The Shield Android TV is the first set top box from NVIDIA and the third consumer-facing Android TV box (after the Nexus Player and Razer Forge TV) to be announced. It builds on the gaming-focused Shield branding first used in the Shield Portable and later used on the Shield Tablet, but as is the case with the Shield Tablet the Shield Android TV box can be used for much more than just games.

Nvidia Shield

THE GOOD

The Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming box offers best-in-class hardware, connectivity and gaming capabilities. It works with 4K streaming services including Netflix and YouTube. The Android TV platform delivers good conversational voice search from the included game controller. Native app selection is solid, and if you use your smartphone or tablet to Cast compatible apps, it can access most important services. The interface is lightning-fast — even with relatively complex apps. You can upgrade storage up to 128GB.

THE BAD

It’s more expensive than any other streamer and doesn’t include a remote, aside from the game controller. Native app selection is still weaker than that of Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. The menu system seems designed to push users toward Google’s media services, and voice search doesn’t yet include Netflix.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Nvidia Shield’s 4K video and solid gaming chops will appeal to geeks, and software updates have made it more stable, but app shortfalls and a relatively high price limit its appeal.

The Nvidia Shield Android TV box tries to straddle two galloping horses headed in different directions. It’s a difficult and potentially painful balancing act. A gamer-friendly 4K streamer in search of mass appeal.

One plucky palomino is the world of media streamers, represented by the Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV and Roku. They’re all cheap, work great (more or less) and are only growing in popularity and app support.

The other raging stallion is the gaming world, in the form of the Xbox One (Also See Our Article On Microsoft’s XBOX One) and PlayStation 4. They’re significantly more expensive than the Shield, but they’re superior gaming devices. Most serious gamers have one or the other, or an even more expensive gaming PC.

Doing the splits in the middle is the Shield, which starts at $200 or £150. It uses the Android TV streaming media and app platform, which has solid voice search, Google Cast functionality just like a Chromecast, a pushy interface and fewer native apps than competitors.

Android TV has access to a limited library of apps compared with the Google Play Store for phones and tablets, and still lacks Amazon Instant Video, Watch ESPN and Spotify apps among others. Fire TV and Roku have a better selection of native apps, although neither has the Shield’s Google Cast capability.

If you have an early 4K TV that lacks built-in 4K streaming apps you might be tempted by the Shield’s 4K capability, but the less-expensive Roku 4 is the better choice. The Shield might also appeal to people who have large libraries of Android games they want to play on a TV, or are interested in streaming a selection of older games for $8 per month. If any of those people actually existed.

There is one group of buyers to whom Shield does appeal. Since it debuted in 2015 Shield has gained a good following of people I like to call file hoarders. They have big collections of files — namely TV shows and movies downloaded from various no-questions-asked corners of the Internet, usually ripped by somebody from DVD or Blu-ray — that they want to play on a TV over a home network. The powerful Shield does a superb job of that, whether via Plex, Kodi, Emby or something else. Of course, it also costs more than many other hoarder-friendly devices.

When they reach for their wallets, most people will bet on another horse: a different streamer or a serious gaming rig like a console or PC, or both. Although it’s better than it was a year ago at launch, the expensive Shield still fills too narrow of a niche.

Editors’ note, April 25, 2016: This review has been updated since its publication, taking into account updates including Android Marshmallow, which improved stability and added features, as well as new apps and games, and testing of the GeForce Now game-streaming service. Its Value rating was changed from 5 to 6 and its Ecosystem rating was changed from 7 to 8, which increased its overall rating from 6.9 to 7.5.

Nvidia Shield

Triple Shielded

The Android TV box is the third Nvidia Shield in the PC graphics company’s armory. All three are Android devices with access to the Google Play Store’s app library. They also get three Nvidia-specific features, namely optimized games and a handful of big titles like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Metal Gear Rising: The Revengeance (here’s a partial list); compatibility with GameStream, which lets you stream games running on an Nvidia-equipped PC to screens elsewhere in the house or remotely; and access to Grid, the company’s cloud-based game-streaming service.

Allow me to draw tenuous comparisons to three kinds of medieval shields as we run through the family tree.

The first Nvidia Shield, a tiny, duel-friendly buckler in size, was renamed Shield Portable and sells for a whopping $550. It’s still available, although this generation is being phased out. Basically a game controller with a touchscreen screen grafted on top, the weird device suffered from a small game library compared with other portables like the PlayStation Vita or Nintendo 3DS .

