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Nvidia Shield Review: Tegra 4-Powered Handheld Gaming

Nvidia Shield Review: Tegra 4-Powered Handheld Gaming
By , Marcus Yam

We've been playing with Nvidia's Shield handheld for more than a month, but only recently got access to its killer feature: streaming PC game content. Does Nvidia's foray into the hardware world deserve your $300, or is this expensive toy impractical?

How do you get a guy who games almost exclusively on a PC to care about a handheld running Android? Start by telling him he can play some of his favorite PC titles on it.

Almost seven months after we first got our hands on it at CES, and in the wake of a hiccup that saw its launch postponed more than a month, Nvidia’s Shield is finally shipping. The company is most vocal about Shield’s pure Android environment (free of the bloat you find on many Android-based devices), tuned-up sound system, 5” multi-touch display, and console-style controller. But the killer feature in my mind—the capability that best demonstrates Nvidia’s growth beyond, but also with, the desktop enthusiast—is streaming PC games to Shield.

In my mind, the pre-release price drop from $350 to $300 didn't change much. In both cases, you're paying quite a bit for something that's really only designed to entertain. The fact that Sony’s PlayStation Vita and Nintendo’s 3DS cost less doesn’t affect my opinion either. At the end of the day, I don’t spend enough time away from my PC that I need another device to game on when I do finally get up. But a handheld that frees me up to play PC games around the house—now that’d be something to pique my interest.

Of course, everyone’s needs and wants are different. Some of our writers spend a lot more time than me traveling for work. Others have older kids that need to be entertained during long car rides. They’re the ones able to enjoy a handheld with plenty of battery life and a rich ecosystem of apps from Google Play. Shipping my Shield across the country to news editor Marcus Yam made good sense, then. The man seems to spend more time away from his home than in it, and he has lots of experience gaming on all manner of smartphones, tablets, and consoles. So, we’re going to tag-team this review. Whoomp! There it is.

Before I jump into the detailed break-down of Shield’s technical specifications and the performance of its Tegra 4 SoC, let’s hit the handheld’s capabilities at a high level:

Nvidia Shield Handheld Gaming Console
SoC
Nvidia Tegra 4
CPU Complex
Quad-core Cortex-A15 with fifth battery-saver Cortex-A15, up to 1.9 GHz
GPU Complex
72-core (24 vertex shaders and 48 pixel shaders)
Memory
Dual-channel LPDDR3/DDR3-L controller
2 GB LPDDR3-1800 memory
Display
Five-inch 1280x720 multi-touch display, 293.7 PPI
Audio
Integrated stereo speakers with build-in microphone
Storage
16 GB built-in flash memory
Wireless
Broadcom BCM43241
802.11a/b/g/n 2x2 MIMO
Bluetooth 3.0
GPS
I/O
Mini-HDMI output
Micro-USB 2.0
microSD slot
2.5 mm stereo headphone jack with microphone support
Motion Sensors
Three-axis gyroscope
Three-axis accelerometer
Controls
Dual analog joysticks
D-pad
Left/right analog triggers
Left/right bumpers
A/B/X/Y buttons
Volume, Android home/back, start, and Nvidia multi-function buttons
Battery
28.8 Wh
Weight/Size
588 g (measured by Tom's Hardware)
158 mm (W) x 135 mm (D) x 57 mm (H)
Operating System
Android 4.2.1 (Jelly Bean)

Shield is the first device to land in our lab powered by Nvidia’s Tegra 4 SoC. We first previewed the chip’s GPU component in Nvidia's Tegra 4 GPU: Doubling Down On Efficiency. And according to the company’s in-house benchmarks, it should be capable of more than four times Tegra 3’s frame rate in a GLBenchmark 2.5 off-screen test. Our tests show it even faster than that.

Of course, on Shield’s five-inch touchscreen locked at 60 Hz, the SoC can simply work less hard, improving performance per watt by running more efficiently. Nvidia claims that the 1280x720 is retinal. It can’t call it a Retina display—Apple has that trademarked. But with a pixel density of 293.7 PPI, the presumption is that gamers will hold Shield far enough away for the pixels to resolve.

In addition to its 72-shader GPU, Tegra 4 comprises four Cortex-A15 cores and one low-power Cortex-A15 companion core, with a 2 MB L2 cache dynamically shared across the quad-core complex. The fifth battery-saver core has its own 512 KB cache, allowing the larger 2 MB structure to power gate, cutting back on consumption when the four cores aren’t needed.

The SoC, which Nvidia says runs at up to 1.9 GHz, is complemented by 2 GB of LPDDR3-1800 memory and 16 GB of built-in flash memory.

Back at CES, when we first went hands-on with Shield, Nvidia told us it was leaning on a dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n radio, two transmit antennas, and two receive antennas. We can now clarify that Broadcom’s BCM43241 combo device is in there, supporting 20 and 40 MHz channels for PHY layer throughput as high as 300 Mb/s. Of course, wireless ecosystems fall back on the lowest common denominator. If you use Shield with an older Wi-Fi router, it’ll limit your wireless performance.

