Toward the end of last year, NVIDIA introduced what we considered to be the most well-rounded tablet on the market. And for just $300, the SHIELD Tablet was a pretty great deal, too. Imagine if NVIDIA offered a slightly modified version, but for $100 less. Sounds too good to be true, right? Lucky for you I don't joke about serious matters; the SHIELD Tablet K1 is real, and you can pick one up starting today for just $199.
If I could go back and re-do my holiday gift guide, this would be on there no question. There haven't been many Android tablets this year that you just had to have. In fact, I can't recall a single Android tablet aside from that monstrous Samsung Galaxy View that was recently announced.
Does the Android tablet market exist if there is no longer a guiding force pushing the market forward? Where's that consummate product everyone looks toward when manufacturers seemingly ignore an entire ecosystem? The Nexus 9, which was just OK, is already more than a year old.
Perhaps that's what makes the NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 such a great product. While it's still very niche, it offers a wonderful casual experience on top of some incredible gaming capabilities. Even if you don't feel like streaming directly from your computer, or hooking it up to your TV through HDMI, you can just use it on the couch to watch videos and send email. It wasn't either or, nailing the fundamentals without compromising quality or functionality.
This year's version is a lot like the first model, with minor changes here and there to better streamline the device for its intended audience. For one, the SHIELD Tablet K1 no longer comes with a stylus, though all of those features, including a GPU accelerated painting app, remain intact. Secondly, the price has been dropped to a ridiculously low $199, making it one of the most affordable tablets on the market.
I've been using the SHIELD Tablet for the past seven days, and can unequivocally say it's the Android tablet to beat, picking up right where last year's version left off. Honestly, there's nothing glaring here that forces me to reflect on whether or not I'd recommend it to friends or family. It's a terrific little tablet that's powerful and uncomplicated. Cheap and high-end.
For the purpose of this review, I won't delve too deeply into the software or even the gaming experience at large. For a more comprehensive explanation of what the SHIELD Tablet can do, refer to last year's review. You can also watch this video, which gives an overview of NVIDIA's GeForce Now gaming service. If you aren't familiar with what the service can do, it offers access to over 50 PC games with a subscription of $7.99 per month; there's also a three month trial, which is more than enough time to decide if the service is worth your time and money.
Similar to last year, if you want to take advantage of the SHIELD Tablet K1's gaming capabilities, you'll need to pick up a SHIELD Wireless controller ($60), which offers a connection over Wi-Fi Direct for ultra-low latency. As far as controllers go, it's decently comfortable, and looks a lot like something Microsoft would have made; it features a headphone jack, microUSB port, a D-Pad, and volume controls—basically it's what you'd expect a gaming controller to look like, with a few NVIDIA accents to make it stand out.
The new SHIELD Tablet comes with an 8-inch 1920 x 1200 display, keeping the overall size pretty compact. It's as thick as last year's model—9.22m—but you won't find any complaints from me. This thing can be wielded with one hand without a problem, and I quite like the matted soft-touch back, which actually does a great job of hiding fingerprints.
If you put the new model next to the original SHIELD Tablet, you'd have a heck of a time telling which is which—and I'm OK with that. We expect OEMs to tweak and evolve their smartphone designs, but we're a little more forgiving in the tablet space. Why do you think the iPad has looked the way it does over the past several years? The NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet isn't going to win any design awards, but it's perfectly serviceable, and feels very comfortable to hold, which is the most important thing.
The smaller screen does pose a bit of a challenge when binging on games or watching several episodes of your favorite show. I did find myself wishing the screen was a little bigger for games, but that could be just because I'm an old man whose vision is on the decline. Luckily NVIDIA predicted old folks like me might find the 8-inch screen to tiny to game on, and included an HDMI port to easily connect to a TV or monitor.
I spent a lot of time shooting my way through Half-Life 2 and racing in Need For Speed: No Limits, and loved every second of it. Playing console-level games on such a small device didn't seem possible a few years ago, but now it is thanks devices like the SHIELD. And they run beautifully, too. If you leave the tablet idle for a long time and then jump back into a game, there might be a few seconds where it needs to catch up. But once it gets going, I didn't notice any drops in performance.
