It's no big secret that I'm a huge fan of NVIDIA's SHIELD. In fact, I believe I called it my favorite device from last year on a recent podcast, a claim that I readily stand behind. To me, it shows how versatile Android can be, despite the fact that the unit itself is essentially a one trick pony (it's damn good at that one trick, though).
Then there's NVIDIA's second foray into device design, the Tegra Note 7. Unlike SHIELD, TN7 is actually just a design that other companies can use as a base to release their own hardware from. The tablet's highlight feature is DirectStylus, which brings active-like features to a passive stylus. The device itself, however, falls a little bit short with the display – the 1280x800 panel is just lackluster in basically all aspects. The subpar 1GB of RAM is also disappointing, but the unit's performance doesn't really suffer from the lack of additional RAM.
SHIELD Tablet is a marriage of these two products, bringing the best of each to a perfectly-sized eight-inch form factor. It combines SHIELD's controller (though now it's a separate accessory instead of being attached) with TN7's DirectStylus, and brings all the software from both – including the DirectStylus launcher and navigation enhancements from TN7, as well as SHIELD's GamePad mapping software, GameStream, and Console Mode.
But it's not just about bringing these features together, it's about making them better. SHIELD Tablet features better hardware, including the crazy-powerful Tegra K1 processor and a full HD display, as well as improved software features across the board. Console Mode is 4K ready, the microSD card slot supports cards up to 128GB, and to keep things running smoothly for the foreseeable future, updates are coming directly from NVIDIA. The company has done an excellent job of keep SHIELD up to date, so I expect nothing less with SHIELD Tablet.
After spending a bit of time with SHIELD Tablet, one thing's for sure: this is so much more than a gamer's tablet – it's a power user's tablet.
- Display: 8-inch 1900x1200 LCD
- Processor: 2.2.GHz 32-bit NVIDIA Tegra K1
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16/32GB
- Cameras: 5MP rear shooter, 5MP front
- Ports: microUSB, microSD (support for up-to 128GB cards)
- Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n 2x2 MIMO, Bluetooth 4.0 LE; NA LTE Bands 2, 4, 5, 7, 17 (1900, 1700, 2600, 700)/HSPA+ Bands 1, 2, 4, 5 (2100, 1900, 1700, 850) (32GB model only); ROW LTE Bands 1, 3, 7, 20 (2100, 1800, 2600, 800)/ROW HSPA+ Bands 1, 2, 5, 8 (2100, 1900, 900, 850)
- Battery: 19.75 Watt hour
- OS: Android 4.4.2
- Dimensions/Weight: 8.8in. x 5in. x 0.36in./390g (13.7 oz.)
- Price: 16GB – $299; 32GB – $399 (also includes LTE)
- Blazing fast. Tegra K1 is an extremely powerful processor, and SHIELD Tablet takes full advantage of it. No lag. No slowdown. No stutter. Just pure speed, all the time.
- Fantastic form factor. I may be a little biased here, but eight inches is my favorite size for a tablet. It's small enough to take basically everywhere, but still plenty big enough for gaming and watching movies.
- DirectStylus and SHIELD Controller. It's like the perfect marriage of SHIELD Portable and Tegra Note 7. It's a beautiful, beautiful thing.
- Direct-from-NVIDIA OTAs. The company has done an excellent job of keeping SHIELD up to date, so I'm happy to see them handling OTAs on SHIELD Tablet as well.
- Limited storage. 16GB isn't enough for a gaming tablet, and those who opt for the 32GB model have to also pay for LTE connectivity in the hardware, making the price a bit higher than a 32GB Wi-Fi only model could've been. NVIDIA has done a good job of making apps2SD a thing on SHIELD devices, but that of course adds to the cost because an SD card is basically requisite. I would liked to have seen a 32GB base model and 64GB option.
- SHIELD Controller is sold separately. I would really like to see a bundle that puts the tablet and controller together with a slightly lower price.
- The power button and volume rocker are squishy. It's hard to tell when the button is pressed just based on feel, which can get pretty annoying.
Build Quality and Design
I think SHIELD Tablet is gorgeous. Its soft-touch flat black exterior and glossy black logo create a beautiful contrast not unlike that found on the 2013 Nexus 7, which is ultra-clean and classy looking in my opinion. It doesn't scream "I'm a gaming tablet!" to me – it's actually the opposite. It's sophisticated, and definitely not something I'd be ashamed of busting out at the coffee shop (or anywhere else).
