Introduction and performance
Despite its problems, we actually liked Nvidia’s original Shield Android gaming handheld. Our biggest issue with it was that it was bulky and heavy. With rumors swirling around about a Shield 2, we were hoping to see a slimmer, lighter design.
So consider us initially disappointed when we learned that the next iteration of Shield would just be yet another Android tablet. Yawn, right? The fact of the matter is that the Shield Tablet may be playing in an oversaturated market, but it’s still great at what it sets out to be.
For one thing it’s surprisingly affordable, as the Wi-Fi version can be had for just $299 (£239.99, around AU$320).
At eight inches, the Shield Tablet features a gorgeous 1,920 x 1,200 display, which shares the same resolution as Google’s flagship Nexus 7 tablet. At 13.1 ounces, the Shield Tablet is about three ounces heavier than the Nexus 7 but still a lot lighter than the original’s 1 lb. 4.7 ounces.
Part of the weight increase with the Shield Tablet over the Nexus 7 is due to the extra inch that you’re getting from the screen, but also because the Shield Tablet is passively cooled and has an extra thermal shield built inside to dissipate heat. It’s a little heavier than we’d like, but isn’t likely to cause any wrist problems.
On the back of the Shield is an anti-slip surface and a 5MP camera, and on the front of the tablet we have a front-facing 5MP camera and two front-facing speakers. While the speakers are not going to blow away dedicated Bluetooth speakers, they sound excellent for a tablet. In addition to the speakers, the Shield Tablet has a 3.5mm headphone jack up at the top.
Other ports include Micro USB, Mini HDMI out, and a MicroSD card slot capable of taking up to 128GB cards. Buttons on the Shield include a volume rocker and a power button which we found to be a little small and shallow for our liking.
The Shield Tablet was initially running on Android KitKat, but Nvidia has now pushed out Android 5.1 to users, which brings the tablet right up to date and includes a new-look interface inspired by Google’s Material Design, as well as various performance improvements and fixes.
Google’s influence is clear in fact as the Shield Tablet is running a pretty stock version of Android, with the main difference being that Nvidia has pre-loaded the tablet with its Shield Hub, which is a 10-foot UI for you to purchase, download, and launch your games.
Arguably the real star of the tablet is Nvidia’s Tegra K1 mobile superchip. The 2.2GHz quad-core A15 SOC features Nvidia’s Kepler GPU architecture and 192 CUDA cores along with 2GB of low power DDR3. K1 supports many of the graphical features commonplace in GeForce graphics card including tesselation, HDR lighting, Global illumination, subsurface scattering, and more.
In our performance benchmarks, the K1 killed it. Up until now, the original Shield’s actively-cooled Tegra 4 is arguably one of the most if not the most powerful Android SOC on the market, but the K1 slaughters it across the board. In Antutu and GeekBench benchmark, we saw modest gains of 12% to 23% in Shield versus Shield Tablet action.
But in Passmark and GFX Bench’s Trex test, we saw nearly a 50% spread, and in 3DMark’s mobile Icestorm Unlimited test, we saw an astounding 90% advantage for the Shield Tablet. This is incredible when you consider that the tablet has no fans and a two-watt TDP. Compared to the second-gen Nexus 7, the Shield Tablet benchmarks anywhere from 77% to 250% faster. This SOC is smoking fast, even standing up well to newer devices like the Nexus 9.
In terms of battery life, Nvidia is claiming you’ll get 10 hours watching/surfing the web and about five hours from gaming with its 19.75 Wh battery. This is up 3.75 Wh up from Google’s Nexus 7 equivalent and from our experiential tests, we found those figures to be fairly accurate if not a best case scenario. It will pretty much last you all day, but you’ll still want to let it sip juice every night.
LTE Nvidia Shield Tablet
After successfully launching the 16GB Wi-Fi Shield Tablet, Nvidia has released its 32GB LTE tablet.
The only differentiating factors between the two Shields lie in storage and connectivity.
