When we reviewed the Nvidia Shield Tablet last year it ticked every box when faced with Android competition and even offered a lot that others couldn't, with its gaming prowess thanks to dedicated graphics hardware. We were also impressed by the £240 price tag considering how powerful and adept it was.
However, Nvidia had to recall many of the original Shield Tablets sold due to overheating batteries, while competitors have upped their games in the interim. In addition, the tablet market has shifted somewhat, with the pricier high-end now leaning more towards specialist devices like the Surface Pro 4 or iPad Pro.
In contrast, the rest have had to become more aggressively priced to make their mark, with Amazon even releasing a more-than-decent entry-level option for just £50. There is no longer a mid-range tablet category, it seems, and Nvidia acknowledges this with a refreshed, refined version of the device that wowed us so much last year: the Nvidia Tablet K1.
The K1 is, for all intents and purposes, the exact same tablet we reviewed in November 2014 with a few small tweaks in design, the newer Android Lollipop operating system on board, and a couple of things removed to keep the cost down. And these have resulted in the fact that, this year, Nvidia has managed to get the device onto the shelves for £150 – a £90 drop on the last model.
So do the compromises make a significant difference to the tablet's attractiveness? And is it even still relevant a year on?
Nvidia Shield Tablet K1 review: Great for graphics
In the latter case, the answer is yes. One of the reasons last year's Shield tablet was so well received is that it was specified with a 2.2GHz quad-core ARM cortex A15 processor and 2GB of RAM. And while that's not as impressive as some chipsets around these days, it still licks through apps and functions like a hot knife through butter.
The K1 is faster and more adept than most tablets in the Shield's new price range, even considering its relative old age in a rapidly evolving sector, but perhaps more importantly, the new Tablet K1 has something others can't match: Nvidia's own Tegra K1 192-core Kepler graphics processing unit (GPU).
In comparison to the Maxwell-based graphics chip that comes with the newer Tegra X1, the Kepler GPU is less powerful, but it trounces almost everything else around when it comes to rendering 3D for gaming. There's good reason that some developers optimise their Android games for the Nvidia Shield – it's got the oomph to make their titles look console-like.
Indeed, there are plenty more that have enhanced graphics now available on the Shield Hub. This is the proprietary gaming section for Nvidia that comes pre-installed on the Tablet K1 and points directly to games that either have improved graphical fidelity for this specific tablet, Nvidia game controller support or both. And since last year the list has grown substantially.
Games like first-person shooters Dead Effect 2 and Unkilled are better looking on the Shield Tablet thanks to the talents of the K1 GPU, even though you actually buy them through the Google Play Store as normal. The Shield Hub is the easiest way to find them though.
There are also a couple of new games released with the Tablet K1 – Need for Speed No Limits and Real Boxing 2 – so support is continuing on.
Nvidia Shield Tablet K1 review: The cost of compromise?
You don't need an optional game controller to play any of the available titles, but it does make for a better, more console-like experience. Nvidia's own controller, which is also compatible with its Shield Android TV box, is Wi-Fi connected rather than Bluetooth, which minimises lag greatly. It also has the heft and feel of a genuine console controller rather than the vast majority of Android-supporting gamepads out there.
This controller will cost you £50 mind, as, like the official protective cover, you don't get one included with the tablet (unlike the Shield TV, which comes with one in the box). But then, it is one of the Tablet K1's compromises to ensure the price is kept as low as possible for such a capable device.
The other is that you do not get the Nvidia DirectStylus 2 included. There's not even a slot for one on the redesigned Tablet K1. The Nvidia Dabbler software is still pre-installed, but you'll have to use your finger to draw unless you want to shell out extra for a stylus (currently around $20 from the Stateside Nvidia store). That said, we rarely found an occasion to use the one that came with the original Shield Tablet anyway, so it isn't exactly missed.
Most irksome, however, is that you don't get a charger in the pack. Nvidia is clearly aiming this year's model at upgraders or those who already have an Android smartphone (Nintendo annoying does the same thing with its 3DS XL). The K1 Tablet is charged through Micro USB so is compatible with just about every smartphone and tablet cable out there, bar Apple's and the new USB Type-C equivalents. You would think the lead would be included however, even if the plug element isn't. Weird.
Nvidia Shield Tablet K1 review: Competitive spec
It's the only really odd part of the refreshed tablet, though, as everything else still remains relevant in a market that hasn't really moved that much in the last 12 months. The 8-inch display is still as good as most rivals', especially at this price point. It has a Full HD 1980 x 1200 resolution and is vibrant and sharp.
The stereo front-facing speakers provide excellent volume and clarity for their size, with a small design tweak in that they are covered in rubber this time, presumably for better grip when playing games without a controller. The front and back cameras are the same, both featuring 5-megapixel sensors and Twitch streaming is still an option for gamers.
Nvidia has decided to just release a 16GB Tablet K1 model this year, dropping the 32GB with LTE option, again with price firmly in mind. But there is a microSD card slot for expansion, just as before.
Dual-band Wi-Fi also returns, as does the overall design aesthetic. This is not a tablet designed to be sleek and sexy; it's a chunky slate that weighs 390g and is 9.2mm think. Place it against an iPad mini 4 and the difference in style is plain to see.
But the Shield Tablet K1 is a different kind of device, one that is still predominantly aimed at gamers, with its enhanced Android games and access to Nvidia's own GeForce Now cloud game streaming service. Plus it's now a lot more affordable, of course.
We loved the original Shield Tablet but were somewhat surprised that Nvidia decided to tweak this year's Tablet K1 model rather than load it with more recent technologies.
However, as we realised during use, the older tech still stands up to scrutiny very well. Indeed, when compared directly to the abilities of peers around the same price point, such as Amazon's Fire HD devices, the Shield Tablet K1 remains a powerhouse of a slate.
By focusing on price rather than increased performance, Nvidia has provided outstanding value. It is still a device most suited to the gaming community, and still the best on the market for that purpose we'd argue, but its capabilities and usability with everyday functionality too might attract others to the party, who find the £150 tag alluring.
We must admit that we're a little bamboozled that the package comes so bare-boned that you don't even get a USB cable or mains charger, but if you have one already you'll likely not care.
Considering Nvidia promises Android 6.0 Marshmallow in the coming months, it's a reasonably priced tablet that will potentially improve even more. If you own the original Shield Tablet, there is absolutely no need to upgrade, but if not and you're in the market for a cost-effective solution, the K1 comes highly recommended.
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