NVIDIA Shield tablet review: a solid slate with a gaming addiction

NVIDIA's Shield gaming handheld was a peculiar, singular device: an expensive Android portable aimed squarely at consumers that had already purchased high-end desktop GPUs. It was novel and fun, but it wasn't for everybody: If you weren't a gamer, there wasn't much point to owning a Shield. Now, that's changing: NVIDIA's second-generation gaming device isn't a quirky handheld; it's a tablet. Specifically, the Shield tablet is a $299 8-inch gaming slate powered by NVIDIA's new Tegra K1 processor. It wants to be everything to everyone: a high-end gaming device, a superb media tablet and a performance benchmark that will drive the mobile industry forward. Most of all, it wants to appeal to more than just the hardcore gamer. Does it? Let's find out.

Gallery | 30 Photos

NVIDIA Shield tablet

86
NVIDIA

Shield Tablet

Pros

  • Fast, powerful and built for gamers
  • NVIDIA GameStream still impresses
  • A solid tablet in its own right

Cons

  • Controller not included
  • Mediocre camera 
  • Mushy power button
  • Limited (but expandable) storage space
Summary

NVIDIA’s second-generation Shield is more powerful, more versatile and more accessible than its predecessor. It’s not only the best Android gaming device on the market, but also a fine tablet, too. 

82
NVIDIA

Shield Wireless Game Controller

Pros

  • Feels good in hand
  • Lower latency than Bluetooth controllers
  • Clickable mousepad makes menus easy to browse

Cons

  • Mousepad is not very sensitive
  • Built-in microphone is oversensitive
  • Only works with NVIDIA's hardware
  • Must be purchased separately 
Summary

The Shield Wireless Controller is a solid gamepad in its own right, outfitted with plenty of useful bells and whistles for interacting with your NVIDIA devices. But the high price tag leaves a sting since you can't use it with anything but those NVIDIA devices.

Hardware

Black, green and silver were the colors that defined the original Shield, but this year's model is decidedly more monochrome: The slate is draped in a mix of glossy and reflective blacks. It's a clean, if less distinctive, look, but the absence of color doesn't mean the Shield is just another cookie-cutter tablet. If anything, it looks more like an HTC One than a Nexus 7, sporting long, matte black speakers on the device's top and bottom edges.

The top speaker bar is split in half by a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with an same shooter (sans autofocus) on the rear of the device. Let's not flip the tablet over just yet, though -- a handful of ports, holes and buttons run around the edges. Most of the action is on the right: a power button, volume toggles, a microSD slot and an embedded, passive stylus for pen input. The WiFi model also features a walled-in cutout for a micro-SIM card slot -- an ever-present reminder that you could have purchased the LTE model (more on that device below). The bottom edge is host to a simple bass speaker vent, while the left side is marked only by the magnetic connectors that latch onto an optional screen cover. The top has a little more going on: another bass vent, a headphone jack, micro-HDMI connectivity and the all-important power/micro-USB port. Oh, and that backside? Just a smooth, matte surface accented only by the word "Shield," etched in glossy black lettering. Classy.

Although the tablet feels sturdy and well-built, it isn't perfect. Putting all of the Shield's ports on one half of the top edge leaves it feeling a little crowded, and thumbing its physical toggles gave me second thoughts about its build quality. It's not that it feels cheap or painful to hold (a tiny, chamfered edge between the screen and tablet sides ensures a comfortable grip), but the buttons' tactile response is a little mushy. The soft depressions are okay for tweaking volume, but I was never sure if I was using the power button correctly. Did it go down all the way? Did I miss it? Until the screen reacted, I just couldn't tell. The tablet's folding, magnetic cover (sold separately) soon became my favorite way of waking the device: just flip it open, and the screen is on.

Looking for precise specs? Okay, we've got those, too: The Shield tablet measures 8.8 inches (221mm) long, five inches (126mm) wide and 0.35 inch (9.2mm) thick. For comparison's sake, that makes it taller, wider and thicker than the Nexus 7 -- though it does sport a larger 8-inch, 1,920 x 1,200 display. Weighing in at 390g (13.7 ounces) it's a bit heavier, too, though it's still lighter than both versions of the Kindle Fire HD.

