I’ve had the Nvidia Shield for quite a while now, but it was after a recent house move that the device began to seem incredibly attractive. The Shield does lots of things but, for me, one feature is the core of its appeal: you can stream your PC games to your living room telly, as well as a big range of other titles offered for purchase. There is much more functionality – 4K TV and app streaming, voice control, media centre – but this was what interested me, because I live with my family and kids. Late at night, while they sleep the sleep of the just, I want to slaughter online fools by the truckload, but noise wakes children and my PC room is next to their bedroom. Headphones are a must. The mechanical keyboard is a no-no. The Nvidia Shield looks at this situation and says, “no problem, let’s play COD: WW2 downstairs.”
Reader, I did. The Shield unit comes with a game pad, a refined remote control, and the unit itself which is a remarkably small but robust piece of kit (about half the size of a Wii). Setup is simple: I had the Shield connected to my router directly and it snuggled into a little corner behind the telly, while upstairs my rock-like PC (codenamed Havel after the Czech hero and Dark Souls NPC) is connected to the same router through TP-Link plugs. On first turning it on the unit needed a few minutes to download and install updates, and had quite the penchant for updating controller firmware, but one of the Shield’s general characteristics is how brisk and efficient it is – almost the thing I enjoyed most about the hardware, though I know it’s very minor, is how quickly it turns on (from sleep mode) and gets you straight in after pressing a button.
In terms of what I’d first imagined with the Shield – which is to say, playing big-budget PC games on my telly late at night – it delivered flawlessly. It is perhaps worth noting, though this should be obvious, that your PC does need to be turned on to run games through the Shield, and this is fine except I couldn’t get the ‘wake’ functionality of Shield to work. The idea is that if your PC’s in sleep mode then the Shield should be able to start it running and boot whatever game you’re after, but… it just didn’t work for me, even after a fair amount of fiddling. It wasn’t a deal-breaker by any means, and to be honest it’s the kind of issue I almost expect with PC hardware – but then, that’s maybe flagging up the slight tension that exists at the centre of this unassuming and ingenious bit of kit.
The thing about the Shield is, clearly, it has ambitions of home domination – Nvidia has enormous plans in this regard for its voice control syncing in with other devices. But the design of the device itself is very much for ‘gamers’. I wonder whether the design team’s notions of what a gamer is could maybe use some re-adjustment, and if some of the way this device operates and is presented stops it from being a great living room hub. Part of this is the visual design. It’s not so bad with the main box because it’s small and tucked-away somewhere, but the outer surface consists of sharp G4M3R-style angular planes and a bright LED (which can be turned down or off in the options). The streamlined remote, to be fair, is nice and neutral.
The gamepad, on the other hand, is a bit of an aesthetic disaster. It resembles nothing so much as the head of Red Dwarf‘s Kryten, with the entire chassis composed of those angled planes, and the other comparison it was bringing to mind was Mad Catz. The angles do not make the pad uncomfortable to hold, in the hands it’s relatively comfortable, but it’s also too large vertically – the two grips are much longer than on the Ps4 and Xbox One pads. Let me be clear folks: I’ve got big hands. There’s no problem, they’re huge! And after half an hour or so with the Shield pad my hands are starting to get a little achey, feeling like they’re being stretched a little too much. I can only imagine that most of the population are going to have a similar or worse experience.
The visual side means this pad doesn’t look good in the living room, especially when compared to something as sleek as a Dualshock 4, but I’d forgive almost anything for good handfeel. It doesn’t deliver. I also had one evening where it kept dropping wireless connection, although this was an isolated incident. Future iterations of the Shield should seriously consider what this device is intended for, and whether a pad like this is really supporting that.
I mention all of this because the Shield, outside of the games stuff, is also a media centre using the Android ecosystem, and with every possible viewing app and option you could desire. These days that’s not so unusual. In my living room I have four other devices that do the same. So the Shield doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s coming in to a hotly contested space where, to be frank, it needs to be intuitive and welcoming to people who aren’t all about dat K-D ratio. My partner happily uses the PS4, for example, not to game but to access various video-on-demand services. I tried to get her into using the Shield and she did, but soon took against the device – and I couldn’t really work out why. There’s not really an enormous amount of difference in loading up the PS4 and going to the TV & Video section, and booting up the Shield and looking for shows – or there wasn’t for me. She didn’t like the layout, said there were too many games on screen, and then said some nasty things about where I should stick the pad.
This is on one level not the Shield’s fault. It does what it says it will do, both quickly and with a minimum of fuss. Outside of its inability to wake my PC from sleep mode, I didn’t come across a hitch that wasn’t easily sorted (the screen size was initially a bit off, that’s about it). In terms of enabling me to play my PC collection on the living room telly, as well as the marketplace it grants access to (the optional GeForce NOW is a fairly reasonable £7.49 a month for access to a huge streaming games library), the Shield is exactly what I wanted.
The issues I had with the Shield were really much more about how the device sat in the living room, because I’m not the kind of person happy to be constantly changing a setup. My perception is that the PS4 feels like a more welcoming gadget to the non-gamer than this does, and that matters when we’re talking about family devices. The Shield has a major advantage over PS4, even, in the slick little remote it comes with – but this didn’t seem to make a difference. I had this device set up in my living room for several weeks and, after I was done forcing others to use it, the only one who was going back was me.
Now maybe that’s unfair. There’s no doubt that the PS4’s familiarity plays a big role there. But the Nvidia Shield feels like one of those devices where the line “by gamers for gamers” is probably somewhere in the marketing materials, and this little box can do so much more than that. I almost feel that it’s mis-sold or at least mis-positioned because, while the PC streaming stuff is fantastic, this is also just a tremendously powerful and flexible Android box – you could, in all seriousness, get one of these and an Nvidia account and you’d be good for games and everything else for a long, long time.
Sadly the Shield ended up feeling like a luxury item which, to be fair, is not a bad result for a sub-£200 gaming device (it’s £179 for the box and remote, £189.99 to get the gamepad too). Look at Nvidia’s own positioning for the Shield, however, and you’ll see that it wants to be that kind of home centre – there are many more accessories incoming that are explicitly about the domestic role this can play. Perhaps that needs to be considered in future iterations: does positioning this as a gamer’s device, and presenting it aesthetically as such, actually obfuscate what this is good at?
The Shield is something that will appeal to gamers, has great functionality, and in all sorts of little ways feels slick and precious. As a media hub for a family television, it leaves something to be desired. And until it gets that right, I certainly won’t be linking up a home CCTV system to it.