The front of the device offers up the sound – two front-firing speakers flank either end of the tablet, much like HTC's One M7/M8. (Seeing a trend here? Looks like NVIDIA's taking notes from other devices, which is excellent.) There's also a 5MP front shooter that can be used when streaming gameplay to Twitch, but we'll get into that later.
The sides of the unit are pretty standard, save for a couple of small additions: each side has bass reflex port for enhanced audio, and the bottom of the unit (it's designed to be used in landscape mode) houses two small openings and magnets for NVIDIA's SHIELD Tablet Cover. There's also a stylus bay for, you know, the stylus.
While I wouldn't call SHIELD Tablet a tank (like its little brother), it's still built really well. It's fairly lightweight at just 390g (that's about 100 grams heavier than the 2013 Nexus 7, for comparison), but everything feels well put-together. There's no creaking anywhere on the unit, and everything is incredibly flush. The only complaint I have with ST's external hardware is with the power button and volume rocker: they're a little too squishy for my taste, and sometimes it's difficult to tell when they're actually pressed (by feel, of course – the on-screen action makes it clear when you've actually hit the button).
SHIELD Tablet's display is basically dead center in quality – it's not awful, but it's nothing to write home about, either. Colors are nice and vibrant, but whites are dingy and bordering gray/yellow, and blacks aren't super dark. It's actually somewhere between the 2013 Nexus 7's display and a Super AMOLED panel in terms of the white/black reproduction.
SHIELD Tablet, 2013 Nexus 7, Samsung Galaxy Tab S. Note the difference in whites on the display.
When it comes to sharpness, however, ST's 1920x1200 eight-inch panel is solid. At 283PPI it's not the sharpest thing you'll see on the market, but it's still great for reading, web browsing, social networking...all the stuff that people use tablets for. Even compared to the Tab S' 2560x1600 display, it's extremely difficult to pick out individual pixels (though the Tab S does show quite a bit more info on the screen, which is nice). And of course games look great on it, which could probably go without saying. But I said it anyway.
One shortcoming of the ST's display is brightness – even at max, it's just not as bright as other tablet displays I've seen. The ambient light sensor works well enough, but I still feel left wanting more fluctuation between dim and full brightness. I generally use my 2013 Nexus 7 at about 30% brightness during the day (automatic at night), and ST has to be set at around 70% to achieve the same level. At max, it's roughly half as bright at the 2013 Nexus 7. I don't find myself in a lot of situations where I need more than this, but if you plan on using your tablet outside very often you'll probably find it to be bothersome.
Bass reflex port
NVIDIA took a page from HTC's playbook and added a couple of front-facing stereo speakers on SHIELD Tablet (Tegra Note 7 actually did the same thing, but it's a lot more refined on SHIELD Tablet). This of course points the sound directly at your headface while playing games, watching movies, and listening to music, which is far superior to any other potential speaker placement. To give it that extra oomph, there are also two bass reflex ports – one per side in landscape mode – though I'm not entirely convinced they make a huge difference. As far as uses, they're great for gaming and watching movies...but I wouldn't use them for music. I mean, you could, but they're not really made for that and the experience isn't ideal.
For a pair of tablet speakers, they get plenty loud and work very well for their intended use. I appreciate the fact that NVIDIA pays a lot of attention to the audio on its systems, because that's absolutely clutch for a good gaming experience. Of course, you can always throw a set of earbuds in if you really want to get immersed in the game, but for times when that's not practical ST's speakers are great.
SHIELD Tablet's 5MP front-facing camera makes a lot of sense, because it's great for Twitch streaming and screencasting. Its 5MP rear shooter, on the other hand, is eh. It's not terrible, but it's lacking a flash so it's not great in low-light; well-lit/outdoor shots look pretty good. On a different note, this is one of the fastest cameras I've ever used on any Android device – even in low lighting, it focuses almost instantly and grabs the shot as soon as the button is pressed. I wish my phone took photos this quickly.
Anyway, here are some test shots. You be the judge.
This one is a killer for a lot of people. This base model ST only has 16GB of internal storage, and the bump up to 32GB is an extra $100 because it also adds LTE functionality. Since most modern high-quality games can easily be upwards of 1-2GB, that 16 goes away quickly – hell, I nearly filled my review unit within the first hour with about five games (Portal, Half Life 2, The Cave, Rochard, and Reaper). I believe it had just under 2GB remaining at that point.
