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Hands on: Project Shield is every bit as amazing as Nvidia claims

We’ve seen several Android gaming devices over the past year, and if CES is any indication we’re likely to see many more soon. Most of the gadgets we’ve seen enhance Android games, usually by adding a physical controller. Nvidia’s new Project Shield does that, too. And then it adds something more substantial: allowing users to play their PC games on the handheld. Yes, that sounds too good to be true. And yes, it totally works.

The actual Shield device looks like a standard console controller with a smartphone stuck on top, somewhat akin to the Moga Pro. That’s pretty much what the device is, except the screen is integrated into the whole device instead of being something separate. It’s lighter than we expected it to be, a good thing for a gaming console. After hours of gameplay, you don’t want your wrists or arms to feel tired. We also like how comfortable it felt. Our hands wrapped naturally around the device and we were able to reach all the buttons, analog sticks, and analog triggers with no trouble.

Nvidia’s Tegra 4 chip drives the Shield and thus the graphics and gaming performance is superb. The newly announced chip is the “World’s Fastest Mobile Processor” according to Nvidia and, from what we saw in our Shield demo, we have no reason to doubt that claim. We saw smooth performance in games, video, and while swiping through the interface. Tegra 4 is what will drive the graphics-rich Android games that will be Shield’s raison d’être and it will also make the PC gaming part of the device possible.

Shield will be able to connect to your computer over a home wireless network, access the games on it, and allow you to play said games on the handheld. No latency issues and no worries about compatibility. That’s because the Nvidia (Kepler) graphics card is doing all the hard work and processing plus encoding the video and streaming it to Shield. All the Tegra 4 chip has to do is decode the video, which is high quality. Even in a crowded wireless environment like CES the game played smoothly. Playing a PC game on a handheld device is pretty sweet, and the controller is just as fast as when playing the games actually on the device.

The display is large enough that we were able to see fine details in games but not so large that it makes the handheld unwieldy to use. Shield is bigger overall than the Nintendo 3DS and the PS Vita thanks to the console controls. That doesn’t take it out of the portable league and may even prove that consumers don’t care as much about having something small and slim if it delivers the gaming experience they want. It’s a good size right now and we hope the final product isn’t any bigger.

Shield runs on Android (Jelly Bean) and isn’t limited to gaming. Anything you can do on any other Android tablet you can do on Shield, including watching movies or updating a social network. The lack of keyboard and the placement of the display may make it awkward to type, so most users will probably limit text-heavy activities. Still, as a media player, the Shield will surely please. Audio quality is quite good with booming volume.

An Nvidia rep told us that the company will work with developers to map the handheld’s controls to games ahead of launch. With games ported from consoles there may not be any need. Titles found in the Tegra Zone store should work with Shield straight away.

The company isn’t talking about pricing yet, though they do expect to release the device in the second quarter.

Overall, Project Shield is one of the most impressive gaming devices we saw at this year’s CES, which is why it ended up on our Best Of CES 2013: Gaming list. Having it in our hands just made us want it even more. The comfortable grip, the rich graphics, the versatility, and the power make for sweet gadget we can’t wait to play with more.