CES 2013: The Promise and Prospects of Nvidia's Project Shield Handheld

By Wesley Fenlon

Nvidia's Project Shield looks like an Xbox controller with a 5-inch screen strapped to it, but Tegra 4 and the ability to stream Steam games from a PC over Wi-Fi give it a fighting chance in mobile gaming.

Nvidia ended its two-hour CES press conference on Sunday with a big "one more thing" announcement: Project Shield, a handheld gaming system running on its new Tegra 4 platform. While Nvidia remains a major force in PC gaming, the company's line of Tegra SoCs have become ubiquitous in Android phones and tablets. Project Shield will run Android games--it's running Android Jelly Bean--but it will also be able to play the PC games you have installed on your computer by streaming them via Wi-Fi. Assuming, of course, you have an Nvidia GPU.

Project Shield doesn't look like traditional handheld consoles. The guts of the device fit inside a controller designed with the usual assortment of face buttons, triggers and analog sticks. A five-inch 720p touchscreen attaches to the back of the controller and folds up for mobile gaming. Nvidia's gone a step further than Nintendo and Sony by supporting HDMI out, which it demonstrated at CES by streaming video to a 4K display.

Photo credit: Nvidia Flickr

Nvidia promises 5-10 hours of battery life in gameplay and about 25 hours of video playback, thanks to the device's 38 watt-hour battery. (That's comparable to the iPad's 42Whr battery.) Shield is a gaming device first and foremost, but because it uses a general purpose ARM CPU and has a micro-HDMI output, Nvidia claims it will be usable as a general media player too. It could easily be plugged into a TV and used as a Netflix streaming box--a feature we all desperately need.

Project Shield is scheduled to launch in the US and Canada in Q2 2013, but two big questions remain. The first is cost--will Nvidia be able to compete with the $250 Vita or $170 3DS? More importantly, will there be games people want to play on this device when it's out?

While there are a handful of Android games that support gamepads natively, most of the games released for mobile phones today lack the kind of depth we expect from traditional handheld consoles. From our perspective, game streaming is Project Shield's big selling point--if it works. The streaming solution offers an intriguing opportunity to go portable with PC games--at least within our houses. You'll need a GeForce GTX 650 or better graphics card and a decent Wi-Fi network to enable streaming, though.

Photo credit: Nvidia Flickr

The hardware for Project Shield should be a snap for Nvidia to build, but this is their most ambitious user-facing software product to date. In order for an Android gaming tablet to succeed, the user interface needs to perform well and be easy to use, from launch day. If Nvidia succeeds, they could open a whole new door for PC and Android gaming. If they fail, Project Shield will just be another innovative, interesting, flawed product that met an untimely end.

Nvidia also announced a streaming solution called The Grid during its press conference--think OnLive, but powered by Nvidia GPUs. Nvidia bragged that a full Grid rack of GPUs can deliver the processing power of more than 700 Xbox 360s, but they didn't talk plans or pricing for the cloud gaming platform. They'll likely be selling the server arrays to partners, but Grid could be a killer app for a device like Project Shield a year or two down the road.