Nvidia Shield's major components

Teardown: Nvidia Shield

Graphics giant launches its own gaming console.

Graphics specialist Nvidia announced its portable Shield gaming console at the Consumer Electronics Show. It has just gone on sale in the US, although there is as yet no planned release date for Europe or Asia.That delay is disappointing for a few reasons, not least of which will be the rabid demands of gamers. However, from a technology point of view, the main bugbear here is that nVidia has also decided to release the entire operating system for Shield, not just a software development kit. It’s an explicit invitation to both developers and modders to ‘have at it’.

So, if the Shield is US-only - despite nVidia’s global profile - a fair few developers out there will be justifiably miffed if they cannot yet play with the hardware, while their American rivals can. There is a way around this, but it’s not ideal.

The holdback is especially irksome given the breadth of use-cases Shield seeks to embrace.

As a console/tablet, it runs Android’s Jelly Bean edition. This means its 5in, 294ppi ‘retinal’ display is well set up to run almost any Android Market games, either in controller-mode or over the device’s touchscreen.

However, nVidia is also making a big play of the fact that the Shield can stream virtually any game from a PC. ‘Portable’ here applies more in the sense of, say, a DVD player than a ‘stretch-screen’ device such as an iPad mini or Galaxy tab, but that still gives gamers solid 802.11n multiple input/multiple output connections throughout the home.

Reviewers have found the convenience of PC streaming particularly useful for older but still much-enjoyed games, where a full-size display is less of an issue. The problem is that neither of these core Shield strategies is quite there yet.

As you would expect with an OS for mobile devices, most Android games have been developed for touchscreen use only. You can do this on the Shield, but it is a little clumsy because of the clamshell design - even with the lid hinging a full 180°. To get mass market traction for Shield, nVidia needs to seed the creation of more controller-based and dual-mode titles.

On the PC streaming front, nVidia itself acknowledges that the technology is still at the beta stage. To get effective results at 720p maximum resolution and with relatively little (or acceptable) latency in control response requires a pretty powerful desktop, according to several early reviews. So, there may be numerous chances for further efficiencies that nVidia wants to add by drawing as much as possible on the open source community.

Finally, the Shield has obvious limitations as a tablet beyond fairly basic email and browsing. The clumsiness of touchscreen continues to apply, while the games focus means console real-estate has been given to gaming ergonomics.

Having noted these limitations, the general consensus is that the Shield is on the right track.

The display matches and, in most cases, exceeds the resolution of its rivals. The Wi-Fi does make PC streaming viable. You can then add to that a Tegra 4 quad-core mobile processor that nVidia is supporting with a hefty three-cell Sanyo battery pack, some large highly responsive potentiometers, and tweaked mini-speakers with ample bass response for gaming.

There are also ports for Mini-HDMI and Micro-USB, as well as the traditional 3.5mm headphone jack and a MicroSD memory expansion slot (there are 16GB of onboard Flash and 2GB of RAM).

From a repairability point of view, the iFixit team scores the Shield at 6/10. As an early generation of the product, there is perhaps more complexity than is likely to be seen in future revisions and generations.

So, while nVidia has taken a modular approach to components such as the speakers that bodes well for the future, both the display and the batteries are currently tricky to access.

In short, this is a start in what is becoming an ever more important year for nVidia as it seeks to expand beyond graphics. The Shield is another demonstrator for the company’s advances on the mainstream processing market, and thus joins its recently announced plans to license its Kepler processor core technology to the open market. *

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