Opinion: Nvidia Shield is a confused mishmash of current trends

Rather than take on one single avenue, Nvidia has decided to go all in and attempt to satisfy both the Android and PC console game trends in one go. It's not going to work, argues Mike Rose.
Rather than take on one single avenue, Nvidia has decided to go all in and attempt to satisfy both the Android and PC console game trends in one go. It's not going to work, argues Gamasutra UK editor Mike Rose. Graphics processing company Nvidia surprised the video game industry today, entering both the Android and PC home console markets in one fell swoop with the Nvidia Shield handheld console. You don't need to be a veteran video games industry analyst to know that two of the biggest trends of this year will be Android home consoles, and dedicated PCs for the living room. But rather than eye up one single avenue, Nvidia has decided to go all in and attempt to satisfy both trends in one go. The Shield controller is a Tegra-4 powered Android device with a 5-inch 720p flip up, flip down touchscreen that can play any game available on the Google Play store (though of course not everything will be compatible with the game pad). Not only that, but it also has PC game streaming capabilities, such that it can pull games from your PC's Steam library and fire them either onto its own screen, or onto your TV. One of the issues with attempting to tick multiple boxes, rather than focusing on a single market, is that you can end up with a device that does each thing sort of well, but not great. Look at Microsoft's Surface, for example -- it's a good tablet, and it's a good laptop, but it's not particularly a great anything. There'll be a similar story for the Shield, I fear, as it'll come away as a decent Android game device, a nice way to stream PC games to your TV, but not really a winning combination overall. Its attempt at bringing together both sides of the coin has also left it looking rather ugly to boot.

It is an Android?

Let's look at its Android capabilities first. Nvidia says that the Shield will be the most powerful Android device available to date, thanks to its Tegra-4 chipset. That's great and all, but the power of the device means nothing if people don't want to own it in the first place -- and you really have to question what sort of person will want to grab a Shield for its Android games. Think about it this way: you probably already own a mobile device capable of playing touch-screen games, whether it's an iPhone, an Android or otherwise. Picking up the Shield would mean lugging around two different devices that both essentially do the same thing, with the caveat being that one of them has physical buttons. nvidia shield 1.jpgI owned an Xperia Play previously -- the Sony Ericsson smartphone that doubles up as a handheld game device, with a full controller hidden under the screen and shoulder buttons to match. To begin with it was great, allowing me to play games like Dead Space and Minecraft on the move with better precision than a touch-screen could afford such titles. But fairly rapidly, I stopped using it and went back to my touchscreen-only Android device. That's because once you've played the handful on Xperia Play-dedicated titles, the vast majority of the Android game market is best played on a touchscreen, and the Xperia Play wasn't so great for touchscreen games. There's no doubt in my mind that my thoughts were universally shared by other smartphone users, as the Xperia Play died out pretty quickly, and can now be regularly found for silly prices (it's still worth picking one up if you enjoy playing emulated games). The Nvidia Shield shares a similar concept with the Xperia Play, while ripping out the smartphone capabilities in order to call itself a dedicated game console. Hence, as I did with Sony Ericsson's offering, I find myself wondering why I would choose to play a touchscreen-based game on a Shield when my Android phone can do it better. If I knew I was going to be travelling for several hours, and the plan was to fill that time playing Android games -- the majority of which have been built with the touchscreen in mind -- I'd be crazy to grab both my phone and my Shield, when just my phone would do. Of course, there's the argument that it could simply be used as a home console, like the Ouya and the GameStick. But there's an issue here too: the Shield is clearly going to be a bit pricey, given that it has a top-of-the-range processor built in, and a retina-like screen attached to it (not to mention that it can stream PC games too). So if I really wanted a home console that can play Android games, wouldn't I rather pick up the much more affordable competitor models? The Ouya and GameStick are also vetting the games which work on their devices in a bid to provide the best experiences possible, whereas Nvidia has simply said "all the games!" without giving it much thought. In my mind, as it currently stands there really is no reason to purchase a Shield with Android gaming as its primary use.

It is a PC?

So then, if the Android bit isn't really that exciting, perhaps the PC game streaming will win the day. Nvidia says that the Shield will be able to stream games directly from your PC's Steam library to either the screen on the Shield, or to your PC. That sounds pretty great - I'd personally much rather have a dedicated device like that than lug my PC downstairs or buy an entirely separate PC for my living room. nvidia shield 2.jpgThe company's Grid cloud-based platform sounds pretty promising too. The company says that it can reduce game server latency by up to 30 milliseconds, so you'd expect simply streaming games from your PC to your Shield and then to the TV would be a cinch compared to firing video games around the world. The issue is that Nvidia is not alone in releasing technology that makes PC games friendlier for the living room. Valve has confirmed that it is working on its own hardware that is suitable for the living room, and the company believes that it'll have plenty of competition for other companies too. With Valve's own "Steam Box" (as it is being dubbed) also on the horizon, it's obvious that I'm going to wait to see Valve's hand before even considering a Shield for PC game streaming. The latest chatter is that Valve is developing a Linux console, which could potentially give Nvidia the upperhand -- but given Valve's strong track record, that doesn't automatically mean I'd choose Nvidia over Valve. Not just that, but a dedicated device from Valve is obviously going to be the best supported device when it comes to intregration with my Steam account. I highly doubt that Nvidia can outdo Valve when it comes playing games on Valve's own platform.

What is the Nvidia Shield for, then?

What it all comes down to is this: Nvidia is attempting to combine the best of both worlds, but it doesn't seem likely that they'll better the competition in either trend. You could argue that it would be tidier to own an Nvidia Shield rather than both an Ouya and a Steam Box. That may well be the Shield's saving grace, and if Nvidia can get the hardware out to the public -- and prove the device is worthwhile -- before Valve has the time to make a move, then it could be a viable option. As of now I'm incredibly skeptical, and most likely the Shield is going to be non-news by the time the next round of consoles has been revealed.

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