Analysis: Is there room for Nvidia’s Shield?

Does Nvidia know something  we don’t know about the handheld console market?

One of the first big surprises to come out of this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is the announcement of the Nvidia Shield, a handheld gaming console, designed and manufactured by one of the big-two processor builders.

The big deal here is that since Nvidia doesn’t have to buy the processor for the system (one of the most expensive bits), they’ll be able to put the most powerful mobile chip they have in the system without having to charge an arm and a leg. The Shield was designed around the Tegra 4, which is a pretty nice chip, and will make it the most powerful handheld console on the market.

The device will run Android’s latest OS, and will be able to play Android games, but the real appeal for gamers is supposed to be this: Players will have the ability to stream games from their PC to the Shield, then from the Shield to their television, allowing any PC games to be played with the controller on the TV like with a traditional console.

This seems a little silly to me. There are already ways to do that much more easily. I currently have an HDMI cable running from my PC to my television, and an Xbox controller connected wirelessly to that same PC. That combo works perfect for accomplishing this same goal, and is not really a complicated set-up, especially considering it doesn’t need additional software on the PC side, as the Shield likely will.

Not only is this big feature not that much easier than current possible set-ups to accomplish the same goal, but it also cost a lot more. Someone wanting to use this device would have to also invest in a compatible NVidia GeForce video card – you didn’t think it would run on an AMD video card, did you? – and a TV with Miracast – or a Miracast receiver plugged into your TV. We’re looking at $200-500 in additional hardware, just to use the primary feature of the Shield, and that doesn’t count the cost of the Shield itself, which has not yet been announced. Additionally, the feature is not portable. It sounds neat, but the Shield is a portable device for which the main selling point is a non-portable function.

The part that is portable: the playing of android games on the go, with a nice controller, is a good idea, but, like with the TV play feature, there are better ways to do it. If I’m going to carry around a controller-sized device with me, I might as well carry around an actual Sixaxis controller with a clip for my regular Android communicator. That connects by Bluetooth, and is less bulky than the Shield. Sony once put out a device that combined an Android communicator with a game controller, the Xperia Play. It’s not on the market anymore, and they do not plan to make a new version for the current generation of mobile communicators. It didn’t sell well enough.

So the real question is: Who is the audience for this? Seems like it does two different things, but doesn’t do either of them any better than a cheaper solution that people are already using – I’m assuming that the Shield will cost at least $100. I can see some hardcore gamers getting excited about it, especially where they cross-section with Android enthusiasts, but even this rather small target audience might see this as a strange device in its combination of portable and non-portable features. Are you supposed to keep it in your pocket or in the entertainment center? Where does this device belong?

I find it hard to believe that Nvidia has looked at the handheld console market, where currently even Nintendo and Sony can’t make a splash, and decided that there is room for one more contender. Nvidia must therefore think that, even if they can’t sell this device, gamers will look at it, and think it’s a cool thing. It will solidify the name ‘Nvidia’ in the minds of gamers, something Nvidia needs to do if it plans to continue to sell video cards and processors to this same market. The mere existence of the Shield will likely help them sell more Tegras, GeForces, and Quadros.

In the end it’s a cool device that nobody needs. Do I think it’s going to completely flop, a la N-Gage? No, in fact, with Nvidia’s likely low manufacturing costs, it might even make a small profit, but I don’t think that it’s going to revolutionize the way we game, not unless Nvidia knows something about the handheld market that no one else does..