Nvidia Shield Tablet Hands On: Steam Game Streaming on a Slate

By Gerald Lynch on at

There’s only so much Threes! or Jetpack Joyride one person can stomach. Aside from some high-profile console ports, tablet gaming has mostly remained the reserve of casual time wasters or artistic indie titles. Nvidia wants to change all that with its Shield Tablet, the successor to its Shield handheld Android gaming console -- thanks to some smart streaming tech, it potentially gives you access to your entire Steam catalogue with just a few taps of a finger.

An 8-inch slate, the Shield Tablet runs off Nvidia’s Tegra K1 mobile chipset, a 192 core beast that makes use of some of the same Kepler GPU technology that is found in Nvidia’s latest powerful desktop graphics cards. Running Android KitKat on a full HD 1080p screen, the tablet is a very capable standard slate -- you’ll have full access to all the usual array of Google apps and the Google Play store for grabbing more from, as well as any web browsing or video playback you’d hope to get from a tablet. Equipped with front facing stereo speakers, the tablet looks quite a lot like an oversized HTC One. Available in two models (a 16GB Wi-Fi only edition and a 32GB Wi-Fi + LTE model), it’s also equipped with 5MP rear and front cameras, and supports microSD cards up to 128GB in size. With a matte black plastic finish, it’s reasonably attractive too.

But that only tells half the story. The Shield Tablet is designed as much as a living room games console replacement as it is a mobile companion. Housing a HDMI-out port and being compatible with any number of Bluetooth gamepads (though designed to be used with its own new controller, which I’ll get to in a moment), Nvidia has outfitted the Shield Tablet with a “Console Mode”, a lean-back interface that can either be set to output solely to your TV or mirror the tablet’s display.

From here, gamers can browse to the Nvidia Hub where they’ll find shortcuts to all their apps, and any of the 400 Shield-optimised Android games they may have installed (as well as storefronts to download more). These optimisations mostly come in the form of improved visuals made possible by the Tegra K1 chipset or controller button mapping options for usually-touch-controlled games. There’s also set to be a growing number of Shield-exclusive games, with ports of Half-Life 2 and Portal already among the ranks. The impressive fantasy romp Trine 2 also comes pre-installed on every Shield Tablet.

But all Android tablets can play Android games to some degree of competency. The Shield Tablet’s killer feature is its PC game streaming option. Anyone with a gaming PC equipped with one of Nvidia’s graphics card from the GTX 6xx series or above will be able to beam high-end PC games to the tablet (and onto any TV they may have it hooked up to). Nvidia has 120 top PC games compatible with this GameStream technology… and one of those “games” is Valve’s Steam platform. Yep, any game you have on Steam can be streamed to the Shield Tablet, letting you make the most of Steam’s Big Picture Mode on the tablet. Thanks to 5GHz 2x2 Wi-Fi, streams should stay consistent (your home broadband connection allowing).

The tablet also features integrated Twitch live game broadcasting, making use of the front facing camera to stream your gaming sessions, your reactions and commentary simultaneously.

Equipped with a 1975mAh battery, the tablet is good for between 3 to 5 hours of Android gaming (depending on the demands of the game), and 10 hours of video playback. Game streaming length would sit somewhere between the two. Speaking of video playback, though the tablet can’t natively play content at a 4K resolution, it can output it to a 4K display. The tablet itself also comes with its own stylus, which can sit in a recess inside the chassis.

Nvidia is launching the Shield Tablet alongside a new wireless controller that it believes will please even the “most serious of gamers.” At first glance, it looks like another riff on the standard Xbox 360 controller, which it is -- all triggers and sticks are present, and each is weighted satisfyingly. Though it’s not a revolutionary design, it’s a well put together pad.

But the gamepad has also got plenty of its own tricks too. For starters, the lower central area of the controller is a touchpad, allowing gamers to play PC games that require some cursor control -- it’s no substitute for a mouse if you’re looking to play competitive Counter Strike, but it’s perfect for issuing commands in turn-based games like Civilization.

Though the controller houses a headset jack, it’s also got its own built in mic, letting you perform Android voice-controlled searches and commands from the sofa. It works incredibly well, and it made me wish my Xbox One pad had a mic too so that it didn’t have to rely on the Kinect, which is always picking up ambient sounds. Connecting to the tablet using Wi-Fi direct, it allows for ultra-low latency input too -- while PC game streaming feeds may make this feature redundant, you’ll never experience any sluggish input when playing native Android games through the pad. Four Shield controllers can be hooked up at once.

It’s an impressive, comprehensive gaming offering. But what’s perhaps sad about the Shield Tablet is that this likely marks the end of any hopes for a Shield 2 dedicated gaming handheld. For all its faults, it was literally in a class of its own when it came to gaming hardware -- there was simply no other device like it, offering Android gaming and PC game streaming in a single screen-packing unit. However good the Shield Tablet and its accessories may be, it’s form is ultimately that of yet another Android tablet. Nvidia is trying to carve out a niche for itself in a crowded tablet market, where not too long ago the Shield brand was in a league all of its own. The Shield Tablet has lots of promise, or at least according to me it has -- I’m a member of the niche audience that something like this was always going to appeal to. Whether it appeals to a wider audience remains to be seen, but as a showcase for Nvidia’s widening array of hardware and services, it’ll certainly make rival manufacturers sit up and take note.

The Nvidia Shield Tablet is scheduled for release in the US and Canada by the end of July, and will be hitting the UK and other European territories in mid-August. The 16GB Wi-Fi model is at a reasonable £229, while the 32GB LTE model will cost £299. The controller is priced at £49 and a protective cover stand sits at £25.