Nvidia Shield Tablet is packed with ports, possibilities

Just under a year since the release of the Shield Portable, Nvidia has announced a second member of the Shield family. As expected, it's the Shield Tablet, an Android slate with an emphasis on gaming. Like the Shield Portable before it, the Shield Tablet will sell direct from Nvidia, not from a partner company. The Shield Tablet extends Nvidia's Android gaming focus to a new form factor, making it one of the first tablets anywhere with a fairly pure gaming mission.

In keeping with the Shield theme, the tablet can run Android games locally on its Tegra K1 SoC, and it can also stream games from a host system, such as a GeForce-equipped home PC or a Nvidia GRID server in the cloud.

As the details in the cutaway diagram above suggest, the Shield Tablet is a premium Android slate with an 8" IPS display that sports a 1920x1200 resolution and a rich feature set. The Tegra K1 SoC that drives it features quad ARM Cortex-A15 CPU cores. (Sadly, it's not the "Denver" version with support for 64-bit software.) The K1's graphics processor is based on a single Kepler-derived SMX unit with 192 shader processors. An angel loses its wings every time Nvidia says the K1 has "192 cores," but still, that single SMX should grant the new Tegra with some of the most capable mobile graphics anywhere, compliant with every API that the GeForce Titan can support, plus the latest mobile variants.

The Shield Tablet has front- and rear-facing five-megapixel cameras. As rumored, it can accept microSD cards up to 128GB in capacity, which is a trend we can get behind. Connectivity includes 2.4/5GHz Wi-Fi with a 2x2 MIMO antenna config and optional LTE. The other ports and slots include a 3.5-mm headphone/mic jack, a micro-USB 2.0 port, and a Mini HDMI 1.4 output.

The device weighs in at 13.7 ounces, or 390 grams, and its chassis is 9.2 millimeters thick. Lurking beneath its skin is a 19.75-watt-hour battery that Nvidia estimates will sustain 10 hours of HD video playback and 4-6 hours of 3D gaming, with substantially longer run times for simple fare like Angry Birds.

Also included is a stylus, stylishly named DirectStylus 2, that Nvidia claims is "twice as accurate" as its prior attempts, presumably in the Tegra Note. The image above was created in a new Nvidia painting studio app called Dabbler, which supports the stylus. The Shield slate will do handwriting recognition, as well, and it ships with Evernote installed.

Like the Shield Portable, the Tablet will have an Nvidia-supported version of Android with fairly minimal skinning. Nvidia has been quick to provide OTA updates when new Android versions have dropped, so I'd say this arrangement adds to the product's premium credentials, provided Nvidia keeps it up.

Here are some arbitrary benchmarks from Nvidia that compare the Shield Tablet's graphical prowess to some popular competitors. Make of them what you will.

Sounds good so far, yes? Happily, the price of entry is quite reasonable. The base Shield Tablet with 16GB of internal flash storage and Wi-Fi networking lists for $299 and will be available in the U.S. and Canada starting one week from now, on July 29. A couple of weeks later, in mid-August, it will arrive in Europe.

The 32GB version of the tablet adds LTE support and is expected to arrive in North America about a month and a half after the base model for $399. Nvidia tells us the Shield Tablet will go on sale in other parts of the world this fall.

All of the above may sound like a pretty decent deal on a premium 8" tablet, but we haven't yet talked about gaming on the thing. The possibilities there go well beyond Kingdom Rush. On the back of the tablet is a three-position kickstand that props it up into an upright position, as seen above. Add in the $59 companion Shield game controller, and you have a portable, console-like gaming arrangement.

The Shield external controller looks very much inspired by the excellent gamepad built into the Shield Portable, which in turn maps directly to the Xbox 360 controllers' button layout. Interestingly, although the tablet supports Bluetooth, this controller connects via Wi-Fi Direct instead. In fact, the Shield Tablet can sustain up to four connected controllers at once, and those connections are bi-directional, since the gamepad has an audio jack that supports headsets with integrated mics for in-game chat.

In addition to on-the-go gaming, the Shield Tablet looks to be a very capable living-room hub. It can connect to a television via HDMI and switch into game console mode, where native Android or streamed PC games appear on the big screen. That's where the ability to talk to four controllers probably makes the most sense. I've used the Shield Portable for in-home game streaming from a desktop PC to my living room, and it's fast enough to provide a compelling experience even in action games like Arkham Origins and Tomb Raider.

Thanks to its Tegra K1, the Shield Tablet can drive 4K display resolutions and decode 4K video on the fly, and it can stream 1080p video from Netflix, as well. One can control Android apps via any connected gamepad simply by using an analog stick to direct an on-screen mouse pointer. This arrangement works well enough on the Shield Portable that I'd say the Shield Tablet could be a viable alternative to the Apple TV and the Amazon Fire TV, simply for media playback duties.

The possibilities don't stop there, though.

The Shield Portable recently gained the ability to stream games from a home PC to anywhere outside of the home via the Internet. The Shield Tablet builds on that foundation by adding support for streaming over LTE, as well. Provided you have enough upstream bandwidth on your home Internet connection, it can work. I was able to use the Shield Portable with my phone's Wi-Fi hotspot feature to achieve reasonably good streaming quality, believe it or not, over our 5Mbps upstream connection. The 32GB Shield Tablet will have its own integrated LTE reception, which should be even lower latency.

For an entirely different brand of streaming, Nvidia has added real-time Twitch.tv support to the Shield Tablet, so folks can stream video from their gaming sessions at 720p straight from the device to the world. The front-facing camera can even show the user's mug in the live stream as a picture-in-picture overlay. Twitch streaming works with headsets attached to the controller to enable audio narration from the player, too.

Nvidia is working to nudge Android game developers in a direction that's friendly to hard-core gaming systems like its Shield lineup. In some cases, that means adding gamepad support, and in others, it goes beyond that, to full-on ports of Half-Life 2 and Portal to the Shield Portable, for instance. The firm expects to see 11 games specifically optimized for the Tegra K1 soon, some of which will be available when the Shield Tablet arrives next week. One of those games, the excellent co-op puzzle platformer Trine 2, will ship installed on the device and act as a showcase for its graphical and multiplayer prowess. Along the same lines, the TegraZone app from the Shield Portable is getting a new name, Shield Hub, that pulls it closer under the umbrella of Nvidia's own consumer brand.

The Shield Portable has had something of a checkered existence so far, with persistent rumors of slow sales fed by a series of price cuts. I like playing with mine, but the screen feels too small for extended gaming. The Shield Tablet, though, could find a much larger market for itself, whether it's simply acting as a step up from a Nexus 7 or taking over the role of a streaming "Steam box" type device in the living room. Could this Shield finally be the hit Nvidia was hoping for?

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