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Nvidia's Shield Tablet reviewed

A whole other kind of Android tablet

If you just glanced at Nvidia's new Shield Tablet, you might mistake it for any other Android slate. They all sort of look alike—rectangular touchscreens surrounded by simple bezels and backed by slim bodies—and the Shield doesn't break the mold. There's barely even a hint of Nvidia's trademark green on the exterior.

Upon closer inspection, however, the Shield reveals itself to be quite unlike any other Android tablet. Inside the nondescript frame lurks a Tegra K1 SoC whose integrated graphics is born from the same architecture that powers desktop GeForce GPUs. There's a stylus tucked in there, too, complete with handwriting recognition, palm rejection, and a slick painting app. High-res IPS display? Check. Expandable storage? Uh-huh. Mostly stock OS? Damn straight.

And that's just the tablet. The Shield has an accompanying gamepad with console-grade controls. It can also act like a gaming console when plugged into a big-screen TV, and you're not just limited to Android titles. The tablet can stream PC games from local and remote machines, as well, allowing access to everything from AAA blockbusters to indie favorites.

I wrote my first appraisal of the Shield Tablet after just a few days with the thing, which is precious little time to evaluate a device with this many facets. Now that I've put the Shield through its paces, I have a better understanding of how it fits into the increasingly diverse tablet ecosystem. I also have a clear sense of why enthusiasts should give it more than just a cursory glance.

Introducing the tablet
The Shield Tablet's Tegra K1 SoC is a big part of the appeal. Before you get too excited, note that this isn't the 64-bit version of the chip with custom Nvidia cores. That Denver-based duallie has been missing in action since it was revealed at CES in January. Instead, the Shield uses the pin-compatible Tegra K1 variant with quad ARM Cortex-A15 cores. The off-the-shelf CPU components are clocked up to 2.2GHz and limited to 32 bits. They're also pretty much the same as what's found in the old Tegra 4, so they're not terribly exciting.

The Tegra K1's integrated graphics are far more interesting. They employ a single Kepler SMX unit with 192 DirectX 11-compliant stream processors, which is a heck of a lot for a mobile SoC. If you're looking for a desktop reference, consider that the low-end GeForce GT 640 has dual Kepler SMX units. The high-end GTX 780 Ti, meanwhile, has 15 SMXes.

Processor Nvidia Tegra K1 (Quad ARM Cortex-A15 @ 2.2GHz)
Graphics Kepler-based GPU with 192 stream processors
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

In the Shield Tablet, the K1 SoC is combined with 2GB of memory and up to 32GB of internal storage. The base model has 16GB of flash and is already selling for $299.99. In a few months, it will be joined by a 32GB version with 4G LTE connectivity and a $399.99 price tag.

Rolling cellular connectivity into the higher-capacity model is a little odd, but you don't have to pay for 4G in order to cram in more flash. The Shield Tablet's Micro SD slot accepts memory cards up to 128GB. The external storage is well-integrated, too. Nvidia ships the tablet with a copy of ES File Explorer, which simplifies the process of shuffling files between internal and external storage. Unlike some other tablets, the Shield can store and run applications on external flash. Apps must be installed to the internal SSD first, but after that, they can be moved to Micro SD and run from there.

Both variants of the Shield Tablet have dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. They also pack the usual suite of sensors, a GPS receiver that works without Wi-Fi, and dual cameras. In an interesting twist, the front-facing camera has the same 5MP resolution as the rear shooter. Nvidia expects the front camera to be used by folks who broadcast gaming footage and commentary to sites like Indeed, support for Twitch streaming is integrated right into the system software.

Next to a 7-incher like Asus' Memo Pad ME176C, the 8" Shield looks a little bit chunky. The larger screen obviously affects the footprint, but that's not all. The 0.36" body is a little thicker, and at 0.86 lbs, the Shield also weighs noticeably more. I don't find the weight too onerous to tote, though. To be fair, I also toss kettlebells around my garage on a reasonably regular basis.

Instead of being a burden for me, the extra heft makes the Shield seem more substantial. Part of that may be due to the build quality, which appears to be very solid overall. The frame is stiff, the panels barely flex, and everything fits together nicely. I also dig the soft-touch panel on the back, which has a nice feel and keeps fingerprints and smudges to a minimum.

The exterior isn't perfect, though. The power button barely sticks out of the chassis, forcing me to practically dig in my fingernail just to actuate it. Applying lots of pressure with the tip of the finger works, too, but it shouldn't be this difficult to turn on the tablet. The volume rocker next to the power button sits a little higher, and it's much easier to use as a result.

While having the Micro SD slot is great, installing cards is a little tricky. The slot is recessed so deeply into the body that I have to use the tip of a ballpoint pen to push cards in all the way. The upside of this arrangement is that cards sink in deeply enough to be covered by a protective door that should prevent accidental ejection. That's a reasonable trade-off given that most users will likely pop in one memory card and leave it installed.

Up front, the Shield is all screen and speakers. Before we get to the display, I should take a moment to laud the integrated audio. It's surprisingly... not horrible. That sounds like faint praise, but most tablet speakers are really awful. I can barely tolerate them for more than a few minutes. However, I've listened several hours of music on the Shield without throwing it against the wall. The sound quality isn't great, but it's better than on any other tablet I've used.

Having dual front-facing speakers definitely helps. So does using the tablet in a landscape orientation. Each speaker has an associated bass port along the edge of the chassis. Holding the tablet by those edges effectively cups one's hands around the ports, producing noticeably fuller, richer sound. Too bad the folding stand accessory, which we'll cover later in the review, lacks speaker cups to replicate the effect. You can probably whip up your own using a toilet paper roll or something, though.

On the next page, we'll bust out our fancy colorimeter and take a closer look at the display.