One of the bigger surprises out of this year's Consumer Electronics Show was Nvidia's Project Shield. It now looks like the company will deliver on its promise to ship the Android-based portable gaming device in the second quarter. Nvidia said on Tuesday that it will begin taking orders for Shield, which will cost $350, later this month, with the first ones shipping in late June.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Shield. Nvidia doesn't have a background in consumer electronics, and even established brands like Nintendo and Sony are having trouble pushing portable game consoles. (Sony just dropped the $99 fee to publish games on PlayStation Mobile in a bid to get more going on the PlayStation Vita.) The Razer Edge, a high-powered gaming tablet, has gotten some positive reviews, but is only available through the company's website. The trend is clearly toward integration of features such as gaming in smartphones and tablets. To top it off, Shield will cost more than an iPad mini with the same 16GB of storage (though Shield also has a microSD expansion slot).
But, after trying out an early prototype at Nvidia's annualin March, I'm not writing off Shield just yet. The design is unusual, but it feels good in the hands, and the Xbox 360-like gamepad works well (and that was before Nvidia made some tweaks to make it more responsive). Even as a prototype, with a Tegra 4 quad-core processor and 2GB of memory, Shield was stable and responsive, and the 5-inch, 720p multi-touch display looked great.
In addition to games from TegraZone and Steam, Shield runs what Nvidia likes to call "pure Android", which means you can add any apps, games, and content from the Google Play store (though a few may not work, since Shield doesn't support portrait mode). Finally, the ability to wirelessly stream full PC games from any system with a GeForce GTX 650 graphics or better to Shield is a differentiator. For now, you'll have to use an HDMI cable to connect Shield to a TV, but Nvidia has also talked about wireless streaming to a TV. Together, these features would make it a replacement for a game console.
I'm not suggesting that Shield is going to give Apple or Samsung a run for their money. It is clearly intended for a niche audience, and it will be available only through Newegg, GameStop, Micro Center, and Canada Computers, as well as Nvidia's Shield site. But it doesn't need to sell in huge numbers to succeed. This year, Nintendo expects to sell 18 million 3DS consoles, and Sony hopes to sell 5 million handheld consoles (PS Vita and PSP combined). The Android-based Shield offers some compelling advantages over these, and if only a fraction of customers opt for it, it will succeed as a showcase for Tegra 4 and TegraZone games.