Fortunately, NVIDIA brought the apps2SD feature found on SHIELD Portable over to SHIELD Tablet. This allows most apps – including all data – to be moved to an SD card. I promptly dropped a 32GB card in my ST review unit and moved a handful of games over to it, which opened up around 7GB or so.
While I would liked to have seen NVIDIA make 32GB the base storage with an optional 64GB LTE model, I'm actually OK with how this works. Transferring games to the SD card shows no real performance differences over having them stored locally, though you'll definitely want to get a good, speedy SD card, and not some knockoff garbage that's on sale for $0.04 a GB at your local mom and pop shop.
ST's controller is a lot like the one found on SHIELD Portable, though there are a few minor differences, like the addition of a small touchpad, and capacitive (instead of physical) navigation buttons. It's a solid piece of gaming equipment, and easily the best controller available for Android today.
The "downside" of that? It'll only work with SHIELD Portable and Tablet for now, as it works over Wi-FI Direct instead of Bluetooth. This, of course, raises the question why Wi-Fi Direct? A few reasons, actually:
- Lower latency. Wi-Fi Directly actually has half the latency of most Bluetooth controllers, resulting in a better experience.
- Multi-player. You can connect up to four SHIELD Controllers to ST while in console mode for multi-player fun.
- More data throughput. SHIELD Controller features a headphone jack, which allows audio to be transmitted from the tablet to the controller, thus eliminating the need to be tethered to the tablet itself. It also offers headset support for multi-player gaming and Twitch streaming.
As you can see, NVIDIA really thought about what they wanted from this external controller. The result is a fantastic experience.
Now that we've covered what's different about this controller, let's talk about the controller itself – build quality and feel, you know, the important stuff. To put it simply, I'd put SHIELD Controller up against official Playstation or Xbox controllers any day of the week – when NVIDIA guys say it's "console quality," they mean it. The build quality is excellent. All the buttons are extremely tactile and have a comfortable amount of travel. The shoulder buttons are nice and clicky, while the triggers are springy and responsive without feeling spongy.
The top portion of the controller is where you'll find all the navigation buttons – home, back, and pause, as well as the connect/pair button – all of which are capacitive. The D-Pad is off to the left, and the ABXY pack to the right. Both joysticks are found down below, a la Sony's DualShock. Just below that is the touchpad area, which is incredibly handy if you need a mouse while playing a game (over GameStream or in console mode, for example). The volume rocker is just below that. It's a useful layout, though there were times when I dropped my thumb off of the right joystick and hit the trackpad; fortunately, it's not incredibly sensitive, so it doesn't really get in the way.
Overall, I love SHIELD Controller. I can't imagine owning SHIELD Tablet without having it. And for those wondering, yes, it's worth the $60 asking price, and is substantially better than any Bluetooth controller I've used to date.
SHIELD Tablet Cover
This is another carryover from Tegra Note 7, and once again it's something that has also been improved. On TN7, the cover uses a spine that slides into a groove on the tablet – the design is OK and worked well enough, but it could've been simplified. And that's exactly what NVIDIA did. SHIELD Cover attaches to the tablet with a couple of magnets and notches on the bottom/side (depending on how you're holding it) of the tablet. It's easy to add/remove from the device, but also holds tightly once it's on.
When in stand mode – which is achieved by flipping the cover backwards and attaching it to the back using the built-in magnets – it's incredibly stable. Surprisingly so, in fact. You can tap-tap-taparoo all over the display without a care and it'll be fine. It's great.
One massive improvement over Tegra Note 7's cover design is how this one works when folded over the back magazine-style. On TN7 the cover just kind of flaps around, which is pretty annoying. SHIELD Tablet has magnets on the back corners, however, which allow the cover to be held securely in place regardless of where your hand is positioned. Oh, and if you need quick access to the rear camera, the first "crease" in the cover easily folds down to allow the camera to be exposed. It's very well designed.
I'm going to keep this section short and sweet, because there's not really a lot to talk about here, but still a couple of things I want to point out. Firstly, those who already have a Tegra Note device are probably wondering how ST's stylus compares (if at all). There are some differences here, mostly in the way the stylus fits in the bay, as well as how it feels.
For starters, the ST's stylus is lightly larger than TN7's, but only in diameter – it's still about the same length. It also has a smaller "lip," which prevents the stylii from being interchangeable. It does have the same chiseled tip, however.
One major thing I noticed with ST's stylus over TN7's is the fit inside the bay – it's much more snug. It's slightly more difficult to remove as a result (though it will likely get "broken in" over time), but I feel more confident that it won't accidentally come loose.
