2013's NVIDIA Shield was a handheld games console with a difference. It combined console-quality gaming controls with cutting-edge mobile hardware to create a system that was peerless in its class. Many critics at the time suggested that the hardware was little more than a way for NVIDIA to showcase its powerful Tegra 4 chipset, and some predicted that the venture would be little more than an ego-fuelled dead-end for the manufacturer.
The sequel system proves that isn't the case, but also indicates that NVIDIA is aware that the original concept was perhaps somewhat flawed; while the Shield was - and still is - an incredibly powerful device which puts many dedicated portable consoles to shame, for the average Android user it didn't quite hit the spot. The NVIDIA Shield Tablet, as the name suggests, adopts an entirely different form factor; one which should allow this product to achieve the kind of market penetration which so sadly eluded its forerunner.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Design & Display
The NVIDIA Shield Tablet really couldn't be more different than the device it supersedes; while the Shield boasted a clamshell design with a small screen and built-in physical gaming controls, the Shield Tablet is just a tablet. It's roughly the same size as the 2013 Nexus 7, but is thicker and heavier - a consequence of packing in NVIDIA’s blisteringly fast K1 chipset.
The front of the device is predictably dominated by the 16:10, 1920x1200 resolution IPS screen, which is surrounded by a fairly sizable bezel, while the back resembles the Nexus 5smartphone, with a soft-touch coating sitting atop a plastic body and the name "Shield" in the middle, etched in glossy material.
Along one side you'll find the power and volume controls, as well as the MicroSD card slot. There's also the dock for the NVIDIA’s Direct Stylus 2, which allows precise input on the tablet's capacitive touchscreen.
Like so many Android tablets, this isn't much of a looker; it's functional rather than alluring. And it certainly won't earn you the puzzled glances the original Shield got when used in public. The "smart" cover, an almost direct clone of the one Apple pioneered on the iPad, is an optional extra, and clips onto the side of the tablet via magnetic clasps. As you might assume, it switches off the screen when closed and brings it to life when opened, and folds on itself to create a stand, handy when you consider that you'll be using this device for a lot of hands-free gaming.
NVIDIA’s quad-core, 2.2GHz Tegra K1 chipset generates a considerable amount of heat when it's in full flow, and to compensate for this the Shield Tablet has two vents at either end which help to dissipate some of that warmth. They're still not quite enough to totally alleviate the issue, and prolonged usage will see the device become noticeably toasty.
If you're used to the 4:3 aspect ratio seen on Apple's tablets then you might struggle with the Shield Tablet; this is a display that has been designed purely with entertainment in mind, rather than everyday tasks like browsing the web or reading magazines. The widescreen ratio lends itself to movies and gaming – the latter being the Shield's primary focus – but can make other tasks a little more awkward. When you're hitting the web you'll need nimble fingers to pinch-zoom your way around when sites and content.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Controller
Although it's sold separately to the tablet itself, you don't get the full Shield experience without the Shield Wireless Controller. It looks and feels like a proper console joypad, offering the same comfort and precision as the Xbox One or PS4 controller, and is the central interface which the entire Shield experience is built around.
It carries over the button arrangement and general ergonomics of the controller on the Shield handheld, but adds in volume controls, a touchpad (think PS4), a microphone (for voice search, primarily) and a headphone jack.
The pad really is fantastic and offers the kind of build quality you'd normally associate with a major console manufacturer. The dual analogue sticks are responsive and well-placed, and the rolling D-pad is perfect for those times when you feel like exploring the past and want to load up one of the many Android-based retro gaming emulators.
To keep latency at a minimum NVIDIA has opted for WiFi Direct rather than the usual Bluetooth connection, and while you can use standard Bluetooth pads with the tablet, you'll be sorely tempted to buy another three Shield pads for the optimum experience. The Shield pad's brilliance leads to one very pressing issue: it's such an essential part of the package you have to question NVIDIA’s decision not to bundle it with the tablet from the start. Some games – Half Life 2 and Portal – won't actually play properly without the controller, either.
The controller is also restricted to the Shield range alone (it works on the original Shield handheld without issue) so you won't be able to use it as a Bluetooth pad with other devices. When you consider the high cost, however, (£49.99) that could put off many potential buyers.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Performance
NVIDIA’s Tegra K1 chipset is one of the most potent pieces of mobile hardware available right now, so it should come as no great shock to learn that the Shield Tablet is a formidable contender when it comes to pure power. Given the tablet's gaming focus it seems fitting to tackle that element first and foremost; the device comes with FrozenByte's excellent fantasy adventure title Trine 2 pre-installed, which offers almost identical performance to that of the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U versions. That in itself is an incredible achievement; the Shield Tablet essentially offers the same graphical power as modern home consoles (Nintendo's Wii U was only released in 2012).
Sadly, such experiences are few and far between. While NVIDIA has taken steps to push gaming content to the forefront and has secured exclusive versions of the aforementioned Half Life 2 and Portal, there's no escaping the fact that there are very few titles which can match this trio when it comes to overall quality.