Getting the Shield through AT&T will cost you $399 (£299.99, about AU$425), but customers can hand over a pre-owned tablet to the network and receive a $100 bill credit. The tablet can also join an existing AT&T Mobile Share Plan for $10/month.
The tablet is also available unlocked through various international LTE bands that are supported by 70 carriers worldwide.
The process for streaming via Wi-Fi is simple enough – just pair the tab with your PC over the same network and then you’re pretty much set after entering a code.
Gamestreaming remotely is a bit different, possibly more difficult and definitely not mainstream consumer friendly. If routers are not supported via UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) you’ll have to manually forward ports. Playing remotely also requires a minimum upload speed of 5Mbps and download bandwidth speeds of 10Mbps.
Running the Shield through AT&T’s network was spotty and at times resulted in lost connections while using Gamestream and Grid.
Once the LTE settled in, the connection stabilized and we were able to play without interruption, but it didn’t always stay reliable.
For example, Batman: Arkham Origins was choppy at first, and cut out a little bit after the intro taking us back out to desktop mode. On the second try, Batman managed to make it through the tutorial, fight scenes and onto the next chapter.
Again, the connectivity remained the most inconsistent factor in the streaming process. We had issues with Batman but during an online multiplayer Team Fortress 2 match, the Shield ran surprisingly smooth. There was very little lag and it connected to the game server with no issues.
We then tried to run a game of Warframe and weren’t able to make it past the load screen.
The connection became unresponsive, and it was pretty much goodbye PC streaming as the game would stop and Steam wouldn’t reload.
Watching Netflix produced the same results – the Shield would lose service randomly causing the streaming to stop. However, it didn’t take long to buffer and restart.
After about five hours of gaming, downloading apps and watching Netflix all on LTE, the Shield Tablet managed to stay true to Nvidia’s claims.
Meaning you’ll likely get an average of 10 hours watching/surfing the web and about five hours from gaming with its 19.75 Wh battery – pretty much like the Wi-Fi version of the Shield Tablet.
If you need a decent router for the Wi-Fi version of the tablet to run without any hitches, you’ll definitely need a heavy duty router for the LTE Shield Tablet. A high quality 5GHz dual-band router is recommended if you want the best streaming performance from your tablet.
Games running through Gamestream also weren’t amazing visually. There are over a hundred Tegra K1 optimized games like Trine 2, Portal and a variety of Android games that look beautiful – however if not on the list, you’ll likely get subpar graphics.
Then there’s the questionable networks. While LTE is known as "fast" it doesn’t always mean reliable. You essentially need really high speed internet to keep the machine running smoothly, on top of all the other tech to make the experience tolerable.
Still, the Nvidia Shield Tablet remains the top mobile gaming device out there especially at its price point. But until the software for remote streaming is improved, more games become Tegra K1 optimized or internet connectivity becomes stabilized, "PC gaming on the go" will stay a highly sought after dream. Unless you don’t mind mediocre graphics and frequent saves.
Controller, features and verdict
Of course if you’re going to game with it, you’re going to need Nvidia’s new wireless Shield Controller. Sold separately for $59.99/£49.99 (about AU$63), the 11.2-ounce Shield Controller maintains the same button layout as the original Shield controller, but feels a lot lighter and more comfortable to hold. While most Android game controllers operate over Bluetooth, Nvidia opted to go with Wi-Fi Direct stating that it offers 2x faster response time and more bandwidth.
The extra bandwidth allows you to plug in a 3.5mm headphone into the controller and also allows you to link up to four controllers to the device, which is an appreciated feature when you hook up the tablet to your HDTV via the Shield Tablet’s Console Mode. Other unique features of the controller include capacitive touch buttons for Android’s home, back, and play buttons.
There’s also a big green Nvidia button that launches Shield Hub. The controller also has a small triangle shaped clickable touch pad which allows you to navigate your tablet from afar. A quibble we had with it is that we wish the trackpad was more square, to at least mimic the dimensions of the tablet as the triangle shape was a little awkward to interface with.