The second, called the Shield Tablet, is a high-powered, $300 Android tablet that we really like. Our admiration stems from its relative value for the specifications, not from its gaming prowess. It’s a classic medium heater shield in terms of popular appeal and screen size.

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The third is the new Nvidia Shield Android TV box. Like a tower shield, or scutum, it’s the biggest of its kind, at least in terms of the screens it feeds.

It comes in two varieties, the $200 Shield and the $300 Shield Pro. Both are available in the US and Europe now (Australian availability is not part of the conversation — sorry!).

The Pro increases onboard storage from 16GB to 500GB. I reviewed the standard Shield, but since the two units are identical aside from storage capacity (and weight, although the other physical dimensions are the same), my observations apply to it as well.

If you’re hard-core enough to be considering the Pro, be aware that the upgrade to Android Marshmallow brings with it the ability to replace Shield’s internal storage with an SD card or USB device up to 128GB. Unless you’re storing numerous files and big games on the device, that’s probably enough.

Nvidia Shield

The box: Is that Dragonglass?

If set-top boxes were graded on aggressive looks alone, the Shield would bash the competition, and perhaps slay a White Walker or two along the way. This slim, angular shard is traced by diagonal ridges, alternating glossy and matte-black finishes, and a razor-sharp sideways green “V” that illuminates when it’s on. Best. Power. Indicator. Ever.

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The default orientation is horizontal but you can also set it into an optional matching stand ($30 or £25) to keep it vertical. On the top is a touch-sensitive power button I accidentally hit more than once, and the slim front face sports an infrared (IR) sensor so the Shield can work with most universal remote controls

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The controller: Feature-packed but too bulky

A single Shield controller ships with the device. Chunkier than other controllers, especially those of the PlayStation 3 and 4, it feels significantly heavier in the hand.

Nvidia Shield

It’s decent, but I definitely prefer the Xbox and PlayStation controllers, mainly because they feel much lighter; their longer grips felt more natural, especially over extended periods of gaming. Happily, the Shield worked with a variety of Bluetooth controllers (including Amazon’s) and the wired Xbox 360 controller.

.Nvidia Shield

The Shield controller out-features most, however. It offers a volume control, a microphone for voice search and a headphone jack for private listening, a la Roku 3. Unlike the Roku, volume on the Shield also controls the HDMI port’s output level, so you can control the TV or AV receiver volume, too. It’s also worth noting that, like the Fire TV and Apple TV, the Shield can pair with Bluetooth headphones like the Sennheiser Momentums I tried.

One-handed remote: A $50 option (ouch)

Unlike pretty much every other streaming box, the Shield doesn’t ship with a simple remote. Sure you can use the controller to do everything, but it’s impossible to use with one hand. You can also use theAndroid TV Remote Control app, which is great (especially for entering text) but requires your phone or tablet.

Nvidia Shield

The optional clicker costs a whopping $50 or £40. It’s nice enough, as these things go, with a slick, touch-sensitive slider for volume control. I do wish the home key were more prominent and the voice-search button was less so. Dedicated controls for play/pause, rewind and fast-forward would be welcome too, but the cursor key works fine for those functions.

Just like the controller, the remote offers voice search via a built-in mic and a headphone jack for private listening. It’s also rechargeable, and had a tendency to go dead more often than I expected.

My main complaint about the remote and the game controller is that they had a tendency to become disconnected after awhile, so I had to wait for a second or two (or sometimes longer) before they could properly command the Shield. I’m guessing the idea is to save battery life, but it’s an annoying issue in a living-room device.

High-end hardware

Nvidia justifies the Shield’s high price with better specifications than any streaming box out there.

Nvidia Shield

It starts with Nvidia’s latest Tegra X1 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 265-core Maxwell-generation GPU, for “raw performance” that’s 3x better than the 2015 Apple TV, 4x better than the 2015 Fire TV, and 10x better then the Roku 4, according to Nvidia. Those numbers deserve a healthy dose of salt, but you get the idea.

The box supports 4K video output with the potential for HDR. It has both fast 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi and an actual Ethernet jack — Gigabit, of course. For expansion, it has two USB 3.0 ports, a Micro-USB port and a microSD card slot that supports cards up to 128GB in size, to augment the built-in 16GB of storage on the standard Shield.

