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

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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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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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.

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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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.

Compare Shield's app support to Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and Fire 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.

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).

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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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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