If you were to crack the Shield open (please don't), you'd find NVIDIA's latest mobile chip: a 192-core Kepler GPU paired with a 2.2GHz quad-core Cortex-A15 processor. The Tegra K1 is the company's pride and joy (at least for now; a 64-bit variant is currently in development). It features a mobile GPU designed specifically to push the limits of Android and offer "PC class" and "modern console class" graphics on a small screen (more on that later). The tablet also packs 2GB of RAM, 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi with 2.4GHz and 5GHz support, Bluetooth 4.0 LE and a GPS radio.

Right now, the Shield can be had only as a WiFi tablet with 16GB of storage, but NVIDIA plans to offer an LTE version later this year, which will come with twice the storage space and access to five LTE bands (2/4/5/7/17) and four HSPA+ bands (1/2/4/5). It'll be unlocked, too, but heavy users may be tempted to wait just for the extra storage. Because really, it doesn't take long to fill up 16GB -- especially on a device geared toward gaming. 9/30/2014 Update: As of today, that LTE model is officially available; see the "Gaming over LTE" section below for more details.

Display and sound

The Shield tablet's 8-inch, 283-ppi, 1,920 x 1,200 IPS screen may not be the brightest or sharpest tablet display, but I was hard-pressed to find a legitimate complaint. Contrast, color quality and a 380-nit brightness were all more than enough for indoor use, though like most glossy displays, it can be difficult to read in direct sunlight. Still, it has clear, balanced colors, great contrast and wide viewing angles. I read a half-dozen comics, watched a movie and played hours of games without thinking twice about the display quality.

Earlier, I made a point of calling out the Shield's speakers. They were the first thing I noticed about the tablet, and with good reason: Their design enables a true hand-held stereo experience. It's an exception to an irksome standard; many tablets and smartphones cripple themselves by banishing their speakers to one end of the device, making stereo sound separation impossible. Considering how much media we consume on these devices, that's just unacceptable. Thankfully, NVIDIA got it right, placing a speaker on each end of the tablet.

So, how does it sound? Just okay. The Shield's speakers don't crackle or distort, but they aren't incredibly loud either. The sound is balanced, and good overall, but it won't fill a room and it definitely can't replace a good set of headphones. This makes the Shield tablet's audio experience a little mixed: It's not as loud as its predecessor, but its speakers aren't as tinny either. At the end of the day, however, the tablet's design makes it impossible to accidentally "block" the speakers by holding the device "incorrectly," and that's worth at least some credit.

Direct Stylus 2.0

One of the best ways to add value to a tablet is to bake in stylus support. The problem is, active, pressure-sensitive pens (e.g., the Wacom tech used in the Samsung Galaxy Note) are expensive. Passive stylus technology is cheap, but offers an inferior pen experience. NVIDIA's solution was to create Direct Stylus: a carefully designed passive pen that mimics an active stylus via clever software tricks and a little GPU wizardry. This not-so-active stylus first showed up in the Tegra Note 7, but NVIDIA gave it an upgrade on the Shield, renaming it Direct Stylus 2.0.

That numerical identifier mostly adds up to a redesigned pen, starting with a longer, narrower tip that curves slightly. That's important because whereas most styli imprint a dot-like shape on the surface of the tablet's screen, this pen leaves more of an apostrophe. The added surface area might make the pen more accurate, but most of the pen's performance improvements can be chalked up to better software. The Shield's best showcase of this is Dabbler, a painting app that leverages the tablet's GPU to simulate the effect of paint on real materials.

I am not an artist.

Dabbler is actually quite impressive -- it takes the type of paint, material, lighting and even the tablet's position into account. A line drawn in the app's watercolor mode, for instance, will slowly soak into the surface of the simulated paper, and will even bleed down into other sections of the material if the app's "gravity" mode is turned on. Similarly, oil paints can glob and cake up on the surface of a canvas, and the artist can change the direction of the light source to affect how the final painting looks. It's a neat concept, but it's short on features: There aren't many tool or paint styles to choose from, and it lacks the simulated pressure sensitivity that the technology is capable of.

