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|
|Display||8″ IPS panel with 1920×1200 resolution (283 PPI)|
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|
|Dimensions||8.8″ x 5.0″ x 0.36″ (221 x 126 x 9.2 mm)|
|Weight||0.86 lbs (390 g)|
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 1920×1200 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.
A true portable gaming console
The Shield Tablet offers a range of gaming options, including native Android titles, PC games streamed from GeForce-equipped PCs, and compatibility with cloud services based on Nvidia’s Grid technology. That list doesn’t even include the extras, like support for ShadowPlay-style local recording and live broadcasting to Twitch. Nvidia has expanded the Shield’s mission beyond simply playing games.
The possibilities are too broad to explore fully over just a few days, so I concentrated on two ways of gaming with the Shield Tablet: native Android games and streaming from the PC. Those are likely to be the most popular choices, at least among the PC enthusiasts who frequent TR.
Nvidia contends that the Tegra K1’s beefy graphics hardware enables a different class of mobile games, and it has the PC ports to prove it. Trine 2 looks absolutely gorgeous on the Shield Tablet. So does Portal 2, which was released on the Tegra 4-based Shield Portable but features extra eye candy for the K1-based tablet. These two games are part of a handful of exclusives for Shield devices.
Playing Portal 2 while barreling down the highway drove home the fact that the Shield Tablet is a whole different class of gaming device. The processor is powerful enough to produce rich visuals, the screen is large enough to appreciate them, and the controller ties everything together with responsive, natural input. I’m often frustrated by the clunky touchscreen controls of typical tablet games, but that’s just not an issue when the Shield controller is riding shotgun.
Nvidia’s Shield Hub app lists loads of other controller-friendly Android games. I tried Rochard, a puzzle-laced PlayStation 3 import; Cordy 2, which is somewhat like Sonic the Hedgehog; and Riptide GP 2, and Android staple. All of them ran fluidly on the Shield Tablet. The controller feel and integration were excellent across the board, too.
Lots of mobile titles were designed for touchscreens rather than physical gamepads. Fortunately, Nvidia’s Game Mapper software has profiles for “hundreds of top Android games.” These profiles can be edited with ease and shared with others. There’s even a gesture recorder that maps touchscreen actions to controller buttons. Pretty slick.
Yep, that’s Batman: Arkham Origins running on the Shield Tablet. Well, it’s actually running on a desktop rig with a GeForce GTX 680. The output was piped to the tablet via Nvidia’s GameStream software and my home Wi-Fi network. GameStream uses the host GPU to encode in-game footage before passing it to the Shield’s Tegra SoC for decoding and display. The setup process is very straightforward, but you’ll need a GTX 650 or better to participate.
The quality of the wireless connection is also important. Arkham Origins was the first game I tried, and it streamed surprisingly smoothly using the basic 802.11n router provided by my ISP. But the next game, Shift 2 Unleashed, was mired by frequent bouts of lag that ruined the experience completely. I’m inclined to blame the Actiontec router, which isn’t on Nvidia’s list of GameStream-ready units. Asus’ RT-N66U is on that list, and the company hooked me up with one to use for testing.
This dual-band 802.11n offering pushes speeds up to 450Mbps, and setting it up took all of about five minutes from start to finish. I didn’t even have to download anything. After connecting to the RT-N66U via web browser, the unit identified an IP conflict with my existing router and fixed the problem automatically. It also detected a new firmware release, which was downloaded and applied with little more than a mouse click.
With my wireless network up to code, I mainlined a series of big-name PC titles. Shift 2, Just Cause 2, and Battlefield 4 played flawlessly. They lost a little visual fidelity due to video compression and GameStream’s propensity to scale back the resolution and detail settings, but they still looked good and felt responsive. Playing BF4 on an 8″ tablet pretty much blew my mind. I mean, just look at it:
The only thing missing was a keyboard and mouse. As much as I like the Shield controller, it’s no match for the ideal FPS input scheme. So, I switched gears and perspectives for a tour of Watch Dogs‘ open world.
This game is better-suited to console-style controllers, and it was lag-free and enjoyable as long as I stayed on foot. I encountered some odd hitching when driving vehicles, though. The same behavior persisted when playing locally on the host PC, suggesting the issue is unrelated to GameStream.
I did run into a streaming-related issue with Tomb Raider, which showed a blank screen despite the audio and inputs working properly. Dunno what happened there, but it seems like a temporary glitch. Scott hasn’t had the same problems with Tomb Raider on his first-gen Shield handheld.
Most of the games I tried have official GameStream support, but players aren’t limited to those titles. Unsupported games can be added manually, and Steam’s Big Picture interface can be streamed, as well. Big Picture streaming covers everything from the Steam store to game libraries. However, there’s no guarantee that games will run properly.
Correct input mapping seems to be the biggest challenge. In Mark of the Ninja, for example, the standard controls only worked for me in the game’s levels. Navigating the menus involved fumbling around with the touchpad, while jumping from the levels to those menus required hitting the “Esc” key via the controller’s pop-up keyboard. The gamepad’s extra control mechanisms should be robust enough to negotiate most titles.
The majority of my gaming time was spent watching the Shield Tablet’s 8″ display, which is tiny compared to the 50-incher in my living room. That’s where “console mode” comes in. This feature pipes the tablet’s display output to a big-screen TV (or PC monitor) over HDMI. It works with standard Android apps in addition to local and streaming games, and it’s way better than looking at a small screen. If you already have a decent desktop gaming rig, then console mode is a great way to bring those games into the living room without springing for a separate home-theater PC.
Nvidia recommends a wired Ethernet connection for streaming games in console mode, which one would have to connect via a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, but I found it wasn’t necessary. The Shield Tablet’s Wi-Fi connection is quick enough to avoid obvious lag, at least when connected to the Asus router on my home network. I’ve left all the streaming settings at their “auto” defaults so far, but the Shield Hub app has options to adjust GameStream’s bit rate and frame rate to match the user’s network performance. Conveniently, those options have different profiles for streams initiated over Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and remote connections.
A lot of tablet, plus more
After a few days with the Shield Tablet, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There are still other gaming options to explore and a boatload of empirical tests to run. I also need to spend time using the thing as more than just a gaming machine. It’s clear the new Shield is capable of playing multiple roles, but questions remain about the stylus, the screen, the battery life, and more.
Even my short time with the Shield Tablet reveals that Nvidia got a lot of things right. The controller is excellent, with console-grade hardware and smart enhancements for both local and streaming games. The tablet is stacked with sensible extras like expandable storage and flexible connectivity. And the OS is unfettered by awkward skins and unnecessary accoutrements. If I were to make a list of “stuff I want in an Android slate,” it would closely resemble the Shield Tablet’s spec sheet.
Among those individual elements, no one thing stands out above the others. What sticks with me the most so far is how everything comes together—including the optional accessories, the subtle software enhancements, and the GameStream infrastructure—to form a tightly integrated whole. The Shield Tablet seems perfectly capable of standing on its own, but it’s an altogether more impressive product with everything else in tow.
Going all in on the Shield Tablet and its sidekicks isn’t cheap. You’ll have to shell out about $400 for the 16GB version with the controller and cover. The more I think about it, though, the more it starts to makes sense. The Android market is littered with low-cost tablets that skimp here and there to hit budget price points. There’s room for a premium solution to deliver a better experience. If the rest of the experience lives up to Shield Tablet’s gaming prowess, this thing could be worth every penny for gamers and discerning enthusiasts alike.