Nvidia's main argument in favor of its Shield Portable and Shield Tablet is that they're the ultimate on-the-go devices for hardcore gamers. The company's next over-the-air update, which arrives Nov. 18 on Shield Tablet and later on the Portable, is the latest step in Nvidia's efforts to deliver on that promise.
Nvidia is publicly launching a cloud gaming service called Nvidia Grid alongside the upcoming update. Grid allows owners of either Nvidia Shield device to stream Windows PC games from the cloud, and from now until June 30, 2015, it will be available in a "preview period" for free.
"It's launching as a real service, but it's going to be free," said Andrew Fear, senior product manager for Grid, during an interview with Polygon this week. "If you have a Shield product, you'll be able to access it 100 percent for free." (Asked about Grid availability on PC, an Nvidia representative told Polygon the company has "nothing to announce today" about non-Shield platforms.)
Nvidia spokespeople told Polygon the company hasn't yet figured out a pricing model for Grid, but just wants to get the service out there for now. It's a clear, direct shot across the bow at Sony and PlayStation Now, and Nvidia is inviting the comparisons because the company believes it's offering a better service. From our very brief tests, Nvidia might be right.
"We really do think of it as Netflix for games," said Fear. "We want to make it as simple as, 'Hey, I want to watch Breaking Bad,' or, 'I want to watch My Little Pony,' if that's what you're into — you log in to Netflix, you watch it. Here, we want to make it just the same way for games."
Nvidia Grid runs on boards designed specifically for cloud-based game streaming, boards that are distributed worldwide in data centers for Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud. Players will be able to access Grid games through the updated Shield Hub app, and the process is indeed Netflix-like in its simplicity: You click to launch a game, and it loads up shortly afterward. From there, you can play using the Shield Controller (a $59.99 add-on for the Shield Tablet), or use the built-in gamepad on the Shield Portable.
Speed and game fidelity are two points Nvidia is emphasizing for Grid — specifically, the speed and fidelity of the Grid experience in comparison to PlayStation Now. In fact, Nvidia representatives provided a direct one-on-one test: They demoed Grid running on a Shield Tablet, alongside PlayStation Now running on a PlayStation TV. According to Nvidia, the time between selecting a game and seeing it boot up is 40-50 seconds on PlayStation Now, and 20-25 seconds on Grid. We saw that in action when Nvidia reps launched Dead Island simultaneously on both services: The Deep Silver and Techland logos appeared in less than 20 seconds on the Grid version, and took nearly twice as long to do so on PlayStation Now.
Nvidia Grid isn't just faster than PlayStation Now; games run better on it than on Sony's service. Of course, that's to be expected, since this isn't a fair comparison. After all, PlayStation Now runs PS3 games, which were designed for hardware that is more than eight years old; Nvidia Grid runs the PC versions of its titles. PlayStation Now streams games at 720p and 30 frames per second, while Grid delivers 720p resolution at up to 60 fps with v-sync enabled.
That all makes a difference even in a non-twitch title like Dead Island, which felt a tad more responsive on Grid. Plus, there was no screen tearing like there was in the PlayStation Now version, and on Grid, we saw the PC version's soft shadows, as opposed to the jaggy ones from the PS3 version. Both the Shield Tablet and the PlayStation TV were running on a Netgear Nighthawk X6 router connected to hotel internet.
Nvidia began running a limited Grid beta last December in an effort to test out the technology. "We wanted to learn about the capabilities of the broadband [infrastructure] in the United States," said Fear. "There was this belief that you had to have servers in, like, every major metropolitan area." That turned out not to be the case; some users on the East Coast were able to stream games from servers located in San Jose, California. According to Fear, the beta also helped Nvidia optimize its software to improve image quality and reduce latency.
The company is still suggesting that you use a connection rated at 10 Mbps or higher, although Nvidia made the maximum recommended ping a less stringent limit than in the beta: It's now 60 ms instead of 40 ms, and Fear said that "everyone on either coast is going to be easily within that limit." And like Netflix, Grid will scale the quality of the image up and down depending on available bandwidth.
Nvidia will launch Grid with at least 20 games, and is promising to add new titles to the library on a weekly basis. The launch lineup includes older games such as Brutal Legend and recent hits like Ultra Street Fighter 4. The list runs the gamut from major publishers like 2K Games (Borderlands) and Warner Bros. (Batman: Arkham City) to indie studios such as Born Ready Games (Strike Suit Zero) and Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts). PlayStation Now's open beta kicked off July 31 with a lineup of over 100 games, and now offers more than 180. At its launch this month, Grid will be available in North America. Nvidia will expand it to Western Europe in December, and is planning to bring the service to the Asia Pacific region in the second quarter of 2015.
The Nov. 18 update for the Shield Tablet will also bring the latest edition of Android, version 5.0 Lollipop, to the device. Included alongside Lollipop is the second version of Dabbler, a drawing app. And in a continuing partnership with Valve, Nvidia is releasing a Shield-optimized version of Half-Life 2: Episode One on Nov. 18. A "Green Box Bundle" of Half-Life 2, Portal and Episode One will be included free with all purchases of the 32 GB Shield Tablet, which sells for $399.