Summary

Review Price £229.00

Key Features: Nvidia Tegra K1; 192-core Kepler GPU; 2.2GHz Quad Core ARM A15; 8-inch, 1920 x 1200 display; 390g

Manufacturer: nVidia

Nvidia Shield Tablet: A tablet designed by gamers for gamers

Everything about last year’s Nvidia Shield was experimental. The design, a mishmash of an Xbox controller, an Android phone and a Nintendo Game & Watch, was nothing like anything else out there, while the software features — particularly the PC game streaming — was ambitious and (to a degree) impressive, but also limited. The fact Nvidia never sold the Shield outside the US reinforced the idea this was Nvidia treading carefully on new, unfamiliar ground.

The Shield Tablet, on the other hand, is Nvidia stepping out with confidence. This 8-inch gaming tablet will be sold globally— in the US & Canada from 29 July ($299), Europe from 14 August and more regions later this year — and Nvidia will sell them directly, though retailers will stock them too. There’s an optional, but arguably essential, wireless controller to go with it, while the software and games library has steadily improved with the aim of making this the ultimate tablet for gaming.

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Nvidia Shield Tablet: Specs and Tegra K1 SoC

Normally I start with how products feel — how they make me feel. But the Nvidia Shield Tablet isn’t especially interested in impressing with its appearance. It’s not ugly, but the curved black frame and soft-touch rear are as practical as a comfy pair of slippers, and that’s just fine: I like comfy slippers.

No, the two things that define the Nvidia Shield Tablet are its Tegra K1 system on a chip (SoC) and the bespoke Shield Wireless Controller. One gives the Shield Tablet graphics processing power far in advance of any rival tablet, iPad mini 2 and Galaxy Tab S 8.4 included; the other is what makes the Shield Tablet more than ‘just another 8-inch tablet’.

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Nvidia’s Tegra K1 has two constituent parts, the CPU (a quad-core 2.2GHz ARM A15 CPU with an extra low-power companion core) and the GPU.

The CPU is, generally speaking, unremarkable — it is, so far as I’m aware, a fairly standard reference ARM processor. The GPU, on the other hand, is unique to Nvidia and based on the same Kepler architecture as the graphics cards it sells for PCs.

This is important for a couple of reasons: one, it means the Shield Tablet’s GPU is around two to three times faster than those found in rival tablets; two, it means the K1 supports all the same APIs and systems used in PC games. In layman’s terms, games should run smoother and look better, and it’s easier to convert games designed on/for PCs to work on the Shield Tablet. Given the Xbox One and PS4 are basically PCs, that could include games on those platforms, too.

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The picture is a little more complex than this summary suggests, but when developers tap into the power of the K1 the results are very impressive. War Thunder, a cross-platform WWII dog fighting game that’s coming to Android and is K1 optimised, looks excellent on the Shield Tablet, as does Trine 2, which has been converted to run on the Shield Tablet.

It’s just shame these are two of just 11 Tegra K1 optimised games available at launch, and that three of of those 11 include Half-Life 2 and Portal (brilliant but old games) and… Pure Chess. Chess. There are a further 400 or so Android games that support the controller through mapping, but they won’t tap into the power of the K1 in the same way.

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Beyond these points, it's perhaps a little disappointing to discover there's just 2GB of RAM in the Shield Tablet — a notable step down from top-end phones like the OnePlus One that have 3GB. But Nvidia hasn't held back much elsewhere, including dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi with 2x2 MIMO antennas, a microSD card slot for adding up to 128GB of storage and a Mini HDMI output for your TV. There are 5-megapixel cameras front and rear, too, and Nvidia includes a stylus that uses its DirectStylus 2 tech — as seen first on the Advent Vega Tegra Note — which is a nice extra you won’t find elsewhere.

The battery has a 6,700mAh capacity, which Nvidia claims is good for 10 hours of web browsing or three to five hours of gaming. It’s also worth noting Nvidia will sell a 32GB version with LTE in addition to the 16GB Wi-Fi version, though there’s no prizes for working out which will be the more popular.

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Nvidia Shield Tablet: Shield Wireless Controller

Despite being a $59/£39 extra, the Shield Wireless Controller is very much integral to the pitch of the Shield Tablet as a dedicated gaming tablet. And while it clearly riffs off the familiar Xbox controller, it has a few tricks of its own.

One is that it uses Wi-Fi Direct, not the more common Bluetooth, to connect to the Shield Tablet. Nvidia says this reduces lag (from 20ms to 10ms) and that the significantly higher data bandwidth (24Mbps vs 3Mbps) enables features it couldn't otherwise support.

