NVIDIA is doing something different with Tegra 4, very different. To bring up its silicon, each vendor usually makes a reference design phone and tablet with a selection of approved components, packages a BSP (Board Support Package), and ships that and some engineers to customers. Rather than never letting the reference design see the light of day, this time NVIDIA also made it into something they can sell directly, a portable gaming device called Shield.

It’s no secret that Tegra 4 isn’t exactly the success that NVIDIA probably hoped it would be. While the initial word was that Tegra 4 had an obvious set of design wins following momentum from products which shipped in 2012 through 2013 with Tegra 3, but it’s obvious that Shield will now effectively serve as NVIDIA’s launch vehicle for Tegra 4.

Shield is an aspirational product and not an easy one to nail down – enthusiasts are picky about controllers, Android gaming is still largely an unknown, and the question remains what presence handheld gaming consoles will have in the future. To answer all those questions NVIDIA sent over Shield, a Falcon Northwest Tiki with GTX 760 inside, and Parrot AR Drone 2.0 for us to review. Read on for the full story.

Introduction and Hardware

With Shield, NVIDIA gave us a rare glimpse into some of the stages of design. When Anand and I saw Shield at CES, it was more of a prototype than real, reviewable sample of the portable gaming device. The analog sticks weren’t weighted right, the plastic felt somewhat creaky, the triggers and bumpers felt hollow and strange, and the D-Pad worked, but not amazingly so. It was exactly what you’d expect from a prototype, and as Shield inched closer to final release the hardware got successively better and better, until the final unit dropped on our doorstep.

The hardware that is the shipping Shield today is a world better, it’s everything I was hoping Shield would end up being in terms of a controller, with the right balance and in-hand feel.

There’s so much scrutiny on the fit and finish of mobile devices these days, for NVIDIA to build a mobile device and gaming controller at the same time invites a whole new level of scrutiny, potential issues, and things to get tuned just right. I’ve purchased a few high end gaming controllers in my day (like a kitted out $125 Scuf FPS Competition Xbox 360 controller that I love), but hesitate to review them because of just how much there is to talk about, and how much of it comes down ultimately to taste.

Anand and I gave feedback to NVIDIA early on that they should arguably use the Xbox 360 controller as something of a baseline for tuning their controller components. With the Shield what we get is nearly exactly that. The analog trigger resistance, bumper clickiness, and analog stick friction feel remarkably like the 360, perhaps just a tad less. I consider the 360 controller out of the box nearly perfect, but some of that is adaption and familiarity versus being some global maxima for perfection. At the same time, if the PS3 controller is your bar, you’re probably going to have a bad time initially with Shield until you’ve adapted. Where Shield does borrow somewhat from the PS3 controller is the analog stick positioning, which is bottom center, instead of opposed top left and bottom right. One of my initial complaints was that my thumbs can collide with each other when left stick is at limits to the right, and right stick is at limits to the left (a complaint about the PS3 I have as well). NVIDIA seems to have spaced these a bit more and my thumbs aren’t quite hitting as much as they were previously.

Since the display has to close flat on the control surface, some of the shape is gated by the limitation that you can’t have the analog sticks or buttons ramming through the display, so they’re sunken down a bit. The rest of the interface (A/B/X/Y, NVIDIA, Back, Home, Start, Volume and D-Pad) rest roughly in the same plane. The spring preload on the buttons is great, though I wish they were maybe a touch less mushy for A/B/X/Y, and although I’m not much of a platform gamer, the D-Pad feels so much better now than it did before.

The shape of Shield fits in my hands really, really well. The bottom is a grippy, rubberized material that grabs the hands well and plants the Shield solidly on any surface you put it down on. The interesting shape on the back side, means I can rest my middle finger in a sort of folded position along the inside (something you can’t do with most wireless controllers) and it feels great. I have no issues with the mass of Shield fatiguing my hands or feeling awkward since it’s so well balanced and ergonomically shaped down there.

On the front of Shield is a green-tinted intake and grille for the device’s active cooling. When I first heard that Shield had active cooling I was a bit shocked, but it turns out to be completely unobtrusive in actual use.

With Shield open you can see the 5-inch 720p display surrounded by a somewhat large bezel. This remains my only complaint about Shield – I wish it had a slightly larger display that took up more of the fold-out area. Below that are stereo speakers that go loud (I love that stereo is now a feature showing up in more devices) and in the very middle is a microphone.

On the back of Shield are its I/O ports, which are microUSB 2.0, mini-HDMI, headphone jack, and microSDXC. There’s also the exhaust grille for Shield’s active cooler back here. Above the microUSB 2.0 port is a small charge status LED which is amber while plugged in and charging, and green when fully charged. I remain confused by the choice of mini-HDMI, when smartphones and tablets have universally adopted the microHDMI format plug, and I’m buried in those cables compared to a relative scarcity of mini-HDMI ones, though NVIDIA has shipped mini-HDMI GPUs before.