It's yet another small improvement made on SHIELD Tablet from previous devices.
I'm going to be completely honest here: I've only had SHIELD Tablet for about five days (two of which were the weekend and I was out about 85% of the time), so I don't feel like I've had enough time to accurately report battery life. Early use shows about 4-5 hours of screen-on time (depending on processor load, of course), but I will update this review when I've had more than a full week to gauge what I feel is real-world usage.
Update: OK, so I've been using SHIELD Tablet as my main tablet for about two weeks now. In short, the battery life is pretty fantastic. It enters deep sleep mode as it should, so it's incredibly efficient when not in use - idle time could go for several days, and if you're not a heavy tablet user, you may only need to hit the charger once a week or so.
If, like me, you use the tablet every day, then you'll probably need to charge it once every couple of days. It gets a solid five to six hours of screen-on time, assuming you're not constantly gaming (or running it in Console Mode without external power). In extreme scenarios, you're looking at quite a bit less - I easily killed 40% of the battery in one hour-long session of playing Trine 2 in Console Mode. For casual browsing and whatnot, you can count on around six hours of display time, which should translate to at least a day's worth of use for most users.
NVIDIA does a good job of keeping a fairly stock system and just adds some tweaks here and there to support the various hardware add-ons (like the stylus and controller), as well as a few processor/power tweaks. Most of these things are already available on other NVIDIA devices in one form or another, but we're going to take a look at them here for the sake of completeness.
DirectStylus and NVIDIA Dabbler
For those who may not be aware, DirectStylus is NVIDIA's technology that brings active-like features – such a pressure sensitivity – to a passive stylus. It was first introduced with Tegra Note 7, and I'm so glad it made its way into SHIELD Tablet as well.
Essentially, not much has changed with DirectStylus from the TN7 – the DS Launcher is still part of the system, as are the navigation bar tweaks (which I find to be incredibly useful). All the options for DS are still found neatly tucked away in Settings, and are basically identical to those found on TN7 (save for the option to disable the Quick Access settings in the navigation bar, which doesn't seem to be present on TN7).
One thing included on SHIELD Tablet that you won't find elsewhere, however, is a new drawing app called Dabbler. This app's use is two-fold: 1) for those who like to draw on a digital medium, and B) to show off the power of Tegra K1. Dabbler is pretty awesome in itself – it brings realistic water color and oil painting to the digital canvas. It's so realistic, in fact, that it uses the accelerometer to duplicate watercolor on an actual canvas – move the tablet in any direction and the paint will move with it. The colors will also blend with each other in a very natural way. While I'm no artist, I find it incredibly lifelike for both watercolor and oil painting.
Up until now, GameStream has been SHIELD Portable's flagship feature, as it was the only device available that allowed streaming of games from a desktop PC to a mobile console. Naturally, SHIELD Tablet also has this feature, and it works beautifully.
We've already covered GameStream pretty extensively in the past, so I'm going to keep this short and to the point. GameStream is a killer feature, and having it on SHIELD Tablet is freakin' awesome. It works pretty well most of the time, though I did experience a couple of random disconnects and SHIELD Hub couldn't find my gaming rig on one occasion. I've been having intermittent issues with my home network over the last week or so, however, so I'm going to say that's the culprit here, as I've never had issues with GameStream on SHIELD.
Another SHIELD-specific feature, Gamepad Mapper allows non-controller compatible (touch-only) games to be mapped to the controller for better gameplay. Like on its little brother, this works exceptionally well on SHIELD Tablet, and the addition of the touchpad on ST's controller further improves playing touch-only games with a controller.
GamePad Mapper is incredibly simple and intuitive: fire up the game you want, long-press the start button on the controller, and map the keys. Over time, GM has gotten much more efficient at being able to cover most types of games, so you should be able to find a way to get the majority of things done without needing to touch the display.
It also includes a built-in cloud sync, which will automatically download key mappings when they're detected. This means you get to spend more time playing and less time figuring out where to map the buttons for the best experience. These pre-made mappings can also be edited if you want to tweak the layout.
ShadowPlay and Native Screencasting
NVIDIA is all about gamers, and if there's one thing gamers love to do, it's show other users how well they play games. For this, NVIDIA created ShadowPlay, an application that allows PC gamers to record themselves playing games and/or stream to Twitch. For the first time ever, ShadowPlay is available on Android, and it's exclusive to SHIELD Tablet.
