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NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet and Controller Review - Android Gaming Makes a Move

Author: Ryan Shrout
Subject: Mobile
Manufacturer: NVIDIA

SHIELD - Android and PC Gaming

NVIDIA bills the SHIELD Tablet as the "tablet for gamers" and that can be a tough stance to take if you just glance at the world of Android gaming today. Yes, Android gaming is gaining in popularity, but all of our indications show that the ability for software makers to turn a profit is even tougher than it is on iOS. If we look at this tablet as a gaming device for Android specifically, what does NVIDIA offer?

Well first, the controller and performance are second to none. Tegra K1 is clearly the fastest mobile GPU available today and any game that can bottleneck the GPU on today's SoCs will find the K1 a welcome addition to the market. The SHIELD Controller also holds a place above basically every Bluetooth controller I have used on a PC or mobile device.

But a quick look at the Google Play Store's games section shows a bunch of copies, too many Minecraft clones, and more zombies than you know what to do with. The quality of games in the Android market is a big problem and NVIDIA is trying to address that with the SHIELD Hub (previously TegraZone). Accessed by hitting the SHIELD button on the controller, or through the dedicated icon on the tablet itself, this portal attempts to filter games that have a bit higher quality standard and gives you an idea about the controller support as well. NVIDIA still has the control mapping software for the SHIELD Tablet (and it works quite well) but for Android gaming to take off, it needs to work out of the box, and NVIDIA is trying to promote that and work with developers to stream line it.

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Games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Dead Trigger 2, and The Walking Dead are native Android games that work great on the SHIELD Tablet and play better with the SHIELD Controller. But perhaps more important is the initiative NVIDIA is taking to push developers to build games that utilize OpenGL for native Tegra K1 support.

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When Portal and Half-Life 2 were released for the original SHIELD this year, it was a port that NVIDIA developed to bring those games to OpenGL ES, a slightly limited mobile version of the graphics API. For the Tegra K1, NVIDIA built a version of both games that uses the full OpenGL API and the graphical differences are immediately noticeable. I played through the entirety of Portal on the SHIELD Tablet this past weekend (on my TV) and was thoroughly impressed with the quality and simplicity it offered. The experience was great and rivaled a dedicated console or playing it on my PC with a controller.

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There are other games available as well - Trine 2, Half-Life 2, War Thunder, The Talos Principle.  The problem is that there just aren't enough of them yet! Yes, Trine 2 and Portal were great during my testing period and I am super excited to try out War Thunder, but NVIDIA needs MORE developers to sign and more games to be available that can both show the power of the Tegra K1 SoC but also validate Android as a source of quality gaming. My talks with gaming media in the last week indicate there is a lot of doubt around the capability for NVIDIA to push the Android gaming ecosystem forward fast enough to make the SHIELD family successful.

If Portal and Trine 2 are any indication that NVIDIA has the ability to create another "console" for the marketplace, the company has a shot.

NVIDIA Game Stream

Another feature that makes the SHIELD Tablet the best tablet for gamers is NVIDIA Game Stream. This is the ability to stream your PC games (over both local network and outside the home) to your SHIELD device, allowing you to access essentially your entire Steam library from anywhere. We have discussed and tested Game Stream many times, and the experience continues to improve and impress.

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In my week with the SHIELD Tablet, I was able to play some GRID 2 as well as several hours of Wolfenstein: The New Order from my gaming PC upstairs, to the tablet and onto my TV. The experience was solid and I really did not feel like I was being cheated by lag or latency from the streaming process. You will need a high quality network and router for this work optimally and without it you will see quality degradation and stuttering. This happened at my office where we have HEAVY overlapped wireless networks.

Console Mode

Perhaps the most useful way of taking advantage of the tablet for gaming in the home is not use its screen at all, and to instead, connect it to a TV with the device in console mode. In this way, you'll be able to play your Android games, or your Game Stream games on your big screen and use the SHIELD controller from the couch. You can actually use any Android application in this way, including Netflix, YouTube, Chrome, etc. and get a 10-ft user experience. With the controller support built into the OS and the touchpad for those rare use cases when needed, the experience, again, is damned good.

