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.
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 and PlayStation 4. They're significantly more expensive than the Shield, but they're far 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. It's a media streamer at heart, more akin to the $80 Google Nexus Player than any other device. The two share all the joy and pain of the Android TV streaming media and app platform, including solid voice search, Google Cast functionality just like a Chromecast, a pushy interface and fewer apps than competitors.
Android TV has access to a limited library of apps compared to the Google Play Store for phones and tablets, and still lacks Amazon Instant Video, HBO Go, Watch ESPN, and Spotify apps among others. Google does say HBO Now is coming soon, however, along with major apps from Fox, CBS, Epix, Vudu and others. The app gap is narrowing.
Spending the extra cash for the Shield over the Nexus gets you 4K capability, better gaming, enhanced connectivity, and processor specification bragging rights. You also trade a standard remote for a game controller.
If you have an early 4K TV that lacks built-in 4K streaming apps, or an Nvidia-equipped PC and an interest in streaming games elsewhere, the Shield is worth a serious look. It might also appeal to people with large libraries of Android games who want to play them on the big screen, or to tweak-happy file hoarders. That's a pretty limited group of potential users, however, and hardly fits the kind of mass appeal that the insanely popular Android mobile platform was built upon.
When they reach for their wallets, most people will bet on another horse: a different streamer like Roku or even the Nexus Player, a serious gaming rig like a console or PC, or both. Until it gets a better selection of games and apps, Shield seems like a waste of horsepower.
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 Android exclusives like Half-Life 2 (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 to 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.
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 only in the US and Canada for now, and will be coming to Europe in late 2015. (Australian availability is not part of the conversation -- sorry!)
The Pro increases onboard storage from 16GB to 500GB and comes bundled with Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. 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.
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.
The default orientation is horizontal but you can also set it into an optional matching stand ($30 US) 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 IR (infrared) sensor so the Shield can work with most universal remote controls.
The back panel lines up the Shield's prodigious array of ports, bookended by a cooling vent. Because Nvidia.
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.
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.
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, 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 the Android TV Remote Control app, supposedly, but it was buggy in my testing.
The optional clicker costs a whopping $50. It's nice enough, as these things go, with a slick, touch-sensitive slider for volume control. I do wish the home key was more prominent and 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, which I'm guessing implies that the battery won't last as long as those found in competing remotes.
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.
Nvidia justifies the Shield's high price with better specifications than any streaming box out there, including the also-gaming-centric Razer Forge TV.
It starts with Nvidia's latest Tegra X1 processor, 3GB of RAM and a 265-core Maxwell-generation GPU, for "raw performance" that's 34 times better than the 2012 Apple TV, 26 times better than the 2015 Roku 3 and 8.5 times better than the 2014 Amazon Fire TV, according to Nvidia. Those numbers deserve a healthy dose of salt, but you get the idea.
The box supports 4K video output, has both fast 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi and (unlike the Nexus Player) 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.
The circa $70 price of those 128GB cards seems to make the Pro version of the box less appealing, unless you want the Borderlands throw-in. Android TV has a convenient option that automatically moves apps to the SD card, ostensibly keeping the device from filling up too quickly with big games. In my testing, however, this feature proved buggy and the 16GB of onboard storage still seemed insufficient. Hardcore Android gamers (all three of them) might see good reason to go Pro.
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).
In addition to game controllers and headphones, I was also able to successfully connect Bluetooth keyboards from Logitech and Samsung, and they worked in numerous apps. Although I didn't test it yet, Shield is also said to work with the HD HomeRun TV tuner, allowing live TV, and coming soon, DVR functionality from over-the-air broadcasts.
The 4K factor
Aside from the $700 Sony FMP-X10, the Shield is the only external device that can stream Netflix at 4K resolution. It's the only external device aside from a computer that can stream YouTube's 4K videos, although they aren't easy to find among the thousands of other videos there. It also offers the UltraFlix app (which doesn't appear to work yet) and a 4K video app called Pluto.TV (which I didn't try). None of the current games available for Shield are in 4K yet, however.