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NVIDIA announces Android microconsole, the Shield

by Eric Frederiksen | March 4, 2015March 4, 2015 9:30 am PDT

Last night at GDC, NVIDIA did its best to make good on the promise it put out a few weeks ago. NVIDIA said that it planned to redefine the future of gaming with what would be presented.

With that promise in mind, NVIDIA’s CEO, Jen-Hsun Huang, came out on stage to announce three things: a television, a gaming console and a super computer.

NVIDIA unveiled the Shield. No, not that one. Where the previous Shield was an Android tablet, the new NVIDIA Shield is an microconsole, priced at $199 and set to release in May, that intends to replace your other streaming boxes and to both play locally and stream games as well.

What NVIDIA has on its hands is a fairly interesting little box weighed down by expectations they could never possibly be delivered through a presentation that put more weight on the system than it could handle.

In terms of television functions, the system has many of the same features we see in things like the Amazon Fire TV. It will, as you might expect, run Netflix like a champ. It uses Google’s voice search functionality through a remote – sold separately, it sounds like – to find and play TV, movies, and music. Huang showed off a feature that will identify actors as they come on-screen not unlike Amazon X-Ray.

As a gaming console, the little box (which Huang reminded us is “whisper-quiet” several times) sports the Tegra X1 processor. Huang compared the system’s stats to those of the Xbox 360 – an eight year old gaming console. Compared to the Xbox 360, the system can uses about 20 percent of the power, has six times the memory, and can handle twice as many operations at any given moment.

To support the local gaming on the system, gamers will be able to access the Shield Store, which will have 50-plus games at launch. During the presentation, they showed off a few minutes of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, The Talos Principle, Doom 3 BFG Edition, and a small part of a multiplayer level in Crysis 3. The latter three seemed to run fine, and Croteam’s Alen Ladavac was impressed with how easily his team was able to get The Talos Principle running on the hardware.

The third and possibly most significant aspect of the system is that it will also function as a game streaming device. Huang seemed especially proud of this aspect of the system. NVIDIA has servers across the country to help ensure low-latency connections, and they’ve designed software and hardware to handle every aspect of the process from controlling it on your system to running the game and encoding it and decoding it on the server. The system will sport a premium subscription that promises 1080p, 60fps game streaming.

The store for the streaming service, the Grid Store, will also have 50-plus games on offer at launch. They showed off The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and Resident Evil Revelations 2 among other games live during the presentation.

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Each of these features is neat, but there’s not really anything revolutionary on display here. There are a million streaming boxes on the market, and the system’s ability to run 4K video content is the only real defining feature. Granted, a piece of hardware like this is required to have all these services for people to really even consider it, but the half-hour or more spent on it reminded me of Microsoft’s first misguided Xbox One press conference that focused far too long on the system’s multimedia features.

As a system for local console gaming, we have only to look back to the Ouya, one of Kickstarter’s first great rises and crashes. That system, too, looked to be an Android console. While the Shield certainly is coming to the table with more on offer than NES emulation, most of what it has comes in the form of games we played a few years ago or can play right now on moderately powerful computers.

Throughout the presentation, Huang is lavishing praise on the system, complimenting its aluminum construction, quiet operation, and small size. When the presentation shifted to the system’s streaming capabilities, though, the praise went from proud papa to delusional dad.

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Ignoring OnLive, Gaikai and the currently running PlayStation Now game streaming services, Huang referred to GRID as the “world’s first game streaming service.” The service will come in two flavors. One is 720p, 30fps, while the other is 1080p, 60fps. The plans require 5 and 15Mbps broadband connections respectively, though they recommend 15 and 50Mbps connections. Essentially, you’d better be in or very close to a big city if you want to stream games at high resolution.

NVIDIA has taken great pains to ensure the smoothest possible game streaming experience, but there’s one thing it can’t account for: the Internet. No matter how fast connections get, putting the Internet in between you and your game introduces significant latency. NVIDIA feels it has this down to an acceptable level: 150 milliseconds. That’s on top of the 20-80 milliseconds of latency introduced by your TV, a few seconds here and there for encoding, decoding, and processing your button presses.

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Games that don’t depend on fast reaction should work fine with it. Roleplaying and puzzle games, and even some platformers and action games ought to work well. Games that require any sort of reaction time, though, will quickly become unplayable. Shooters with any amount of twitch, fighting games, or even action games that ask a lot of the player will be difficult to play no matter what NVIDIA does. That’s just a simple matter of physics. Predictive technologies like those Microsoft Research has been working on will likely be the next step, whether it ends up coming from Microsoft, NVIDIA, or someone else.

There was no way any tech could’ve possibly lived up to the promise of redefining gaming, and the tone of the presentation didn’t help. Throughout the show, Huang consistently ignored the recent past of gaming, making it hard to take the content seriously. At one point, describing the history of games, a graphic displayed behind Huang with a timeline that put the PlayStation 2 in the 1990s (it released in March 2000 in Japan, later elsewhere).

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He talked about wanting to make GRID the “Netflix of gaming,” but didn’t mention the fact that Netflix runs on pretty much everything from a $30 Chromecast on up, while streaming gaming has a minimum $200 point of entry with this device. That’s not including the likely higher subscription fees the 1080p service will require, in addition to the very beefy Internet connections we’ll need.

It’s also difficult to imagine the market for a device like this. The audience of people who don’t have a console or PC already but have heard of NVIDIA isn’t a huge market. NVIDIA has clearly invested a lot of money in the development of the device, but even more will have to go into marketing it for it to gain any mind-share.

The device has some potential, but the impossible promise the show opened with and the strange, tone deaf presentation made it difficult to take without snark. The system releases in May for $199, and we look forward to checking it out despite our reservations, and we hope it does well.


Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...

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