The smartphone and tablet revolution has scrambled a lot of business, but perhaps none as much as the gaming world. Suddenly home-brew games made by small teams compete with $50 million blockbusters, and in just a few years, the smartphone has become the dominant gaming console. Still, many gamers find mobile gaming too limited compared with the PC and console gaming experience, especially with hardware factors like the lack of tactile feedback on touchscreen displays. Seeing an opportunity, Nvidia – the company best know for high-performance PC graphics processors – created Shield, an Android-based mobile gaming device that packs a console-style controller and performance.
First, the obvious bit: Playing games with proper buttons and dual analog sticks is much more satisfying than playing with touch controls, and on this mark the Shield delivers. The handles are rubberized and contoured to allow for a nice grip on the device, which is sturdy and solid. The twin analog sticks have every bit the precision of their Xbox 360 counterparts, as do the dual triggers and clicky top shoulder buttons. The 5-inch, 720p flip-out display looks excellent, with vibrant colors and great viewing angles. And the built-in speakers up the ante for mobile devices, with surprising bass response that sounds better than most laptop speakers. (The screen is touchable, but the shape of the device makes doing so pretty awkward, so . . . don't touch it.)
As an Android device, Shield gives you access to thousands of low-cost Android games, but a big hook is the unprecedented ability to stream games directly from your PC. That's huge: Almost any PC title with Xbox 360 controller support works effortlessly. Titles we tested, like 'BioShock Infinite,' 'Call of Duty: Black Ops 2,' 'Crysis 3,' 'Skyrim,' and 'Dirt 3,' all ran well, in much higher resolution than on a game console and with only the slightest hint of lag. Dipping into a stream library of games from the sofa (or your bed) feels like a truly 21st-century luxury, though you will need certain hardware to do it (namely, a high-end Nvidia graphics card and a dual-band wireless router – check here to see if your setup fits the bill, along with a list of supported titles). Crucially, the list of Android games optimized for Shield is growing by the day: 'Arma Tactics,' 'Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,' 'Crazy Taxi,' and 'Real Boxing 'are leaps and bounds better with physical controls, and the bounty of old-school games – 'R-Type,' 'Another World,' and 'Choplifter,' to name a few – are a perfect fit. (For a full list of supported titles, check out Nvidia's official page.
If there's one crack in this particular shield, it's aesthetics: Unlike, say, Sony's sleek, perfectly portable Vita, the Shield is bulky and bulbous, like an original Xbox controller that fell from the ugly tree and hit 'Battlestar Galactica' on the way down. But while its form means there ain't no pocket big enough to handle it, if you're serious about your gaming and usually carry a bag of some sort, then Shield is a must-have upgrade for you. [$299; shield.nvidia.com]