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.
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.
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.