Nvidia’s original Shield was a strange beast: a powerful but bulky semi-portable device that functioned as both an Android tablet and a way to stream PC games via wi-fi. Essentially a controller with a built-in screen, it was a very competent piece of hardware that seemed to serve a fairly niche audience.
Now, Nvidia has reimagined the Shield as a top-of-the-range Android tablet with a separate controller, the concept makes a lot more sense. Whether you’ve got a capable gaming PC or you’re simply looking to play the very best Android games on the go – and on a stunning eight-inch 1900x1200 screen to boot – this could well be the device you’ve been looking for.
That 16:10 widescreen aspect ratio is the first sign that this is a tablet built with gaming in mind. It’s similarly effective for streaming films or watching videos, though other tasks like web browsing feel slightly compromised. While its processor means your favourite pages will load more quickly than on most Android tablets, you’ll find some web pages aren’t really optimised for a screen like this. It’s a minor problem, though, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate the trade-off.
It’s noticeably weightier in the hands to tablets of a comparable form factor, like Google’s Nexus 7, though it’s not that extra inch of screen real estate that makes the difference. In this case it’s the need to cool off the Shield’s powerful Tegra K1 processor, a 2.2GHz quad-core CPU that hypothetically allows it to produce a performance that compares favourably to last-generation console hardware. In theory, it can outstrip both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, though nothing has been released on Android so far that proves that.
“The Shield Hub guides you to games you’ll want to download to show off just what your new toy can do.”
Give it time, however, and we’re sure to see the games that prove just how capable the Shield tablet is. One of the apps you’ll find pre-installed is the Shield Hub, which offers a quicker route to the kind of games you’ll want to download to show off just what your new toy can do. It’ll guide you towards games that have been specially optimised to take advantage of Tegra-powered Android devices, as well as allowing you to easily find games that are compatible with the Shield controller.
This will cost you around £50 extra, but if you’re serious about gaming, the investment is worth it. It’s similar in design terms to the original Shield controller, though without the built-in screen it’s a good deal lighter. A close relative of the Xbox 360 pad, it’s similarly well made, a solidly put-together piece of kit that fits reasonably snugly in the palms. It’s worth pointing out, however, that players with smaller digits might find it slightly too chunky: shovel-handed players won’t have much to complain about, but we found our fingers stretching just a little to rest comfortably on the triggers.
There are several advantages to using the Shield pad - as opposed to hooking up a Bluetooth controller, for example. For starters, it uses wi-fi to reduce latency, and a built-in microphone makes it ideal for Twitch streaming – or even if you fancy using Google’s voice activated search functionality. And you can pair four controllers with a single tablet, allowing you and up to three friends to enjoy games that support local multiplayer content. Not that you have too many to choose from at this stage, of course, but it’s good to have the option there should you need it.
Indeed, there’s one game pre-installed on the Shield which takes advantage of this feature. Frozenbyte’s polished and thoroughly enjoyable puzzle-platformer Trine 2 supports local multiplayer, and it compares well to the other formats it’s previously appeared on. Sure, it’s perhaps not quite as attractive as it is on PC, but it’s a promising sign of things to come: a very decent console-quality game you can play on a tablet.
“Streaming performance is extremely good, with little noticeable lag and more than acceptable image quality.”
The Shield’s other signature feature, of course, is that you can use it to stream games from your PC. The performance is extremely good, with little noticeable lag, and though you won’t get a consistent 60 frames per second, the image quality is more than acceptable. You will, however, need a quality rig to take advantage of it. Minimum requirements are a PC with GeForce GTX 650 or better, and either an Intel Core i3 3.1GHz CPU, or an AMD Athlon II at 2.8 GHz or higher. Ideally, and for the best possible performance, you’ll need a dual-band router, too.
You can also use the Shield’s mini HDMI out to play games on your HDTV: Mirror Mode allows you to follow the action on either display, or you can opt to conserve the Shield’s battery by using Console Mode, which turns off all apps and the screen. Not that battery life will be too much of a concern: you can expect around four to five hours of solid gaming before having to charge up the Shield – and you can double that if you’re using it mostly to browse the web or check emails. Sound quality is excellent, too: the Shield’s speakers are some of the best we’ve experienced on any tablet, and of course you can simply plug in headphones if you prefer.
We tested a selection of Tegra-enhanced games, all of which performed superbly on the Shield. The likes of Pure Chess look sharp and detailed on the tablet’s beautiful display, and while third-person shooter ShadowGun THD is more of a technical showcase than a great game in its own right, it runs very smoothly, and is a fine fit for the Shield controller.
The main question now is whether or not more publishers will take advantage of top-of-the-range Android tablets like the Shield. In theory, a device this powerful could conceivably pioneer a new era of mobile gaming. But right now, iOS is the dominant mobile gaming format, and should Apple decide to capitalise on that fact, devices like this might struggle to gain traction. For the time being, however, the Shield is arguably the pick of the Android tablets currently on the market. And if you’ve got a capable PC and the desire to stream games to a screen of this quality, then it’s undoubtedly money well spent.