Nvidia Shield: Hands-On With A Tegra 4-Based Handheld

Nvidia Shield: Presenting The Turn

We were still in Southern California when Nvidia introduced its Project Shield. But that didn't stop Don and I from following the webcast and posting our initial thoughts online in CES 2013: Nvidia Announces Project Shield And Tegra 4. The next day, the Tom’s Hardware team landed in Las Vegas, ready for the show (more specifically, everyone else landed; I drove).

My first stop was Nvidia, where I got to go hands-on with a pre-production version of the Shield. The company was emphatic that what you saw during Jen-Hsun’s introduction was an early version of the hardware; it isn’t expected to ship until the second quarter of this year, and will be among the first devices with Tegra 4 inside.

Gaming On Android

I’ll preface this with what I told Nvidia: I don’t spend a lot of time gaming on mobile devices. I think I might have a free version of Angry Birds installed on my iPhone, and it’d take something really compelling to make me want to buy a game on one of my Windows 8 or Android tablets.

With that said, the build of Hawken the company had running on its Shield looked surprisingly detailed. I figured I could get pretty good at the game using the handheld’s joysticks. It’s a shame that the UDK-based title's free-to-play model is already being derided for goading you into buying upgrades with real-world currency just to stay competitive. We’ll have to see if Meteor’s model carries over from Windows into Android.

Nvidia is quick to point out a few other upcoming titles with planned optimizations for Tegra 4: Blood Sword: Sword of Ruin, Real Boxing, and Dead Trigger 2. My only beef with the optimizations developers are making (first mentioned in Nvidia's Tegra 3 Optimizations: THD Android Games, Tested), is that they’re restricted under Android via device detection. But when you play a cross-platform title under iOS or Windows, that detection doesn’t always happen. In some games, you see the same effects on SoCs from Apple, Qualcomm, and Intel.

Will the first wave of Tegra 4-optimized titles run smoothly on A6/A6X, Snapdragon S4, and Atom Z2760? Or will Tegra 4’s more powerful graphics subsystem enable games that can only be enjoyed at their highest settings on Nvidia’s Shield? More so now than on the prior generation of hardware, Shield stands to enjoy a notable advantage in Android-based games right out of the gate.

The Wizard Behind The Curtain

Much of what Shield can do beyond gaming natively in Android is owed to Nvidia’s other technologies. For example, the device is able to access your library of PC games through Valve’s Steam platform and present them neatly on-screen. Actually firing them up and playing them, however, requires a desktop PC with at least a GeForce GTX 650 or a notebook with a GeForce GTX 660M.

Nvidia’s requirements also list a Core i5 or equivalent CPU (AMD processors included). Quick Sync does not play a role in this relationship. Rather, the GPU renders the game locally on the PC. Its fixed-function NVEnc logic turns the output into an H.264-encoded video, which is then sent to the Shield over a suitably-fast wireless network.

The company says an 802.11a/g/n router should be enough. That makes sense—you shouldn’t ever need 54 Mb/s of throughput for a compressed video stream. But peak performance isn’t the issue. I’m more interested in how high of a data rate the network needs to sustain, at minimum, to achieve smooth playback. Dips in the wireless valley matter most.

The Shield does its part with a dual-band 802.11n radio from Broadcom, two transmit antennas, and two receive antennas. If you’re able to match the handset up to a MIMO-equipped router, dual spacial streams should give you higher throughput at any given distance, improving the likelihood you’ll have a fluid experience.

At launch, Nvidia says it will support streaming PC games from your PC to the Shield. You will be able to connect an HDMI cable to your TV and mirror the output there. In the future, the company hopes to stream directly from your PC to the TV, using Shield as a controller. What won’t happen, it sounds like, is a wireless link between the PC and Shield, and a wireless link between the Shield and TV, which would introduce too much latency.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.