NVIDIA updates Shield with Android 4.3, button mapping, console mode

The $300 NVIDIA Shield gaming console gains a great deal more functionality

NVIDIA today is letting lose a major update to its Shield gaming console, one that adds a significant amount of functionality to the $300 device. Here's the lowdown:

  • Android 4.3: Shield is getting updated to Android 4.3, making it one of the first Android devices — gaming phone, tablet or otherwise — to be updated to the most current (and available) version of Android. (And some apps can now be moved to the SD card.)
  • Console mode: This has been teased publicly, and now it'll be available. You'll be able to plug your Shield into your TV and control it wirelessly using a Bluetooth gaming controller.
  • Custom control mapping: Not every app has been optimized for Shield, and not every developer will take the time to do so. So NVIDIA's giving you a way to set your own custom mappings, download mappings others have made — and share your own with your friends.
  • GameStream exits beta: The deal where your computer crunches the graphics and shoots them to your Shield — provided you have the proper NVIDIA graphics card — grows up and gets official. (Plus you can get some nice deals on games when you buy a new graphics card.)

We've been giving the update the what-for over the weekend — a few initial thoughts, after the break.

Android 4.3

From an end-user perspective, there's not too much here other than you'll be able to say you're running the most recent version of Android — at least for a few more days. Regardless, kudos to NVIDIA for getting it pushed out so quickly.

Console mode

This is very cool. Plug your Shield into your TV and via HDMI and it'll automatically kick into console mode. (Or there's an app icon for it as well.) The Shield will reboot, with all video and audio pumped into the TV, or your entertainment system if you're really doing things right. I had to tweak my TV settings a tad to get the resolution dialed in, but that's simple enough. The resolution bumps up to 1080p (the Shield display is 720), so plan accordingly and make sure you leave it plugged in.

But the real kicker is that you'll be using a Bluetooth gaming controller to actually play games. (And tool around in the Android UI as well.) To that end, NVIDIA has certified the NYKO PlayPad Pro as the first Bluetooth controller. It's $39, and a nice little controller. (I'd dare say it fits the hand better than the larger Shield.) Setup was easy enough — just pair it like any other Bluetooth controller.

The only hiccups have come with the games themselves. And for that, NVIDIA's got ...

Custom button mappings

This gets a little complicated. But figure if you're a gamer with a Shield, you're OK with customizations. Basically you fire up your favorite game, hit the customization button, then drag the actions around on the screen until things are the way you want them. It's a bit clunky, but it works.

And, more important is that you can share mappings with your friends, or download them from NVIDIA directly — with the idea that at some point there will be a pretty big database built out, so it won't matter if the game developers don't work with NVIDIA to make things work properly.

We had a few instances in which games we expected to work out of the box failed miserably — Real Boxing in particular — but mappings can save you. You just have to put a little work into it, or wait for a mapping download to be available.

The bottom line

Look, NVIDIA Shield still isn't exactly a mainstream product. It's still not cheap, at $300. But neither is a forgotten product. Console mode is actually really easy and fun. The ability to kick back and play games properly, wirelessly on the couch, is great.  

The custom button mappings are complicated, but they work. And they'll get better over time. 

And the update to Android 4.3 shows that NVIDIA's still putting work into this console. You might still have to justify spending that much money on the Shield, but now you have some more great reasons to do so.

Phil Nickinson