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Review: Nvidia Shield Tablet

by Tarinder Sandhu on 29 July 2014, 14:00


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What's it like as a gaming tablet?

Shield Tablet is a convincing device when used for everyday computing tasks, but as stated earlier in the review, well-rounded, keenly-priced Android tablets are readily available. With year-on-year tablet growth showing signs of decline - largely due to increase in sales of big-screen phones (a.k.a. phablets) - Nvidia needs something a little different to help Shield Tablet stand out from the crowd.

That something is a multi-faceted gaming experience that allows enthusiasts to get their game on in more ways than one. As a standalone device, Shield Tablet offers one of the most powerful Android gaming experiences available to date. Add an optional controller and you have a portable games console of sorts. Hook all that up to your big-screen TV and you have a multiplayer Console Mode, and of course there's also the ability to stream games from a GeForce GTX-powered PC. Shield Tablet isn't lacking in possibilities, but how well do these scenarios actually work?

On-device gaming

Gaming on an Android device isn't as straight forward as, say, an iPad or PS Vita. Due to the Shield Tablet's unique hardware combination, Nvidia needs a means to promote content that's specifically suited to the device. As a result, the preferred option for finding games isn't Google's standard Play Store, but rather Nvidia's own Shield Hub.

From here, it's easy to locate new games, as well as filter those that are 'enhanced for Shield Tablet' with high-quality graphics, and those that have full Shield Controller compatibility.

The system works well and is neatly presented, and perusing Nvidia's list of Android games for Shield shows that a fair few have full controller capability. One caveat is that button names aren't always correct - that's up to the developers to code specifically for the Shield Controller - but on the whole it's easy enough to figure out how which buttons map to specific in-game commands. When button-navigation just won't do, the controller's right stick can be used for mouse cursor movement, and there's also the small, integrated touch pad.

So far so good, but the problem as we see it, is that there aren't currently any Shield-optimised titles that will keep us coming back for more. Right now, the showcase games are Trine 2 - a platformer which does look very easy on the eye - and ports of Half Life 2 and Portal. It's impressive to see the latter run so well on a mobile device, but these titles aren't going to have us playing for hours on end, and carrying both tablet and controller feels like a chore when there isn't a game you're desperate to play.

Android as a gaming platform has huge potential, however Nvidia sorely needs a couple of high-profile titles to enhance the Shield Tablet's on-device gaming credentials. The benchmarks on the coming pages will highlight the power that Tegra K1 brings to the table, yet all that intent could count for nothing without the right sort of developer support. Just imagine if Shield Tablet had launched alongside Mario Kart 8 - such high-profile titles are ultimately what's needed for a gaming device to flourish.

Fully aware of this situation, Nvidia does have an alternative option for gamers wanting triple-A content: PC streaming.

Shield Tablet plus PC union

Being able to stream games from a GeForce GTX PC to the Shield Tablet is a key selling point, and one that makes a whole lot more sense when the tablet is attached to a big-screen TV using the bundled HDMI cable. Once the connection is made, the tablet automatically asks the user to choose from one of two viewing modes: Mirror, which retains the Android menu bars and displays in a 16:10 ratio on both screens, or Console, which turns off the tablet screen and pushes a full-screen 1080p image to the TV.

Importantly, Gamestream is very easy to setup and configure. The Shield Hub automatically detects any GeForce GTX PCs on the network, and provides a pin number which you have to punch into the respective PC's GeForce Experience software. The whole setup process takes less than a minute, and over a hundred titles are currently supported.

We've been trying out Batman: Arkham Origins, Battlefield 4 and GRID 2, and we've come away pleasantly surprised. Video-streaming quality is consistently good, with only the occasional stutter, and while input latency is evident, it should prove negligible for all but the most extreme gamers. We did come across audio hitches from time to time, but on the whole, Gamestream exceeded our expectations.

Granted, it isn't able to fully replicate the at-PC experience - that much is to be expected - but if you're wanting to play your desktop games in the living room (or indeed anywhere with WiFi), the Shield Tablet represents an easy-to-use solution that works well in practise.

It's in Gamestream scenarios that the Shield Controller proves to be a valuable asset, and Nvidia has paid attention to the finer details in other areas, too. Wake on LAN is supported on compatible hardware so that you no longer need to wake your PC and login manually, Bluetooth keyboard and mice can be used when needed, and the Remote Gamestream Beta allows you to stream games away from the local WiFi network. Though do bear in mind Remote Gamestream requires minimum upload and download speeds of 5Mbps.

What's also handy is tight Twitch and game-DVR integration, with users having the ability to screenshot or record game footage, as well as broadcasting to Twitch by holding the back button on the controller or choosing share from Android's Quick Menu. It's quick, seamless, and neatly implemented.

Gamestream is undoubtedly one of Shield Tablet's strongest assets, yet it does come with a list of provisos and requirements. You need a Windows 7/8 desktop with a GeForce GTX 650 or higher GPU (or a notebook with at least a GTX 600M), and preferably a dual-band 802.11n router. Nvidia has a list of approved 'Gamestream-ready' routers on its website, but even then, the quality of your video stream will be limited to 720p. To get a full-HD 1080p stream, you'll need to invest in a micro-USB Ethernet adapter to give the Shield Tablet a wired connection.

Wouldn't it be good if games were streamed direct from the cloud, instead of your own PC? That's in the pipeline via Nvidia's GRID cloud-gaming servers, but at present the service is limited to western USA. We're told a European launch could happen before the end of the year, but Nvidia has been reluctant to provide any firm timescales.