Talking tech since 2003

When game industry pundits speak of the “future of gaming” as smartphones and tablets, I wince. Some games are perfect for touch screen input, but for every “Angry Birds,” there is a “Mass Effect Infiltrator ” that just feels goofy being played without analog joysticks and tactile buttons. It seems that Nvidia, a heavy supporter of Android gaming, agrees. The company has just unveiled its “Project SHIELD” portable game system, which runs stock Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and packs more power under the hood than any of the current portable systems on the market.

And if Android games aren’t enough for you, the Project SHIELD system can also stream PC games from your desktop or laptop.

First, let’s take a look at the processor. Nvidia’s Project SHIELD sports a Tegra 4 chip, which includes a quad-core A15 CPU and a 72-core Nvidia GeForce GPU. The Tegra 4 is Nvidia’s newest chip, so it’s not a surprise that it would be included in one of Nvidia’s own projects. For some perspective on how fast the Tegra 4 is, Nvidia ran a demo pitting the chip against the Nexus 10’s dual-core Exynos chip. The Tegra 4 loaded 25 Web pages in 27 seconds, while the Exynos chip loaded the same pages in 50 seconds. Add the custom GeForce graphics processor to the mix and Project SHIELD looks like it could offer up some serious gaming performance.

The controller on the device is not unlike most console controllers out there. It reminds me most of an Xbox 360 controller, though the left analog stick and directional pad are in opposite locations. Otherwise, the X, Y, A and B buttons are spot-on, and even the center Nvidia button (is that a button?) is located in the same place as the Xbox 360’s “X” button. At the top of the controls are integrated, front-facing speakers with bass reflex.

It would be a shame to put Jelly Bean on a device without a touch screen, and Project SHIELD has one. The screen measures at 5 inches and boasts a resolution of 720p. For a 5-inch device, the pixels-per-inch comes out to 294. For those keeping score at home, that’s a bit less than the 326 PPI of the iPhone 4, 4S and 5, but it should make for a great-looking display, nonetheless.

Sonic the Hedgehog on Project SHIELD
Sonic the Hedgehog 4 on Project SHIELD

Of course, you may not be sold on Android gaming. Most games are built for touch screens, with very few offering support for third-party controllers or integrated controllers like the one that Project SHIELD is packing. This is a problem that could fade if Project SHIELD proves popular, but we’re not there yet. The device still has to have some kind of appeal outside of that, and I think that appeal lies in its ability to stream PC games over a local network. PC gaming is one of those activities you can rarely do curled up on the couch (unless you have a PC hooked up to your living room TV), but if you have a PC with a compatible GeForce graphics card, the Project SHIELD system lets you stream games over Wi-Fi right to the device. This means playing popular games, including games from Steam, without having to sit at your desk. I’m admittedly not a PC gamer, as I prefer the couch to my office chair, but I could see myself playing more PC games if I had a portable like Project SHIELD sitting around.

Android is a promising game platform in my eyes, but I don’t see it reaching its full potential on the backs of touch-based games. Tactile feedback and analog controls are still very important in gaming today, and having a company like Nvidia recognize that is a good thing. Will Project SHIELD be successful? It’s too early to tell, as the system isn’t slated to be released until the second or third quarter of this year, and no information is available yet on its price. But with solid developer support and a marquee game or two, I think it has a fighting chance. I also think Android as a platform is an advantage over other portables, like the 3DS and Vita, which do games very well but otherwise don’t have the large, established app ecosystem that Android boasts.

What do you think of Nvidia’s new gadget? Let us know in the comments.

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