While I'm not much of a fine artist myself, I did find writing with the stylus to be a pleasure. The passive pen worked well enough in notebook apps like Evernote and JusWrite, but I was most impressed by its handwriting recognition. My childish penmanship -- said to be unreadable by my K-12 teachers, college professors and employers -- was consistently recognized by the Shield's software. This feature can be used in any app that accepts text input, too: All you have to do is hold down the spacebar for a second and switch to the handwriting keyboard. Pretty smooth.

Shield Wireless Controller

The Shield makes a nice standalone tablet, but let's not kid ourselves: If you want to get any serious gaming done on this device, you're going to need a controller. Don't worry, NVIDIA has you covered. Introducing the Shield Wireless Controller, a $60 WiFi gamepad that promises lower latency than your average Android controller. It isn't the only option Shield buyers have (the tablet also connects to any Bluetooth gamepad), but it has the advantage of being designed specifically for Shield devices. This means it has a few extra features -- namely, a clickable mousepad and a dedicated NVIDIA button (for launching the NVIDIA hub).

That first feature may seem like an odd thing to tack onto a gaming controller, but for the Shield, it makes a lot of sense. One of the device's flagship features is NVIDIA GameStream, its ability to wirelessly stream high-end PC games directly from a GeForce GTX-powered Windows machine -- but desktop games don't always play nicely with the streaming setup. Some have mouse-operated launcher menus, or refuse to recognize the gamepad until the user activates a specific setting. The official gamepad's mousing surface makes it easy to navigate these menus without fiddling with the tablet's touchscreen or the host computer itself. It's a little under-sensitive (NVIDIA says it's working on this), but still convenient. It's compatible with the original Shield too. All told, it's the perfect companion for either device when connected to a TV in console mode.

The rest of the gamepad looks pretty standard: two analog thumbsticks, a directional pad, four face buttons, two bumpers and a pair of triggers. It's a good-feeling controller -- like an oversized Xbox 360 pad with the PlayStation thumbstick layout -- but it's hardly a revolution in gamepad design. The only standard it's missing is force feedback vibration, though it does have a few other bells and whistles: volume controls, a built-in mic and a headset jack that pipes in all audio from the tablet. Unfortunately, the microphone only works in Android: Games streamed from the PC simply won't recognize it. While it's handy to have an internal microphone for Twitch streaming, I found that it had an annoying tendency to pick up button presses and other controller noises. If you're planning to stream your gameplay, use a headset.

Finally, the controller has one more quirk: capacitive start, back and Android home buttons. These touch-sensitive toggles are a little odd at first, but considering they're designed for an Android tablet, they feel fine. They also pull double-duty: Long-pressing the back or start buttons often brings up context-sensitive menus, and it doesn't take long to get used to them. My only disappointment with Shield's wireless controller is how single-minded it is -- it works like a dream with NVIDIA's own hardware, but wiring it up to your computer to use as a standard gamepad produces null results. I expected this, sure, but having an extra PC controller would have been a nice perk.

Software

The Shield runs a version of Android 4.4.2 that's pretty close to stock, although NVIDIA did manage to weave in a few extra features. The best of these, without a doubt, is the tablet's integrated Twitch support: Pull down the notification menu at any time, in any app, and you can immediately stream your tablet's screen, microphone and front-facing camera to Twitch. Technically, this is the tablet's "share" menu, and it's the mobile equivalent of NVIDIA's GeForce Experience ShadowPlay feature. The pop-up menu can stream to Twitch, capture the last five minutes of screen time, manually record the screen and save it to memory or simply take a screenshot. The menu can also be called up with a long-press on the gamepad's back button too, making it easy to access in any situation. The whole thing is robust, beautiful and seamlessly integrated into the OS.

Most of the OS' other tweaks are carryovers from previous products. Holding the gamepad's start button will bring up NVIDIA's gamepad mapper, for instance. This overlay allows you to create virtual "touch" spaces that you can manipulate with the gamepad, making it possible for any game with touch controls to be played with the controller. Making profiles can be a little tedious, but almost every game already has a mapping sourced from the community, which can be downloaded with the touch of a button. The DirectStylus features found in the Tegra Note slate are here too -- pulling out the pen brings up a menu of compatible apps, and additional buttons can be added to the navigation bar for quick access to stylus-exclusive controls.

