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Nvidia Shield Android TV review: A gamer-friendly 4K streamer in search of mass appeal

The Nvidia Shield is one of the most powerful home video devices available, bringing 4K streaming, solid gaming and plenty of horsepower. It has improved with the update to Android Marshmallow, but it's still a niche product.

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David Katzmaier
David_Katzmaier.jpg

David Katzmaier

Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming

David has reviewed TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home entertainment gear at CNET since 2002. He is an ISF certified, NIST trained calibrator and developed CNET's TV test procedure himself. Previously David wrote reviews and features for Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as "The Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics."

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15 min read

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.

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7.5

Nvidia Shield Android TV

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.

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 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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, $200 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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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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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Sarah Tew/CNET

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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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 the Android TV Remote Control app, which is great (especially for entering text) but requires your phone or tablet.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 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).

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, Shield is also said to work with the HD HomeRun TV tuner, allowing live TV and DVR functionality from over-the-air broadcasts.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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 the HDCP 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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Local media: Hoarders, rejoice!

As I mentioned above, the Shield also had no trouble playing back a variety of video files I had on hand, in 4K resolution and otherwise. I acquired most of those files from TV makers for demonstration purposes and other tests, so they're not the kind of thing most users will have (or want) access to. Still, if you happen to be a media hoarder with a boatload of files you want to stream to your living room, the powerful Shield is a prime candidate, and better overall than something like a Roku or the WDTV.

Using the VLC player app, I was able to play back a variety of MP4, MKV and MT2S files, as well as more difficult HEVC/H.265 files and ones with 4:4:4 chroma sampling, with varying compressions and bit rates up to 80Mbps. The only files I had on hand that didn't play properly were in Apple's ProRes format.

The Shield is also a superb Plex client. I preferred its version of the Plex app to others I've used, including the PS3 version. Access to media was lightning-quick, even over a remote connection, and the app offers numerous streaming quality levels, to best balance playback fidelity for different grades of connection.

There's also a Kodi app available, although I didn't test it for this review.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

No first-run console titles, but great for Android games

The Shield puts on game console airs and performance specifications, but the selection of titles doesn't live up to the hardware. Nvidia offers a curated section of games in the Shield Hub you can download, all of them optimized for the device (here's that partial list again). Part of the idea is they'll work well with the controller, as opposed to standard Android games that might not translate as well from the touchscreen.

I sampled a few for this review, including the just-released Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. It played great, with console-level graphics and all the playability I'd expect from an Xbox or PlayStation. It's also been available on consoles and computers since October 2014, and was originally supposed to hit Shield last July.

I also tried out classics Half-Life 2: Episode One and Soul Calibur, along with Juju and Luftrausers, and the experience was universally good. The graphics, gameplay and experience of Half-Life were everything I remember from when I first played and loved it almost a decade ago. Luftrausers, a stylistic arcade-style indie shooter, was fun too -- as far as it went (flying around shooting stuff). In general, I felt like I was playing an Xbox 360 or PS3.

If you're into Android gaming on the big screen but aren't blown away by the selection of Nvidia-optimized titles, you're better off with Amazon Fire TV.

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.

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Screenshot by David Katzmaier/CNET

I tried GeForce Now in the New York area, both at home, with an average Fios Internet connection of 15 megabits per second, as well as at the office, with more than 100Mbps. 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.

I had a similar experience with Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine and Tomb Raider. Since both of those older titles, available as part of the subscription package, have worse graphics than Witcher to begin with, they seemed like better candidates for GeForce Now. I'll also add that paying full price for Witcher also gave me a token to download the full game from GoG (Good Old Games), so in a way the GeForce Now version is just a free bonus.

GameStream requires a PC running one of Nvidia's PC-based graphics cards, one of many compatible games, and the GeForce Experience program. The high-end Origin PC EON17-SLX laptop I used worked very well on my home network, with no lag I could discern over a wired connection (Nvidia's utility registered 193Mbps, 0 frame loss, 4ms jitter, 2ms ping). The experience was very similar to simply plugging the PC into my TV, albeit with worse graphics.

For example Fallout 4 was perfectly playable, but graphics weren't up to the level I'm used to on the PC. Frame rate seemed lower and details were also noticeably softer, with no way to improve them. I also had one instance where play dropped out and seemed really choppy as well as unplayable, but it was brief and only happened once in 30 minutes of play.

On Dragon Age: Inquisition, again the graphics settings were reduced from Ultra to Low, but the game still looked great. With Metro: Last Light, on the other hand, the system preserved the Very High graphics settings, and again it looked and played well, if not up to PC-level snuff.

If you have a powerful Nvidia-equipped gaming PC in one room of the house and a big TV in another, GameStream with the Shield is a great way to play on the couch, as it were. The feature also supposedly works remotely, but I wasn't able to successfully test it.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The main reason I don't like Android TV's cross-platform search as much as Roku's is that it doesn't hit Netflix, and since there's no app for Amazon or Vudu or Watch ESPN, for example, those results are omitted, too.

I searched "Family Guy" on Shield, and results were listed for Google Play as well as Hulu, but not FX Now (which was installed on my Shield). On Roku, I could immediately choose between Hulu Plus, Vudu, Amazon Instant Video and FX Now. And of course, when I searched "Daredevil" on Shield, the only result was from Google Play (since Netflix results are omitted).

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The burying of apps like FX Now and ignoring of Netflix is just two reasons I find the Android TV interface disappointing. It's also basically impossible to customize so that your favorite apps are easy to access. Shield has only three rows under the main recommendations bar and only one is devoted to apps, and it's ordered by most recent first, which necessitates way too much scrolling.

In its favor, the Shield's processing power made everything run very quickly, but then again, speed isn't an issue with modern streamers in my experience.

Initial bugs, mostly squashed

When I first reviewed Shield almost a year ago I reported a litany of bugs, crashes and other issues. They've mostly been cleaned up, especially the ones that revolved around the "Move apps to SD card" function. With Marshmallow that function is gone, replaced by the new "Set up as internal storage" solution I described above.

I've been using Shield on and off at home and work over the last year and it's been mostly very stable. Occasionally I've run into update issues (the most serious necessitated having to flush the cache to perform the Marshmallow update) and occasionally the controller and remote updates won't take. But all told the device has behaved very well.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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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7.5

Nvidia Shield Android TV

Score Breakdown

Design 7Ecosystem 8Features 10Performance 9Value 6
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