So you may or may not have seen the news from CES 2013 all over the internet – not only has Nvidia created a monopoly for itself in the cloud with Geforce Grid, which I’ll be discussing at a later stage, but its also entered itself into the cloud gaming market with something a little different – Geforce Shield, a proprietary handheld console, complete with software and services that basically allow you to run your own personal cloud gaming network. Lets check it out together and discuss the hardware that’s going to power it.
First things first, there’s an intentional resemblance between this thing and Nintendo’s Wii U gamepad or even Sony’s Vita. Both those devices have screens on them that can actively display games on them and both can act as secondary screens to enhance your gaming experience. This isn’t a unique concept either – Microsoft’s been pushing its Second Screen tech since halfway through last year, turning your Windows Phone device into a second screen for touch input or to display extra information in-game. While Shield isn’t capable of this yet, I can safely bet that its going to be one feature of its extensive repertoire when it launches eventually.
But what does it actually do?
Shield is a wireless streaming device, in a nutshell. It connects to Nvidia’s Geforce Grid Cloud service and streams a game running at any resolution on your PC to your TV or its built-in screen, provided your PC also packing a Geforce GTX-series card (and for simplicity lets say this only applies to the GTX400-series and onward, Nvidia hasn’t commented on how many GPUs this service is compatible with). While you can run any Grid-compatible game at any resolution on your PC, it’ll be streamed and rendered on your TV as a 720p image. I know, I know, it isn’t full HD but considering that we’re talking about streaming a game running at max settings, potentially over many kilometres, to a TV hooked up to Shield, that’s a pretty impressive feat.
I know LAN parties will never be the same. Let’s get into the technical specifics, then.
It sports a 720p five-inch multi-touch screen and a controller setup that resembles Microsoft’s Xbox wireless controllers. There are two integrated speakers, each with their own tiny subwoofer, pushing out enough sound to rival the HP Beats audio in HP’s laptops. You’ll notice that the screen folds down for compact storage and its all run off a stock Android Jelly Bean ROM. There are connections at the back for HDMI-out, a 3.5mm audio jack and microUSb and microSD, for increasing storage to host save game files and copy protected content. If you want to wirelessly stream video to the TV as well, you’ll need a separately-sold WiFi-HD adapter. It’ll plug into your HDMI connection in your TV and will automatically pair up with Shield.
Beneath the surface, there’s a 38Wh battery, providing up to ten hours of gameplay or up to 24 hours of HD video playback (downscaled to fit into the 720p screen). That’s a longer quoted battery life than Apple’s latest Retina-packing iPad!
Oh, its also running the new Tegra 4 chipset. Tegra 4 is Nvidia’s latest update to its ARM-based system-on-chip used in phones, tablets and now portable consoles. The hardware inside Shield hasn’t been fully decided on yet, but the main draw is the chip itself. Tegra 4 integrates a quad-core 1.9GHz ARM A15 processor with 72 CUDA-capable GPU cores. It also packs in LTE by default, although LTE support will be dependant on the carrier and not every network will be able to support the device. There’s also 3G HSDPA compatibility as well as built-in WiFi 802.11n support, so you’re pretty much covered for connectivity. Memory is served up through the use of low-voltage DDR3 modules, which will be soldered directly onto the board.
There’s also a fifth A15-based core that runs on its own when the console is on low-power mode. Its job is to render and accelerate the Android interface when there’s no gaming to be done. Tegra 4 will switch into quad-core mode for gaming or heavy rendering in the browser, but the single core will do everything else including video playback. Tegra 4 is also technically capable of 4K video decoding, something that definitely piqued my interest when I saw it being mentioned in Nvidia’s webcast.
Now getting back to Geforce Grid, Nvidia’s online service that Shield connects to. An important piece of information here: Shield’s hardware doesn’t actually do the streaming or the downscaling of the video for gaming, that’s actually being done by the GPU inside your rig. Each frame is then sent over whichever internet connection you’re using and duplicated to both your TV and Shield’s monitor. Grid, in this case, is only using Shield as an extra screen and a relay for your inputs. There will be a small amount of input lag but as time goes by, perhaps Nvidia can improve the code to predict player movements more accurately.
In the future, Nvidia has envisioned Grid’s capabilities as pictured above – a very Wii U-esque setup with both players using their screens to race around the track, while their friends can view the action from a third-party cam. Like I said before, this could forever change the way LAN parties are done. But that’s not all.
Because the console runs stock Android, you’re also granted access to Nvidia’s Tegrazone, a part of the Google Play store that hosts games with special graphical enhancements if you’re running them on Tegra hardware. That also means that you could stream those games to the TV as well as partake in more multi-player goodness against your friends, possibly even in the same room.
I’ll say what you’re all thinking – it kills off some sales for OUYA’s console because now you’ve got the best of both worlds. Xbox players might also consider ditching the idea of buying into the next-gen stuff because you can usually buy all those games on PC anyway – now you can play them anywhere. It won’t hurt Sony too much because their offering is pretty unique, as well as the fact that if you’re in it for the exclusives, you’re unlikely to be swayed away from your chosen platform. As far as price is concerned, Nvidia says prices aren’t set, but they will be “competitive” with the price of consoles.
But as far as Nvidia’s concerned, its won the race it started with AMD – now has its graphics technology in computers, laptops, cellphones, tablets and now modern handheld consoles. Nvidia’s got its fingers in so many pies its becoming hard to keep track of it all. Shield is also a pain in the neck for both Sony and Microsoft as well.
But here in South Africa, it won’t be such a huge hit. You’d need uncapped internet to use this as well as pay the high price of both the console and the wireless TV receiver, should you choose to use it that way. Not only that, but the high price of 3G/LTE data would certainly mean that even though you could play your games anywhere you want, you’ll still be wincing as your celluar account takes a tiny hit every second for every frame transferred – about one megabyte per frame.
But its still really, really cool. Kudos, Nvidia, I’m impressed by the concept, now lets see some action.
Watch Nvidia’s demo of Shield at CES 2013: Youtube
Update: Turns out that Jen-Hsun did say something about the graphics compatibility – you need at least a GTX650 to make the Grid feature work, as the console uses Nvidia’s hardware video decoder in Kepler-based GPUs to stream the video, probably with some kind of encryption mixed in. Oh and its only going to work if you’re in the same house as your PC with a Wi-Fi connection – there’s no mention of whether Grid will allow streaming to Shield through the internet. Did I jump the gun? Maybe, but my concerns are still valid if Nvidia does allow Shield to stream your games from anywhere.
If you can only use this in your house through a local Wi-Fi connection, though, then its a bit of a white elephant, even for GTX600-owning gamers.