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Nvidia Shield Tablet review - Hands on with Tegra K1

Seth Barton
29 Jul 2014
Nvidia Shield Tablet skyrim
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We play with the ultimate gaming tablet from Nvidia

The new Nvidia Tegra K1 mobile chipset impressed us from when we first saw it back at CES in January. It uses the same Kepler graphics architecture as Nvidia's high-end graphics cards and looks to be much faster than any competing hardware. It's taken a few months, but at last Nvidia has integrated the hardware into a product, namely its own-brand Nvidia Shield Tablet.

The Nvidia Shield Tablet follows on from the Nvidia Shield handheld gaming device, combining high-end Android gaming with the ability to stream your PC games directly to the device. The original handheld-plus-screen Shield garnered much attention when launched, but we don't know anyone who actually bought one of these unusual hybrids.

The Shield Tablet looks to be a better bet though, as it combines a traditional, general purpose tablet with a rather-clever wireless controller, to create something that's better for gaming and better when you're not gaming. We got to have a play with it and see all its functions this week in our offices.

TABLET

The tablet itself is very smart-looking indeed. The bright and vibrant 8in screen has a 1,920x1,200 resolution, which is a good match for PC gaming as we'll discuss later. There are front-facing stereo speakers down either side, which sounded nice and loud, plus a soft-touch rear panel. It has a stylus for precise inputs and a mini HDMI 1.4a output for hooking up to a TV. The 16GB Wi-Fi model will cost £239, while a 32GB LTE version will set you back £299. Both have a micro SD card slot so you can expand your storage if required.

The exterior design isn't very radical then, but it's a really nice 8in tablet and you certainly won't feel you're compromising for the money, especially as inside things look to get a little special. Now, we haven't had a chance to run our own benchmarks yet but Nivida is reporting some impressive figures, with the K1's chipset apparently doubling the iPad Air's score in 3DMark.

With four A15 cores running at 2.2GHz it shouldn't, and doesn't feel like, a slouch in other areas. Nvidi are claiming SunSpider scores as low as 458ms. Plus a fifth low-power core and a 20Wh battery should keep it running for many hours. This is the 32-bit version of the K1, rather than its 64-bit sibling, so it won't be able to make full use of Android L's 64-bit compatibility, but that's not really a big deal today.

The tablet comes with charming fantasy platformer Twine 2, this is exclusive to, and has been tweaked especially for, Nvidia K1. It looked to us essentially identical to the game running on a PC or the PS4, with the same beautiful lighting effects and weighty physics simulation. It's impressive to see the game in its full glory on a handheld chipset.

PC GAME STREAMING

Unfortunately there continues to be somewhat of a lack of high-end games on Android, titles that will truly push the K1 chipset to its limits. Thankfully though Android gaming is only half the Shield Tablet's appeal, as you can also play your PC games on it, streamed from an appropriately-equipped desktop or laptop.

To do this you'll have to own a PC with a relatively recent Nvidia graphics card, the minimum specification being a 2013 Nvidia GTX 650 which costs around £80 today, although we'd expect most people interested in the tablet to have far, far more powerful kit than that. The reason for that being the baseline is the card support hardware H.264 encoding, so you get a smooth video stream directly to your tablet.

Nvidia has designed some pretty smart software for both devices in the equation. The graphics driver on the PC has a separate setting for streaming, so it switches automatically to the native resolution of the tablet and adjusts graphical effects to make the most of the extra headroom that the relatively low resolution allows – most serious PC gamers use 2,560x1,600 monitors.

The tablet meanwhile has a clever launcher, which pulls in the 150 or so supported games, including all the big hits of the last few years, whether they be from Steam, uPlay, Origin or other providers. You can launch a game with a simple tap of an icon.

Once running the results are impressive with all the graphical fidelity of a PC clear to see on the small screen, though of course you can hook up the tablet to a TV if you want a bigger gaming experience. Typically on a home network it will stream video at 15-20Mbit/s which looks to remove any obvious compression issues. You can however set this to the level you want, presuming of course you have the Wi-Fi or 4G bandwidth to deal with it.

At present no one can use the PC for other tasks while it's streaming to an Nvidia Shield device, but the company is looking into making this possible.

CONTROLLER

To play those PC games you're going to need a controller and so Nvidia has made its own especially for the task. Now it costs £50, which is pretty steep, so you can use a wired Xbox 360 controller or even a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse if you prefer (or you really want to play a game that doesn't support controller input, such as WoW), but the controller has enough great features to make it a must-have.

The controller is pretty chunky and pretty weighty too, though not in a bad way. It's basically a hybrid of the Xbox and PlayStation designs, feeling more like an Xbox pad in terms of shape and buttons, but with the twin sticks together as on the PlayStation designs. It works rather well and is certainly a big step up from all the other Android controller, though the bumper buttons could use more a bit more feedback.

In addition to the usual features, the controller has a headphone output for game audio and a volume control rocker at the bottom of the pad. This is just above a small touchpad, so you can take control over the PCs cursor if required. A built-in microphone lets you chat with friends, or give Android voice commands.

Nvidia is using Wi-Fi Direct to connect the controller to the tablet, claiming that this has better response times than other methods. We're not sure about that, our PS4 controller is Bluetooth and feels very snappy, but we have no complaints here with responsiveness. Going back to the PlayStation comparison we'd say there was noticeably less lag that we see using Remote Play on a PS Vita connected to a PS4. You can attach a USB Ethernet adaptor to further improve response, but no hardware is officially supported as of launch.

PRICE

Based on our demo the Nvidia Shield Tablet is a great piece of kit. If you're a PC gamer with an Nvidia card, or are thinking of buying a new card, and want to play your games away from your desktop system then the Shield Tablet and its controller look to be a good buy, even at a fairly hefty £290. It's a shame that you can't use other wireless controllers though, and we'd like to see formalised wired Ethernet support too.

For those who aren't so dedicated about their gaming, the sound design and K1 chipset make the 8in tablet an interesting proposition, but the price is simply a little too high, and we'd advise waiting for other K1-powered devices to arrive.

The Nvidia Shield Tablet will be on sale around the 14th of August and we'll have a full review for you hopefully before the official launch.

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