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
RAM 2 GB LPDDR3
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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  • Revdarian - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    I am sorry but you really felt comfortable with a "mobile" gaming device that weight over half a kilo for how long?
    How comfortable/uncomfortable was it reported by anyone else who actually tried it for prolonged time?
    Reply
  • Brian Klug - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Because it spreads a lot of its area out, it really isn't that bad. I definitely spent at least two hours playing nonstop Borderlands 2 without thinking about it. And lots of time outdoors with the AR Drone 2.0.

    -Brian
    Reply
  • zebrax2 - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    For a gaming device review i find it a little disappointing that it seems like not a lot of time was spent playing with the device Reply
  • jasonelmore - Friday, August 02, 2013 - link

    He's been playing With shield for over three months including all of these expos him and anand have went to. I think it's safe to say he's had more playtime than any other reviewer. Reply
  • blanarahul - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    I too want a Nvidia designed phone. Reply
  • chizow - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Who knows, after Tegra 4i launches, if Shield does well enough, that may be the next step for Nvidia. Reply
  • Samus - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    If anything, this great review proves Shield is a technology showcase for Tegra 4, and how excellent it will be in a phone. Obviously active cooling will be nixed so the clocks will drop, but the battery life is substantial. Reply
  • Spunjji - Thursday, August 01, 2013 - link

    I don't understand the logic here. The clocks will have to drop so performance will as well. Power will drop as well probably - depends on leakage) but then you'll be dealing with a much, much smaller battery. To be honest it's a massive unknown at best. Reply
  • PC Perv - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    You can't be serious. So now weight is relative to shape, in your hands? And talk about the shape.

    Unbelievable how far reviews would go to put gloss on stuff that reviewers themselves will never pay for. The ranting at Google in the last page is pure gold. Talk about "entitlement mentality."
    Reply
  • chizow - Wednesday, July 31, 2013 - link

    Why isn't it serious? How weight is balanced and distributed across a surface plays a HUGE impact in how it feels in the hand. This isn't a foreign concept to just mobile devices, look at how knives, daggers, even guns are critiqued in this respect. Reply

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