From the Forge: Nvidia Shield Tablet K1
Fresh off the heals of reviewing Google’s new flagship tablet, the Pixel C, I’m conflicted about not just NVIDIA’s Shield Tablet K1, but also tablets in generally. How the heck are we supposed to use “tablets”?. I don’t want a $200+ device just lying around the house. I want to use it daily and become more efficient at work and managing my tasks. I want a device that is comfortable to hold for 3 hours on a flight while watching a movie. I need a high resolution screen with bright colors and a consistent experience from a performance perspective. I want quality games – not micro-transaction-filled free games. I want to play Doom! Ok, rant over. Since being a day-1 adopter of the first iPad, I’ve learned a truth about all tablets: size matters. Not in the clique sense, which implies that bigger is better. Rather, the size of the tablet dictates what you can do with it. To me, a 10″ tablet is not good for gaming. An 8″ tablet is ideal for games but not great for writing email, browsing the web and replacing your laptop or workstation. A 7″ tablet is perfect while laying in bed reading at night. Size matters. The K1 is an 8″, gaming-oriented tablet. The K1 was built for gaming in not only it’s impressive specifications but also the services provided by NVIDIA. Consequently, I’m reviewing the K1 as I would a portable gaming device.
Two front-facing stereo speakers, a thin, 0.36″ chassis and the power of the K1 processor is just about everything you can ask for in a tablet. This is, however, unless you want something you can show off at face value alone. The K1 is modest: black, rubber, and thin power and volume buttons. This is actually a point of frustration for me. I can’t seem to get my fingers used to how thin these are. The beauty of the K1 is not so much the exterior; it’s the interior.
The Tegra K1 processor, until recently, was the king of the hill in the mobile processing arena. NVIDIA now has the X1 processor that is presently only found in the Pixel C. While the Pixel C is lighting fast, I have found the Tegra K1 to yield a similar experience. In fact, I’m yet to see a difference in performance as an average user of the two devices. I’m confident true benchmarks would reveal the X1 outperforms the K1 – on paper it’s certainly a beast. The K1 is a dual core processor that runs at 2.3GHz with a 192 core Kepler GPU that operates at 852MHz. Boom! That’s a lot of horsepower in a tablet. To round-out the Shield tablet, NVIDIA added 2GB of RAM, a 1920×1200 display, and a 16GB internal SSD. While the internal storage is very limited, with Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) you’re given the option to mount a MicroSD and treat it as internal storage. This isn’t necessarily as seamless as it may sound, as not all applications support it. For example, the Amazon Video app does not allow you to download media onto the MicroSD, even though it’s mounted as “internal” storage. This is where my grand plan of migrating off of the 32GB Fire HDX onto a larger, more powerful tablet in the K1, backfired. But there are other reasons to love the K1 despite it’s limited storage.
There are two reasons to love on the K1 and forgive it’s limited storage space: Android 6.0 and NVIDIA’s GeForce Now service.
Very few devices can claim to run Google’s latest mobile OS: Android 6.0. The K1 is one such tablet. Android is constantly getting better, and cleaner if you know where to look. With the exception of a few NVIDIA apps the K1 is mostly a vanilla instance of Android 6.0. Most of the improvements over Android 5.0 are under the hood. Above the hood are battery life and performance improvements. Animations, UI effects and other changes are welcomed but more importantly, there is a nice partnership between NVIDIA and Google that may lead to strong OS support for the K1. Meaning the K1 will get OS updates relatively quickly, and possibly access to Android N (7.0) before other tablets and phones.
With Geforce Now (formerly ‘Grid’), customers can stream PC games from NVIDIA’s servers, anywhere they have a solid WiFi connection. The requirements are steep: you need at least a 10 MBPS connection and up to 50 MBPS to play games at 1080p with 60 frames-per-second. If you don’t have a gaming PC, for whatever reason, this is a valuable service at $7.99/month. There is also the option to buy games 1-off but you will still be required to stream them via an active connection to the Internet that meets the above-mentioned requirements.
As a gaming device that should compete with the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita, the K1 rocks – particularly when paired with the SHIELD Controller. Again, the sources of games are the Android Play Store and the GeForce Now service. But, hold the phone, there is a 3rd source: your GeForce GTX GPU-powered PC (laptop or desktop). The library of games now becomes so vast that the 3Ds an Vita cannot compete, from a sheer numbers perspective. Mobile games for Android and iOS are mostly shallow, pay to win experiences. There are some standouts, such as Angry Birds. For any handheld/tablet to compete with the gaming legends of Nintendo and PlayStation, from a mobile perspective, there needs to be a strong library, instantly. NVIDIA nails that due to the streaming option. But these games are not native to the K1 and only works within your network, which is likely your home. The requirements are not too strenuous in that you need a a GTX model video card to enable streaming. And I’ve found that it’s easy to stream games with minimal lag in my well-equipped home network. If you are only playing games offline, then the K1 cannot compete with the before-mentioned handhelds. But that doesn’t mean it’s a loser. The K1 is a rockstar. It’s a multifaceted tablet with the capability to play PC games. If you can live with the limited storage and you have a stream-ready PC, you’re going to love the gaming capabilities. I like to stream games from my bedroom at night, and sometimes while I’m lounging on the couch and my wife is using the primary television.
Earlier I mentioned a gripe about the thin power and volume buttons. That is just 1 of 2 complaints I have about the K1. The other is the battery life. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. The Verge ran a battery test for web surfing and the K1 recorded just under 7 hours of battery life. What that really means is you need to charge it overnight.
The K1 is only $199. That’s not a lot of money for the power this tablet has. Once you add on the optional accessories, such as a cover and controller, the all-in price is closer to $300. Even still, this is more use than you’ll find from other tablets. The K1 is for gamers. They <we> will benefit the most from the power of the K1 processor. The K1 tablet is also great for web surfing and pretty good for entertainment (movies, TV shows). It’s likely the best value in tablets right now (May, 2016).