Another problem that we initially had with the controller was that the + volume button stopped working after a while. We contacted Nvidia about this and the company sent us a new unit which did remedy the issue, however. One noticeable missing feature from the controller is rumble support. Nvidia said this was omitted on the original Shield to keep the weight down, however its omission is a little more glaring this time around since there is no screen attached to the device.
The controller isn’t the only accessory that you’ll need to purchase separately if you want to tap into the full Shield Tablet experience, however. To effectively game with the tablet, you’ll need the Shield Tablet cover which also acts as a stand. Like most tablets, a magnet in the cover shuts off the Shield Tablet when closed but setting up the cover and getting it to stand-up is initially pretty confusing.
The cover currently only comes in black and while we’re generally not big on marketing aesthetics, it would be nice to have an Nvidia green option to give the whole look a little more pop. We actually think the cover should just be thrown in too, especially considering that the cheapest 16GB model costs $300.
On the upside though, you do get Nvidia’s new passive DirectStylus 2 that stows away nicely in the body of the Shield Tablet. Nvidia has pre-installed note writing software and its own Nvidia Dabbler painting program. The nice thing about Dabbler is that it leverages K1’s GPU acceleration so that you can virtually paint and blend colors in real time. There’s also a realistic mode where the "paint" slowly drips down the virtual canvas like it would in real life.
But that’s probably not why you’re interested in the Shield Tablet. This device first and foremost is a gaming tablet and even comes with a free Android copy of Trine 2. Trine 2 was originally a PC game and it’s made a great transition to the Shield Tablet. While the game was never known to be a polygon pusher, it looks just as good as it ever did on its x86 debut.
With gaming as the primary driver for Shield Tablet customers you may wonder why Nvidia didn’t bundle its new controller. The company likely learned from Microsoft’s mistake with Kinect and the Xbox One: Gamers don’t like to spend money and getting the price as low as possible was likely on Nvidia’s mind. Of course, not everyone may even want a controller with the general lack of support for it in games. Nvidia says there are now around 400 Android titles that support its controller, but that’s only a small percentage of Android games and the straight truth is that the overwhelming majority of these games are garbage.
Nvidia is making a push for Android gaming, however. The company worked with Valve to port over Half Life 2 and Portal to the Shield and they look surprisingly fantastic and are easily the two prettiest games on Android at the moment. Whether Android will ever become a legitimate platform for hardcore gaming is anyone’s guess, but at least the Shield Tablet will net you a great front seat if the time ever arises.
Luckily you won’t have to rely solely on the Google Play store to get your gaming fix. Emulators run just as well here as they did on the original Shield and this iteration of Shield is also compatible with Gamestream, which is Nvidia’s streaming technology that allows you to stream games from your PC to your Shield. Gamestream, in theory, lets you play your controller-enabled PC games on a Shield.
At this point, Nvidia says Gamestream supports more than 100 games such as Batman: Arkham Origins and Titanfall from EA’s Origin and Valve’s Steam service. The problem though is there are hundreds more games on Steam and Origin that support controllers but not the Shield Tablet’s controller. For example, Final Fantasy VII, a game which we couldn’t get working with the original Shield still isn’t supported even though it works with an Xbox controller on the PC. When Gamestream does work, however, it’s relatively lag-free and kind of wonderful. The one caveat here is that you’ll have to get a 5GHz dual-band router to effectively get it working.
Would we buy the Shield Tablet if we owned the original Shield (now renamed the Shield Portable)? Probably not. If we were looking for a new tablet and top notch gaming performance was on the checklist, the Shield Tablet is easily the top contender today.
We’d take it over the second-gen Nexus 7 in a heart beat and even consider it over the iPad mini 3. While we understand why Nvidia decided to separate the cover and controller to keep the prices down and avoid the Kinect factor, we think a bundled package with a small price break as an alternative would have been nice. All things considered though, consider us surprised. The Shield Tablet is pretty dang cool.
The Shield is out now for $299/£239 (around AU$320) for the 16GB, WiFi-only model, and $399/£299 (around AU$425) for the 32GB LTE variant.