shield-tablet-review-10Presented as the “Ultimate Gaming Tablet” by NVIDIA, the Shield Tablet has been designed specifically to offer excellent (Android) gaming performance and PC Game Streaming capabilities in this form-factor, and at a very reasonable price. This is without a doubt an extreme tablet, and with the high performance for the price ratio, it is clear that something has to give. The question is: what is it, and does it matter to you. I spent some quality time with it and here’s my stab at presenting the pro and cons of this unique system. Read on…

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System performance (stellar)

Since most prospect buyers will want this NVIDIA tablet for performance reasons, I thought that I would not tease and start with this right away. Let’s be clear, we already knew that the Tegra K1 chip performance was going to be stellar, but seeing it on an engineering sample is quite different from benchmarking it on an actual retail product. If you are unfamiliar with Tegra K1 (aka Tegra 5), I recommend reading my previous overview.

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"A LEAP IN PERFORMANCE"Fortunately, NVIDIA has held up its promises and the benchmark numbers match our expectations set in previous hands-on with the chip. The SHIELD tablet is now the fastest Android device on the market, and almost the fastest mobile device across the board, with the exception of the single-core performance, where Apple still leads (NVIDIA’s Denver CPU core may change that).

Since this is marketed as a “gaming system”, we have to look at the workload and everybody will agree that games demand a fast “everything”. CPU, GPU, memory bus – everything has to be good, or the computing pipeline will be stalled along the way.

Two benchmarks come to mind: GFXBench and 3DMark unlimited. First GFXBench T-Rex (offscreen 1080p) clearly shows that the Tegra K1 processor excels in “classic” Android games, those that came before GL ES 3.x. The performance there is simply astounding, and K1 should really power 4K displays.

Secondly, both GFXBench Manhattan and 3DMark Unlimited Icestorm show a leap in performance that has to be scary for its competitors. This is a huge jump, and this validates what NVIDIA has been working on for a while with Tegra K1: the unification of PC and mobile graphics architectures. Because K1 uses the exact same design as the GeForce Kepler PC graphis chips, NVIDIA can leverage the work done on its leading edge PC products in the mobile space. The results are impressive: gaming is not a problem.

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Context

Before we head deeper into the review, let me tell you quickly how I’m using my tablets. I want you to know where I come from, so that you can relate (or extrapolate) to why I like or dislike certain features and why I appreciate (or not) the performance or responsiveness. I’m not here to tell you what you should like or not, but rather to share my experience so that you can figure out if this is a device for you.

I mostly use my tablets as couch devices, and sometime travel devices. It’s great for browsing  the web or reading articles, and although I have access to all the Android apps, I tend to stick to the basic stuff (on the phone, my needs are a little more complex).

I don’t play much these days (I wish I had the time!), but I’ve worked as a programmer in the video games industry for 12 years (including 7 at NVIDIA – full disclosure), so I have an appreciation for what it takes to power a game, both in terms of hardware and software. I own a PS4, XBox 1 and of course my PC is gaming capable. I have to say, I like PC games better because of the old-school keyb+mouse controls.

Industrial design (clean, simple, efficient)

shield-tablet-review-06On the outside, the SHIELD Tablet has a relatively classic tablet look (it’s a black slate), and the dual speaker system placed in the front is the only indication that it is a multimedia powerhouse. We’ll come back to this later, but this is basically the best speaker placement possible since all the energy is directed towards the user and does not rely on bouncing on other surfaces.

shield-tablet-review-30The back of the tablet uses a soft paint that gives it a “leathery” feel and prevents it from getting fingerprint marks etc – it is surprisingly good at doing this. On either side of the tablet, you will find a camera module, which we will examine in further details in the Camera section.

shield-tablet-review-15The top has many controls and ports: Power, Volume, MicroSD slot and Stylus. My specific unit is a WIFI-only version, but I suspect that the small slot near the stylus is for an eventual LTE SIM card. The left side is busy as well: microUSB, HDMI out and 3.5mm audio connector are present there. The bottom and the right side don’t feature any buttons or controls.