Most of the games on Google Play are aimed at lower-level Android devices, and don't make use of the Shield Tablet's incredible internal specifications. That will change over time of course, but for the time being, don't expect to play too many games that approach the same standard as Trine 2.
Benchmark tests go some way to illustrating the Shield Tablet's pure processing grunt. Antutu returns a score of 41596, eclipsing the HTC M8 (35244), Galaxy S5 (35046) and Sony Xperia Z1 (33586). 3DMark – designed to test the graphical performance of hardware – returns a score of just over 30,000, which is around twice what the Tegra 4-powered Shield handheld could manage last year. GFXBench's T-Rex test provides yet more evidence over this setup’s power with a rate of 64.4 FPS, while the Shield handheld could only muster 24.4 FPS.
The Tegra K1 clearly an insanely powerful piece of kit and one which truly pushes the boundaries of mobile performance.
Like the Shield handheld before it, the Shield Tablet is also capable of streaming games from your PC, as long as you possess one of NVIDIA’s compatible graphics cards. The experience has been slowly refined since last year, and is so smooth now that it's almost impossible to tell that you're not actually running the game directly from the computer. The controller really comes into its own during these sessions.
NVIDA Shield Tablet Review: Software & User Experience
As was the case with the Shield handheld, NVIDIA has wisely chosen not to inflict a bloated custom UI on its customers. The Shield Tablet comes with a largely stock version of Android 4.4.2, with just a smattering of dedicated Shield applications for handling stuff like connecting the wireless controller or switching to "console" mode when linking the device to a television via HDMI. There are also some apps that make use of the NVIDIA Direct Stylus 2, such as NVIDIA Dabble, a Photoshop-style art application.
The Shield Hub application is essentially a curated selection of games that make best use of the Shield hardware and controller, but there's no dedicated Shield store as such; once you've selected a game you are simply pushed towards the Google Play Store to make the final purchase. This is actually a clever move by NVIDIA, as it removes the need to sign into multiple app stores in order to buy content – take note Sony and Samsung!
Because it is using stock Android, you can expect prompt and timely software updates when new versions of Android are released; that was certainly the case with the Shield handheld, and there's no reason to suspect it will be any different with the Shield Tablet.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Battery & Memory
The cutting-edge power contained within the Tegra K1 chipset comes at a cost, however: it has a ravenous appetite for juice, and will drain the Shield Tablet's battery with alarming speed if you allow it to. Playing Trine 2 really pushes the hardware to its limits and will see the battery entirely consumed in less than 3 hours. That's an extreme case, though, and NVIDIA has included power management options to help you massage a little more stamina from the Shield Tablet, and general use won't tax the battery so much.
16GB is included on the WiFi-only model we reviewed (32GB on the more expensive LTE-enabled edition), with 11.6GB being available to the end user. Several of the bundled apps, including Trine 2, which clocks in at 1.6GB, cannot be uninstalled, which could create headaches a few months down the line when space becomes a premium.
There's a MicroSD card slot that can be used to augment your storage options, but recent changes made in Android now limit the usefulness of such additional space. Apps can only access folders they themselves have created, which potentially renders such apps redundant. You'll also find that not all applications can be moved to the SD card for storage, and that could present problems when you're downloading some of the larger Android games.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Camera
Cameras on tablets have long been considered something of an afterthought, and the one on the Shield Tablet is no exception. It's a 5MP snapper with no LED flash, and the shots it takes are predictably lackluster. It's good for taking casual images for use with the likes of Twitter and Instagram, but you won't want to rely on it as your primary photographic device.
There's also a front-face camera which is far more useful, as it allows you to use applications like Skype, Google Hangouts and Snapchat.
NVIDIA Shield Tablet Review: Conclusion
Hardened gamers may be disappointed that NVIDIA has taken a step back from the handheld console concept with this tablet device, and not bundling the wireless controller as standard is a mistake. However, it's impossible to deny the incredible power contained within the Shield Tablet; it effortlessly puts other Android slates in the shade when it comes to processing muscle. Trine 2 - which comes pre-installed - is the perfect showcase of its abilities, and boasts a level of performance which is equal to the dedicated home console ports.
However, like the Shield handheld before it, the Shield Tablet is likely to suffer from a lack of quality games outside of those streamed from your PC. NVIDIA has worked hard to secure decent software for its Shield range, and the gamepad mapper app, which automatically adds support for physical controls to games which don't currently have them, helps things a little, but the vast majority of Android games are based around touch control and don't push the Tegra K1 anywhere near enough.
That could change as time goes on; NVIDIA is clearly committed to its Shield brand, and part of that commitment will involve tempting developers to create exclusive software. But it would be foolish to expect the same level of unique support as you'd find on a system like the Nintendo 3DS or Xbox 360. And that's where the Shield Tablet's revised form factor will come as a blessing rather than a curse; while the Shield handheld could only really be used as a games console, at least this sequel has a life as an incredibly adept slate ahead of it, even if you don't even load up a single game.