These are all nice tweaks to the OS, but the true Shield experience hinges on launching the Shield Hub app, formerly known as "TegraZone." Despite the rebranding, the Shield Hub is largely the same experience NVIDIA baked into (and repeatedly updated for) its last portable gaming device. It's basically the device's "console" interface, a launcher for all of the Shield's gaming functions. There's a store section that redirects to the Google Play page for featured and optimized games, a news feed for NVIDIA announcements and disparate app drawers for Android games, media apps and PC games. There are search and settings options in NVIDIA's menu, too, but these just kick the user back to the standard Android interface.

While the NVIDIA hub isn't technically new, it's gone through several major overhauls since its introduction on the original Shield. It's better designed, easier to navigate with a controller and generally more pleasing to the eye. In fact, when the tablet is connected to a television, it almost feels like a proper console OS -- although the controller has a mouse emulator for a reason. It still isn't perfect, but it's come a long way.

Camera

In general, tablets shouldn't be used as your primary camera for capturing life's precious moments: They're big, awkward and shooting pictures with them makes you look silly. You shouldn't do it, ever -- and you definitely shouldn't do it with NVIDIA's Shield tablet. Not only will you look ridiculous, but also your pictures will turn out lousy. The Shield's rear-facing 5-megapixel shooter is mediocre at best.

The Shield can produce clear, if muted images in a well-lit interior space, but it stumbles in darker rooms and the great outdoors. The camera simply can't compromise between shadows and highlights, and blows out images in the presence of any bright surface. My test shots are full of over-brightened flowers that bleed together and soft images lacking texture depth. The Shield's rear-facing camera will probably do in a pinch, but chances are it's outclassed by your smartphone.

Gallery | 16 Photos

NVIDIA Shield camera samples

Most tablets skimp on the front-facing camera, opting for a lower-resolution sensor. Not the Shield, though. The tablet's front camera is the very same as the rear one. It still won't land you any award-winning shots, but I can appreciate the higher-resolution selfie cam for the sake of the device's Twitch integration: If you're going to stream your face to the internet, it may as well be shot with the best camera available.

Performance and battery life

Ask NVIDIA about its new Tegra K1 mobile processor and it'll beam at you like a proud parent. This is a mobile GPU boasting 192 Kepler cores and the wherewithal to keep up with PC gaming standards: Open GL, DirectX 12 and even support for Unreal Engine 4. Kepler is the key buzzword here: Tegra K1 is built on the same architecture that powers NVIDIA's desktop-class GPUs. Combined with a 2.2GHz quad-core Cortex-A15 processor (with an extra "+1" core to handle menial, low-power tasks), the Shield runs on what NVIDIA is claiming to be the "world's fastest mobile processor."

NVIDIA Shield Tablet Tegra Note 7 Nexus 7 Samsung Galaxy Tab S
Quadrant 2.0 20,556 16,066 6,133 18,597
Vellamo 3,055 3,314 1,597 1,672
3DMark IS Unlimited 30,970 16,473 10,271 12,431
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 463 586 602 1,109
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 31 N/A 5 5.5
CF-Bench 43,033 34,386 15,366 31,695
SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

All told, the NVIDIA Shield tablet is delightfully fast, offering one of the smoothest, most stutter-free experiences I've ever had with an Android tablet. Switching between apps and menus feels fluid, and even processor-heavy applications load in mere seconds (not including extra loading time for high-end games, of course). More often than not, I found myself waiting on my network connection to catch up to the device -- slowly watching a status bar as it downloaded the next issue of the comic I was reading or waiting for a server to deliver my web page. If you're hooked on numbers, take a look at the table above: The Shield made notched marks in every single benchmark.

The Shield kept pace with average battery life expectancies, too: It lasted for nine hours of near-constant use, including a good deal of comics reading and Netflix streaming. Engadget's battery rundown test (video looping at a fixed brightness) matched my lazy-Sunday test pretty closely; the 5,300mAh battery gave out after almost eight and a half hours. With lighter usage, the Shield can also last for a day and a half or more without needing a recharge. That's about an hour more than last year's Nexus tablet, but it's hardly best in class -- the Shield still falls four hours short of Samsung's 8-inch Galaxy Tab S.