Controller (comfy, sophisticated)

The controller is very easy to setup – even better than a Bluetooth headset. Just press and hold the NVIDIA button until it blinks and launch the SHIELD wireless controller app. That’s it.

shield-tablet-review-24The controller does not use Bluetooth, but a flavor of WiFi. The reason behind that is twofold. First, WIFI has lower latency, and we all know that uber-gamers don’t want to see any latency because latency can get you (virtually) killed in a competitive game.

Secondly, WiFi provides enough bandwidth to wirelessly allow for two way audio communication in case you want to play and chat at the same time. For added comfort, NVIDIA made it possible to connect your headphones’ audio connector to the controller instead of the tablet. This is very appreciable, even if not critical.

The controller’s microphone is able to be used not only for chatting, but also for sending voice command to control the table when connected to the TV. This is important because the proximity of the microphone is what makes it work. This is a problem that I had with Kinect from the get go — if the TV volume is too loud, it just doesn’t work.

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The controller seems big, but it’s really comfortable to use for long periods of time. I feels close enough from the Xbox/PS controller that I had no difficulty at all to adapt. I found the Play, Back and NVIDIA buttons to be a bit “stiff”, which is normal since they are capacitive buttons, but that was a bit surprising at first.

Note that if you really have a favorite controller, the tablet supports BT controllers as well.

Display (good & bright enough, can do better)

shield-tablet-review-29Since NVIDIA’s moto is “the display is the computer”, this is arguably a very important element of the device. The display is pretty good: it uses a full HD (1080p) IPS LCD, which means that colors don’t change hue when viewed from a shallow angle. There is some brightness loss as you look at it from the side, but this is true for all displays. The brightness is quite good, and overall the color rendering is great.

The weaker point of this display is the black levels and the relatively high reflectivity of the screen. It is quite obvious when you compare it side by side with something like the Samsung Galaxy S Tablet (price). Even when the screen is off, you can clearly see that it is not completely black, but “dark gray”.

When it’s ON, the difference if even more noticeable. This is really where the difference is between a very expensive display (the Samsung one) and one that was designed for value/price (the SHIELD Tablet’s). Given the  price differential, I can hardly blame NVIDIA for the screen quality, but in absolute terms, this is important for you to realize that it could use some improvements.

Playing Android Games (like a boss)

With the kind of performance that Tegra K1 is able to generate, it’s clear that no game currently in the Android Market will bring this tablet to its knees. Games like Riptide GP 2 ran at an unwavering 60FPS and I suspect that we were framerate limited most of the time.

I have never seen Real Racing 3 run so smoothly, so it’s fair to say that gamers will be seeing tangible results from the K1 hardware.

Advanced Android OpenGL 4.x Games : unchallenged

The SHIELD Tablet can run games that were originally programmed for other platforms such as PC and PlayStation. There are two forces at work here: first, the OpenGL 4.x API is a PC graphics programming interface that does not exist on the Google Android platform, so NVIDIA is the only vendor supporting it for now. The point is that game programmers don’t need to work as much to port things back to Android’s Open GL ES 3.x, which is not as advanced.

Secondly, Tegra K1 is fast enough to run many of these games with the original artwork they were created with. This is a big deal because re-creating artwork (textures, models…) for mobile does cost money, and developers would be taking a bigger risk by doing so. For that reason, there are games which are exclusive to the SHIELD Tablet on Android.

Half-Life 2 comes to mind, but games like Trine also looks amazing, for an Android tablet. The game was ported from consoles, without graphics changes and it runs very smoothly. I hope to more games ported to OpenGL 4.x, whether they are recent or classics.

Broadcasting to Twitch

The NVIDIA Shield tablet is the first Android device to enable real time recording, compression and broadcasting of live gameplay to Twitch. This is no small feat because there is a lot of things that needs to happen in the background, without disturbing the gameplay. This was largely facilitated by the fact that the Kepler architecture of Tegra K1 had all the necessary components built-in for the PC. The migration was pretty natural at that point.

Note: you may need a fast Internet connection to use this feature.

Playing PC games (still uniquely great)

NVIDIA has made quite a bit of progress in PC Streaming since the original SHIELD console came out.

First, the overall process of launching games remotely has been refined. Most of the games in the SHIELD certified list should run without any hiccup, and the experience is very pleasant. When you bump into an issue, you can always control the mouse cursor and the keyboard to close a dialog or something.

