NVIDIA Shield: Hands-On Preview And Impressions At PAX East

Attendees at this year's Penny Arcade Expo in Boston were treated to the first ever public demo of NVIDIA's Project Shield. The NVIDIA Shield ("Project" refers to the prototype model on display at PAX) is a fully realized mobile gaming vision running on Android Jelly Bean. We scored one of the first hands-on demos with the device on Sunday, and you can color us impressed.

The NVIDIA Shield is at once simple and revolutionary. It delivers a high-end PC gaming experience to a mobile device by ... well, leveraging a high-end PC and streaming the fruits to you over Wi-Fi. 

We'll start by giving you some basic specs before getting into the juicier hands-on details. NVIDIA Shield is powered by a quad-core A15 CPU and a custom 72-core GPU. That wasn't a typo. The GPU has 72 cores. The Shield sports a 5-inch 720p touchscreen display and supports multi-touch. The data connection is 802.11n Wi-Fi. NVIDIA reps at PAX East were tightlipped about whether or not an LTE model was in the works, but they did point to the fact that NVIDIA recently acquired a cellular radio manufacturer.

Frankly, the lack of LTE is encouraging to this reporter, because the technology simply isn't there yet to facilitate a consistent and high-fidelity gaming experience streamed entirely over a 4G LTE network. It's likely the technology will get there in the near future, but that NVIDIA is choosing not to rush it out bodes well for our chances of seeing a device not plagued with bugs and oversights when it debuts.

NVIDIA Shield was running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean at PAX, but the rep we spoke with said it's likely the device will roll out with Jelly Bean 4.2. There's a custom skin running on top of Jelly Bean, but it looked refined and smartly laid out. It definitely, thankfully, did not evoke anything like Samsung TouchWiz.

You're probably skimming this article for the hands-on stuff, so without further delay, here it is:

The only real criticism I have of the NVIDIA Shield is that when I tried playing "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" on it, it took all of 25 seconds to crash. If it had happened more than once, the tone of this review would be very different. The developers however insisted that the glitch was endemic to the game itself, and being unable to replicate it on any other title, I'm compelled to concur.

My superficial criticism of the NVIDIA Shield is that it's kind of ugly. When it keeps its mouth shut (when the lid is closed), it's actually quite pretty, with shiny silver plating on the front. Otherwise, there are a lot of sharp lines and harsh angles. The Nintendo DS began this way too, though, and then Nintendo released the sleek and gorgeous DS Lite, so with any luck, we can expect a much sleeker NVIDIA Shield 2.

When it's working properly, the Shield really is an engineering marvel. My home PC can't deliver the kind of graphics I was watching on the Shield's 5-inch screen.

"We're generating PhysX particles. That's a high end PC feature that we're able to experience on a mobile device. That's a pretty big deal in itself," said the NVIDIA rep showing us the unit. "There are [other] devices that stream, but not with the fidelity and capabilities of a high-end PC."

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the NVIDIA Shield will be the fact that you'll need to be running a compatible GeForce GTX-based PC at home to use it. This is definitely not an entry-level gaming device. The company is aware of this fact, and maybe another thing we can hope for with the Shield 2 is connectivity with NVIDIA servers to handle the graphics workload, rather than a home PC that you'd need to purchase/upgrade.

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