Gaming on the Grid with Nvidia's Shield Tablet


— 3:12 PM on November 24, 2014

Music and video streaming are big business these days. Game streaming hasn't taken off in the same way, but Nvidia has big plans for it. For more than a year, the company has been working on a Grid Game Streaming service that pipes PC games to its Shield devices. A preview of that service is available for free on Shield handhelds and tablets until June 30, 2015. Since we've already looked at the Shield tablet's native gaming chops and its local PC streaming capabilities, we decided to give Grid a shot.

Getting in on the preview requires more than just a compatible Shield device. Nvidia also has stringent networking requirements: at least 10Mbps of downstream bandwidth and a ping time under 60 milliseconds. Ample bandwidth is needed to deliver a decent picture at a high frame rate, while low latency is required to minimize the delay between the user's inputs and the on-screen action.

Grid's list of demands also includes a GameStream-ready 5GHz Wi-Fi router, but that requirement isn't strictly enforced. The preview let me play through my ISP's not-at-all-fancy 802.11n router. I also tested the service with an approved Asus RT-N66U, but I didn't notice a difference between the two. GameStream-ready routers may be more important on networks with lots of wireless devices and other local congestion.

According to Grid's built-in network analyzer, even my relatively pedestrian DSL connection meets the bandwidth and latency requirements. Despite measuring a ping time of just 18 milliseconds to Nvidia's servers, the analyzer says Grid is "not yet available" in my location. "You may experience stutter or high latency," it warns. TR's Benchmarking Sweatshop in North Vancouver, Canada apparently lies outside the official catchment area for Nvidia's west-coast Grid installation.

Grid servers are also hosted on the east coast of the U.S. and in Ireland. The Irish deployment is meant to cover "most of Western Europe," and there are plans to expand into Asia next year.

Along with a fast network connection, Grid pretty much requires a proper gamepad. The PC games on tap weren't designed with touchscreen input in mind, and they don't even map well to gamepads all of the time. Fortunately, the Shield controller has a built-in touchpad, and the Grid service has a virtual keyboard, making it possible to navigate situations that call for more traditional PC input.

With all the requisite pieces in place, plugging into the Grid is very straightforward. The library of available titles is displayed in Nvidia's Shield Hub app, and launching a game takes no more than a tap. Nvidia claims the start times are faster than for Sony's PlayStation Now streaming service, but I don't have any PlayStation hardware, so I can't compare the two. The initial load times seem slower than on an SSD-equipped PC, probably due to the time required to spool up the virtual session. After games are up and running, the subsequent load times are reasonably short.

Right now, Grid's selection is limited to 20 titles. There are some high-profile inclusions, like Batman: Arkham City and Borderlands 2, but the library pales in comparison to what's available with other game streaming services. OnLive and PlayStation Now both have much bigger catalogs with over 100 games.

Nvidia clearly has a lot of catching up to do, but it promises to add new titles weekly. For the "Netflix for games" tagline to ring true, Nvidia will also have to add more recent content. The bulk of the games in the Grid catalog are 2-3 years old at least, which is a little stale compared to the fresher content on Netflix.

Now, don't get me wrong. Older PC games can still be a lot of fun, especially on mobile devices. Grid just isn't an effective way to sample the latest and greatest releases—at least so far.

In part because the games are a little older, the visual quality isn't exceptional. Video compression is probably the biggest culprit there. Even with most games configured with high detail levels in addition to antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, the output suffers from a distinct lack of sharpness that's particularly apparent in motion. The 720p default resolution doesn't help on that front, though it's possible to raise the resolution and tweak other graphics settings in some games.

From a normal viewing distance, Grid's output doesn't look too bad on the Shield Tablet's 8" screen. The visual compromises are similarly easy to overlook with the feed piped to my 50" TV, but only when I'm sitting across the room on the couch. The flaws are more glaring up close, including at arm's reach from my 24" desktop monitors.

Nvidia says Grid streams run at 60 frames per second. The frame rate feels that fluid, but moments of lag interrupt the flow. These hitches are generally infrequent and brief, and they're less evident in slower-paced games. However, they're very apparent in Race Driver: GRID, whose constant, high-speed motion makes even minor hiccups noticeable. Here's a few minutes of GRID footage captured with the Shield Tablet's built-in recording capability. Watch for the obvious hitch around the 0:37 mark. (And ignore the frame counter in the top right corner; even though Grid streams should run at 60 FPS, the tablet's real-time recording seems to be capped at half that rate.)

The Shield Tablet makes game recording incredibly easy, so here are some snippets from Arkham City and Borderlands 2. Like the GRID clip, these clips were captured with the default in-game settings and the highest recording quality. Blame YouTube for degrading the picture quality with its own compression.

Although Grid games feel responsive in between the hiccups, lag has definitely caused me to miss apexes in GRID, headshots in Borderlands, and counters in Batman. Worse than that, the threat of stutters striking without warning makes me feel hesitant and disconnected while playing any game.

To be fair, some of my sessions have suffered more lag than others. My first extended stint was late at night, and the experience was generally good. Hitching was more apparent in a subsequent session during prime-time hours, though. Folks with faster connections or closer proximity to Nvidia's servers may have better luck.

For me, the hiccups taint the experience more than the graphical compromises. That's probably because I prefer action-oriented titles that are more sensitive to lag. Also, I've streamed games to the Shield Tablet from a local PC, so I know what the experience is like with a really fast network connection: consistently smooth and much prettier. Local streaming isn't limited to Grid's dated library, either.

For those without access to a local PC, Grid games offer a lot more depth than typical mobile fare. It's also pretty cool to be able to play big-name blockbusters on an Android tablet. The biggest question that remains is how much the service will cost when the free preview expires. Nvidia hasn't divulged any details on that front.

At least in its current state, Grid streaming seems like a better fit for casual gamers than for serious or discerning ones. I can't easily put myself into the head of someone who isn't as picky about graphical quality or consistent responsiveness, but those people do exist, and I'm genuinely curious to see what they make of the Grid preview. The experience may well be good enough for folks who haven't been spoiled by superior local streaming or native PC gaming. Grid probably works very well with Google Fiber, too.

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