Although Broadcom’s radio complies with the Bluetooth Core Specification Version 4.0, Nvidia only cites Bluetooth 3.0 support. The Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) makes it possible to stream stereo content to Bluetooth output devices. Or, you should be able to connect to other Shield consoles for multi-player games, though this isn’t something we’re able to test with only one unit.

As far as physical connectivity goes, the back of Shield plays host to a mini-HDMI output, micro-USB 2.0, a microSD storage slot, and a 3.5 mm headphone jack with mic support for headsets. Naturally, the HDMI port is for connecting Shield to a TV. Alternatively, Nvidia says its console can connect wirelessly via Miracast. The company bundles a Micro-B-to-Type-A connector with Shield, which you can use for charging and data transfers (though third-party accessories like headphones and speakers purportedly work, too).

Upgrading the handheld’s 16 GB of on-board flash (of which only 12.6 GB is accessible) is relatively easy through the microSD slot. In theory, Shield should be able to address up to 2 TB SDXC devices. However, the largest cards available today hold up to 64 GB. At launch, that space is used for your music, movies, and pictures. But Nvidia says it’s planning an update that’ll let you install applications to the add-in storage.

Originally, Shield was to have an array of Li-ion batteries totaling 38 Wh of energy. Jen-Hsun’s CES presentation suggested that the console would resultantly boast 24 hours of continuous video playback. That turned out to be a little optimistic. After tuning for weight, size, and cost, the finished product wields three cells that add up to 28.8 Wh. Battery life naturally suffers compared to the original spec, though Nvidia still claims that Shield should carve through the most intensive Tegra 4-optimized games for four to five hours, and less demanding titles for up to 10. Movie playback is now estimated around 15 hours. If you’d rather just listen to tunes, Nvidia’s estimation is 40 hours of music playback.

Display 53 Comments.
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Top Comments
  • 15 Hide
    esrever , July 30, 2013 9:51 PM
    looks ok but not worth the price
  • 13 Hide
    Hazle , July 30, 2013 10:08 PM
    impressive, especially PC streaming. but for $300, i'd rather pause the game to take a bathroom break. it's gonna take me a library of good android exclusives for me spend that amount of money, and PvsZ or Angry birds don't cut it.
Other Comments
  • 15 Hide
    esrever , July 30, 2013 9:51 PM
    looks ok but not worth the price
  • 13 Hide
    Hazle , July 30, 2013 10:08 PM
    impressive, especially PC streaming. but for $300, i'd rather pause the game to take a bathroom break. it's gonna take me a library of good android exclusives for me spend that amount of money, and PvsZ or Angry birds don't cut it.
  • 8 Hide
    beta212 , July 30, 2013 10:21 PM
    Meh, with the PS4/xbox coming out , and tons of more convenient phones I don't see a market for a tegra4 shield, personally I'm saving my money for a console. The tegra is also too expensive and gimmicky to boot.
  • 5 Hide
    dragonsqrrl , July 30, 2013 11:00 PM
    When you look purely at the performance and specs $300 unsubsidized isn't all that bad considering the hardware you're getting for the price. The problem to me isn't so much price but the target market. How many people are willing to spend that much on a second or potentially third mobile device meant specifically for gaming and entertainment?
  • 4 Hide
    bryonhowley , July 30, 2013 11:01 PM
    Looks nice but I can find things better to spend $300 on. In truth I can't see ever streaming my PC games to a 5" screen when I use 3 Asus 27" monitors on my desktop PC. Going from 5760x1080 to 720p does not sound like something I am ready to do. And if I want to game from my recliner I just use my Xbox 360 wireless controller and play the game on my Panasonic 50" 3D Plasma.
  • 1 Hide
    vaughn2k , July 30, 2013 11:03 PM
    for U$180, I can get a nice Lenovo Phone. For U$ 500, a good Xbox.. not sure if I need a Shield where I could play anywhere..
  • 3 Hide
    slomo4sho , July 30, 2013 11:03 PM
    Not sure why most of your benchmarks were just between the shield and the Nexus 7. I understand that the Nexus 7 utilizes Tegra 3 but the iPhone 5, Note 2, or some other tertiary figues should have been included to provide a better comparison between this device and other current generation products.

