SHIELD Tablet with new Features

NVIDIA is bringing the Tegra K1 SoC to the US market with the SHIELD Tablet. Combined with a new controller, is this the best gaming tablet?

It's odd how regular these events seem to come. Almost exactly one year ago today, NVIDIA launched the SHIELD gaming device, which is a portable Android tablet attached to a controller, all powered by the Tegra 4 SoC. It was a completely unique device that combined a 5-in touchscreen with a console-grade controller to build the best Android gaming machine you could buy. NVIDIA did its best to promote Android gaming as a secondary market to consoles and PCs, and the frequent software updates kept the SHIELD nearly-up-to-date with the latest Android software releases. 

As we approach the one year anniversary of SHIELD, NVIDIA is preparing to release another product to add to the SHIELD family of products: the SHIELD Tablet. Chances are, you could guess what this device is already. It is a tablet powered by Tegra K1 and updated to support all SHIELD software. Of course, there are some new twists as well.

The NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet is being targeted, as the slide above states, at being "the ultimate tablet for gamers." This is a fairly important point to keep in mind as you we walk through the details of the SHIELD tablet, and its accessories, as there are certain areas where NVIDIA's latest product won't quite appeal to you for general purpose tablet users. 

Most obviously, this new SHIELD device is a tablet (and only a tablet). There is no permanently attached controller. Instead, the SHIELD controller will be an add-on accessory for buyers. NVIDIA has put a lot of processing power into the tablet as well as incredibly interesting new software capabilities to enable 10-ft use cases and even mobile Twitch streaming.

NVIDIA's strategy for this SHIELD Tablet release is based around three pillars. First, this will be the flagship product to utilize the Tegra K1 SoC, the first mobile part from NVIDIA to integrate a full Kepler GPU architecture SMX. Even though I wrote a review of the Xiaomi Mi Pad 7.9 that uses the Tegra K1 earlier this week, the SHIELD Tablet will be the first product directly available in the US and most of the world.

The second pillar falls on the rest of the tablet. Yes, you still have stylus support (that is updated) and, yes, you can still get a cover that acts as a stand (though you have to buy it separately). The screen resolution is 1920×1200 to enable full HD and you can output to your TV at full 1080p as well. An optional controller accessory (though I think this needs to be part of the total experience) really tells you that the SHIELD Tablet is aimed at gaming and not more generic consumers.

Finally, the last pillar is on software and will surely be the most complicated portion, as it is the furthest from NVIDIA's control. At launch on July 29th, NVIDIA will have 11 Tegra K1 ready games available for demo or for purchase. These are games that will ONLY run on Tegra K1 and utilize the full OpenGL API, rather than the more limited OpenGL ES that all other Android devices today utilize. When I first wrote about the Tegra K1 SoC after CES 2014, part of the focus was on NVIDIA's goal to bring OpenGL to the mobile platform.

That's a big task for NVIDIA, who admittedly had issues getting the adoption rates it wants for its Tegra product line.

The SHIELD Tablet has some impressive specifications for a tablet. Starting with the Tegra K1 SoC, it includes a full 192 CUDA core Kepler SMX unit. This is basically, with only minor modifications, the same GPU architecture found in the GTX 780 and similar desktop GeForce cards. The frequency hits as high as 2.2 GHz, which is faster than the 1.9 GHz of the Tegra 4. Both a 16GB Wi-Fi (802.11n 2×2 MIMO in both 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz) and a 32GB LTE version will be available (pricing and availability on the next page). If you are looking for a 32GB Wi-Fi only model, you aren't going to find it. If you need more storage, there is a MicroSD card slot that supports up to 128 GB capacities.

The display is a very sharp 8-in 1920×1200 IPS screen with multi-touch capability (of course) and the stylus technology is upgraded to DirectStylus 2 that claims improved sensitivity. The front facing speakers found on the Tegra Note 7 continue to exist here, which is a great move in my opinion; rear facing speakers just don't make sense anymore. The cameras (both front and rear) are 5MP.

LTE and GSM connectivity will work on AT&T and T-Mobile in the US which is a big let  down for me as a long time Verizon user. A mini HDMI port is used to connect the tablet to your TV for console mode and the micro-USB port is 2.0 only and is used to charge the tablet and attach wired devices. 

Battery life was a touchy subject for NVIDIA during my briefing on the SHIELD Tablet and it wasn't really a big topic it brought up. I don't think it's a secret at this point that the Tegra K1 is not as power efficient as some other SoC on the market aimed at tablets. In my testing with the Xiaomi Mi Pad 7.9 review the tablet was able to get over 9 hours of Wi-Fi browsing time, which is decent. The issue is, the Mi Pad 7.9 has a larger battery than the SHIELD Tablet (24.5 Whr vs 19.75 Whr) so we know the NVIDIA device will be more limited — maybe by as much as 25%. We'll do our testing once the review unit gets in but initial thoughts are great.

The weight specification of 390g (0.85 lbs) is within reason of the Apple iPad Mini Retina (0.75 lbs) but it also appears to be 22% thicker than the Apple device as well. 

Along with the tablet, NVIDIA is announcing the SHIELD controller, a device that brings the SHIELD Tablet to same gaming capability of the original SHIELD (now called the portable as part of the SHIELD family). I got hands on with the controller last week and it feels even better than the SHIELD portable controller which was already fantastic. Now the interface buttons have been tweaked to include capacitive navigation buttons, the NVIDIA SHIELD button and the controller even sports a touch pad and volume buttons at the bottom. 

Rather than integrate Bluetooth, the SHIELD Controller uses Wi-Fi direct that has lower latency and higher bandwidth. That bandwidth is used to support analog headsets plugged into the controller, feed audio back and forth to the tablet, much in the same way you can utilize headsets on consoles. 

You will be able to pair up to four of these controllers with a single SHIELD Tablet.

Another nice addition to the controller is an integrated microphone used for voice control. Just as if you were using the Google voice services to open applications, run searches or locate media, you can hold down the home button and say something like "Open Half Life 2". It's a small thing but it makes the SHIELD Tablet much more attractive as a multimedia up for your TV that happens to be mobile enough to toss in your bag.

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