Hands-on with Nvidia's Shield tablet: A slick experience, on the small and big screen

nvidia shield tablet shield controller trine2
Image: Nvidia

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Notebooks optimized for hardcore gaming have competed with desktop PCs for years. Now Nvidia promises to takes gaming to the next logical step: the tablet.

Nvidia announced its 8-inch, Android-based Shield tablet Tuesday, with a price tag starting at $299. The Shield will ship July 29 in the United States and Canada, with availability in Europe and Asia planned for later this year.

An “optional” $59 wireless controller is really a necessity if you’re using the tablet for gaming. Most buyers will want the $39 cover that also serves as a kickstand, too. (Nvidia's existing handheld gaming device, the $300 Shield has been renamed the Shield Portable.)

Nvidia isn’t the first company to offer a gaming tablet. Last year’s Razer Edge Pro was essentially a Surface Pro with joysticks attached. What sets Nvidia's effort apart is its potential for both entertainment and productivity. You can use the tablet to play both conventional Android games and PC games streamed from the cloud or from a PC on the same network.

Support for streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu lets you stream video to the Shield's display, or to a bigger screen plugged into its HDMI port. An included passive stylus and handwriting and voice recognition cover the productivity angle. There’s really an enormous amount of technology in this little device.

"We really think this is a perfect device for gamers," said Matt Wuebbling, the general manager for the Shield tablet. "A really high cross-section of people have tablets and want a tablet for gaming." 

Nvidia Shield tablet Mark Hachman

The Shield Hub serves as the focal point for the Shield tablet experience.

A showcase for Nvidia hardware

Not surprisingly, Nvidia built the Shield tablet as a showcase for its quad-core, 2.2GHz Tegra K1 mobile processor, which pairs four ARM A15 CPU cores with 192 Kepler-class GPU cores. Nvidia claims the K1 is more powerful than the CPU inside Microsoft’s Xbox 360. Nvidia demonstrated the Tegra K1 running Unreal Engine 4 at CES last January, and Wuebbling demoed the same on the Shield tablet for us last week.

The Shield's 8-inch IPS display delivers native resolution of 1900x1200 pixels. It scales its video output to 1080p when output through a mini-HDMI 1.4b port to an HDTV (eliminating the black borders that would result otherwise), turning the tablet into something of a gaming console. It will also support a 4K display, though at a maximum refresh rate of only 30Hz (due the limited bandwidth available with HDMI 1.4b).  Wuebbling said the tablet is one of the few mobile devices to qualify for streaming Netflix HD.

The Shield will be available in two configurations: There's a $299 base model with 2x2 MIMO 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and 16GB of built-in flash storage; or a $399 model with Wi-Fi, 32GB of storage, and LTE connectivity on either the AT&T or T-Mobile network. The LTE model will be available about six weeks after the Wi-Fi model. Both have 5-megapixel cameras front and back, and both are expandable via microSD, accepting up to 128GB cards.

Nvidia Shield tablet Mark Hachman

The Shield tablet controller looks quite a bit like something that would ship with an Xbox.

Nvidia claims that the Shield tablet will yield about 10 hours of video playback or between 5 and 6 hours of gameplay, depending on whether games are played directly on the tablet itself. (Streamed games consume about the same amount of power as streamed video, Nvidia executives said.)

The controller, meanwhile, forgoes Bluetooth connectivity for Wi-Fi Direct, which exhibits three times less latency while offering eight times as much bandwidth—24Mbps—compared to Bluetooth, according to Nvidia. Up to four Shield controllers can be paired to one tablet for multiplayer gaming. Bluetooth is also supported for connecting keyboards and other peripherals. 

While the controller’s shape and appearance doesn’t break from conventional layouts—there’s a pair of thumbsticks, a D-pad, and four input buttons—a cluster of buttons in the center adds more functionality. From there, you can launch the Shield Hub, Nvidia’s online store; begin streaming games from a compatible PC using Nvidia’s GameStream technology; or stream a small collection of top-tier games from the cloud, OnLive-style, via the Nvidia Grid beta, which is currently available only to San Francisco Bay Area residents. If you’re the type of person who likes to game in front of a virtual crowd, there’s Nvidia's ShadowPlay technology, which can record gameplay video and stream it toTwitch.tv in real time.

Nvidia Shield tablet Mark Hachman

You can even adjust the direction of the light source in the Nvidia “Dabbler” painting app.

A microphone built into the controller lets you trigger Android voice commands, including launching apps or quizzing Google. Wait, there’s more! Nvidia's passive DirectStylus slips conveniently inside the tablet There’s even a quite amazing painting app,  “Dabbler,” which is sort of an improved version of Microsoft’s Fresh Paint. It can model the pull of gravity on the virtual watercolors and oils you paint with, and it allows you to adjust the light source to create cool visual effects.

Everything you’d expect from a gaming tablet

Nvidia allowed us a few minutes to play around with the Shield, including streaming the racing game Grid 2 from a nearby networked PC and playing Trine 2, a popular 2D side-scroller from 2011 that will be bundled with the tablet.

Nvidia Shield Grid racing

This racing game, Grid 2, played smoothly while being streamed from a local PC.

Given that the demos were prepared by Nvidia, we went in expecting to leave with a positive impression. But we certainly couldn’t find any obvious flaws, including its performance. As Nvidia executives noted, racing games tend to be very unforgiving when it comes to latency. With the Shield tablet connected to an HDTV in console mode, I couldn’t detect any notable lag, and the graphics were clear, sharp, and fluid.

Nvidia Shield tablet Mark Hachman

The aerial MMO War Thunder can be played directly from the Shield tablet, allowing pilots to fight players on a PC, Mac, or Linux computer.

The same could be said for Trine 2. To be honest, I’m not clear how graphics-intensive the game is. I’ve played Trine, its predecessor, on a low-end home PC with nary a slowdown. But I also spent a few minutes using the tablet to play Portal, one of two games Valve Software recently ported to Android. Portal ran smoothly; then again, it is a seven-year-old game. 

Bottom line: The Shield tablet should pique your interest. At its core, it appears to be a solid tablet that can do dual duty for work and play. The optional cover will prop it up for desktop use with its Wi-Fi Direct controller for fun, or with a Bluetooth keyboard for productivity. Or you can connect it to a monitor or HDTV for a big-screen experience. 

We'll have an in-depth review as soon as Nvidia can get a unit in our hands. Our first impression: The Shield tablet has the potential to supplant the Google Nexus 7 as the tablet Android aficionados prefer.

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