Nvidia’s ‘Shield’ Games Handheld Launching in June, Not Priced to Compete with Ouya

Nvidia rebrands it Android gaming handheld, locks in a price and commits to launch by end of June.

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Nvidia’s stab at its very own Android-based handheld games console, officially dubbed Shield (not “the,” just Shield, nee “Project Shield”), will grace us with its surprisingly high-priced presence before the end of June (no, this June) says the chip-maker. I say high-priced because at $350 for what’s essentially a 5-inch screen attached to a gamepad, you’re talking about something that’s over three times Ouya’s upcoming $100 cube, itself due before the end of June (though recently delayed to June 25). Nvidia announced Shield at CES earlier this year, but Ouya’s box is probably still better known, the currently darling of the imminent deluge of low-cost, Android-focused game console hopefuls.

For comparison’s sake, $350 puts Shield right up there with Nintendo’s Wii U, which goes for $300 or $350 (but really $350, since the $300 version’s neutered) and considerably more expensive than Sony‘s $250 PlayStation Vita handheld, itself no slouch in the power-per-pixel department. Will Project Shield deliver an experience commensurate with that kind of outlay? While I’m expecting the PlayStation 4 and Xbox Whatever to be quite a bit more expensive than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (still going for $250 to $300 new today), $350 is hardly “impulse” pricing, even now.

As noted at CES, Shield comprises a black Xbox 360-like gamepad with a 5-inch 720p “retinal” multi-touch screen attached by a hinge. Tucked inside, you’ll find the company’s high-end Tegra 4 “system on a chip” processor with 2GB RAM — specifically, a custom 72-core Nvidia GeForce GPU / quad-core A15 CPU – running the latest version of Android Jellybean, plus 16GB of flash memory, “tuned port audio” (think better bass) through integrated speakers, 802.11n 2X2 MIMO Wi-Fi (for streaming PC games from a local system), GPS, Bluetooth 3.0, mini-HDMI out, micro-USB 2.0, a microSD storage slot and a 3.5-mm stereo headphone jack.

I’m still not sold on the overall design, which looks a little Franken-baked, parts glommed onto other parts in what’s either an incredibly lazy approach to handheld-building, or an incredibly bold attempt to throw the whole “How do you make a console gamepad totable?” question out the window and simply deliver an actual console gamepad without compromises (I’ll have to try the thing to say more). But speaking of obvious compromises, consider that tiny five-inch screen. Can you really have a console-caliber experience on a 5-inch 720p screen? (“Paging David Lynch, paging Mr. Lynch…”) Nvidia calls it “retinal,” which it essentially is at just under 300 pixels per inch, and it is Vita-sized, so there’s that (the Vita, by comparison is only 960 × 544 pixel, or 220 ppi).

Then there’s the standalone display question: If you want to play this thing on your high-definition TV, you can, but you’ll have to connect an HDMI cable. That may not sound awkward, but visualize with me: a gamepad with a fairly big screen hanging off the top, trailing a relatively kludgy, longish HDMI cable (they’re not as thin or flexible as gamepad cables, mind you) running across the room to your TV. Add a power cable to the mix if you run the battery down.

So the most important question remains, what are you really going to want to play on this thing? The latest big-ticket games on your mongo flatscreen? PC games streamed wirelessly from your computer (you’ll need an Nvidia GPU in the PC, of course, and even then, the feature’s launching in beta)? While those are nifty, arguably niche extras, I think this thing lives or dies off the appeal of Android (via Google Play) and TegraZone games. If nothing in those lineups appeals to your need for portable, console-style gamepad control — especially if you’re already playing on an Android mobile — Shield probably isn’t a day-one purchase.

Nvidia says Newegg, GameStop, Micro Center and Canada Computers will each carry this thing at launch. Preorders kick off next Monday, May 20, though Nvidia says people who voluntarily sign up to receive Nvidia spam, err, email updates “will have an exclusive opportunity to pre-order starting today.”