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Nvidia Shield Tablet review: An Android gaming tablet with benefits

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The Good The Nvidia Shield Tablet packs a lot of graphics punch with a new Tegra K1 processor. It has expandable microSD card storage; runs Android 5.0 Lollipop and offers full access to Google Play app store. Its add-on wireless game controller enables connected TV support for sofa gaming and streaming-video entertainment. It streams PC games with compatible gaming PCs.

The Bad Its plastic chassis feels a little cheap; there aren't many Android games that support the K1 graphics potential; the game controller required to play most games is sold separately.

The Bottom Line Even if you don't take advantage of its gaming prowess, the Nvidia Shield Tablet is one of the most versatile -- and affordable -- high-performance 8-inch Android slates you can buy.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 9

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 Lollipop 5.0 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.

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Design

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 are nice and loud, though, 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.

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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 the 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 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.

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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. 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.

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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 Saints Row: The Third. It's a cool bonus for Shield Tablet owners, and it's actually very fun. New games are added every week, but there isn't a vast selection of games to choose from. Also, a strong connection to your Wi-Fi network is needed for successful gameplay.

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 with those of 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 hard-core PC gamers could find it fun.

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Other specs and features

The 8-inch 1,920x1,200-pixel IPS display on the Shield Tablet looks really good; it's not as great as the best tablet displays out there, such as that on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, but it's better than the display on the Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 8.0. It sports 283 pixels per inch, which is less pixel-packed than the 359 ppi on the Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 or the 326 ppi of the iPad Mini Retina, but it's great for gaming: many PC games don't require resolution beyond 1080p, anyway.

When connecting to a TV, the Shield Tablet can stream video at up to 4K resolution via apps like Netflix, and it will play games and run apps at 1080p. It really does look great, but you'll need to use an included mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable.

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A microSD card slot tucked in the side can accommodate extra storage, which will come in handy since the included 16GB is meager. The bump-up 32GB Shield Tablet also includes LTE capability via a micro-SIM slot. With unlocked LTE support -- HSPA+, 3G, 2G, GSM, and EDGE -- it's compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US.

It costs a little more money, but the 32GB LTE version of the Shield Tablet is a compelling option for a slate with cellular capabilities. After turning on the tablet -- which looks identical to the Wi-Fi-only model -- it takes awhile for it to connect to the 4G network -- anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes. However, once connected to the network, surfing the Web and streaming video were smooth and swift. Most of the heavy-duty gaming features require a Wi-Fi connection, so the on-the-go data is best used for other activities. As a nice bonus, the latest version of Android makes keeping track of your data plan usage easier than ever.

The Shield Tablet has also 802.11n MIMO dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4 and 5GHz), Bluetooth 4.0 LE, GPS, and a 9-axis accelerometer with compass, gyro, and g-sensor. This is a more port- and feature-studded 8-inch Android tablet than anything else out there in its class.

The Shield Tablet runs an unskinned clean version of Android's latest operating system, Lollipop 5.0 , with preinstalled apps: the full Shield Tablet-optimized platformer Trine 2, Shield Hub software and Nvidia Dabbler, a very fun and impressive paint program that takes advantage of the K1 for graphics and 3D paint effects. It works really well with the included stylus.

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Oh yes, did we mention the stylus? A passive capacitive stylus pops out of the tablet's side, and it offers functions that almost feel like an active stylus: palm-rejection works, thanks to some Nvidia tablet software tweaks, and it's a great included accessory to have for note-taking or doodling.

Accessories not included

To properly play games on the Shield Tablet, you're going to need to invest in some accessories. The Wi-Fi Direct-enabled Shield game controller ($60/£50 extra) is a must: games streamed via a PC require it, and so do many of the Android games optimized for Shield, like Half-Life 2 and Portal.

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The Shield Controller is big, maybe too big. It feels like a slightly oversize standard PC or Xbox One controller and has bonus buttons for Android home/back navigation controls, volume and even a mini-touchpad with click on the bottom (it's the silver triangle, and it's easy to miss). A built-in microphone and headset jack make this a complete controller with all the trimmings: you can even use it to play while streaming via Twitch.

It's not the best-feeling controller I've used, but it's very similar to the one that's permanently bonded to the original Nvidia Shield. And Nvidia claims better lag-free response than Bluetooth controllers. It's hard to tell when playing streaming games, however, because those already exhibit some natural network lag.

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You'll also need a separately sold snap-on magnetic Shield Tablet cover that bends into various stand positions ($39/£25). It attaches crisply and covers the screen well, with magnets to put the screen to sleep. It's useful -- maybe even essential -- if you're planning on using the Shield Tablet as a stand-up mini-console with a wireless controller.

Performance and battery life

We benchmarked the Shield Tablet using 3DMark, a popular go-to graphics benchmark app: in 3DMark we got a score of 30,421 using the highest Ice Storm Ultimate graphics test. The next closest score we've seen was 18,971, on the Sony Xperia Z2 tablet. That's a big leap.

The Shield Tablet lasted for about 10 hours of video playback using a continuous video loop with Wi-Fi off. That's pretty good. Even better, my anecdotal use over a few weeks of video streaming and game playing while connected to a TV via HDMI showed it was able to hang in for a day-plus of occasional sessions. It held a charge well when asleep, too. Nvidia claims up to six hours of battery life when playing games, and I'd say that's a fair estimate.

The Shield Tablet did get pretty warm when playing games or game streaming for a while. How it stands up to extended use isn't clear, but keep in mind that the Tegra K1 is a processor that's also intended for small laptops and Chromebooks.

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Conclusion

If you're in the market for an 8-inch tablet with memory expansion, the Shield Tablet is a really intriguing possibility. Its display resolution isn't the best out there, but it's very good. The processor, based on our benchmarks, performs at a high level, but Android apps aren't really currently optimized to make the most of the Tegra K1 yet.

The Shield Tablet makes a lot more sense for the average person than the original Shield as a do-it-all portable, and its price -- $299 with 16GB of storage -- is pretty competitive with other Android 8-inch tablets. You're paying a bit more, but you're also getting a lot more performance, and some interesting gaming perks.

But, I call those gaming elements "perks" because, as I used the Shield Tablet, I realized you really need to set the tablet up in TV-style configurations in order to play games as intended. If you're holding the Shield Tablet in your hands, on the go, it's not really much of a gaming handheld at all; it's a powerful graphics-enhanced tablet.

Gamers might really like to stream games on the Shield Tablet to another room in their home, and if you own a compatible high-end gaming PC with Nvidia graphics, this is an interesting accessory. But you'll need to pay another $60 per controller, and I wonder if, sooner rather than later, there will be set-top boxes with the same Nvidia hardware that work better for this sort of thing.

The Shield Tablet's library of supported games, in the end, is just too limited. It'll never be the sort of gaming platform that a PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS is -- or even an iPad. It's not intended to be. But it would make me pause before getting one. At the least, you should wait a month or two to see what other products with this same processor are coming down the road.

But nothing in the 8-inch Android space comes close to offering what this tablet offers for its price. If you consider the Shield Tablet as a "Android tablet with benefits," then this is a really nice and versatile product -- one of the best 8-inch Android tablets currently available. That might change in a few months, but for now, it's an awfully nice, big step for Nvidia into a much larger world.

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