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The term "console mode" offers up an interesting angle on the SHIELD Tablet design. Without a design win in the current generation of gaming consoles (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U all use AMD GPU hardware), NVIDIA looks like it is attempting to create its own "console" with a combination of the Tegra K1, the Android OS and Game Stream technology. It has a compelling package, but without the weight of a million gamer (or more) install base, the road is an uphill one to convince developers to spend the time here.

Twitch and ShadowPlay Integration

Maybe the most surprising addition to the SHIELD Tablet was the inclusion of Twitch streaming support and ShadowPlay game recording functionality. By simply holding down the back button on the controller or tablet a few seconds, a pop up menu will appear that enables you start streaming your gameplay to Twitch, enable automatic recording, start a manual recording, or take screenshots.

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The Twitch functionality is impressive. Not only can you stream your game out to the world, or basically anything in the Android OS, but you can also overlay the front facing camera to it and even put the Twitch chat on YOUR screen, so you can see what the audience is saying to you (or about you). You can arrange or resize these features and even though I haven't done much Twitch streaming personally through GeForce Experience, the integration in Android is pretty damn cool.

The rabbit hole goes deeper. At our office, we tested the following configuration: playing GRID 2 through Game Stream to our tablet, with the tablet connected to a TV in console mode, with Twitch streaming enabled, with my video and chat overlayed, all while recording locally as well. Oh, and my microphone was being sent to Twitch, as well, via the audio port on the controller. It was an impressive sight to see, and made even more so by the fact it was running on an NVIDIA Tegra K1 mobile SoC.

July 29, 2014 | 06:37 AM - Posted by kirby (not verified)

I look at this review and the price and wonder if it would be foolish to purchase this as just a media consumption device. While gaming would be nice, I rarely play video games on a tablet. And when I do play games it is of the plague inc or civilization type.

Once my Asus tf700 dies I'll have to give this a look.

July 29, 2014 | 07:55 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

$299 is definitely steep for just a tablet, if you don't plan on taking advantage of any of the gaming features.

August 2, 2014 | 10:30 PM - Posted by nobodyspecial (not verified)

Is there a better tablet for $300 with specs like this? Nexus 2013 is $230 still and blown away by this tablet so $300 seems very reasonable with the stylus (great implementation), top SOC, dual 5MP cameras, 1080p netflix, etc even without all the gaming aspects. iPad mini is $400. What else is $300 that is comparable even just as a tablet? You don't have to buy the controller either (though low lag etc cool) as xbox360/ps3 etc work and most of us own one of those already.

How do we know sales of shield portable? You comment "You might not have guessed that based on the sales numbers that SHIELD has put forward though." Do you have any data on this? I haven't seen them spit out how many have sold yet unless I missed it in the financials. Is it 100K units (what I expected it would take to break even, at ~100ea with 10mil dev costs they stated), 1mil or 10K etc? I only see revenue etc on the entire Tegra line, not broken down by devices etc, but maybe you have inside info? :)

Thanks.

July 30, 2014 | 12:44 AM - Posted by Voldenuit (not verified)

Hi ryan,

Thanks for your review.

I actually bought the Shield Tablet today primarily for tablet-y use, and not its gaming prowess or gamestream capabilities.

The 16:10 screen, front facing speakers, and (especially) expandable storage seemed ideal for my primary intended use of movies, ebooks and browsing. Also, being something of a PC enthusiast, the idea of the powerful SoC just made it seem more future proof to me than some of the more underpowered budget tablets out there.

