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First impressions of Nvidia's Shield Tablet

Mobile gaming done right

The Shield Tablet is basically a portable gaming console crammed into an 8" slate. It has a Kepler-infused Tegra K1 processor, a high-res IPS panel, a proper gamepad, and even a stylus. The system can stream games from a home PC or a remote server, too, and the whole package costs the same as an entry-level iPad. So when I got the opportunity to spend some time with one, I couldn't say no. This thing is a lot more exciting than a lot of the stuff that passes through my lab. And it's a good excuse to play some games.

The trouble is, the Shield Tablet arrived on my doorstep late last week, so I've only had a few days with it. I haven't yet run it through the full gauntlet of tests we typically use on tablets. I have, however, succeeded in playing a bunch of games on Nvidia's latest creation. I've also learned a few things about what this premium tablet is like on the road during a brief jaunt down to Portland.

The bottom line: the Shield Tablet is a truly compelling mobile gaming platform. Judging by my early impressions, I'd say it's a pretty sweet tablet, too.

The complete package
Although the new Shield is more than just a tablet, its slate credentials are probably the best place to start. The big-ticket item on its specs list is Nvidia's Tegra K1 processor, whose integrated GPU is based on the same Kepler GPU architecture as most desktop GeForce chips. The onboard graphics component has one DirectX 11-class SMX unit with 192 shader processors. To put that number into perspective, the high-end GeForce GTX 780 Ti has 15 SMX units, while the low-end GT 640 employs two. Half a budget desktop GPU is a lot of horsepower for a mobile SoC.

On the CPU side, the K1 has quad ARM Cortex-A15 cores clocked up to 2.2GHz. These off-the-shelf cores are similar those found in the old Tegra 4, so they're not a big upgrade over the last generation. They're also not the custom, 64-bit "Denver" cores Nvidia teased when it introduced the K1 in January. We haven't heard much about the Denver-based version of the Tegra K1 since early this year.

In any case, the Shield tablet feels plenty smooth. Thanks to 2GB of RAM, it also remains responsive under heavy multitasking. I've yet to encounter a situation where the tablet has felt slow.

Processor Nvidia Tegra K1 (Quad ARM Cortex-A15 @ 2.2GHz)
Graphics Kepler-based GPU with 192 shader ALUs
Memory 2GB
Display 8" IPS panel with 1920x1200 resolution (283 PPI)
Storage 16/32GB eMMC
Up to 128GB via Micro SD
Wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi (dual-band 2.4/5GHz)
Bluetooth 4.0 LE
4G LTE (32GB only)
Ports 1 Micro USB (host and device support)
1 analog headphone/microphone
Cameras 5MP rear, 5MP front
Battery 19.75Wh
Dimensions 8.8" x 5.0" x 0.36" (221 x 126 x 9.2 mm)
Weight 0.86 lbs (390 g)
OS Android 4.4.2

The most recent 4.4.2 "KitKat" version of Android deserves some of the credit for the Shield Tablet's snappy feel. Nvidia has left the OS largely intact, save for a few little touches tied to the controller and stylus. The environment is as close to pure Android as I've seen outside a Nexus device. Even the pre-installed software payload is reasonably light, with a couple of note-taking apps, a gorgeous painting program, and the requisite Shield client.

Our sample also came loaded with a copy of popular side-scroller Trine 2, whose lush visuals look especially beautiful on the Shield Tabet's IPS display. I haven't yet to measured the screen's output with our colorimeter, but the colors are vivid, and the 1920x1200 resolution delivers crisp images and text. The viewing angles are excellent, too, and the backlight seems uniform and free of bleed.

My only complaint is that the backlight doesn't have enough juice to overpower reflections in brighter environments. The tablet was still usable on the sunny side of the car as we trekked south this past weekend; it just fared better in the shade. Pretty much every other tablet on the market has similar problems with direct sunlight.

Nvidia has created two versions of the Shield Tablet. The $299 variant has 16GB of flash and Wi-Fi connectivity, and it should be available for purchase starting today. The $399 flavor doubles the internal storage and adds 4G LTE, and it's due in North America in about 90 days. Neither version offers a lot of storage for a device designed for HD content and cutting-edge games. However, the tablet's Micro SD slot accepts memory cards up to 128GB. This secondary storage option is ripe for not only miscellaneous files, but also applications. The catch is that apps must be installed to the internal flash first. After that, moving them to the SD card takes only a few clicks in the settings menu.

Expandable storage is just one of the Shield Tablet's many perks. The 802.11n Wi-Fi communicates on dual bands, the Mini HDMI 1.4a port facilitates easy big-screen output, the GPS works without the assistance of Wi-Fi, and the Micro USB port supports host and device modes. 5MP cameras are found front and rear, while dual speakers with separate bass ports flank the front face. Although the speakers lack the range and power to challenge decent external units and headphones, they sound surprisingly good for a device that's just 0.36" (9.2 mm) thick.

At 0.86 lbs (390 g), the Shield is a little heavier than comparable tablets. It's still light enough to hold in one hand, and the chassis has a reassuring density that reminds me of the old Motorola Razr. There's minimal flex in the frame and barely any deflection in the touchscreen. The fit and finish appear to be good overall, though I wish the power button protruded just a smidgen more. It's a slightly shorter than the volume rocker—and noticeably more difficult to activate.

The only accessory that ships with the Shield Tablet is a capacitive stylus, which slides discreetly into the tablet's body when not in use. The built-in handwriting recognition seems smart enough to compensate for my poor penmanship, and the shaped tip makes it easy to draw lines of different thicknesses. There is, however, some noticeable input lag that requires further investigation with my high-speed camera. Expect super-slow-motion doodling in our in-depth review.

Responsiveness definitely isn't an issue for the accompanying gamepad. This wireless unit has a Wi-Fi Direct interface with lower latency and higher bandwidth the Bluetooth link typically used for mobile game controllers. Nvidia says the extra bandwidth enables higher-quality audio streaming for the gamepad's headset jack. The connection can switch between 2.4GHz and 5GHz communication to avoid network congestion, the company says, and a single Shield Tablet can host four controllers simultaneously.

Like every other modern gamepad, the Shield controller has dual analog sticks, triggers, and the usual mix of buttons. It also includes Android navigation buttons, dedicated volume controls, and a triangular touchpad. There's even an integrated microphone that works nicely with Android's speech recognition.

The gamepad is sold separately for $59, which doesn't seem unreasonable given the extra features and premium overall feel. Too bad frequently-touched elements like the triggers, directional pad, and buttons are covered in glossy black plastic that easily picks up fingerprints and smudges. At least the controller's matte surfaces are reasonably resistant to blemishes.

The other accessory is the $39 Shield Cover. This piece is anchored to one edge of the Shield Tablet via magnets, and it folds around the back to serve as a kickstand. Two positions are available: one that props up the tablet at about 60° and another, pictured above, with an even steeper angle. Both configs work well enough on a stationary desk, but the stand doesn't work as well sitting on my lap. The angles are too steep, requiring serious slouching to get a dead-on view of the screen. Also, the relatively small base makes the whole contraption a quite tippy, especially when rumbling down the I-5's rough pavement at highway speeds.