Streaming games from your GeForce PC
The Shield promises the best of both worlds with GeForce game streaming: play PC games on your TV without paying for a full-fledged home theater PC. Nvidia's implementation of this feature needs to work well for the Shield to be worth buying. Games have to be easy to access, they have to look as good as they do on a PC, and the must be controllble with minimal input latency.
If your PC meets the hardware requirements, connecting is easy. Nvidia's GeForce Experience application automatically checks your PC's game library for Shield-compatible software, and only the games it finds and supports will show up in the GeForce PC Games application on the Shield. GeForce Experience also detects whether you have Steam installed, so you can launch Steam in Big Picture Mode and play games that way, too.
As I noted earlier, Nvidia recommends either a 5GHz 802.11n or 802.11ac network for wireless streaming, and it also recommends a variety of Shield-compatible wireless routers. My router isn't GameStream-certified, but the streaming app allows you to try out the experience on your existing network regardless of the router you own. If you'd rather go with a wired connection, the Shield has Gigabit Ethernet onboard. My AirPort Time Capsule with 802.11ac was positioned approximately 25 feet from the Shield during testing.
At first, I ran into an issue where the Shield stopped seeing the 5GHz network, which I could only resolve by rebooting the router. I initially thought my router was at fault, but the issue seems to have disappeared with Shield firmware version 1.3, which specifically addresses Wi-Fi connectivity issues.
Once the network setup is sorted, you can launch the GeForce PC Games app on the Shield to get to your games.
The GeForce Experience application on the host PC can optimize your game settings to match the resolution of the TV, and a slider in the program allows you to bias performance presets toward performance or quality. I chose to disable this feature in the Shield app, since I didn't want it to mess with my previously-configured settings.
The resulting stream looks very nice. The Shield Hub settings allow you to force the resolution to either 1080p or 720p and to a framerate of either 60 or 30fps, though I left both settings at Auto. Those settings produced a stream that was generally free from compression artifacts and banding. Over the course of around eight hours of Grand Theft Auto V, I did notice occasional dropped frames, but that could have been the game itself and not the stream. Less intensive games I tried streamed perfectly. Below is a screenshot of Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that is also available on Nvidia's Grid streaming service. We'll use this image later to compare the two streaming options.
Even if the games look great, they're sometimes difficult to play due to input lag. Depending on the game, input latency ranged from a minor irritant to a pretty annoying problem. While streaming PC games to the Shield, I found that Batman often ran into walls, and GTA V's Franklin often ran into people with his car. Playing with a controller wasn't an optimal experience—I adjusted to the lag eventually, but I was never fooled into thinking that I was playing a game natively.
The Shield also supports keyboards and mice, so I tried a few PC games that employ these more traditional controls. Games that rely on mouse input are far more succeptible to lag—I found moving the mouse to be disorienting. Diablo III and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm were unplayable for me, and while I'm not normally a twitch-shooter gamer, Battlefield 4 on the Shield felt even less precise than the same game on the Xbox One with a controller.
Nvidia Grid: All the hits of yesteryear
Nvidia’s Grid cloud-based game streaming service still wears the beta tag, but the service performed well for me. Results will vary based on Internet connection speeds, and the official recommendations are pretty steep: 1080p streaming requires at least 30 megabits per second. As with local network streaming, input lag was apparent, but I adjusted after playing each game for a bit.
Grid's game selection is mostly made up of older titles, and they generally don't require precise, twitchy movements. The service has around 55 games right now, including the first three Batman Arkham games, The Witcher 2, and several Lego mash-ups like Lego: Batman. I found Ultra Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken to be curious selections. Fighting games generally require precise input, and I found them tough to play with Grid's input lag factored in.
In Grid's settings, you have some control over the stream quality: video is rendered at either 1080p or 720p, and at 60 or 30 frames per second, and Nvidia says you will need at least a 30Mbps connection for full quality. Performance was good on my 100Mbps Internet connection. When I forced quality levels to 1080p and 60fps, the stream remained smooth.
The actual graphics quality of the stream wasn't as good, though. In motion, it’s possible to pick out banding and occasional noise, but more distracting than either was the low level of detail. Below is a side-by-side screenshot from Batman: Arkham Asylum, with the Grid stream on the right. Compare the security guard’s uniform from the local PC stream with the Grid version, and you’ll see a marked difference in texture quality:
The camera angles are different, but the difference in quality is obvious. Pay special attention to the shoulder straps and the "Security" label on the back of the vest. Grid not only uses lower-quality textures, but it reduces other graphical details in a similar fashion.
In the full screenshot comparison above, other quality differences are evident, such as the textures for the Joker and his restraints. Other games like Borderlands and Alan Wake are similarly degraded, and all of these games are pretty old. Playing with Grid instead of your own PC dials back the level of detail. There isn't really any overlap between Grid's library and the Xbox One, but I don't think you could say that Grid's games feature console-quality graphics.