A true portable gaming console
The Shield Tablet offers a range of gaming options, including native Android titles, PC games streamed from GeForce-equipped PCs, and compatibility with cloud services based on Nvidia's Grid technology. That list doesn't even include the extras, like support for ShadowPlay-style local recording and live broadcasting to Twitch. Nvidia has expanded the Shield's mission beyond simply playing games.
The possibilities are too broad to explore fully over just a few days, so I concentrated on two ways of gaming with the Shield Tablet: native Android games and streaming from the PC. Those are likely to be the most popular choices, at least among the PC enthusiasts who frequent TR.
Nvidia contends that the Tegra K1's beefy graphics hardware enables a different class of mobile games, and it has the PC ports to prove it. Trine 2 looks absolutely gorgeous on the Shield Tablet. So does Portal 2, which was released on the Tegra 4-based Shield Portable but features extra eye candy for the K1-based tablet. These two games are part of a handful of exclusives for Shield devices.
Playing Portal 2 while barreling down the highway drove home the fact that the Shield Tablet is a whole different class of gaming device. The processor is powerful enough to produce rich visuals, the screen is large enough to appreciate them, and the controller ties everything together with responsive, natural input. I'm often frustrated by the clunky touchscreen controls of typical tablet games, but that's just not an issue when the Shield controller is riding shotgun.
Nvidia's Shield Hub app lists loads of other controller-friendly Android games. I tried Rochard, a puzzle-laced PlayStation 3 import; Cordy 2, which is somewhat like Sonic the Hedgehog; and Riptide GP 2, and Android staple. All of them ran fluidly on the Shield Tablet. The controller feel and integration were excellent across the board, too.
Lots of mobile titles were designed for touchscreens rather than physical gamepads. Fortunately, Nvidia's Game Mapper software has profiles for "hundreds of top Android games." These profiles can be edited with ease and shared with others. There's even a gesture recorder that maps touchscreen actions to controller buttons. Pretty slick.
Yep, that's Batman: Arkham Origins running on the Shield Tablet. Well, it's actually running on a desktop rig with a GeForce GTX 680. The output was piped to the tablet via Nvidia's GameStream software and my home Wi-Fi network. GameStream uses the host GPU to encode in-game footage before passing it to the Shield's Tegra SoC for decoding and display. The setup process is very straightforward, but you'll need a GTX 650 or better to participate.
The quality of the wireless connection is also important. Arkham Origins was the first game I tried, and it streamed surprisingly smoothly using the basic 802.11n router provided by my ISP. But the next game, Shift 2 Unleashed, was mired by frequent bouts of lag that ruined the experience completely. I'm inclined to blame the Actiontec router, which isn't on Nvidia's list of GameStream-ready units. Asus' RT-N66U is on that list, and the company hooked me up with one to use for testing.
This dual-band 802.11n offering pushes speeds up to 450Mbps, and setting it up took all of about five minutes from start to finish. I didn't even have to download anything. After connecting to the RT-N66U via web browser, the unit identified an IP conflict with my existing router and fixed the problem automatically. It also detected a new firmware release, which was downloaded and applied with little more than a mouse click.
With my wireless network up to code, I mainlined a series of big-name PC titles. Shift 2, Just Cause 2, and Battlefield 4 played flawlessly. They lost a little visual fidelity due to video compression and GameStream's propensity to scale back the resolution and detail settings, but they still looked good and felt responsive. Playing BF4 on an 8" tablet pretty much blew my mind. I mean, just look at it:
The only thing missing was a keyboard and mouse. As much as I like the Shield controller, it's no match for the ideal FPS input scheme. So, I switched gears and perspectives for a tour of Watch Dogs' open world.
This game is better-suited to console-style controllers, and it was lag-free and enjoyable as long as I stayed on foot. I encountered some odd hitching when driving vehicles, though. The same behavior persisted when playing locally on the host PC, suggesting the issue is unrelated to GameStream.
I did run into a streaming-related issue with Tomb Raider, which showed a blank screen despite the audio and inputs working properly. Dunno what happened there, but it seems like a temporary glitch. Scott hasn't had the same problems with Tomb Raider on his first-gen Shield handheld.
Most of the games I tried have official GameStream support, but players aren't limited to those titles. Unsupported games can be added manually, and Steam's Big Picture interface can be streamed, as well. Big Picture streaming covers everything from the Steam store to game libraries. However, there's no guarantee that games will run properly.
Correct input mapping seems to be the biggest challenge. In Mark of the Ninja, for example, the standard controls only worked for me in the game's levels. Navigating the menus involved fumbling around with the touchpad, while jumping from the levels to those menus required hitting the "Esc" key via the controller's pop-up keyboard. The gamepad's extra control mechanisms should be robust enough to negotiate most titles.
The majority of my gaming time was spent watching the Shield Tablet's 8" display, which is tiny compared to the 50-incher in my living room. That's where "console mode" comes in. This feature pipes the tablet's display output to a big-screen TV (or PC monitor) over HDMI. It works with standard Android apps in addition to local and streaming games, and it's way better than looking at a small screen. If you already have a decent desktop gaming rig, then console mode is a great way to bring those games into the living room without springing for a separate home-theater PC.
Nvidia recommends a wired Ethernet connection for streaming games in console mode, which one would have to connect via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, but I found it wasn't necessary. The Shield Tablet's Wi-Fi connection is quick enough to avoid obvious lag, at least when connected to the Asus router on my home network. I've left all the streaming settings at their "auto" defaults so far, but the Shield Hub app has options to adjust GameStream's bit rate and frame rate to match the user's network performance. Conveniently, those options have different profiles for streams initiated over Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and remote connections.