    This device feels like a universal Wii U game pad and there is almost zero reason to own one.
  • 6 Hide
    cats_Paw , July 30, 2013 11:52 PM
    Considering that Oculus rift will cost somewhere around 300 dollars as well, id rather wait for that to spend my cash.
    Streaming is nice but if you are close toy our pc why not use the PC itself?
  • 1 Hide
    edwd2 , July 30, 2013 11:56 PM
    could be used to run a psp emulator, but phone can do that too.
  • 2 Hide
    shikamaru31789 , July 31, 2013 12:51 AM
    I'm just not seeing much reason to get one right now, not when I'm saving for the Xbox One and PS4. If it was at a lower price and if it supported AMD GPU's for PC streaming, I might get one. But they also need to get some developers to make some good Android exclusives, not just your typical mobile time wasters and ports of older console/PC titles, but some actuallAAA exclusives that are optimized for Tegra 4.
  • 0 Hide
    vaughn2k , July 31, 2013 1:03 AM
    for U$180, I can get a nice Lenovo Phone. For U$ 500, a good Xbox.. not sure if I need a Shield where I could play anywhere..
  • 4 Hide
    Chetou , July 31, 2013 1:24 AM
    When nobody wants to buy your SOC, I guess you have to make up a new product. Not very useful past the initial gimmick.
  • 1 Hide
    The Grave Digger , July 31, 2013 1:32 AM
    "shield Competes to your Disposable income" Really??
  • 1 Hide
    iam2thecrowe , July 31, 2013 3:01 AM
    What a pointless product. This will be a flop.
  • 3 Hide
    tadej petric , July 31, 2013 4:14 AM
    Shield really doesnt make me want to use it instead PC.
  • 0 Hide
    blubbey , July 31, 2013 4:20 AM
    Maybe in 3-5 years when mobile graphics really starts to come into their own. $300 for something I'd play while taking a dump isn't good value, I have a phone that can do much more afaik. If I want dedicated gaming I'd play on my PC or even buy a next-gen console for that money in a year's time.

    Side notes, isn't the Tegra 5 about the same power as a current console? That's next year too so assume in 4 years after that it should be 5x the power at least (Tegra 6 is supposedly 2x as powerful so 2.5x the power of Tegra 6 in ~3 years). That'd start to approach next gen consoles power in a handheld device. I'd probably pay $300 for that in 5 years assuming nothing else is better value.

    It's not like this is progression is unimpressive however, 5 years ago we had pitiful mobile processing power compared to today. I'm not expecting similar growth because that'd be crazy - http://cdn2.ubergizmo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/tegra-5-kepler-graphics-curve-640x315.jpg - but still. 20x the growth from today will be possible considering Nvidia's Tegra roadmap shows Tegra 6 being ~10x performance of T4.
  • 3 Hide
    ubercake , July 31, 2013 5:57 AM
    Great thorough review about a niche product.
  • 3 Hide
    somebodyspecial , July 31, 2013 6:49 AM
    Quote:
    We've been playing with Nvidia's Shield handheld for more than a month, but only recently got access to its killer feature: streaming PC game content. Does Nvidia's foray into the hardware world deserve your $300, or is this expensive toy impractical?

    Nvidia Shield Review: Tegra 4-Powered Handheld Gaming : Read more


    Can you guys test some movies with HDMI or miracast to TV? This was one of the features I would like to know about before pondering buying. A large part of the point of this thing for me is a portable 1080p player (or even 720p, as most of those look great on 60in or lower anyway). Also with that hdmi hooked up (or miracast) can you play your games out to TV too? I had thought I'd be able to play android games on the big screen (PC too).

    can you guys comment on this stuff? Anything out to TV is stuff your Vita/3DS can't do. I'd think this is a pretty important detail for most but unless I missed it in the review it wasn't even mentioned or tested. I was hoping for some PC to TV comments. Can this output your PC streamed games to TV or does lag etc prevent this? Or are you stuck on the 5in for both android and pc streams?

  • 0 Hide
    somebodyspecial , July 31, 2013 7:02 AM
    For anyone caring PC mag got substantial numbers from a trio of tablets:
    http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2415809,00.asp
    Antutu=36489
    geekbench=4148
    GLBench offscreen is 57fps
    So I'd say it should do well in a tablet vs. S800. It destroys S600. Not bad. Those were devices from Feb, so I'm thinking a shipping tab would have to be optimized a little more than a pre-release product but I could be wrong. Hope someone tests the toshiba write soon, not to mention HP's and ASUS's T4 tablets.

    Antutu on the Shield is impressive (though 720p, glad they didn't try 1080p on this thing, 720p gives it plenty of power for what it's designed to do) but the 1920x1200 1.9ghz ref tablet isn't far behind and S800 scores I've seen from devices show about 35k on tablets. That being said I expect S800 to match or beat T4's gpu (though we still need to see actual games benched, not synthetics to truly prove this), but I think most cpu test should favor A15. The numbers out so far seem to show this.

    I don't see T4's lack of OpenGL ES3.0 as any big deal. There are no benchmarks to test it, thus no software that uses it either. In other words, NV was right to dump it to save power/soc space etc and dedicate that to what we will probably use during the devices life. I'll change my opinion maybe after a few games show up with ES3.0 in them. Until then, no point in having it yet.
  • 1 Hide
    CaptainTom , July 31, 2013 7:29 AM
    Frankly I can play any game on my very portable $750 laptop with a 750m in more than 720p, and I already need that for school (Like most people).

    And if I want handheld gaming, I'll play Uncharted/Killzone on my vita over Angry Birds any day lol!
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