I kept the SHIELD Tablet hooked up to my TV over a weekend, and it worked fantastically well. There are two modes to choose from: mirror and console, the latter of which will turn off the SHIELD Tablet's screen while you play games and watch video. It's definitely my preferred method for using GeForce Now, but it might not be an ideal scenario for a majority of people. The screen size isn't an issue out of the gate, and it's quite comfortable for browsing the Web and bouncing between social media. But go on a longer binge, and you'll see what I mean.
As with last year's model you can take advantage of a feature known as GameStream, which beams games from your computer directly to the SHIELD Tablet. More than 100 titles are supported right now, and the library of games is only getting bigger. This feature is essentially the inverse of the small screen problem. If you're tired of gaming on your larger monitor, you can move around to other spots in your home with the SHIELD Tablet. In order to actually take advantage of this feature, you'll need specific NVIDIA hardware—GeForce GTX graphics (GTX 650 or higher).
We made a video last year detailing how GameStream works, which you can check out here. It's not something I'd use regularly, but it's hugely convenient if you feel like taking your gaming experience to other parts of your house, like, say, to the 55-inch TV in your living room. See? Another reason why the HDMI-port in the SHIELD Tablet is so handy. You can even use GameStream to remotely tap into your machine, so long as you have a decent Wi-Fi connection.
As part of the SHIELD Tablet's gaming capabilities, you can even use it to broadcast to Twitch or YouTube Gaming, making it a great companion if you can't afford an expensive rig. There's something to be said about how painless and accessible NVIDIA's device makes PC gaming, and in such a light and affordable package, too. It's easy enough to pick up and use without the maintenance and expense of a full computer, and with GeForce Now, you get access to over 100 games right from the cloud.
What's really impressive is that you get the same great technology of last year's model. That means a Tegra K1 chip clocked at 2.2GHz, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of expandable storage, 802.11a/b/g/n 2×2 MIMO, Bluetooth 4.0, and Android 5.1.1, which NVIDIA has said should be updated to Marshmallow by the end of the year.
NVIDIA treads light on its Android customizations, only adding a handful of apps that tap into the company's gaming services. There's also NVIDIA's art apps, though you'll need a stylus to take advantage of them, which NVIDIA said it will offer for just $20. The controller, meanwhile, is a little more expensive at $59.99. But even if you purchased the SHIELD Tablet and controller together, it would still be cheaper than the original Tablet's $299 asking price. (If you do decide to pick up a few accessories, I'd start with the SHIELD Tablet cover, which retails for $39.99.)
All of this technology is complemented by a pair of front-facing speakers with dual bass reflex ports. Like last year's model, the SHIELD Tablet produces rich sound—perfect for gaming and watching Michael Bay films (just kidding; or am I?). I typically had headphones plugged in anytime I was watching YouTube or playing a game, but rest assured the speakers sound great.
The NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet is a great piece of hardware for casual users and hardcore gamers—and all for just $199.
NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet
All of that said, you're probably asking where NVIDIA cut corners to make the device so cheap. To be honest, I had a pretty hard time finding any glaring issues. I found the battery more than sufficient, and the 1920 x 1200 screen looks terrific. Like I said earlier, though, the smaller screen did become tiresome on longer binges, but that just came down to preference. All I had to do was hook it up to my TV to end that problem.
I also really, really dislike the power and volume buttons, which feel horribly mushy. It seems silly we'd still complain about something so negligible, but I couldn't help but notice it. By no means is that enough to alter my overall opinion of the device. But if something like that annoys you, you've been warned. Little things like that drive me crazy.
The Android tablet market isn't exactly brimming with new options right now, making the arrival of NVIDIA's SHIELD Tablet K1 even more welcome. And at just $199, it would make for a pretty great gift for the holidays. When you review something that's this affordable, it's easy to gloss over its shortcomings. But after wracking my brain, there is very, very little to complain about.
If you want a vanilla Android tablet with some great gaming perks, NVIDIA's new device is the perfect option.
Disclaimer: NVIDIA provided TechnoBuffalo with an NVIDIA SHIELD Tablet K1 for the purpose of this review. It was tested for a week in our Irvine office.