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Review: Nvidia Shield Tablet

by Tarinder Sandhu on 29 July 2014, 14:00

Tags: NVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA)

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Gaming ambitions

Android

Shield Tablet ships with Android 4.4 and, going by recent experiences with the first-generation Shield, will receive regular over-the-air updates. Forgetting the gaming nature for a moment, it feels like any other modern tablet when whizzing around the Internet or using familiar apps. The powerful SoC makes short work of regular tablet tasks, but this insight can be intimated from the specifications alone.

What's far more interesting is how it performs when in a gaming state, and it accomplishes this in one of two ways. Gaming centres around the hub you see on the first page. Supported Android games are plentiful - over 400 at the last count - but the innate problem is that very few are tuned for the graphics horsepower in the Shield Tablet. Angry Birds or Candy Crush aren't going to look any better on Shield than on a £70 tablet, frankly. Nvidia will likely say Tegra K1's power is best visualised by seeing the Epic Unreal 4 engine demo running in real-time, which it does rather nicely, but there are few compelling reasons to single-out the Shield Tablet from an Android point of view.

Nvidia foresees this chicken-and-egg problem by bundling in a K1-optimised version of Trine 2 (it looks very lush) as well as exclusives for Half-Life 2 and Portal already available for the original Shield. Will Android developers code specifically for the Shield Tablet, to tease out the last bit of performance, or will they wait until rival hardware has caught up? We'd wager on the latter, so while Android games can look very, very good on the Shield, it is, for now, not the key selling point. Compare this with the admittedly-fixed ecosystem on Apple, where games tend to look and play better even though hardware may not be as potent.

Gamestream

To its credit, Nvidia has stuck with the first-generation Shield and improved it, quite significantly, with a number of over-the-air updates. The latest iteration of Gamestream technology, which enables WiFi-based streaming of PC games from a GeForce GTX-powered PC, now supports over 120 titles at 1080p60, up from 24 and 720p30 at launch. The same advancements are already rolled into Shield Tablet, working in exactly the same way it does on the handheld gaming device.

The fact that it can Gamestream titles is, perhaps, the Shield Tablet's biggest draw; something the competition cannot do. Sure, the Tegra K1 SoC is very impressive from a GPU standpoint yet it is already available on other tablets and will continue to proliferate as design wins are secured. Gamestream, on the other hand, is to remain a Shield-exclusive technology, thus helping convince PC GeForce GTX gamers to go for this tablet above all others.

Using the Shield Tablet as a conduit for playing the latest PC games on a 50in TV via what is known as console mode is a definite plus, potentially mitigating the need for a dedicated console in the living room. This streaming, much like the device itself, is mature and works well enough for it to be almost seamless. More nascent is Gamestream support from the cloud - driven by Nvidia Grid technology - where game processing takes place remotely and is beamed via WiFi or LTE to your device. Playing Titanfall, at high-quality settings, on the train has a certain geeky appeal.

For both Android and PC games (and the desktop too) Nvidia supports recording, uploading and live streaming to Twitch, using the technology present in the GPU portion of the SoC architecture, making it the world's first gamecasting tablet, if that's your thing.

What does the Shield Tablet need to do to win gamers over?

GPU heavyweight Nvidia is using key homegrown technologies to position the Shield Tablet as the go-to mobile device for your gaming needs. Able to play the latest Android games and stream PC titles from your desktop computer or laptop, our first impressions remain the same after a few days of reflection, that is, we see it more as a desktop gamers' companion device than anything else. There are cheaper tablets that provide the same mobile Android experience; there are a raft of other tablets that play the vast majority of present Android games just as well, but there are none that can stream games from your PC to a big screen.

Shield Tablet, we feel, will really find its stride as Android develops into a better gaming platform and developers begin optimising for best-in-class mobile graphics. The next generation of Android, codenamed L, is to ship with a number of Android Extension Packs (AEPs) whose job it is to help close the gap in the way games are coded on the mobile and desktop platforms. We believe the Shield Tablet is going to be the first of many Nvidia gaming-centric offerings focussing on the burgeoning, lucrative mobile gaming market.

Nvidia's combination of hardware and software means it has a tablet like no other. Primed for the enthusiast who already owns a GeForce GTX PC, enabling them to stream content to their device and to a TV, the next iteration has the potential to be even better. Conjecturing somewhat, Project Denver 64-bit CPU, Maxwell graphics (just look at what they did for the desktop in terms of efficiency) and G-Sync compatibility for silky-smooth gaming at 30-60fps opens up the possibility of proper gaming on a tablet... and it is sensible to assume that Android will be better tuned for gaming in a year's time.

The frenetic pace of tablet innovation is underscored by how quickly the GPU has developed in the last five years. It's sobering to think that the Unreal Engine 4 Reflections demo runs on Android with a more than reasonable approximation of a Windows machine: this fanless tablet has more theoretical horsepower than a PlayStation 3.

For now, though, Shield Tablet marries Nvidia gaming know-how to arguably the most powerful mobile GPU and a proven CPU. That's a heady trio for the £239 asking price. Is it too much when the iPad mini 2 Retina is not much more and the Nexus 7 is widely available for substantially less? Only time will tell.

Our initial feeling is that Shield Tablet is one of those products you don't really need, but if you are in the market for a tablet and are a PC gamer to boot, then, on paper, it's an intriguing device that warrants a closer look.