Tablet Battery Life
NVIDIA Shield Tablet 8:23
Microsoft Surface 2 14:22 (LTE)
Apple iPad Air 13:45 (LTE)
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (10-inch) 12:30
Samsung Galaxy Tab S (8-inch) 12:22
Apple iPad mini with Retina display 11:55 (LTE)
Amazon Kindle Fire HDX (7-inch) 10:41 (WiFi)
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Kindle Fire HD (8.9-inch) 9:01
Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet (2012) 7:57
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15

Gaming

This is why you're really here, right? Yes, the Shield makes an admirable media tablet, but that's not why NVIDIA built it. This is a device billed as the "ultimate gaming tablet," a slate to take mobile gaming to a new level. That's pretty much the same promise NVIDIA gave us with the original Shield. Does the tablet form factor and the company's new Tegra K1 processor make that much of a difference? Yes, and no -- it kind of depends on what your goal is.

While it's true the tablet's Tegra K1 outclasses the Tegra 4 chip found in the hand-held Shield, it's hard to tell in most games. With the exception of a few NVIDIA-optimized titles, most Android games simply aren't designed with high-performance graphics chips in mind. Titles like Sonic The Hedgehog 4: Episode II, Grand Theft Auto III or Jet Set Radio aren't going to look appreciably different on either device -- though all of them run great. In fact, the only titles where we could see any notable difference were ones designed specifically for NVIDIA Shield devices -- namely, Valve's Android ports of Portal and Half-Life 2.

Valve's classic shooter and Stockholm Syndrome puzzler made their way to the NVIDIA Shield handheld back in May, but they were slightly downgraded ports. Both games suffered occasional lag in tense moments and lacked more robust lighting effects. They're still playable on NVIDIA's original Shield, but on the tablet, they're a bit better. Textures seem to be a bit more crisp and dynamic lighting now reflects off of in-game surfaces. Most importantly, the games run more smoothly and stutter less often.

While these games do look better on the Shield tablet, they're available on the older device as well. That said, tablet-exclusive games are coming. Trine 2, for instance, ships with every Shield tablet and requires a Tegra K1 processor to run. It looks pretty fantastic too, and features textures and lighting on par with the game's console and PC ports. Sadly, it's only a hint of the power the K1 has to offer. NVIDIA has shown impressive demos of the processor (and indeed, the Shield tablet itself) featuring stunning graphics powered by Unreal Engine 4, but no top-tier games take advantage of this power. In fact, the only UE4 game currently available for the device is Tappy Chicken, a simple clone game created as an example of a scripting system.

Is the NVIDIA Shield tablet the most powerful Android gaming device available? Probably, but right now that power is underutilized. It's a problem the original Shield device faced too -- a bizarre, but tantalizingly capable product with precious few apps that could leverage its power. While it's true that NVIDIA is continually pushing to get more Tegra-optimized games on the market, the fact of the matter is that these titles trickle out at an inconsistent pace. Fortunately, Shield owners aren't shackled by the limits of the Android marketplace.

GameStream and Console Mode

Both the NVIDIA Shield tablet and hand-held Shield are powerful, well-made Android devices, but let's be frank: The aforementioned GameStream technology is easily half the reason gamers are buying these products. We covered the feature in our original Shield review, but it's worth revisiting -- it's the device's killer app, and it's better than ever.

Over the past year, NVIDIA has slowly been pushing updates to its existing Shield handheld, improving its PC-streaming features and building a smoother experience. Naturally, these updates have found their way to the tablet, and it shows: GameStream is noticeably more reliable than it was a year ago. It has lower latency and crashes less often (hardly at all, in fact). It's not perfect, but most of the time input lag was low enough that I don't notice it. On my home network, the experience was good enough that I could almost hold my own in Titanfall over GameStream. That's a huge improvement.

Streaming PC games to a tablet is OK, but I found the experience to be more enjoyable on a big screen. Plugging a micro-HDMI cable into the Shield prompts it to reboot into "console mode," disabling the tablet screen and optimizing video output for your television (there's also a mirror mode, but this leaves Android's navigation buttons on your TV screen). With NVIDIA's updated Tegra Hub and the official Shield gamepad, this setup works like a dream. The Tegra Hub serves as an easy-to-navigate, well-thought-out console interface, and the controller's aforementioned touchpad makes it easy to sort out PC-streaming problems (unexpected pop-up windows and the like) from the couch. Technically, this experience was, and still is, possible with the original Shield, but it's worth noting that a year of updates have significantly improved the experience. The only drawback to console mode? You can't wake it from sleep using the controller. The only option is to fiddle with that mushy power button. Blergh.

