Nvidia’s original Shield took us somewhat by surprise – a hybrid of handheld gaming device and tablet, it was solid but not something with wide appeal. Then, in August, the company announced the Shield Tablet – a second attempt at bringing its gaming-focused device to the mass market.
The Shield might not look out of the ordinary, but with Nvidia’s gaming nous, and the Tegra K1 CPU/GPU combo, it seeks to plug a gap in the market for a tablet that can also handle console-quality gaming.
While the device has been out for a few months, the introduction of an interesting new cloud gaming service has brought it back into the spotlight. Plus, if you’re looking to buy a tablet this Christmas, it may well be on your wishlist.
The Shield Tablet is, to put it bluntly, something of a beast. The quad-core CPU on the Tegra K1 chip is backed up by 2GB of RAM and a GPU running on Kepler architecture. This means your everyday browsing and app use is silky smooth. Meanwhile, visual effects like tesselation and HDR lighting are handled easily, putting it on par with lower-spec home PCs rather than its closest tablet rivals.
And when you load up some of the games specifically tweaked to take advantage of the Shield’s architecture you begin to see what the device can do. The fantasy puzzler Trine 2, which comes with the Tablet, is incredibly impressive, blowing away pretty much every tablet-specific game, in terms of visuals.
Other games with Shield conversions such the legendary Portal and Half-Life 2 are great too. Seeing Valve’s masterpieces running on the Tablet is oddly life-affirming. However, games publishers haven’t exactly been rushing to support the system since its release, so the library is slim.
In terms of power, a key rival is likely to be the Nexus 9 tablet. Google’s latest houses many of the same components, including an updated version of the Tegra K1 (a dual core 64-bit variant, running at a faster clock speed of 2.5GHz). Nvidia’s device is cheaper by around £80, minus accessories – and the lure of expandable memory via microSD cards, up to 128GB extra, is a fine bonus for anybody in the market for a gaming tablet.
The stream dream
The Shield’s other marquee feature is its ability to stream a game from your PC or laptop (it needs a graphics card from the GTX family) and play it on your tablet, via Nvidia’s GeForce Experience software.
Device pairing is straightforward – you just enter a code that pops up on your PC screen – and many titles are automatically discovered by the app. Games that aren’t directly supported can be manually added to the list, though there’s no guarantee they’ll work and I experienced compatibility issues.
You do need a solid home network connection. The game streaming automatically adjusts to get the best possible play experience from your connection – and it will always prioritise smoothness over graphics quality. This means at busy times you might be playing a low resolution, blurry stream, but it will still be playable. I had a lot of fun wandering around my flat, exploring Skyrim and Sleeping Dogs.
Nvidia’s insistence on only supporting GTX processors will lock out many PC and laptop owners interested in the service. Hopefully this is something the company will change in future.
It should also be noted that you can already stream to Android devices without having to buy a Shield, using apps like Limelight.
The streaming future
As of early December, owners of Shield devices will be able to take advantage of Nvidia’s new Grid Gaming service, which the company is pushing as the Netflix of games.
About 20 titles are currently offered. Running via servers in Ireland, Ultra Street Fighter IV – a game reliant on lag-free connection – was responsive, accurate to my inputs and surprisingly pretty for a streamed game. This was with a 7.5MBps connection via wireless router, with Nvidia’s minimum recommended speed being 6.5MBps.
The service will be offered for free, at least until June 30, 2015, meaning a no-risk chance for Shield owners to try it out on launch.
Mini HDMI and the console experience
Both the Shield’s on-board gaming performance and its streaming ability can take full advantage of one excellent touch on the tablet: the mini HDMI out port.
By hooking up a mini HDMI-to-HDMI lead, you can play your games – streamed or otherwise – through any HDTV in full 1080p, if it’s supported by the game. In fact, the Shield is capable of outputting a 4K signal, though I was unable to test this.
The feature is presented through the Shield’s “console” mode, and also allows up to four controllers to be connected to the device for an experience akin to that on Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo’s boxes. It’s also great for watching films on the big screen, showing photos off in great detail or even for browsing the web. Apple and Google devices can both offer HDMI out, but they require an adaptor.
Nvidia claims about nine hours of battery life when you’re using it for web browsing and low-intensity apps. Play any games that actually take advantage of the device’s hardware and you’re looking at around two-and-a-half hours – and a Shield that’s hot to the touch.
If you’re thinking about playing games with the Shield set to maximum performance, outputting through an HDTV at 1080p, you’ll need to be plugged in to the wall. That’s not a huge issue, because if you’re connected to a TV you’re likely to have a spare plug socket nearby.
But when you’re out and about, using Shield as a portable gaming device becomes less viable an option – at least for anything more than the odd half hour here and there, unless you’re willing to dive in and alter the graphics settings in favour of longevity over performance. Apple’s iPad Air 2 and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S come out better in benchmarking tests – even with larger screens.
The Shield Tablet clocks in at £239.99 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi only version, or £299.99 for the 32GB Wi-Fi/4G model. It comes with a bundle of software installed and runs a customised version of Android 4.4 Kitkat (soon to be upgraded to 5.0 Lollipop).
That’s surprisingly good value, and a lot cheaper than the tablet’s closest running mate, Google’s Nexus 9 (£319.99/£399.99/£459). However, the Shield controller, necessary for a number of games like Half Life 2, is an extra £50. It’s fine if bulky, but it’s not as good as the Ps4 or Xbox One controllers.
- Screen: 8in 1920×1200 multi-touch full HD display
- Processor: Nvidia Tegra K1 Kepler GPU; 2.2 GHz ARM Cortex A15 CPU
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16/32GB (expandable to 128GB with microSD)
- Operating system: Android 4.4 Kitkat (Lollipop ready)
- Camera: 5MP HDR (front); 5MP auto focus HDR (back)
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, Mini-HDMI out port, 4G (32GB model only)
- Dimensions: 12.6cm x 0.92cm x 22.1cm
- Weight: 390g
The Shield Tablet is a powerful mini gaming rig, that also functions as a very good tablet in its own right, handling everything you’d want from your portable device.
The added extras you don’t tend to see elsewhere – like the mini HDMI-out and expandable microSD storage – are great touches, especially as installing games gobbles up space very quickly.
Compared to the “pure” tablets out there, the Shield does lose out in certain ways – it’s heavier, its resolution isn’t as high as the Nexus 9 or iPad Air’s (3264×2448 and 2048×1536, respectively) and its battery life isn’t as good. But if you’re into gaming and want something that can operate well beyond Candy Crush Saga, you could do a lot worse than this.
Pros: Great for gaming, good array of connectivity options, almost on a par with Google’s Nexus 9 power-wise, fantastic streaming capabilities
Cons: The controller is expensive and doesn’t come as standard, burns through battery life when playing games, streaming requires an Nvidia GTX graphics card
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