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Nvidia's new Shield streaming TV devices both use 'AI upscaling' to simulate 4K

The two newest Shields promise higher-quality streaming video. And one looks like a cigar.

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From left to right: the new remote, the $200 Shield TV Pro box and the $150 Shield TV cylinder.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Ever since the original -- a 5-inch Android "tablet" grafted onto an Xbox-style gamepad that launched in 2013 -- the Nvidia Shield has been weird. Subsequent iterations became a bit more normal but the device has always embraced its geeky, gaming-centric roots while it slowly morphed into a do-it-all TV device focused on video streaming.

Now playing: Watch this: Nvidia debuts two new Shield TV streamers
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After numerous leaks, the 2019 Nvidia Shield TV goes on sale today with two different models: the familiar-looking Shield TV Pro ($200) and bizarre Shield TV ($150) -- which looks like nothing so much as a fat stogie. Both promise improved streaming quality compared to the excellent 2017 Nvidia Shield TV, thanks to 4K AI upscaling and Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos support. Here's how they stack against each other and the 2017 version.

Nvidia Shields compared


Shield TV (2019) Shield TV Pro (2019) Shield TV (2017)
Price $150 $200 $200
Shape Cylinder Box Box
Processor Tegra X1+ Tegra X1+ Tegra X1
RAM 2GB 3GB 3GB
Storage 8GB 16GB 16GB
USB 3.0 ports No 2 2
Wi-Fi and Ethernet Yes Yes Yes
Android TV with Google Assistant Yes Yes Yes
Plex Media Server No Yes Yes
4K HDR video Yes Yes Yes
Dolby Vision Yes Yes No
Dolby Atmos Yes Yes Pass-through only
AI upscaling Yes Yes No
Backlit remote with remote finder Yes Yes No
Game controller Optional Optional Included
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Yes, that's the new $150 Shield.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Take two and pass

So about that cigar. The basic, $150 Shield TV has most of the features of the $200 Pro packed into a black cylinder with the ports -- including HDMI, SD card slot, power and Ethernet -- stuffed into either end. It's designed to hide out of sight behind your TV or AV rack. The Pro's enhanced RAM and storage won't be a big deal for most users, but Plex die-hards might want to spring the extra cash for the Plex Media Server function -- both Shields can run the Plex client app but only the Pro can act as a server too.

Both also include Nvidia's fancy new remote, which might be the most welcome upgrade. It sports more buttons, including a key at the top you can program for a variety of functions, from app launching to settings tweaks. All of the keys light up when you pick up the wand, it runs on AAA batteries and it can control volume and power on compatible TVs via both HDMI-CEC and infrared.

13-nvidia-shield-tv-2019
Sarah Tew/CNET

And best of all there's a remote finder -- a la Roku Ultra or Caavo -- to cause the clicker to emit a sound from under the couch cushions. It can be activated from a button on Shield itself, from new Shield app on your phone or by asking a paired Alexa or Google Home speaker to find the remote. 

AI upscaling: Netflix, meet neural net

I haven't had the chance to fully review the new Shield yet but from what I saw at Nvidia's demo AI upscaling could be worthwhile for sharp-eyed viewers. It's designed to improve the detail and sharpness of standard HD video and make it look more like 4K and how it works is pretty cool. Nvidia trained a neural network with TV and movie content from sources like Netflix and Amazon Prime video, showing it both native 4K video and video upscaled using traditional methods. The network uses the difference between the two to apply a prediction of what 4K video should look like. 

shield-tv-ai-enhanced-upscaler
Nvidia

The trained network lives inside the Tegra X1 Plus processor and can upscale any video -- from standard 480p to 1080p -- to 4K. One limitation, however: It can't upscale 60 frame-per-second video. That's not a huge deal since most TV and movie content is in 24 fps, but it does mean the AI upscaling doesn't work with games or certain YouTube videos.

The new Shield has a demo mode (available to end users) that places standard and AI upconverted video side-by-side on the screen, and it was easy to see the improvement on a 65-inch OLED TV from about eight feet away. Details were sharper at a cityscape from Coco, for example, as well as Tom Cruise's face in the Top Gun: Maverick trailer. Users can choose from three levels of detail and also employ standard upconversion, as well as disable the effect entirely. This level of upscaling is a first for streamers although Samsung TVs do AI upscaling, too, and Apple TV 4K can make everything look like HDR. I'm looking forward to testing Nvidia's version further.

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The $150 Shield (right) aims squarely at the $180 Apple TV 4K for high-end 4K Dolby Vision streaming supremacy.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new Shield's apps for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney Plus, Vudu and Movies Anywhere all handle Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos. That Dolby coverage competes well with the Apple TV 4K and beats that of Amazon Fire TV's 4K streamers. On-board Dolby Atmos decoding, as opposed to pass-through on the 2017 Shield, enables Atmos from Netflix. It's worth noting, however, that the Apple TV app, Apple TV Plus and iTunes aren't available on the Shield.

Just like its predecessor, the Shield runs Google's Android TV operating system, which aside from Apple TV offers a similar selection of apps as Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV streamers. The newest version gives the app store a facelift to surface more app categories. As always it integrates Google Assistant using the voice remote.

The Shield's gaming prowess is mostly unchanged -- it runs Android games from Google Play, Nvidia's GeForce Now cloud gaming platform and can stream games from a PC on your home network via Nvidia's GameStream feature -- but the new version doesn't include a game controller. You can buy Nvidia's own separately for $60, complete with medium-field Google Assistant, or just pair the Shield with Xbox, PlayStation or other third-party controllers.

Originally published Oct. 28.