Gaming over LTE

Streaming games over a local network is admittedly pretty neat, but does it work over LTE? Yes, but getting it up and running isn't always easy. If your network setup is running one of NVIDIA's recommended routers and fits all the necessary requirements, GeForce Experience does most of the heavy lifting, opening the necessary ports and making it easy for the tablet to stream over LTE. Unfortunately, my home network is governed by a stubborn carrier-branded router that refused to open the necessary ports. Over the course of about a week I spent several hours trying to coax my network into playing nice with the LTE version of NVIDIA's tablet, but I never managed to overcome the router's frustratingly limited configuration menu.

That doesn't mean GameStream over LTE doesn't work, of course, it just means I need to consider finding a new service provider. Eventually I was able to connect to a computer behind a less contentious network, and PC gameplay piped through as expected. Under ideal conditions, the experience mirrored local streaming -- an almost magical transportation of high-end gaming to a small screen -- but a lot of things can foul it up. Limited bandwidth on the host computer's end can ruin the experience, as can a sub-par connection to AT&T's LTE network. And yes, that "LTE" icon is absolutely necessary: attempting to stream over a flighty HSPA+ connection frequently resulted in stuttering gameplay with an eventual crash. Make sure you have a strong connection and a properly configured host PC, however, and it works like a dream.

Using GameStream from outside of the local network requires you to leave your PC on, too -- something I'm not in the habit of doing when I'm outside my home for multiple days at a time. I also found that a crashed game was a lot harder to fix when I didn't have direct access to my home machine, and didn't stream games from my own PC all that often. I did, however, get substantial milage out of NVIDIA GRID, the company's cloud gaming platform. GRID has been available as a free beta to Shield owners for almost a year now, but it's particularly useful on the company's LTE tablet -- there's no PC set up, no pesky port-forwarding and no worries that an app-crash might leave my home machine running a high-end game unattended. All I ever needed was a strong LTE connection and the tablet itself. I used it to play Street Fighter 4 in Disneyland, and it was pretty great.

The competition

If you're looking at the Shield tablet for high-end Android gaming and PC streaming, you really only have one other option: the Shield portable. NVIDIA's GameStream technology is proprietary -- and although some enterprising folks in the Android community have reverse-engineered it, no other Android product on the market offers a comparable feature. It isn't a tablet, and isn't quite as powerful, but NVIDIA's original Shield can be had for $100 less than our $299 Shield tablet review unit (and you won't have to shell out an additional $60 for the Shield controller, either).

If you're just looking for a solid tablet, on the other hand, then you've got choices. If the Shield's 1,920 x 1,200 IPS screen isn't good enough for you, take a look at the $400 Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4 -- it has a bright 2,560 x 1,600 display and a big enough battery to keep it running for over 12 hours. Prefer iOS? Apple's iPad mini with Retina display offers a similar runtime and resolution for the same price. Google hasn't unveiled its latest Nexus tablet yet, but last year's model is a contender on its own: At $230, it offers all of the non-gaming features a potential Shield buyer could want at a significantly reduced price. If you're looking for more battery life, however, take a look at Amazon's 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX: it won't cost a dime more than the Nexus 7, but it'll last longer.

Wrap-up

When Engadget reviewed NVIDIA's original Shield handheld, we called it a "truly strange device," albeit a fun, powerful and completely worthwhile one. The Shield tablet is everything that device was, but less odd. As a tablet, it's far more versatile than the handheld was, making its lack of Tegra-optimized (and exclusive) games easier to forgive. It's still a powerful gaming device, but it's no longer an outlier. At the end of the day, the NVIDIA Shield is a solid, worthwhile 8-inch Android tablet in its own right, and it just happens to have a host of novel features, to boot. Sadly, making the most of the device requires an extra $60 controller and an NVIDIA GTX GPU -- making the full Shield experience an expensive proposition.

Check out our 2014 Back to School guide!