Nvidia's Shield just leveled up. Today, the Android gaming handheld is getting a huge over-the-air update that tackles several of the device's biggest problems. First off, the system's getting an update to Android 4.3 with all the little fixes and features that brings. The Shield's GameStream feature is out of beta, and PC streaming is more reliable and seamless than ever before. But third and perhaps more importantly, Nvidia's figured out a way to make loads more Android games compatible with the Shield's integrated joysticks and buttons.
Gamepad Mapper is a new piece of software that lets you map any of the handheld's controls to touchscreen functions instead, allowing you to manipulate virtual joysticks and buttons and even perform touchscreen gestures with the physical gamepad by dragging widgets into place. You can set individual profiles for each and every Android app and game. Better still, you might not need to create those profiles from scratch: If another player has already shared a set of readymade controls to the cloud, Nvidia will automatically download it to your Shield as well. It's not perfect — we struggled to build a set of comfortable Minecraft controls — but games like Galaxy on Fire 2 and Bladeslinger went from annoying to downright playable. It's not a replacement for native controller support, but it's a very welcome feature.
Console Mode could require a lot of extra equipment
There's also Console Mode, which helps the Shield play nice with HDTVs. Previously, when you plugged in an HDMI cable, the Shield would only mirror its own 720p display. Console Mode shuts off the internal screen, restarts the system, and outputs native 1080p graphics to your TV. Then, pair the Shield with a wireless controller (Nvidia recommends the Nyko PlayPad Pro; we prefer the Logitech f710 with a USB-OTG adapter) and you can have a microconsole experience. So far, Android games we've tested look a good bit crisper, but PC streaming isn't ready for 1080p quite yet: it's clearer, but stuttery. The company says it can currently stream 720p at 60 frames per second. Nvidia says it will bring 1080p60 performance in a future update, but you'll need to plug in the Shield with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter. Two cables, two adapters, and a wireless controller is a lot of extra equipment.
Another key feature will be universally welcome, though: Nvidia's finally added the ability to put giant Android games entirely on a microSD card. Previously, the Shield's paltry 16GB of internal storage could get filled up with just a handful of large Android games, but the company has now fixed its Apps2SD implementation to allow you to transfer entire games. Caveats still exist: you'll need a microSD card 32GB or smaller, since the Shield can't write to 64GB cards at present, and some games won't transfer until their developers enable the option. Still, we were able to free up quite a few gigabytes of space without much trouble.
While we praised the Shield in our original review, we noted that it's a device for a very niche audience that already owns a powerful gaming PC with Nvidia graphics at the helm. That hasn't changed quite yet, but the system's come surprisingly far in three months. Perhaps Nvidia can keep its audience happy long enough for developers to fill in the gaps.