NVIDIA is making a desktop mode, possibly for a new 2-in-1 SHIELD tablet

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NVIDIA is best known for its desktop and laptop GPUs, but the company’s SoCs for mobile devices have had decent success. The wildly successful Nintendo Switch is powered by the NVIDIA Tegra X1 SoC, making the Switch the most popular mobile product with a Tegra chipset. But the Nintendo Switch isn’t the only mobile device with Tegra hardware since it’s predated by the NVIDIA SHIELD Portable, Tegra Note 7, and SHIELD Tablet. Although NVIDIA discontinued all 3 products and canceled plans to release a new SHIELD Tablet back in 2016, the company may finally be preparing to launch new hardware. According to code we examined within the latest SHIELD Experience software, a new desktop-mode software feature is in-development for a new product code-named “mystique.” Furthermore, source code published online by NVIDIA reveals some possible hardware specifications for “mystique,” suggesting it could be a 2-in-1 PC like the Microsoft Surface Book.

Left to right: The SHIELD Portable, Tegra Note 7, and SHIELD Tablet K1.


NVIDIA Desktop Experience

Although NVIDIA has experience building Android for tablets, they haven’t released a new software build for the SHIELD Tablet K1 since March of 2018. SHIELD Experience 5.4 was the latest release at the time, but over a year later the software has reached version 7.2.3. Since NVIDIA no longer builds software releases for tablets, the amount of information on new tablet features we can get from the latest SHIELD Experience releases—built for Android TV—is limited. A hypothetical, in-development non-Android TV product from NVIDIA will only share certain system apps and framework files with the existing SHIELD Experience builds for the SHIELD TV, given that Android TV involves a suite of specialized system apps that aren’t found on standard builds of Android for tablets or smartphones (e.g. the leanback launcher).

Nonetheless, code from the SHIELD TV’s latest software releases points to a new software feature code-named “NvDtExp,” likely short for NVIDIA Desktop Experience. This software feature is almost certainly not intended for the existing SHIELD TV products. It is also highly unlikely for NVIDIA to upgrade its existing tablets with this feature, given that it’s been over a year since they last released an update for the SHIELD Tablet K1. Lastly, the code makes many references to the product code-named “mystique,” which suggest the new feature is intended for this new product.

The code was first discovered by a custom ROM developer who shared his findings with XDA-Developers. We confirmed the presence of this code, which seems to handle the switching between UI modes for NVIDIA Desktop Experience, in production builds of SHIELD Experience dating back to December of 2018 and continuing into the latest SHIELD Experience 7.2.3 release from last month. Although SHIELD Experience 7.2 was the first release containing the desktop mode switcher code, we suspect that NVIDIA has developed this feature for months before its first appearance in a public release.

From the code, we can confirm several details about the SHIELD Desktop Experience feature. First, there are 3 supported UI modes: Dynamic, Tablet, and Desktop. Without an updated launcher and SystemUI from a tablet-specific SHIELD Experience 7.2+ build, we can’t confirm the exact UI differences between the 3 modes. However, if we were to guess, then tablet mode is likely a standard Android tablet interface, desktop mode is likely a new interface with a bottom taskbar and freeform multi-window support, and dynamic mode is likely some sort of hybrid between tablet and desktop mode. There are mentions of start menu visibility and mouse hover control for the desktop UI mode. Other aspects of SHIELD Desktop Experience that we see in the current firmware include the ability to set a UI mode on boot, start desktop mode if a keyboard is attached, and intercept certain button combinations to show the status bar, show the power menu dialog, close active windows, or toggle full-screen mode.

The unfinished desktop mode in Android Q.

NVIDIA is also testing a way to control the SHIELD Desktop Experience via shell commands and broadcast intents, although the commands don’t do anything on existing SHIELD TV devices since the code checks whether the device is “mystique.” In fact, there are multiple configuration values unique to the desktop mode feature that reference “mystique.” Sadly, although we’re confident in our understanding of the SHIELD Desktop Experience feature, we’re less certain about our knowledge of “mystique.” Given that code for SHIELD Desktop Experience only recently surfaced, there’s little doubt that it’s a new software feature in-development. Furthermore, since the code exists in production firmware and makes references to a new, unreleased product, we can reasonably assume that “mystique” is a consumer device running Android. However, the hardware details we have for “mystique” may be outdated.


“Mystique”

The “mystique” code-name fits NVIDIA’s pattern of using Marvel character names. For instance, the SHIELD Portable was originally code-named “thor,” though it was later changed to “roth.” “WX,” or Weapon X, and “SB,” or Songbird, have also been used in the past. On the TV front, we’ve seen code-names like “blake,” “jarvis,” “pepper,” “thunderstrike,” “darcy,” and “foster.” Thus, spotting “mystique” in public source code is what first tipped us off about the possibility that it’s an in-development product, but it was our discovery of the SHIELD Desktop Experience feature that really connected the dots.

