It occurred to me while using the Nvidia Shield Tablet K1 that I couldn’t think of an Android tablet I’d rather buy.
That’s not the conclusion I’d expected to reach. The Shield Tablet K1 is an extremely minor repackaging of the original Shield Tablet, which came out in 2014 before being pulled off the market due to a potential fire hazard. It doesn’t have the most gorgeous design, the most powerful processor, or the most stunning screen. It could have come off any factory line in the world.
But none of that really matters in a market where almost every Android tablet lands with an apathetic thud — or worse, comes with a crippling flaw. The relaunched Shield Tablet has none of those, offers some unique advantages of its own, and does it all for under $200.
Not convinced yet?
The Shield Tablet couldn’t be more unassuming. It’s a generic black rectangle covered in soft-touch rubber; line it up against the wall with a Nexus 7 and a bunch of other competitors and you’d have a hard time identifying the criminal. I’m not crazy about the way it picks up fingerprints, and the mushy power button is a little too difficult to press, but beyond that there really isn’t that much to even say about the Shield Tablet’s generic design.
The display is any tablet’s defining feature, of course, and the Shield has a decent one. It’s not quite as contrasty or vibrant as the 7-inch Kindle Fire HDX I keep by my bed for emergency Netflix, but it does have one big advantage: size. The Shield Tablet has an 8-inch 1920 x 1200 display, and it does make a difference next to the 7-inch screens that were table stakes for Android tablets years ago.
I bought that Fire HDX (and the Nexus 7 it replaced) in an age where I used a tiny phone. Now I use a big phone, so tablets need to do more to justify their existence to me. And, at least until Google sorts out serious multitasking for its OS, eight inches is the right size for an Android tablet. It’s big enough to offer a meaningfully different experience over even a giant phone like the Nexus 6P, but small enough to mitigate the fact that Android still just doesn’t feel all that great on a tablet. You’re still dealing with stretched-out phone apps, but at least on the Shield they’re not blown up to the ridiculous degree that you’d see on something like the Pixel C.
Apart from the Pixel C and Google’s own Nexus devices, the Shield is one of the only tablets out there running the latest version of Android Marshmallow. It’s a mercifully clean build, too — the software is almost untouched save for a few preloaded Nvidia apps, most of which you’ll actually want. If you’re into gaming, that is — basically all of Nvidia’s software efforts are concentrated around building a premium gaming experience atop Android.
This initiative has three prongs: native and optimized Android games, Steam game streaming, and the GeForce Now cloud service. For all of these, you’re going to want a separate game controller, and you’re probably going to want Nvidia’s own; I had little luck getting my regular Steelseries Bluetooth controller to work, with erratic results on almost every game. Nvidia sent along a Shield controller, though, which is a weird-looking, great-feeling hulk of a thing with all the controls you’d expect plus dedicated Android buttons and comfortable rests for your fingers. The $59.99 Shield Controller works over direct Wi-Fi, not Bluetooth, which means it pairs very easily by using an app and offers great performance, but it’s only compatible with the Shield Tablet and Shield Android TV box.
Android has often felt like a second-rate mobile gaming platform compared to iOS, but Nvidia is doing its best to change that — for Nvidia device owners, at least. Through the Shield Hub app you can find a wide selection of games tested and optimized to work on the Shield Tablet, Shield Android TV, and the original Shield portable, a few of which are exclusive to Nvidia’s platform. Valve megahits Portal, Half-Life 2, and Half-Life 2: Episode 1 have full, solid Android ports that only work on Nvidia devices, for example; I played through Episode One and it was an impressive cut above what you’d expect from a mobile game. (Episode Two is available only for the Shield Android TV.) Other button-heavy games like Titan Souls and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number worked great on the Shield tablet and controller.
Nvidia’s K1 processor is more than capable of powering mobile games, but two more services are designed to let you run full-on PC games on the tablet’s screen. The first is called GameStream and requires a PC with an Nvidia GPU; it’s similar to Sony’s PS4-to-phone Remote Play streaming feature, beaming Steam games from the more powerful machine to the more portable. It worked pretty well in my testing, though the signal quality did degrade a fair bit when moving to another floor.
But what if you don’t have a gaming PC? Nvidia also has a streaming service called GeForce Now that lets you play games rendered live on the company’s servers. It costs $7.99 a month for a subscription with access to a moderately sized library of PC games, and you can buy more titles to actually own on top of that. Performance has been surprisingly good for me, if not quite pixel-sharp. I do wonder who the market is, though — with the limited selection, it still feels more like a tech demo than an actual platform, and buying the rights to stream a game is a hard sell. But if you really want to play The Witcher 3 without dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a games console or PC, it might work in a pinch.
You have far more gaming options on the Shield Tablet than any other, and I’m impressed with how Nvidia has managed to build out its own ecosystem within Android. But as far as the tablet itself is concerned, the gaming experience actually isn’t all that great. You really need the controller to take advantage of Nvidia’s extra features and content, for one thing. For another, although the 8-inch screen is perfect for most tablet use, it’s still too small to prop up on a desk and settle in for a few hours of Soma. Nvidia’s more powerful Shield Android TV box is probably a better bet, though of course that comes with competition from an entirely different direction. You can at least hook the Shield Tablet up to your TV via its Mini HDMI port, which is a more useful way to access GameStream and GeForce Now if your living space and router arrangements allow for it.
The biggest complaint I have about the Shield Tablet is its battery life. It’ll last long enough for all but the most hardcore of gaming sessions, but you’ll definitely want to keep it charging when not in use — it only managed 6 hours and 55 minutes on our website-looping battery test, and I found it overly susceptible to draining in standby mode. I doubt there are many situations in which a fully-charged Shield Tablet would outright die on someone, but it does make it less convenient as a device that you can toss on the sofa to pick up later.
"Where have all the great, inexpensive Android tablets gone?" asked my colleague Chris last September, with not a little nostalgia for the Nexus 7’s fanfared launch in summer 2012. Well, here’s one, and I’m calling it: at $199.99, the Nvidia Shield Tablet is the new Nexus 7. More expensive Android tablets simply don’t feel like they’re worth it, so this is now the most sensible Android tablet to buy at any price.
It’s worth asking whether it’s a good idea to buy an Android tablet at any price, of course. Unless you’re happy with basic content consumption and app support, you’re likely better off with an iPad. But if you’re already wrapped into the Android ecosystem, want a tablet specifically for gaming, or have a hard price ceiling of $200 and don't want a controller, knock yourself out — the Shield Tablet ticks all those boxes better than anything else.