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This includes two-way audio and microphone support. The controller has a microphone built-in, and you can plug a stereo headset into the 3.5mm headphone jack on the controller. The built-in mic is mainly there to support Google Voice Search, of course, which makes it easier to use the tablet when it's plugged into a TV — it's basically the alternative to a QWERTY keyboard.

As for the controller itself, it’s a solid unit, though perhaps a little heavier than I’d like. It is, broadly speaking, a carbon copy of the Xbox controller, albeit with the D-pad and left analog stick switched around. The basic build quality seems decent — I’m not entirely convinced by the D-pad’s rather severe button action, but a few minutes with a controller is insufficient time to judge such things.

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One further non-standard feature is a multi-touch touchpad, which is the small triangular area just above the SHIELD logo. Rather like the Ouya controller, this is mainly to substitute for the lack of a touchscreen.

There are really two questions that need answering, neither of which I can answer sufficiently right now. One is how long the battery will last; the other is whether the really quite large controller is compact enough to carry around with you. I suspect views will differ wildly — I think the controller is rather chunky to have in your bag all day, but the SteelSeries Stratus is evidence of what happens when you take miniaturisation too far.

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Nvidia Shield Tablet: Console Mode, GameStream and ShadowPlay

I suppose I lied a bit earlier as the Shield Tablet has a third key feature: the software. You can read more about this in our (upcoming) Nvidia Shield review, but the main features comprise Console Mode, GameStream and ShadowPlay.

Console Mode is basically an Android equivalent to Steam’s Big Screen mode — a controller friendly interface for the big and small screen. It’s neat and simple in a unflashy kind of way, but it’s a vital component in making the Shield Tablet feel like an actual games console and not just an Android tablet with a controller. This includes a section for ‘Media Apps’ (i.e. Netflix, BBC iPlayer etc.), which is a nice addition to create a ‘lean back’ experience suitable for TVs.

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GameStream is the much-vaunted PC game streaming system, which 120 PC games support. You need an Nvidia graphics card in your PC, of course, a GeForce 650 GTX or higher to be precise. I personally find the concept a little challenging, mainly because there are so many ifs and buts involved — i.e. you need a compatible PC, a fast enough upload speed and an incoming connection that’s fast enough and stable enough to be relied upon.

This is less of a problem if you’re already at home, of course, but then if I’m at home I’m on my gaming PC already, right? Maybe I’m a luddite in this regard, but it all feels a little more complicated than I need just to play games. Nvidia Grid, its answer to OnLive and PlayStation Now, has more promise, but it’s a beta and US only at present.

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The final software feature is ShadowPlay, which is really rather neat. This is what lets you record gameplay videos and screenshots as you play, but it also supports Twitch live streaming and uses the front-facing camera so you can have picture-in-picture streams with your reaction and commentary. It’s a niche feature, obviously, but then everything about the Shield Tablet is niche and ShadowPlay plays to that strength.


Nvidia Shield Tablet: Design and Screen

While the Nvidia Shield Tablet isn’t sleek and stylish in the same way an iPad is, it’s still a very nicely put together tablet. It’s all black with a pleasant soft-touch rear and slightly curved edges that are comfortable to hold. It weighs just 390g and its 8-inch screen is just the right size for a small tablet. This is quite important, really, as when the Nvidia Shield Tablet isn’t being a gaming tablet, it’s a very good Android tablet for the price.

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The only quibble in some eyes could be the lack of a ‘retina’ screen, but then the £229 standalone price makes that impossible and the 1,920 x 1,200 resolution is sharp enough on a screen this size. Moreover, what’s the point in having a retina resolution if no games will actually use it? At first glance this seems a decent screen, too, though I only saw it indoors with very little ambient light to deal with.

The other design feature is another optional, but highly desirable, extra: a cover. The cover will be $39 (UK price unconfirmed), but it’s a neat little folding cover that’s very similar to the Smart Covers on iPads. I like it.

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First Impressions

I have high hopes for the Nvidia Shield Tablet. It’s a niche idea, obviously, but Nvidia reckons the world is ready for niche tablets, and if you’re a genuine gaming fanatic then there are plenty of reasons to consider buying an Nvidia Shield Tablet. It’s powerful, well put together and — even with a controller and case thrown in — reasonably priced.

More importantly, it’s just as a good a standalone tablet as it is a ‘gaming tablet’ — an important point if and when you grow tired of the gaming options available to you. As with the Shield Tablet, the greatest problem remains games. Android has lots of games, but not so many that really exploit the strengths of something like the Shield Tablet. Nvidia wants to change that, but that’s an ambition, not a guarantee.

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