The inclusion here is absolutely brilliant, and launching it couldn't be easier. ShadowPlay is hidden away in the right panel under the "Share" option. It allows you to quickly and easily enable the feature, as well as toggle options for the stream or recording. For example, you can choose to stream to Twitch, auto-record a video, manually record a video, or take and share a screenshot. For each of these options, you can also enable/disable the microphone or front-facing camera overlay, as well as the chat for Twitch streaming.
You may be wondering how the chat and video overlay options work while playing a game. ShadowPlay's settings allow each "bubble" to be resized independently, and the opacity can be set for each, as well.
The downside, however, is that there's a very noticeable sync issue between the video and audio. The video looks good, but the audio seems to "chop," causing it to get ahead of the video:
I've been in contact with NVIDIA about this issue, and we should see a fix on the way soon.
Another feature also found on SHIELD Portable, Console Mode does exactly what the name suggests: turns ST into a TV-connected console. Once a miniHDMI cable is inserted into the tablet, it gives the option to either mirror the display or enter console mode, which disables the tablet's internal display and reformats the layout to better fit a TV. It can handle anything up to 4K, so don't worry about throwing it up on the big screen – it can handle it.
With SHIELD Portable, there are times when things get a little wonky in Console Mode, like when there's a touch element on the screen that the controller can't seem to find. This has been fixed with SHIELD Controller's touchpad, as it essentially allows all on-screen elements to be accessed at any point. Console Mode is basically perfect now, for everything from gaming to watching videos or movies. I just want a dock that offers the HDMI connection as well as power. Someone get on that, please.
We actually have a good write-up of SHIELD Tablet's launch titles – most of which aren't out yet – so I just want to talk about Trine 2 for a minute. This game ships with the tablet (a $14 value), and it's beautiful. There's so much going on here, it really shows what the Tegra K1 is capable of – I'm not sure that any other processor on the market right now can handle this. For reference, here's the Play Store video:
Now, for a bit of fun, I recorded a video of Trine 2 directly from SHIELD Tablet, so you can see exactly what it looks like on the device.
Please ignore the fact that I'm not actually playing the game and just look at how pretty it is.
As you can see, the video in the Play Store is spot on – what you see is what you get.
Two words: beast mode. SHIELD Tablet is an insanely powerful device with a blazing fast processor. In fact, I'm going to say it's the fastest Android device I've ever used. Nothing leaves you waiting on this tablet – from launching apps to playing games and everything in between is buttery smooth and fast as hell all the time. NVIDIA's Tegra K1 is amazing.
NVIDIA also packed some performance enhancements under SHIELD Tablet's hood, which tweaks the processor and apps accordingly. For example, the device ships in "optimized" mode, which automatically calibrates specific applications for the best performance – games and the like are allowed access to all four of the K1's cores, while less resource-hungry apps will only get access to one or two of them. You're free to tweak these settings as you see fit as well, though I think NVIDIA has done a pretty dang good job of optimizing everything out of the box.
There's also an option to automatically switch the device into a "battery saving" low-power state at a certain percentage. Additionally, all of these settings can be tweaked individually to create your own power setting.
We've gotten a few requests for benchmarks, so here are the results of some of the most popular ones.
Note: These were all done with the device in Maximum Performance mode.
Ice Storm Extreme, Ice Storm Unlimited
To me, SHIELD Tablet is the culmination of what NVIDIA has learned from its short time making Android devices. The company has clearly gained quite a bit of knowledge from SHIELD Portable and Tegra Note 7, and this is the result. This tablet takes all of the things that could've been improved on the aforementioned devices and makes them better.
Given how much I like SHIELD Portable and the idea of Tegra Note 7 (the execution could've been so much better), I had high hopes for this tablet. Generally, when I have high hopes for something, I'm nearly always let down. That's not the case with SHIELD Tablet – it's everything I hoped it would be. The display could be a little bit better and I would like to see more storage options, but overall I think this is extremely well executed.
This device says that NVIDIA is paying attention to what its customers are saying, and it knows what improvements need to be made. It's been a long while since I've personally seen something like this manifest – generally, companies only want to give consumers what the companies themselves want to build or offer. In my opinion, NVIDIA didn't skimp here. It took a hard look at its current market status and what SHIELD Portable/Tegra Note 7 owners were saying, and used that as ammunition to build a better device.
And a better device is exactly what it built. Better than its predecessors, and better than the competition.