The original Nvidia Shield Portable was an endearing, oddball product that resonated with gamers, but had limited appeal with mainstream audiences. The more conventional Shield Tablet casts a much wider net. Though it's still a gamer's device at heart, even non-gamers should take note of the 32GB, LTE-equipped Shield Tablet. The raw power, sharp display, and gaming features of the Wi-Fi-only model are all present and accounted for. The real kicker? At $399 (unlocked), it severely undercuts every comparable, LTE-equipped tablet out there by a wide margin. If you need a tablet with always-on connectivity, whether you use it for gaming or not, the Shield Tablet should be at the top of your list. It's an easy pick for our Editors' Choice award.
We've already reviewed the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only Shield Tablet. The design, software, and gaming accessories are all identical between the two, so hit up the original review for a full rundown on features. For this review, we'll focus on cellular connectivity and the competition.
There is a minor physical difference between the Wi-Fi and LTE Shield Tablets: On the right edge, you'll find a flap covering a micro SIM card slot. The tray is spring-loaded and cards can be easily switched out. There's only one LTE model right now that supports HSPA (850/1700/1900/2100MHz) and LTE (700/850/1700/1900/2600MHz) networks in North America. That means it'll be compatible with all of AT&T's 4G LTE and 3G HSPA bands, as well as all of T-Mobile's HSPA bands (including the speedy HSPA+ 42) and all but one of its LTE bands. Our review unit came with an AT&T SIM preinstalled, but a T-Mobile card on hand worked without issue.
We tested the Shield Tablet side-by-side against an Apple iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy Alpha, both also with AT&T SIMs installed. We ran tests from multiple locations throughout our office and from outside on the street level in midtown Manhattan on what turned out to be a particularly congested day for AT&T's network. Speeds topped out around 8Mbps down and 3Mbps up, which is pretty slow for LTE, but more indicative of poor network conditions than anything wrong with the devices.
In a round of tests indoors, all three showed similar cellular reception strength, with a slight edge going to the Shield Tablet. For instance, from about 10 feet from the nearest window, the Shield tablet showed -87dBm, while the iPhone 6 and Galaxy Alpha managed -90dBm (closer to zero is better). That's a small difference, but the point is that this tablet at least matches cellular reception of recent smartphones. Our office has pretty poor AT&T LTE coverage, so all three devices struggled to deliver normal LTE speeds. The Shield Tablet averaged 2.3Mbps down and 1.65Mbps up, while the iPhone 6 averaged 1.79Mbps down and 1.16Mbps up. The Galaxy Alpha was the strongest of the bunch, averaging 5.55Mbps down and 1.11Mbps up. Outdoors and with clear skies, both the iPhone 6 and Shield Tablet hovered around 4Mbps down and 2Mbps up, while the Galaxy Alpha averaged closer to 7Mbps down and 2Mbps up. The differences are too small to be significant or conclusive, but the important takeaway is that the Shield Tablet's LTE radio appears to be on par with Apple's and only marginally slower than Samsung's.
In a battery rundown test, where we streamed a YouTube video over LTE with screen brightness set to max, the Shield Tablet lasted for 4 hours, 10 minutes. Tablets like the Asus MeMO Pad ME181C last for around 7 hours of local video playback, so this is a reasonably positive result considering LTE streaming is far more battery intensive.
Game streaming features work over LTE, but your mileage will vary based on network conditions. Mind your data caps, too, since streaming HD content over LTE like this will quickly burn through your monthly allotment. This feature will appeal to well-heeled gaming addicts, but everyone else should stick to Wi-Fi game streaming.
Competition and Conclusions
With Qualcomm dominating the smartphone chipset market in the U.S., Nvidia is doubling down on its core competency: gaming. Even so, with a $399 price tag and LTE connectivity, the Shield Tablet has exceptional appeal for gamers and non-gamers alike. It blows other tablets out of the water when it comes to gaming and has an outstanding price-to-feature ratio for an LTE-enabled tablet. There are two comparable models available with LTE connectivity: the iPad mini with Retina and Samsung Galaxy Tab S 8.4, both of which cost $529.99 with AT&T LTE and only come with 16GB of internal storage. Signing a contract will knock $100 off the price of all three of these tablets. If all you want is a basic tablet with LTE connectivity, you can also snag the LG G Pad 7.0 with LTE for $249.99 on AT&T, but it's severely underpowered compared with the Shield Tablet.