As I mentioned above, one of the chief features of the latest operating system update, Marshmallow, is to allow SD cards and USB devices up to 128GB to serve as internal storage. This feature replaces the clunky, buggy “Move apps to SD card” function. I upgraded a couple different Shield models, one with a 64GB SD card and another with a 128GB USB 3.0 stick, and it they worked fine. Nvidia’s support forum has a detailed walkthrough.

The Shield is easier to accessorize than any streaming box I’ve tested. The USB ports work with external USB hard drives and USB sticks for media playback. I connected a 2TB drive filled with photos and videos, including lots of 4K material, and it worked great once I installed the VLC Player app for playback (the default Photos & Videos app is terrible).

The 4K factor

The Shield was one of the first devices that could stream Netflix and YouTube at 4K resolution, but newer 4K devices like the Roku 4 and Amazon Fire TV have since entered the market. Compared with Roku in particular the Shield has fewer 4K-capable apps. The big missing pieces are Amazon and Vudu. None of the current games available for Shield are in 4K yet either.

Of course, nearly every 4K TV sold in the US offers its own 4K Smart TV apps, so if you have a 4K TV you’ve probably already watched Netflix’s 4K streams. Support for UltraFlix and YouTube in 4K is less common among 4K TVs, but available on some.

To watch Netflix in 4K, and other copy-protected content, you’ll need to connect the Shield to theHDCP 2.2 input of your 4K TV. The Shield supports 4K at 60 frames per second thanks to HDMI 2.0, and videophiles will appreciate the ability to force the player to output in 24 frames per second. Nvidia also says the device is capable of delivering HDR content, although none of the apps support HDR yet.

In my tests on a few of the 4K TVs in CNET’s lab, the Shield performed as expected, delivering a sharp 4K image, which of course was entirely dependent on source material. I didn’t perform the same kinds of side-by-side tests that I have in the past, but it’s worth reiterating: Don’t expect to be blown away by the improvement over regular HD, at least not with the current crop of content.

Nvidia Shield

GeForce Now and GameStream on the big screen

You can also take advantage of Nvidia’s GeForce Now and GameStream features.

GeForce Now is Nvidia’s cloud gaming service, which used to be called Grid when it was in beta. It allows you to pay $8 per month for unlimited access to a selection of older titles, or pay full price for access to newer ones.

Nvidia Shield

GeForce Now in the New York area, both at home, with an average Fios Internet connection of 15Mbps, as well as at the office, with more than 100mpbs. In both situations it worked very well. My first game was a full-price title, Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Graphics looked decent, if significantly softer than what I’m used to on the PC or a console. More important it was playable, with little lag and no stutter. I only experienced issues once I began a download on another device, which sucked up a good chunk of bandwidth, sending graphics quality downhill and introducing lag and delays doing pretty much anything. It was unplayable like that.

Android TV: Apps, search and interface

Beyond all the hardware, 4K and gaming extras, Shield is basically an Android TV box. The platform still lags behind Roku, Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV in my book, but has improved significantly since launch, most recently with Showtime Anytime. One big miss is native support for a large on-demand library beyond Google Movies and TV.

You can get access to many more apps using Google’s Cast technology, the AirPlay-like system that debuted on Chromecast and is now compatible with numerous other devices. The main issue is the relative inconvenience of having to pull out your phone and wait for it to connect to watch anything.

Search, via both voice and text, worked well. Conversational searches worked well, although recognition wasn’t always successful. When I was within certain apps, like YouTube, Plex and Sling TV, voice search worked there, too, but it didn’t work within Netflix or Hulu Plus.

Conclusion: Too expensive and niche for most people

If you want the most powerful Android TV experience around, or if the Shield’s unique gaming and 4K-streaming capabilities float your boat, it’s a very solid choice. It should also appeal to Plex and Kodi junkies with reams of files (regardless of provenance) who want to pipe videos to a big TV.

Beyond that, it’s a tough sell. The Fire TV is an all-around superior streaming device and the Roku 4 is even better, and both cost less than the Shield.

As Google continues to pour resources into Android TV, Nvidia continues to add high-end games and 4K content options expand, the Shield’s hardware could reach its full potential. In the last year it has improved quite a bit, but it’s still too expensive and limited to appeal to most people.

 

 

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