The original 2013 Nvidia Shield was a weird, hybrid handheld game system: a game controller with a 5-inch screen bonded to it. It played Android games using its Tegra 4 processor, or it could stream PC games from Nvidia graphics-equipped PCs, either locally or long-distance. It was bulky but intriguing, and with it Nvidia made a statement on where Android and PC gaming could go once some imagination was thrown in.
The new incarnation of the Shield amps up its gaming capabilities but houses them in a more traditional tablet housing (last year's Shield is still around, too: it's not going anywhere). The $299 Nvidia Shield Tablet, which runs £240 in the UK (availability in Australia is yet to be revealed) is the first product to pack the company's powerful Tegra K1 system-on-a-chip, though it will hardly be the last.
In addition to keeping the PC game-streaming functionality, it can be connected to a TV for big-screen gaming or be propped up on a table while using an optional wireless controller. Or, you can just use the Shield Tablet like an 8-inch Android KitKat 4.4 tablet: download apps from Google Play, watch Netflix, or pop out its side stylus and paint or use Evernote.
Can a gaming tablet also be a TV-connected microconsole? The Shield Tablet shows it can, but keep some of your expectations in check: the bonus capabilities of this device are impressive, but serious PC and Android gamers are the ones most likely to be interested. For others, the Shield Tablet is best considered as a really good 8-inch tablet, with a few perks.
The Nvidia Shield Tablet looks a bit like a Nexus device: matte black, clean, and relatively compact. It's mostly made of plastic, however, which I noticed when I pressed down on the front-facing speakers: the material flexed. Those speakers, however, are nice and loud, perfect for some tabletop gaming. The word "Shield," embossed on the back in glossy letters, is the only hint you're holding a tablet with any connection to gaming technology. That's a major change from the original Shield, which was full of chrome and funky detail.
The Shield Tablet weighs 13.7 ounces (388g) and is 0.36-inch (9mm) thick: it's not the lightest or thinnest, but you certainly don't feel like you're sacrificing size for graphics. It's as compact as any other 8-inch tablet, for the most part.
What else can I say? The Shield Tablet design doesn't scream "gaming," but it's clean and inoffensive, and it resembles the Nexus 7 tablet. It almost feels like an unofficial Nexus 8.
The Tegra K1: High-end graphics on a tablet, indeed
The Nvidia Shield Tablet is the first tablet to show off the Tegra K1, a far more powerful graphics processor than last year's Tegra 4 had. The Tegra K1 offers benchmark performance that -- according to Nvidia, at least -- blows far past tablets like the iPad Air or Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4. The Tegra K1 processor has a 192-core Kepler GPU plus a 2.2GHz quad-core A15 processor and 2GB of RAM.
In our tests, that performance shows off in gaming graphics: not only do some of the few available K1-optimized games such as Half-Life 2 and Portal deliver graphics worthy of the PS3 or Xbox 360, but games streamed via Nvidia Gamestream from a PC or over Nvidia's Grid streamed-game beta service look good enough to pass as console experiences, too.
On 3DMark, we got an eye-popping score of 30,421, which was more than double what competing tablets have racked up. That's great news, and certainly puts the Shield Tablet on a theoretical high ground for gaming on tablets. But it's important to remember that we're due to see updated Android tablets and new iPads over the next few weeks, all of which will certainly close the gap. In the meantime, though, this is the best graphics performance to be had on a tablet, and it's not close.
But what can show off these graphics? Again, Nvidia has only gathered an unimpressively small stable of Shield Tablet-optimized games thus far, and the future lineup of games looks bleak. There might be many more games to come, but how many developers will really line up to make Google Play Shield Tablet games? More Tegra K1 devices need to exist to justify that effort.
Game streaming and Nvidia's PC gaming-friendly tech
The Shield Tablet offers several Nvidia technologies that other Android tablets lack. Much like the first Nvidia Shield, this tablet can access any Google Play apps or Android games, plus a curated collection of around 180 Shield-optimized games (11 of which are Tegra K1-optimized) that can be launched from the Shield Hub, a new app formerly called Tegra Zone that acts as a self-contained zone for those who just want to use their tablet for Shield-related games and apps. Shield Hub also converts into a big-screen TV mode -- called Nvidia Console Mode -- when the tablet's connected to a TV via HDMI, much like Steam's Big Picture or what Android TV will eventually do this fall. Netflix will stream in 1080p on the Shield Tablet, too.
Using the tablet as a TV-connected microconsole really works, but it's not perfect: the Shield controller works to control nearly all features remotely, even voice-activated Google Now search, but not all apps support it well. Netflix, for instance, isn't optimized for smooth, controller-based navigation, rendering sections impossible to browse.
There's more: the Shield Tablet's greatest perk is being able to connect to Nvidia Gamestream, a way to stream and remotely play PC games via connected laptops or desktops running recent compatible Nvidia GeForce GTX graphics hardware.
You basically remote-play the magically beamed-over games, much like what can be done on the PlayStation 4 and PS Vita. A PC app called GeForce Experience brokers the setup, which involves entering a code to connect tablet and PC. Then, if everything works, the games appear magically on the tablet as long as you also have Steam downloaded and set up on your computer. The Shield Tablet supports about 120 PC games, including Metro: Last Light, BioShock Infinite, and Tomb Raider.
I tried playing them locally on my Wi-Fi network, but Gamestream also works remotely to some degree. A 5GHz router is recommended, plus an Internet connection with 10Mbps download speed and 40ms ping. The games I played looked reasonably good, much like streamed PC games on the original handheld Shield.
You can also access Nvidia's in-beta Grid streaming-game service, which offers a smattering of completely cloud-hosted streaming PC games for free -- think PlayStation Now -- including some gems like Borderlands 2 and Saint's Row The Third. It's a cool bonus for Shield Tablet owners, and it's actually very fun, but there are currently only 16 games to choose from.
This tablet also supports Twitch live game-streaming of both Android and PC-streamed titles, a first for a tablet. Nvidia's game controller has its own microphone and headset input jack, and both it and the front-facing cam can add audio-video commentary during streaming, something that hasn't been done on a mobile device before. I'm not a real Twitch gamer, but if you're connecting this to a PC in your home and want to set up in front of your TV, this is an extra bonus. The Shield Tablet's 5-megapixel rear cameras is merely OK compared to other tablets, but its 5-megapixel front-facing "selfie" camera is definitely better than average -- and that's the one you'll be using for Twitch.
Heck, you can even use Nvidia ShadowPlay, a new software tool for capturing in-game footage, should you be into that. As you can see, this all starts to get pretty tinkery for normal gamers, but hardcore PC gamers could find it fun.