NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet Preview
Depending on who you speak to, NVIDIA’s original SHIELD is either an amazing success or a device that failed to find its niche. Regardless of what pundits may say, SHIELD was conceived as a simple technology showcase that combined seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive and actually quite successful ecosystem. We always had the perception that it was a pet project which eventually morphed into something more successful than originally planned.
While SHIELD did integrate Android, PC gaming and other uses into a unique cross-platform device, its form factor was a bit cumbersome. Creating it in the shape of an ergonomically correct controller with an added screen did have some allure but transporting it wasn’t easy. Now, to incorporate a bit more portability into their Swiss Army Knife approach NVIDIA is adding a newcomer to their SHIELD lineup: the SHIELD Tablet.
The SHIELD tablet is a purpose-built device that’s specifically targeted towards mobile gamers who are looking for something smaller than a notebook but still want some gaming power in a pinch. This isn’t a direct replacement for the mass market-oriented Tegra Note since it’s priced in another category altogether but being a tablet, this new SHIELD has infinitely more uses. Like its handheld predecessor, it utilizes a lightly modified Android KitKat 4.4 backbone (with OTA updates from NVIDIA) but also incorporates NVIDIA-specific technologies like ShadowPlay, GameStream and GRID cloud gaming.
This is certainly some exciting stuff but with the SHIELD Tablet being a gaming-oriented portable with some market leading features and specs (we’ll get more in those later), there’s a premium price attached to it. The 16GB WiFi version will go for $299 and there will also be a $399 32GB LTE version. Both feature expandable storage via a MicroSD slot (up to 128GB) so the capacity allocation shouldn’t be a limitation in either instance. There will also be a SHIELD Cover which dubs as a stand and will retail for another $39. To put this into context, Google’s wildly popular Nexus 7 16GB and 32GB LTE go for $229 and $349 respectively.
While there are some internal changes between the SHIELD Handheld and Tablet, the main differentiating factor here is size. Whereas the older handheld version was ungainly at best, the SHIELD Tablet is a waifish 9.2mm (0.36”) thick and weighs in at just 390 grams. It also happens to boast a large 8” 1920x1200 IPS display that promises to provide a substantially more immersive gaming experience than the postage stamp 5” 720P screen of yesteryear.
Around back there’s a soft-touch surface with an imprinted SHIELD logo while the sides hold a litany of connections. There’s a mini HDMI 1.4a port, the microSD slot, a headphone jack, a USB 2.0 port and, on the LTE version at least, a SIM card slot. Since the SHIELD Tablet can become an intermediary between your GeForce-powered PC and a HDTV, that HDMI output will likely come in handy.
This is a bonafide tablet with some serious pixel pushing muscle but it feels perfectly at home regardless of whether it is being used being used as a simple (yet powerful) Android tablet or for a sit down gaming session. NVIDIA was striving for a seamless device that could swing one way or another and it looks like, at least right now, they've accomplished exactly that. With some of the features it includes, the SHIELD Tablet can easily be mistaken for a mini gaming console as well.
NVIDIA has also incorporated a number of interesting additions here as well. There’s a DirectStylus 2 compatible stylus that gets conveniently tucked away into the chassis (it can be used with NVIDIA’s GPU-accelerated Dabbler app), a specialized speaker enclosure design for optimum stereo sound and a high strength magnesium construction that ensures structural rigidity and adequate cooling.
Front and rear 5MP cameras have been included as well, though there isn’t an integrated LED flash so low light performance may be curtailed. Meanwhile, NVIDIA promises up to 10 hours of consecutive video playback from the SHIELD’s 19.75 watt hour battery or substantially more when the tablet is being used as an intermediary for GameStream.
Without a doubt the real star of this show is the NVIDIA Tegra K1 SoC that lies at the SHIELD’s heart. The K1 is composed of a quad core ARM A15 CPU and a 192-core Kepler graphics coprocessor. While there haven’t been many design wins for this particular processor, is roots are firmly planted in the high end gaming world so its inclusion here is understandable. According to NVIDIA, it vastly outpaces the competition in graphics-intensive workloads.
Through the use of a cutting-edge Kepler graphics subsystem, Tegra K1 also supports advanced lighting and rendering APIs like DX12, OpenGL ES 3.1 and OpenGL 4.4. Some of these aren’t necessarily important for a tablet right now but they do give SHIELD much broader compatibility for the future. More importantly, these high performance specifications have been incorporated into a processor that requires less than 2W of power.
The final element in the SHIELD Tablet equation is the new wireless controller. It may look a bit bulky but its proportions are vaguely similar to the original SHIELD handheld and we thought that was a almost ergonomically perfect design (minus the weight of course). The controller retains the same Y, X, A, B buttons, analog sticks, directional pad and well-placed shoulder triggers from the handheld in order to keep some input continuity for SHIELD-supporting games. It also has a handy headphone output and a mico USB port for wired charging.
Perhaps the most important addition to this controller is its use of WiFi rather than Bluetooth for communications with the SHIELD Tablet. At face value this trading of one wireless interface for another may not seem important but according to NVIDIA WiFi allows for a 50% reduction in latency and nearly 10 times the amount of bandwidth. While Bluetooth controllers can still be used with this version of SHIELD, buying this controller is recommended for any serious gaming sessions.
The controller has some additional features as well, all of which are supposed to streamline interactions with the Android OS and PC games. There are the usual Android navigation buttons along with a simple touch pad to facilitate navigation for any PC title that requires mouse input. Volume control is accessed with rocker-mounted buttons below the touchpad and there’s even a microphone that’s used for voice-activated searches. It’s really quite an all-inclusive design which is likely why NVIDIA needed to make it a bit larger than some may expect.
While the controller isn’t a required companion for the SHIELD Tablet, the overall gaming experience likely won’t be the same without it. Unfortunately, neither the $299 or $399 Tablet versions have it included; you’ll need to spend an extra $59.
All in all, NVIDIA’s SHIELD Tablet looks like an enticing addition to their portable gaming lineup. In our short time with it during a trip to New York it was able to deliver the exact same experience as the original SHIELD, though in an infinitely more accessible form factor. Features like GameStream (provided you have a compatible GeForce GPU) can really make PC gaming much more viable for gamers who don't want to be cooped up in their computer room. Meanwhile, the WiFi controller may be slightly expensive after spending $299 or more on a tablet but it’s well worth the investment in our opinion.
The only real stumbling block for some folks will be the price of the SHIELD Tablet alongside its almost-required accessories. Granted, the $60 controller and $40 adaptable cover could run the total up to $500 for the LTE version but without those two critical components, this device just can’t reach its full potential.
For the time being that will wrap up our quick look at the new SHIELD Tablet and it should set the stage for the full review which will be posted in the next few weeks. Until then, make sure you check out our full video preview above and some additional images below.
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