In that vein, I pre-ordered the touch cover but passed on the Shield Controller. While I had all the necessary ingredients to Gamestream (ASUS RT-AC66R router, GTX 760 GPU in my desktop), I didn't see the appeal in playing PC games on an 8" screen instead of my 27" computer monitor, especially since as you mention in the video, the Shield Tablet requires you to be sitting at a table or desk to game on effectively. It didn't help that the Shield Controller currently has no support for native PC gaming without the Tablet - if I could have used it as a controller for my PC as well as the Shield Tablet, it would have been an instant buy for me.

July 29, 2014 | 06:53 AM - Posted by Martin Trautvetter

Page 1: "It's a tablet (not a controller with a controller attached)"

I'm glad, cause that would look positively silly! ;)

July 29, 2014 | 07:55 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Ha! Fixed.

Now...to find my editor...

July 29, 2014 | 06:23 PM - Posted by Scott Michaud

>.> I am a tree. (Holds up two leaves)

July 29, 2014 | 08:07 AM - Posted by ams (not verified)

Ryan, efficiency should always be a measure of both power consumption and performance. The efficiency of Shield tablet is actually quite good all things considered. The Asus Memo Pad 7 has a smaller and much lower res (ie. less power hungry) screen in comparison to Shield tablet (in addition to somewhat lower CPU and browser performance too). The Nexus 7 also has a smaller screen but equal resolution in comparison to Shield tablet, but at least 2x slower CPU and browser performance too.

July 29, 2014 | 09:10 AM - Posted by Thedarklord

I am very close to buying one of these, but a big question for me is support for more than one controller when using Game Stream, did the NV guys say anything about that?

I didn't even think to ask them when I was at QuakeCon, and the lead software guy for Stream was there in the AT&T booth!

Edit: And I know that Shield Tablet wasn't out yet, but most of the guys were willing to talk about the "idea of it, off the record, lol"

July 29, 2014 | 05:44 PM - Posted by Le Al (not verified)

You can have 4 controllers.

July 30, 2014 | 12:46 AM - Posted by Voldenuit (not verified)

From what I've read, you can have 4 controllers when playing native Android or Shield Hub games, but only 1 when Gamestreaming from a PC.

July 29, 2014 | 09:14 AM - Posted by Patrick W

The Shield Portable and Shield Tablet can both do console emulation. I use my Shield Portable every day to play NES, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, N64, and PSP (among other emulators available) games. The Nvidia Shield Portable was the first option that made that kind of portable emulation worthwhile with its fantastic controller and great battery life. There's always such a focus on modern Android games/game streaming as the only possible gaming options on these devices.

July 29, 2014 | 11:10 AM - Posted by Aiko (not verified)

So you use your tablet to play pirated software for other consoles, and not Android native software.

This is what's wrong with the Android ecosystem, is that developers shun it for being easy to pirate, leaving only free-to-play/pay-to-win games as options, or other developers port any available emulator, MAME, dosbox or SCUMM to it and just use it as yet-another-piracy option.

Just because a device can be used to run emulators, and pirated software should not be the deciding factor in buying a device. It should be if you support development on the platform. It doesn't help if 90% of the people who buy the hardware never buy any software.

July 29, 2014 | 12:45 PM - Posted by Abram730 (not verified)

He didn't say he pirated. He could own all the games he runs on the emulator and could have made a backup of the games and the console ROM. You can have a backup copy.

Perhaps you could point people to the NES/N64 section of the google play store.

July 29, 2014 | 09:53 AM - Posted by ZoA (not verified)

Runs hot, below average battery life, and it is unreasonably priced for 8” category. Definitely bad buy.

As a gaming platform in the same price category it is heavily outclassed by PS, Xbox and Wii U.

Across the board problem is price, and again price. This is similar story as Titan Z, that would be reasonable product if it was priced at $1500 to $2000, but nvida got too greedy for it's own good. Same here. If pad + cover + controller were something like $300, or less, it would be reasonable, but at the price point nevida demands it it's a ripoff, either as pad, or as gaming platform.

