Hands-on with Project Shield, NVIDIA's biggest gaming gamble yet

Credit: Raymond Wong/DVICE

NVIDIA surprised everyone at CES in January when it put every gaming company on notice with the unveiling of Project Shield, a console controller with a flip-out 5-inch touchscreen attached to it. On one hand, Project Shield is an Android device — it runs Android apps and games from TegraZone. But on the other, it's a PC gaming device because it can also stream full PC games either from Steam, or from Windows over Wi-Fi using a PC with NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 600 graphics card or higher.

Larger Than It Looks, But Still Comfortable

The minute I wrapped my hands around Shield, I immediately thought: this is kind of big. In press photos, Shield looks like it's about the size of an Xbox 360 controller, but it's actually a bit larger, and not just because of its case. The A/B/X/Y buttons are pretty big too, compared to ones you'd find on the PS3's DualShock 3 or the Xbox 360's controller. The shoulder buttons felt like they were placed too close to the triggers, which also were a tad too glossy in my opinion. The cluster of five buttons in the center is also a bit intimidating.

Minor design gripes aside, the Shield (I keep calling it a controller), isn't too heavy and has enough matte plastic on it to keep sweaty hands from slipping. I couldn't get a feel for the stereo speakers in the packed confines of the Boston Convention Center, so hopefully those can be cranked up to a decent level.

The touchscreen itself is one of the best on any mobile device, and stock Android 4.1 Jelly Bean (hopefully updated to 4.2.2 when it launches) makes the user interface fly. Graphics on the large 5-inch (1280 x 720 resolution) screen look crisp at 294 pixels per inch and makes anti-aliasing nuts like me extremely satisfied. Viewing angles are superb as well.

It's no shock the Shield is well a well-oiled machine. It sports the latest Tegra 4 system on a chip, which combines a quad-core processor, "custom 72-core NVIDIA GeForce GPU," and 2GB of RAM. And although we couldn't put it to the test, NVIDIA claims Shield can squeeze out 5-10 hours of gaming and up to 24 hours of HD video playback per battery charge.

Decent Dual Analogs and Buttons

I hung around NVIDIA's booth for a very long time at PAX East (so long, NVIDIA even interviewed me). I tried virtually every game the company had on display to get a feel for how the Shield performs. My impression is that the Shield's buttons and analogs feel good, but not great. The analogs aren't nearly as a tight as the Xbox 360 controller's, but they do the trick.

Android games such as Shadowgun and Max Payne Mobile suddenly feel playable as opposed to using awkward touchscreen controls, and even PC games such as Assassin's Creed III streamed to the Shield worked without any noticeable lag.

Casual gaming's rise over the last few years may have led to the reduction of buttons (ex: Wii Remote, Kinect, PlayStation Move), but it's clear the tried and true analogs + ABXY buttons + triggers controller is still a formula that works too well to be discarded for "core" gaming. Luckily, the Shield hits the right buttons.

Incoming By End Of June

Unchanged from CES is when exactly the Shield will come out and for how much. NVIDIA insists it's still on track for launch in late Q2 (by the end of June) and have already decided internally how much to price it. When pressed on whether we'll see the Shield sell for under $500, NVIDIA senior PR manager Bryan Del Rizzo refused to budge. Maybe we'll hear more at E3 in June? We'd better, because by then, there will be even more gaming hardware available or worth waiting for. The Ouya, Razer Edge Pro, GameStick, PS4, next-gen Xbox and "Steam Box" will all be vying for our dollars. If the Shield isn't priced aggressively, it won't stand a chance.

For a thorough video and photo tour of Project Shield, hit up the gallery below.

Posted on location at PAX East 2013 in Boston, MA. All photos and video by Raymond Wong for DVICE. Music: "ElectroHouse" by RutgerMueller.

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