, ShadowPlay Still TBA
A portable Android console, Nvidia Shield is finally available for purchase for $299 after an additional delay. It aims both to provide a powerful platform for Android gaming with decent controls and a device for streaming games from a local PC (similar to Wii U), or to play via Cloud.
The first reviews are also in, together with detailed information about configuration and performance. The Tegra 4 SoC in Shield is actively cooled and has 4 ARM Cortex A15 CPU cores at 1.9 GHz for high performance tasks (and an additional low power CPU core). This makes Shield the clear leader in CPU power among ARM devices (but still well behind tablets using Intel Core i5 CPUs). The GPU in Tegra 4 is also quite powerful, easily outperforming older models in other tablets in most tasks, even while lacking complete OpenGL ES 3.0 support (Intel HD 4000 is still well ahead of all GPUs used in any ARM SoC). However Qualcomm's upcoming Adreno 330 GPU is also on similar a performance level, which may not provide much initiative for tablet manufacturers to go with Tegra 4 in the future. There is a 2 channel Wi-Fi support, allowing fast wireless connection for streaming. Finally, on software side Shield ships with minimally modified Android 4.2.1. The only modifications included are for controller support, which should allow for very fast adoption of newer Android versions.
So far, different reviewers have mentioned good impressions about Shield controller quality. It is easy to hold and controls work well even with their small height, which is required due to hte display. The main problem comes when touchscreen is used, as the heavy parts of Shield require support (the whole device weighs 580 g.). Having this much weight in a controller makes it more comfortable compared to clip-on phone gamepads. The sound quality is also good, with speakers producing clear sound at any volume. The device has 16 GB of internal storage and a port to extend it via microSDXC card (not supporting apps on SD card at the moment, but it will be changed in future updates). The 1280x720 resolution on a 5" display provides a very clear image (294 ppi), which also means that Tegra 4 can use more power for visual effects, compared to high resolution tablets. Compared to an initial announcement, batter y size took a hit to reduce weight, so Shield should provide over 6 hours of demanding Android gaming and under 10 hours of streaming from PC.
For Android gaming there are several hundred gamepad enabled games which should benefit from traditional gaming controls, compared to touchscreen. Shield comes with 2 games installed in system files (Sonic 4 Episode II THD, Expendable: Rearmed), which are always available (even after device reset). On a small flip side – playing popular touchscreen games, like Angry Birds is not among Shield's strengths. Among Android games there are some Tegra enhanced games, which will show more graphical effects on Nvidia's hardware, compared to other phones and tablets.
Finally, there is a PC streaming feature, which is still in Beta, but remains one of the main highlights of Nvidia Shield. Currently it requires a desktop PC with GeForce GTX 650 or better GTX 600 and GTX 700 series graphics cards. Kepler GPUs have a built in hardware h.264 encoder NVENC, which allows fast encoding without big impact on GPU graphics performance. This encoder is also present in laptop Kepler GPUs, which are currently not supported, but may be in the future. The same encoder is used in ShadowPlay features that can record gameplay and compress it on the fly. Unfortunately the release dates mentioned by Nvidia engineers during previews were not official, and there is no planned release date announced at the moment.
On PC software side the streaming feature requires the latest GeForce Experience 1.6 software and latest Beta GeForce 326.41 drivers on Windows 7 and 8. There is currently a direct support for streaming in 21 games, as well as for Steam Big Picture mode. Launching supported games is optimised for gamepad controls (f.e. skipping the Skyrim configuration window). GeForce experience also handles control remapping in those games and also can adjust their graphics settings automatically. While Shield is streaming game from PC, the game takes the focus and main display resolution is changed to 1280x720. Any attempt to Alt-Tab and do something else will stop the streaming. Steam Big Picture allows launching and streaming other games as well, but results may wary.
Overall, Nvidia Shield is a well-made portable console – good for playing controller enabled Android games and a decent option for playing your PC games in all reading places of your home. On other hand, $300 is not very cheap and Shield is not "must have", it is "nice to have". It is a niche product for a niche audience, a first Tegra 4 product on the market and a nice showcase for Nvidia's latest mobile SoC.