July 29, 2014 | 10:42 AM - Posted by ams (not verified)

Right, at graphics performance levels that other thin fanless tablets can only dream of, Shield tablet can get quite warm to the touch. Anyway, most high end tablets can get quite warm to the touch. For instance, the iPad Air can reach a temp of above 42 celcius. That said, this is only with the most CPU/GPU intensive apps that are run for an extended period of time.

The web browsing battery life of Shield tablet is very competitive with iPad Air and iPad Mini Retina, even though it has smaller battery capacity in comparison: http://images.anandtech.com/graphs/graph8296/65932.png

The battery life with the most processor intensive apps (such as GFXBench) is not great, but the GPU performance is usually > 2x better than anything else in it's class in the same apps. With the battery saver mode, the battery life should be much better because the CPU core clock frequency and number of active CPU cores is kept in check, and a framerate target of 30fps is set.

August 2, 2014 | 02:42 AM - Posted by Voldenuit (not verified)

OK, I just received delivery of my Shield Tablet today, and have been very impressed with it on several points.

Re: battery life, I have been very pleasantly surprised. I played Cytus (Android game) with wi-fi on and brightness at a rather bright ~70% illumination, and after 3.5 hrs of gameplay, the battery gauge read still 47% (started from full charge).

Now I'm not going to pretend that a 2D game like Cytus will draw anywhere near as much power as playing, say, Half Life 2, but for regular/casual Android gaming on the go, the Shield Tablet really looks like a credible solution.

Now if you /do/ want to play an intensive (for a tablet) game like HL2 or Portal, then you'd be doing so with a controller in hand and the tablet propped up on a flat surface, and presumably, there should be no reason why you're not plugged in while doing so, at which point the battery life becomes academic.

Also, Anandtech got 11.2h of battery life when playing 720p videos over wifi. That may not be as good as iPad Air (13.6h), but it's still /respectable/.

July 29, 2014 | 10:17 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

While it may cost as much as a PS4 or XBOXOne with what you say, you don't have to repurchase your games, such as Battlefield 4, Portal, etc. for the PS4/XBOX because you have your library of PC games now available as a console setting.

Steam needs to better support these tablet features!

But I have to agree, it needs more features, such as multiplayer linkage for two or more controllers and a lower price.

July 29, 2014 | 10:26 AM - Posted by emblemparade (not verified)

Great review! And it looks like a great device.

As a game dev who is porting games to OpenGL ES for Android, I can confirm that full OpenGL support would make a huuuge difference. Actually, it would mean that porting games would not be very hard at all. I build for Android using NDK, which means the same C code I use for other platforms. If I get OpenGL, too, it just means I need to do testing and packaging.

The real question, I think, is less about OpenGL but about ARM. What I would really like to see is something like Tegra K1, but with an x86 CPU. This would mean that instead of Android, we could run SteamOS or Ubuntu. There are already a great number of terrific games for x86 Linux that would run immediately on such a device. And Ubuntu Touch is moving quickly to becoming a decent tablet OS, at least good enough to do what most people do with tablets.

An NVIDIA/Ubuntu tablet like this running Steam? Drool, drool!

July 29, 2014 | 11:13 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Thanks for the note! Glad to get feedback from a dev that indeed OpenGL can improve portability significantly.

As for x86 + Tegra K1...it's always interesting to think what might have happened had Intel bought NVIDIA so many years ago. :)

July 29, 2014 | 01:18 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

"The real question, I think, is less about OpenGL but about ARM. What I would really like to see is something like Tegra K1, but with an x86 CPU. This would mean that instead of Android, we could run SteamOS or Ubuntu."

If I'm not mistaken the Android VM runs on the Linux kernel, so what is the problem with the K1 being able to run Linux, Android being a Linux distro of sorts, Android apps running on the VM(That Runs On the Linux kernel). Why does x86 figure?? Steam OS is just another Debian based disto, Debian Linux. Linux is the major kernel of the ARM ISA based world, why does Nvidia have to have x86 for Steam OS to work on the ARM ISA? Nvidia will be releasing the Denver core based K1, and Linux will run just fine on the current K1, as well as the custom ARMv8 ISA based Denver variant. I question your game development claim, based on this error, and it probably will not be too long before someone has the Shield tablet running a full Linux distro, not too long at all!

