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GTC 2013: Nvidia's Project Shield Revisited (Hands-On)

During GTC 2013 in San Jose, I took a stroll into the exhibit area to check out some of the gadgets and services on-site. Naturally Nvidia had the biggest booth, stretched out along the back wall to showcase products ranging from displays for automobiles to a sexy desktop packed with three Titan-based Asus cards.

Fortunately, several units of Nvidia's upcoming Project Shield were available for a hands-on, a gaming gadget I didn't have a chance to test drive in January during CES 2013. It's essentially a 5-inch Android-based tablet mounted on a game pad, thus creating a much-needed solution in the Android gaming arena.

Based on that description, I was actually surprised at how light the gadget felt in my hands. I can see sitting on the couch for hours playing Tegra 3/4 games or streaming PC-based titles from a Kepler-based rig while my wife hogs the TV. It also didn't feel like the device would topple out of my grip given that a touchscreen was mounted on the back – it was highly balanced.

As previously reported, Project Shield will be available in 2Q13. It sports a quad-core Tegra 4 SoC, a 5-inch capacitive multi-touch screen, and Google's full-blown Android "Jelly Bean" OS. There are also two built-in speakers, Wireless-N connectivity, HDMI output, a microUSB port, a microSD card slot, 32 GB of internal storage and 2 GB of RAM. That said, it might as well be a 5-inch tablet mounted on an Xbox-like gamepad.

I asked the rep if the next-generation Project Shield – and you know there will be one – may come packed with MHL support. This tech adds a power pipeline to the audio and video lanes crammed in HDMI cabling, thus when connected to a compatible HDTV, the device would recharge in the process (rather than use a separate power adapter). But the rep said that by then the next model will likely push video wirelessly directly to an HDTV, thus nuking a cable connection altogether.

Unlike OUYA, which I briefly glimpsed on Tuesday, Project Shield will not be a closed ecosystem. It's Google Play all the way, but games enhanced for the Tegra 3/4 SoCs and Project Shield will be highlighted via Tegra Zone. This means games you've already purchased will be playable on the device – that's not the case with OUYA despite its "open source" promise.

So how much will Project Shield cost? The Nvidia rep said the company is still trying to determine a competitive price, but then asked what I would pay for it. I scoffed at the question: I don't want to pay for anything to be honest. Still, how much will this device be worth? Again, it's a 5-inch tablet hinged on a gamepad.

So let's examine this for a moment. Google's Tegra 3-based 7-inch Nexus 7 tablet with 16 GB of storage retails for $199, and the 32 GB for $249. The Android-based MOGA gamepad costs around $49. Take those three factors into consideration, and you could argue that Project Shield would cost around $250. That seems a little steep, and if you don't have a Kepler GPU in your desktop, then Project Shield becomes a very expensive Android handheld console.

So no, $250 wouldn't be ideal, but that may be the resulting price nevertheless. Archos currently offers a gaming tablet of its own sporting gamepad controls mounted on each side and a 7-inch capacitive touch screen for $169. It only packs a dual-core SoC clocked at 1.6 GHz and 1 GB of RAM whereas the Project Shield unit nukes the competition with a quad-core chip capable of 1.9 GHz and twice the RAM.

To expand its audience, Nvidia may want to consider offering a model using the Tegra 4i chip. It may support a lower resolution and lower RAM amount, but it packs built-in 4G LTE connectivity. This would seemingly allow wireless carriers to subsidize the gadget with a two-year contract, thus making it affordable to consumers on budgets while providing wireless gaming on-the-go in the process.

So then perhaps the pricing for both would be somewhat equal: one model that sacrifices 4G LTE connectivity for performance, and one that sacrifices performance for 4G LTE. There's definitely a market for both scenarios even if wireless carriers are not involved. Then again, Sony is having a tough time pushing 3G units of its PlayStation Vita, and Sony is well-established worldwide.

This is all speculation of course. The bottom line is that Project Shield is a well-refined Android gaming product backed by Nvidia's brand, but what this means in retail numbers will be interesting to see.

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