by Travis Fahs1
Preview: Nvidia’s Project Shield
Nvidia unveils Android-based gaming system “Project Shield” alongside Tegra 4 and Dead Trigger 2.
This year’s CES featured a disappointing smattering of new superphones featuring the same Sanpdragon S4 Pro chips we’ve been seeing since the Nexus 4 and Droid DNA, with very little to distinguish them. And then there was Nvidia’s press conference. The GPU leader has been trying, with mixed success, to move to the front of the mobile pack, and their presentation pulled the curtain back on their latest secret weapon, “Project Shield.”
Nvidia is hoping that, as with the PC sector, gaming will lead the drive toward more powerful mobile chips. The Shield is an Android-powered, dedicated gaming unit designed as the flagship device for their next-generation Tegra 4 chip, which you may remember by its codename, “Wayne.” The Shield gets its name from its folding design, which features a 5-inch touchscreen that folds up clamshell-style from a base that resembles and Xbox controller. Make no mistake; gaming is the one and only purpose of this bad boy.
Much of Nvidia’s discussion revolved around the Tegra 4. Featuring four Cortex A15 CPU cores, it can outpace just about any mobile chip on the market. The Cortex A15 is a stock part, but ARM’s latest and greatest hasn’t seen wide adoption yet in chips from Apple and Qualcomm due to concerns over power consumption. Nvidia was decidedly vague about GPU performance, boasting about Tegra 4’s 72 GPU cores (compared to 12 in the Tegra 3), but failing to deliver any of its trademark bar charts to show how it stacks to the competition.
All this power comes at a cost. Although they didn’t highlight it for obvious reasons, a breakdown animation during the presentation showed a huge heat sink/spreader mounted to that Tegra 4 chip. Although this isn’t necessarily a concern for the Shield, if such a component is really needed, it would virtually disqualify the Tegra 4 from use in smartphones. Nvidia’s presentation seemed to focus exclusively on tablets as well, making those dreams of a Tegra 4 phone seem all the more improbable. This seems especially disappointing in light of the impressive HDR video features the chipset boasts, a killer feature still not available in high-end video cameras.
Although we’d like to see more detailed performance numbers, it’s clear that Tegra 4 will provide beastly game performance. To drive the point home, Nvidia brought out a brief demo of Dead Trigger 2. The sequel to the terrific zombie shooter was looking leagues better than its predecessor, and could just as well serve as an advertisement for the newly launched Unity 4 engine driving the action. Convincing real-time shadows danced on the walls, and refractive water dripped down the screen and into shimmering, reflective pools. The demo hit its crescendo as a 60-foot undead monster crashed through the city streets, showing that Madfinger wants to include the kind of climactic boss battles that were missing from the first.
Hopefully these enhanced graphical features will not continue to be locked away in the “TegraZone,” but Nvidia seems as committed to that kind of forced exclusivity as ever. It’s worth noting, however, that Nvidia has committed to running stock Android (the demo unit was running Jelly Bean), rather than a locked-down, custom variant, meaning this will be open to all existing Android software, with full Play Store access. The unit will also support HDMI output at the latest 4K resolutions, making this a possible competitor to the OUYA console coming later this year.
Finally, Nvidia unveiled the unit’s secret weapon: PC streaming. When paired with a desktop computer and a Fermi-based GeForce card (600 generation and up), the unit will allow PC gamers to play full HD games on the handheld unit. The technology allows the video card to wirelessly stream directly to the Shield’s screen, without the need to burden the processor, while the Shield streams controller data to the PC. The result is very low-latency, high quality PC gaming experience. The exact range was not disclosed, but we would expect it to be comparable to similar features of the Wii U, which would limit it to around 20 feet.
Nvidia is being tight-lipped about the exact release date, but given its position as the first Tegra 4 device, we’re sure to see it on shelves by the year’s end. Pricing details were similarly unavailable and could determine the fate of the device. While we’d expect it to be considerably more than the $99 OUYA, the Shield could struggle if it costs more than $250 given the price of competing handheld gaming systems like the PlayStation Vita. There is no doubt that this is a flagship device for Android gamers, and its success could help drive development of more traditional console-style gaming for our beloved OS, but if Nvidia shoots for a rich-kids’ niche, it may end up as just another cool way to play emulators on the go.