"An NVIDIA/Ubuntu tablet like this running Steam? Drool, drool!" Why the Ubuntu distro, when Steam OS is already a Linux Distro, and both OSs are based on Debian Linux.

Again, what is your reasoning for x86, do tablets even need x86, probably not, this Nvidia tablet appears to be doing just fine running the Linux Kernel, with an Android runtime(VM) running on the Linux kernel(as every android VM out there mostly does), to run the android apps! And full OpenGL is great, because any desktop applications that run fine under Linux, and the full OpenGL, should be able to run with little, or no modifications on the Nvidia tablet, provided the K1 based tablet has a full Linux distro to target the recompile of the application, very little actual porting needed.

August 2, 2014 | 11:20 PM - Posted by emblemparade (not verified)

Well, sure, it may be possible to port much of SteamOS to ARM. Not trivial, but possible. Large parts of the existing software repositories will be available to you.

Unfortunately, that applies only to the free software and open source components. For Steam games to be ported to ARM, you need the game vendors to embrace it. It's a stretch already to get them interested in x86 Linux and Mac, but asking them to port to another CPU architecture is a lot.

Some games have been ported from desktop/console to ARM, but that has also meant porting to OpenGL ES and touch, creating a "thin" version of the game. That's where the K1 is so exciting, in allowing for games to be ported without compromise. But, the chicken and egg problem we see in all reviews: devs won't target K1 until there is a good market for it, and gamers won't embrce K1 until there are enough games.

And of course, there is no Steam ARM client. Steam has also never shown any interest in Android: the idea was always to sidestep Android and go right to a more full-realized Linux-based platform: SteamOS.

July 29, 2014 | 11:04 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Keep these excellent reviews coming

Great review and a great piece of Android hardware. But... I want this machine, but there is a showstopper, that could ruin it for me. Can the Shield do 24Hz and 50Hz screenmodes? I use videoservices in europe, so it is very important that a 50Hz mediaplayback is supported. Will it do 24/50Hz? Will XBMC be able to change screenmode Hz accordingly?

I've allready got an 60Hz-centric Android device, which becomes very choppy when playing 50Hz videoclips. I really hope Nvidia has remembered the 100's of millions people using 50 Hz videostandard.

Btw, my current 60Hz Android device is able to run any screenmode 720p/1080p 24/25/50/60Hz, so screenmodes hasn't got anything todo with the hardware, but should be defined at firmware/driver level.

July 29, 2014 | 11:14 AM - Posted by Ryan Shrout

Interesting question...I'll ask!

July 29, 2014 | 11:07 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Ups... any screenmode 720p/1080p 24/25/50/60Hz in LINUX.

July 29, 2014 | 12:15 PM - Posted by me (not verified)

This isn't as powerful as they make it out to be.
lot of content is being unscaled from 720 and frame capped this thing isn't so great

July 29, 2014 | 02:12 PM - Posted by Sigh (not verified)

Like everything else Nvidia does, not so great, and too expensive!

July 30, 2014 | 01:33 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

nothing wrong with their video cards

July 29, 2014 | 05:34 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

So Nvidia doesn't care about consoles but is selling a tablet with far less performance then a X-Box One or PS4 at the same price.

Next thing you know Nvidia will introduce a GPU at a ridiculous price of say $3000.

July 30, 2014 | 11:45 AM - Posted by techpunch (not verified)

Try carrying your Xbox One or PS4 with you while you walk and try playing on your Xbox One or PS4 while you travel on a flight/train. Maybe you are an exception but portability is important to most people [it's the reason why phones and tablets are becoming more and more popular]

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