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Review: Nvidia's Android-powered Shield tablet is actually great for gaming

I test drove the Nvidia Shield tablet and it eventually became my go-to gaming console.

021715 nvidia shield tablet gaming
Credit: Nvidia

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly reliant on Android-powered tablets for a large majority of my daily activities: general browsing, social media and email, and even for the majority of my entertainment (music and movie watching).

But gaming…gaming is the one area in which Android has just never really embedded itself in my home. Sure, I play some Android games here and there, but I still own dedicated, non-Android powered consoles. Part of the reason is the lack of big, Triple-A quality games available for Android; there are some, but not as many as competing gaming platforms. The other part is the lack of great gaming hardware.

There have been dedicated, Android-based game consoles in the past (such as the Ouya), but nothing that motivated me to migrate my gaming to such a device.

Roughly a year and a half ago, Nvidia released what was then known simply as the "Nvidia Shield," a hand-held game console (controller and screen integrated into a single, portable unit) that ran Android and had a controller that a gamer would actually want to use. This device, now known as the "Shield Portable," is clearly meant to play games – the fact that it runs Android (and has a 5-inch touchscreen) means that it could technically be used for productivity. But that would be just plain silly and cumbersome, given the gaming-oriented design.

Nvidia followed that device up this past summer with what it calls the "Shield Tablet," an 8-inch device built to be a solid tablet, but with a clear focus on gaming. I've had one here for the last week, kicking the tires. And, let me tell you, it makes both an incredible tablet and an astoundingly good game console.

Let's get the "tablet-y" stuff out of the way first.

The Shield Tablet has an 8-inch, 1920x1200 display, which looks stupidly good and sports relatively big (for a tablet) stereo speakers on the front. Inside, it has 2 gigs of RAM, a beefy CPU, and it runs the latest and greatest version of Android (5.0, "Lollipop").

In other words, it's a solid, high-performance tablet with beefier guts than, say, Apple's latest iPad Mini (which only has half the RAM of the Shield Tablet and costs $100 more) or Samsung's Galaxy Tab 4 (which also has less RAM and a lower-resolution screen).

Based on that information alone, this tablet is easily one of the best (if not the best) bang for your buck among the "pocketable tablets" (read: "small enough to fit in your pocket while still qualifying as a pretty big tablet"). But from the productivity point of view, this tablet has one additional feature that sets it apart from most of its competition – a stylus.

No joke. This thing comes with a stylus. Not as some sort of weird afterthought, either. It's built-in with custom apps (and non-custom apps like Evernote) that take advantage of it. Before using it on the Shield, I had sort of forgotten how nice having a stylus can be for those times when you need something a tad bit more precise than, say, my giant, sausage-y fingers.

If those were the only features of the Shield Tablet, it would be enough. Right there, it's a quality, high-performance tablet that is – at the very least – highly competitive with the other "pocketable" tablets on the market.

But the gaming… that's what really makes this tablet awesome.

Unlike the older Shield Portable, the Shield Tablet doesn't have a controller built in. You need to buy one for $60, which, without a doubt, raises the total price of the system a bit – though it still ends up being cheaper than, say, a low-end iPad Mini.

It's a good controller. Similar in feel to the XBox controller. Buttons feel good. Charge seems to last for quite some time (it charges via micro-USB and lasts through many tablet charges). It has an audio jack on the top and it even has dedicated Android buttons (back, home, etc.) with, no joke, a touch pad that lets you use the mouse cursor on your tablet (handy for some games).

One weird thing – and perhaps this is only weird to me – about the controller is that it communicates with the Shield tablet via a direct Wi-Fi connection. I've never had a game-pad (or any other input device that I can think of) that communicated to my computer via Wi-Fi before. I'm not complaining, mind you. It works great. It's just…weird. Good weird.

You can connect up to four controllers to the Shield Tablet at any given time. I haven't tried this yet as I just have the one controller. But this, coupled with the fact that you can connect the tablet to a TV via an HDMI cable (supposedly capable of 4K output, though I only tested it on a 1080p TV), turns this little beauty into a complete gaming console.

And a pretty beefy one at that. Under the hood, it's powered by the Tegra K1 which, according to Nvidia, provides better graphics performance than both the Xbox 360 and the PS3. And, while I have no scientific data to back that up, after playing games on it for a while, I completely believe it.

I kicked the tires by playing Portal, Half-Life 2, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Civilization Revolutions 2, a whole host of emulators and games on the Nvidia Grid, which provides game streaming (which is a big topic all by itself and probably deserves a follow-up article). All of these looked great and ran at incredibly fast speeds. I didn't fully realize how long-in-the-tooth my Nexus 7 was getting until I ran Civilization on the N7 and the Shield side-by-side. The Shield not only loaded the game in less than half the time, but it rarely stuttered at all (compared to the Nexus 7, which had a hard time keeping up and felt a bit herky-jerky).

Over the last week this has become my primary gaming console. And I don't see that changing anytime soon. Will the Shield Tablet be my only game console long term? Not likely. But if you told me I could only keep one game console right now – and I could choose any on the market (Xbox One, PS4, WiiU, etc.) – it would be this one. The ability to take my games anywhere, including playing them on my TV, makes this a winner of a console.

Again, and I can't stress this enough – you'll need to buy the game controller if you want to really enjoy gaming on the Shield Tablet. Not having the controller will make you sad. Deep down. On the inside. So factor that $60 into the overall purchase price.

I feel a bit bad right now as I can't think of any big downsides to this tablet. This whole review feels like more of a fan-boy dream than a critical review, but I really love this tablet. It's given me a single, pocket-sized (though just barely) device that I can use to do the majority of my work and gaming. The handiness value of that just cannot be overstated.

If I were going to say something negative about this device it would be, I suppose, that it can be a bit cumbersome having the controller be a separate device from the tablet itself. It's completely usable when you're at home (or even in a hotel room or at a friend's house), but it's not likely that you'll have the controller and the tablet in your pockets when you're out on the go.

You're definitely not going to be sitting on the toilet with the Shield Tablet and the controller – taking a "gaming on the potty" break. The tablet itself? Sure. But not with the controller as well. Even if you had ample pocket space for both… where are you going to set up the tablet so that you can hold the controller? Public bathrooms don't tend to have dedicated "put your gaming tablet here" tables.

Although they should.

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