Secondly, the latency and streaming performance have been improved. The original one was already very impressive, but it is hardly possible to perceive any latency with SHIELD Tablet: this is even counter-intuitive because somewhere brain expects to see latency, but my eyes don’t — the bottom line is that you should never think of it, as long as your network is good enough, so check the list of routers that NVIDIA recommends.

If you have a lot of network traffic, you may want to look at QoS (quality of service) settings, but I don’t think that many people actually do that.

Beyond streaming games from your own PC, it is possible to stream games from the NVIDIA Grid Cloud Gaming as well. This is still in beta, and you can sign up. Obviously, the network conditions are less predictable, but it works very well in general.

Entertainment (excellent)

As you can guess, such a powerful tablet can churn through multimedia files without any particular effort. It can play 4K movie files as well, if you can find such content. Many vendors like Netflix have announced 4K content, but right now, it is challenging to find something interesting other than demos etc.

That said, you could conceptually watch your 4K movies shot with something like the Galaxy S5 (read our GS5 review), which is admirably good at 4K movie recording.

The speaker setup is very well suited for multimedia usage, whether it is sharing music, watching movies or playing games, it’s clear that the SHIELD Tablet will provide a big sound. During my tests, I found the sound to be very good, with more “body” or “volume” than many system which are equipped with a mono speaker places on the side, or in the back.

Connected to a big TV

SHIELD Tablet can be connected to a big TV over HDMI. There’s no need to wonder if your TV is compatible with MHL or not (this is a recurring source of confusion for users). Once connected, the tablet will ask if you want to clone the display on both screens, or if you want to shut down the tablet’s display.

Shutting it off, is less distracting in a dark room, but keeping it on allows you to use the tactile interface whenever the apps isn’t 100% game controller friendly. And that’s really the only weak point of this setup. Some apps are just not designed very well for non-tactile interfaces. Netflix is one of them, but chances are that you will see more.

This is not a problem with controller-friendly games fortunately, so if you got the SHIELD Tablet for gaming purposes, it should mostly just work.

The TV multimedia experience is quite nice. Being able to access the Android Market to fetch movies etc is a nice option to have. If you happen to have a 4K TV, the tablet is capable of outputting 4K video content – that said, if you can find any that is worth watching. In time…

Depending on the apps, the big TV connection can be a great experience, which makes me ask NVIDIA to build a SHIELD “box”. It’s hard to believe that they won’t at some point.

Camera (not impressed at all)

The SHIELD tablet camera offers mixed results. In terms of user-experience, it is great and really fast — as fast as the HTC One M8, which is my reference in the smartphone world. This is saying a lot for a $299 tablet.

Unfortunately, the photo quality isn’t exploiting all the goodness that Tegra K1 could have brought to the table. You can browse the photos, but in simple terms, the pricing of the table prevents NVIDIA form sourcing a better camera module, and no matter how much “computational photography” you throw at it, the source image is not that great.

It is true that tablet never had it as good as smartphones, but it is evident that a more expensive tablet like the Samsung Galaxy S 8.4 will take better pictures. In the end, this is one of these things where you get what you pay for.

And it’s too bad because the autofocus is very fast, and the overall handling of brightness, color-balance and always-on HDR is quite nice. I can’t wait to see a high-end device which will fully utilize the image processing pipeline of K1 — but SHIELD tablet is not it.

Stylus (Fast, cost-effective)
shield-tablet-review-16Like it was the case with the Tegra Note 7, this tablet features an integrated Stylus which runs on an updated version of Direct Stylus, NVIDIA’s pen interface to the tablet. The stylus is not pressure-sensitive, but NVIDIA emulates the same kind of behavior by using a deformable tip, and by analyzing the deformation in real-time to figure out what pressure is applied.

The result is not as accurate as a pressure-sensitive pen, but it’s a very cost-effective way to allow users to have this type of effect. I honestly don’t think that it would replace a Wacom tablet anytime soon, but for the price, I’d say that it’s a really good idea.

The pen is relatively thin and isn’t as comfortable to hold as a real pen. This is necessary to allow it to be stored in the tablet itself. Of course, you could use any other e-pen since there is no electronics involved in the stylus itself.

