Dec. 14th, 2014

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Just over two years ago, I bought a Motorola Xoom tablet. It had been the top Android tablet of 2011, which is damning with faint praise. But, it was $600 for the Wifi-only model or $800 for the 3G model when it was released. I got the 3G model but never used the 3G part of it, and only paid $200 18 months after it was released. Needless to say, it did not do well in the market of the time. This month, I splurged and got myself an Nvidia Shield tablet. This is at the top of the Android tablet market for 2014, so it seems a good comparison can be made about the progress of Android in the tablet space over the past three-plus years. It’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

The first thing you notice about a tablet when you pick it up is how it feels in your hand. The Xoom weighs 730 grams (over 1.5 pounds), while the Shield weighs 390 grams (less than one pound). The Shield is so lightweight, I’m constantly amazed at how much it can do. Of course, the reviews talk about the Shield as being heavy, so apparently less-powerful tablets are lighter. But, the Shield can play Half-Life 2 and Portal! Besides weight, there are other physical aspects of the tablets that strike me. The Xoom feels like a tank. Its body is primarily metal, with a plastic strip to expose the various antennas. The Shield feels delicate. It’s all-plastic, and my first one had a crack when I took it out of the package (RMA time!). For this reason, I’ve ordered a hybrid shock-absorbing hard case for the Shield. If I’m going to be using it to take credit card orders at craft shows, I want it to be protected.

Once you get the thing in your hand, you’ll turn it on. The Xoom has a 1280×800 screen (160 ppi) that can be described as adequate. Colors are a little washed out, and viewing angles are not bad. The Shield’s 1920×1200 screen (293 ppi) is really nice. It’s only 8 inches, instead of the Xoom’s 10 inches, and so it squeezes a lot of pixels into a small space. The tablets with even higher resolution might be just chasing specs, since this has no visible pixels at normal viewing distances. The colors don’t shift, the blacks are blacker, and the whole feeling is just nicer. Even though it’s 2 inches smaller, I can read pages at least as easily on the Shield as the Xoom. It does seem that both screens are a bit dim, so sunlight is a tough place to use them. Both devices also have stereo speakers, but the Xoom has them facing away from the user for reasons that remain inexplicable. The Shield gets loud and the speakers face front.

What about power? Whooboy, have things changed in the performance realm. Xoom and Shield both use Nvidia Tegra chips. The Xoom is a Tegra 2, a dual-core 1Ghz CPU with a 400Mhz GeForce GPU. It was quite a nice piece of kit for 2011, but programmers have been expanding the capabilities of Android apps and Google’s own services since then. It’s feeling pretty sluggish today, with pauses and hiccups aplenty. The Shield SOC is the Tegra K1 32-bit variant. This has a quad-core 2.2Ghz CPU with a Kepler-class GPU. Overall, the power of the K1 is in the same ballpark as an Xbox 360 (which came out in 2005, so don’t get too excited). Benchmarks are phenomenally different between the two systems – Xoom gets an Antutu score of 5000, Shield is over 40,000. 3dmark Icestorm on the Xoom gets 1290, but 31500 on the Shield.

But, what about daily usage? That’s where things get frustrating. In 2012, I was struck by how frequently I ran into portrait-only apps on Android. I have not seen a huge increase in non-Google apps that use the landscape orientation, other than games. In fact, some apps which did work on the Xoom in landscape last year were updated to be portrait-only this year. TiVo is a big offender here. It was late bringing out an Android version to begin with, then it produced two – one for phones and one for tablets. Earlier this year, they merged the two, but dropped support for landscape mode and dropped support for the older app as well. In fact, loading the app which worked just fine would cause it to immediately close with the message that you needed to get the new one, regardless of the fact that the new one didn’t bloody well work on the device. So I ended up with no TiVo-branded app on my Xoom. There are a number of apps which work in landscape on the Xoom but force the Shield into portrait mode. Apparently the programmers figured the smaller screen meant, “treat it like a big phone.” For some reason, the popular casual games Simpsons Tapped Out and Family Guy Quest for Stuff are buggy as heck on the Shield, but work just fine on the Xoom. I’ll be generous and give them some time to fix them, but the Shield did come out in July.

Even Google’s own apps are not perfect when it comes to landscape mode. The Google Inbox program (which is starting to grow on me) works in landscape, but doesn’t make very good use of the extra width. Worse, it forces you to perform the quick setup steps in portrait mode. If even El Goog doesn’t care enough about landscape to allow their programs to work exclusively in that orientation, the likelihood of anyone else supporting it enthusiastically is pretty low.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with my Shield. I got it during the Black Friday promo, so it came with not just Trine 2, but Half-Life 2, Portal, Half-Life 2 Episode 1 (upcoming), and the Shield Controller. The controller makes the smaller screen less cramped for games that support it, that’s for sure. That I can play Portal or some very impressive racing games on a device that weighs less than a pound is just amazing. That it cost half what the Xoom did less than four years earlier is really a testament to Moore’s Law.


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