Source code from last year shows that “mystique” has a 13.5-inch 3000×2000 (3:2) LCD from Panasonic. A 13.5-inch panel would be quite large for a tablet, which is why we think “mystique” is instead a 2-in-1 PC. This idea fits with what we know of SHIELD Desktop Experience and its 3 UI modes. Notably, the Microsoft Surface Book also has a 13.5-inch 3000×2000 (3:2) display, but I don’t think “mystique,” if it exists, will necessarily be a Surface Book competitor since we have little information about its full specifications. (Of interest, the Tegra 4 Microsoft Surface 2 and Tegra 4 developer tablet could boot Android, so NVIDIA has a history with the Surface line.)

The Microsoft Surface Book. Source: Microsoft.

At one point, NVIDIA was developing “mystique” with the Tegra X2 (t186), but more recent commits showed “mystique” in the device tree for the Tegra Xavier (t194.) The Tegra Xavier is a large, high-performance chip intended for automotive and AI computing, as seen on the Jetson AGX Xavier module released in late 2018. The Jetson can operate at a lower 10W power profile compared to a maximum 30W, so likewise “mystique” will be running at lower power, if it is indeed powered by the Xavier SoC. In contrast, the SHIELD Tablet K1 is powered by the 2014 Tegra K1 while the canceled 2016 SHIELD Tablet, code-named “hawkeye,” was expected to launch with the Tegra X1 like the Nintendo Switch and SHIELD Android TV. Having the Tegra Xavier would make “mystique” NVIDIA’s most powerful consumer product, but again, we have to stress our uncertainty in our knowledge of its hardware specifications given that the code we spotted may not reflect the current status of the product.

Tegra Xavier overview. Source: Michael Ditty, Hot Chips 30: NVIDIA Xavier SoC. (Retrieved via WikiChip.)


Uncertainty in a new SHIELD Tablet

It may seem strange for NVIDIA to re-enter the market with a new mobile product given that they canceled their SHIELD Tablet K1 successor in 2016 citing unspecified “business reasons.” The release of the Nintendo Switch likely played a big part in the cancellation of NVIDIA’s 2016 tablet, though we don’t know. We reached out to NVIDIA to see if the company would like to comment on a summary of our findings regarding the NVIDIA Desktop Experience feature and “mystique.” A spokesperson for NVIDIA declined to comment, though they referred me to a previous statement I was given as well as comments made publicly by NVIDIA’s CEO Jensen Huang at CES 2019. For reference, here’s the statement I was given when I previously wrote about the existence of a new SHIELD remote and SHIELD controller:

It’s fairly standard practice for various concept codenames to appear in codebases. Those references remain even when it becomes unlikely that the concept ever goes into production. We can’t comment on which codenames refer to product concepts that are active vs which ones are inactive, as it can be fluid. However, I can confirm that none of the codenames below refer to products that have launched publicly.

As for the comments made by Jensen Huang, the spokesperson linked me to a TechCrunch article which cited comments made by Mr. Huang “during a small press gathering.” Of course, we independently came across this article while researching the latest news on NVIDIA’s SHIELD line and had already considered its relevance to our findings. After carefully reading the CEO’s comment and discussing the comment with a source at NVIDIA as well as the article’s author, we came to the conclusion that Mr. Huang is not actually saying the company has no plans to make new mobile products due to the success of third-parties like Nintendo. Rather, the CEO is saying that NVIDIA will refrain from making new devices if they’re simply minor improvements upon current devices on the market. Instead, his attitude toward new SHIELD products is such that NVIDIA should only make a new product if it’s exciting or innovative in some way.

“We are really committed to [Shield TV], but on mobile devices, we don’t think it’s necessary…We would only build things not to gain market share. Nvidia is not a ‘take somebody else’s market share company.’ I think that’s really angry. It’s an angry way to run a business. Creating new markets, expanding the horizon, creating things that the world doesn’t have, that’s a loving way to build a business.” – NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang, speaking to reporters at CES 2019, as reported by Frederic Lardinois of TechCrunch.

Does “mystique” qualify as an exciting or awesome product? Given the dearth of new Android tablets, it would certainly stand out in the market. There aren’t really any premium, Android-based competitors to the larger iPad Pro, after all. Android as a tablet OS is far less appealing than iOS given the lack of tablet-optimized apps in the former, so I question whether pairing Android with such powerful hardware makes sense. Furthermore, the new desktop mode may be underutilized since many Android apps don’t properly support freeform multi-window mode, though that could change in the future once developers start building for Android Q.

There are a lot of questions I have about the purpose of “mystique.” Assuming the device has a 13.5-inch display, it should have a larger battery than what’s found in the existing SHIELD tablets, but the Tegra Xavier still seems overkill if the device for consumers. I can’t imagine there will be a huge market for this product if it ends up running Android, though it could end up being a niche product aimed at developers.

NVIDIA is very tight-lipped about its product plans, so the only glimpse we have of its future products come from whatever we can find in code. That means the information we obtain could be inaccurate as it depends on us correctly interpreting the code, or it could be outdated since we don’t have access to the latest source code. While we’re confident that NVIDIA is working on a desktop mode feature, we’re less confident about everything surrounding “mystique,” which is quite fitting given the term’s dictionary definition.


Note: The featured image is for illustrative purposes only. It does not reflect the actual rumored product.

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