On the top of Shield is, well, a small shield, which NVIDIA calls a tag. This snaps onto the top and adds a bit of a customization option, it’s held in place with magnets. Out of the box the tag is a metallic silver material. It looks great but I’ve already managed to put a few hairline scratches into it, which leads me to my next point.

NVIDIA has a carrying case option available, but it really needs to give some kind of carrying case away with Shield. Although Shield feels really well constructed, right down to even the hinge mechanism, I’d like a better way to protect it, especially while traveling. I know I’m going to put more scratches into the silver tag while traveling with Shield in my bag, for example.

Shield’s in-hand feel is really, really good. NVIDIA seems to have nailed the device on the controller side, which is no small task considering this is their first attempt. As a handheld mobile device, it’s definitely on the large side, but it’s hard to really say anything negative about it since this is an entirely new form factor. Other smartphone solutions with a foldable control scheme on the phone are similarly bulky, the upside is with Shield it’s all packaged better. Again my only wishes from a purely hardware perspective would be an in-box case, bigger display, and inclusion of a front facing and rear facing camera of some kind – if nothing else for video chat and taking photos when you’ve got the Shield already in your hand.

  SHIELD (P2450A)
SoC NVIDIA Tegra 4 - 1.9 GHz
Display 5-inch 1280x720 "Retinal" Display
Wireless Connectivity 2x2:2 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi + BT 3.0, GPS
Storage 16 GB NAND total, microSD Expansion
I/O microUSB 2.0, mini-HDMI, 3.5mm headphone,
OS Android 4.2.1, Updates from NVIDIA
Battery 28.8 Whr
Size / Mass 158 x 135 x 57 mm, 579 grams
Buttons Dual Analog Joysticks, D-Pad, Left/Right analog trigger and bumpers, A/B/X/Y buttons, Volume, Home, Back, Start, NVIDIA Power/Multifunction

The hardware specs are pretty well understood at this point. There’s a Tegra 4 SoC inside working the 4 ARM Cortex A15s at up to 1.9 GHz (and one shadow core for low power), 72 GPU cores in that SoC, 2 GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 16 GB of built in flash, and 2x2:2 (yes, two stream) 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi from a BCM43241 combo which we’ve written about before.

Software - Pure Android 4.2.1
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  • ervinshiznit - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Is it possible to run a battery life test with a H.264 encoded video being played back AND streamed over Wifi somehow? I feel like that would be a better simulation of the battery life under PC game streaming without having to sit there and play the game outright until the battery dies (although I'm sure that would be a lot of fun =))
  • Crono - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    The problem with this kind of gaming device is that it's guaranteed to be selling well only in a niche market.

    It's too big to be portable, not powerful enough to be a console or desktop killer, and not versatile enough or the right form factor to be competitive against tablets. And then there's the obvious fact that mobile gaming is being dominated right now by smartphones and smaller tablets and more traditional handhelds.

    The comparison picture tells a lot: larger than an Xbox 360 controller is too large.
  • darkich - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Desktop killer??
    Did you even read about this device at all??
    This is a desktop EXTENSION in the best way possible
  • PNN - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    How is it not versatile enough to compete against 7 inch tablets? If you can spare those 2 inches, you get:
    - It's probably going to have more power than any 7-inch tablet released in the next year.
    - Excelente battery life.
    - Kickstand/gamepad
    - Great speakers (except from the BB Playbook, I haven't seen a 7-inch tablet with decent audio).

    Weight is the only major disadvantage over a 7-inch tablet.
  • geniekid - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Crono's point is that this device is a mobile gaming device. It won't replace a tablet, a smartphone, a laptop, or anything with a virtual/physical keyboard. It's most direct competition is the DS/Vita, which have much higher quality game libraries.

    So who's going to buy this thing? Enthusiast gamers with a need for mobile gaming that aren't satisfied with their DS/Vita. That's a pretty small market these days.
  • PNN - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    It obviously won't replace a smartphone or a laptop, not even 9/10/11 inch tablets, but I can imagine people buying one of these instead of an iPod Touch, iPad Mini or a 7 inch Android tablet. It offers similar functionality for a similar price. Again, only if the weight is not too much of an issue.
  • Jumangi - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    It doesn't offer anywhere near the functionality when you take into consideration the form factors with something like the Nexus 7. And saying it will sell over an Ipad mini/ Wow the bizarre reality some people live in to justify weird tech.
  • PNN - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    You're not getting my point. Bye.
  • Spunjji - Thursday, August 1, 2013 - link

    Form factor is a huge consideration too. You will not fit this in a jacket pocket or small bag as easily as any of the devices you mentioned, and you're certainly not going to use it comfortably with one hand. I'm not saying your point is entirely invalid, but you're arguing this thing will fit into niches where it's not an ideal match.
  • darkich - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    "much higher quality game libraries" ..oh man what a load of horse s!it.
    You are obviously completely ignorant about iTunes and Google Play games.
    There's still so much prejudice going on about that among you pc dinosaurs.

    Let me break it down:
    The vast majority of Games on google Play cost up to 7$

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