Battery life (very good)

With 10 hours of video playback (1080p local MP4 file, 150 nit brightness, speaker OFF, WiFi ON), the SHIELD tablet performs very decently. When it comes to gaming, a game like Riptide GP would run for about 4 hours continuously – at 60FPS. That’s about 864,000 frames of 3D imagery, physics, AI etc… on a single charge.

I found the temperature to be surprisingly low after 60mn of gaming, so I took the temperature which was at 34 degrees Celcius (93.2F) while the room temperature was at 27.5C (81.5F). This may vary depending on which part of the chip (aka SoC) is being used most, but this gives you a good picture and shows that long-term gaming and long-term performance has been built into the thermal design. This is not always true for ultra-thin tablets.

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Controller: If you are curious, the controller is said to last for 40 hours of continuous gaming. If you want to stream audio, this will go down a little, but the bottom-line is that you should be done playing before it runs out of battery. In a pinch, you can start playing with a USB 2.0 wire, and one hour of charge will yield another 8 hours of gaming.

Value for the price (excellent)

The SHIELD specification allows it to capture a lot of points when it comes to features and speed… for the price. Using Tegra K1 as the heart of this tablet is a little bit like putting a Ferrari engine into a Toyota Camry. It will blow your mind in sheer speed, but at the same time, the industrial design is not the absolute best you can get out there.

Still, if you like reaching 60Mph in less than 3 seconds and not pay the full price for a Ferrari, that’s OK.

LTE Version (+16GB extra storage)
The LTE version of this tablet is interesting because for $50 more you get broadband of course, but also an extra 16 GB (32 GB total) of internal storage space. With the extra microSD, the total capacity can climb up to 144GB of storage. Try to do that with an iPad and you’ll see what the bill looks like.

Do you need more than 16 GB? It depends. My rule of thumb is that if you want to load up several HD movies (5GB each), then yes, you should definitely get more storage. In my experience, 32GB works, and I’ve never used more than 64GB, so buying a microSD may be the cheaper way to do it. If you often check email etc with your tablet, a broadband access is much better than creating a hotspot with a smartphone.

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The continued strategic value of SHIELD

shield-tablet-review-28Although NVIDIA considers every product to be a real business with profit goals, SHIELD is first and foremost a strategic endeavor. Despite its fame in the mobile industry, NVIDIA remains a relative newcomer that is fighting much established competitors, like Qualcomm, for a market worth Billions upon Billions of dollars.

“Gaming” is without a doubt NVIDIA’s greatest advantage since it has so much experience with the matter on PC and consoles. Over the years, it has built relationship with most developers, and NVIDIA wants SHIELD to be the de-facto game development target platform for PC/Console OpenGL ports to Android. With a leading-edge performance in both performance and features – all the ingredients are there. It will take a long time before OpenGL ES catches up its PC counterpart, which SHIELD can run today.

From a developer’s perspective, this is not a hard choice. Of course, they want their games to run everywhere, but the common wisdom is: “aim high, and the hardware will eventually catch up”. That is particularly true for top developers who can afford to create advanced technology then wait for the mid-range market to catch up.

By enticing developers to use its platform as a primary target, NVIDIA would save itself a lot of trouble down the road because things would inherently run better on their platform. Without hard data, it’s hard to tell if this is really a success, but the potential is here.

Conclusion (excellent)

The NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet is an extreme Android tablet and it is arguably a great PC gaming companion as well. With unique features like real-time game recording and OpenGL 4.x compatibility, this Android tablet aims at closing the gap with PC Gaming.

Since gaming is the single most resource-intensive thing that consumers tend to do with computers, SHIELD is obviously a great multimedia device, and that’s why I didn’t spend much time elaborating on that."SHIELD TABLET IS AN EXTREME ANDROID TABLET"

If you don’t play high-end games, it is possible to find tablets that may be thinner and/or lighter. If your budget can stretch, you will get a better display or industrial design. Your luck may vary, but the Android tablet market is so segmented that there are definitely tablets for very specific user profile.

However, it is undeniable that the SHIELD Tablet brings an amazing computing value for the price. The data says as much, and a real-world usage confirms it. To play (real) games on a tablet, I give it a 9 out of 10.

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