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Nvidia Shield powers up with Amazon, Google Home and improved gaming (hands-on)

The most potent all-in-one streaming and gaming device around is smaller in size but more capable than ever. Check out our first hands-on impressions.

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CNET's best-reviewed streaming devices are made by Roku, but the more-expensive Nvidia Shield has always been more than just another box that serves up Netflix.

The newest version, available for preorder today and shipping later this month, could broaden its appeal beyond tech nerds and Kodi/Plex fans. Welcome improvements include more apps, new smart home capabilities from Google Assistant and a better game controller. And now there's even a remote in the box.

Pricing hasn't changed though: the basic Shield with 16GB of onboard storage is $200 and the Shield Pro with 500GB storage is $300.

I got a full hands-on demo of the new device and software today. Here's what I learned.

Sarah Tew/CNET

App upgrades: Amazon Video and 360 YouTube

One of my biggest complaints about Shield has finally been addressed: there's now an app for Amazon video. It's the latest interface, just like the one found on Roku's new 4K boxes and many Smart TVs, and offers full access to Amazon's vast library of content, including Prime video, a la carte movies and TV shows, and 4K and HDR content (when connected to a compatible TV).

Now the sole major streaming platform that doesn't have Amazon -- the second-most popular service after Netflix -- is Apple TV.

The Shield YouTube app will now work with 360 video. While other devices will also handle YouTube's 360 video, which lets you pan around to get different views of the action, Shield's game controller makes it more natural. I found it much easier to scan around using its thumbsticks than it would be using a standard remote controller.

Since it launched Shield has added just about every other major app, it often gets the latest and best interfaces, and of course you can cast compatible apps from your phone. Netflix and Amazon offer 4K and HDR at launch, while Google Play Movies and TV and Vudu will have 4K. Nvidia reps told me that when Vudu launches HDR10 support (expected later this year) the Shield will also support its HDR. Shield doesn't handle Dolby Vision, however.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Smaller box and controller, better gaming

The new Shield box has the exact same powerful processing and graphics as the original but is 40 percent smaller. It has all of the same connections (HDMI, two USB) except there's no longer an SD card slot. If you want extra storage you'll have to use USB or a NAS, or buy the 500GB Pro model. Owners of the base 16GB model can also format a USB 3.0 drive to increase internal storage.

On the original Shield the remote control was a $50 option, used a rechargeable battery, and lacked infrared so it couldn't control TV volume directly. The updated one can; it relies on a coin cell battery that lasts a year, and best of all, is now included in the box along with the game controller.

I complained about the original controller's bulky size, but the new one is much better. It's smaller and lighter and feels much closer to PS4 or Xbox One-grade. The grips are cobwebbed with futuristic angles, it now has haptic feedback, and Nvidia claims a 60-hour battery life between charges.

Nvidia has upgraded to Pascal servers for its GeForce Now game streaming service, enabling better graphics and less lag, and enabled syncing and cloud saves. It also revamped the GameStream system that lets Nvidia-equipped PC owners play on the big screen (and even in HDR for select games), added an app that links directly to Steam's Big Picture mode, and consolidated all games (including Google Play) into one interface.

Sarah Tew/CNET

OK Google, turn down the lights and control my TV

Later this year the Shield will get a software upgrade that enables Google Assistant, the always-listening Amazon Alexa competitor that debuted on the Google Home speaker.

Unlike Alexa on the Fire TV stick or Siri on the Apple TV, which require you to push a button and talk into the remote's mic to get a response, Google Assistant on Nvidia Shield ($200 at Amazon) relies on a far-field mic built into the game controller. It's always on and always listening for the "Hello Google" awake phrase.

Nvidia's demo worked like a charm. After the rep said "Hello Google, start my day" with the controller a few feet away on a nearby table, the system sprang into action, adjusting the Nest thermostat and starting the coffee-maker. Voice commands also caused searches for TV shows and movies, launched apps like Netflix and even played shows like directly -- all without having to speak into the remote. If you don't want the Google listening all the time, you can disable the feature in the main menu.

Shield can control all of the Smart Home devices Google Home ($99 at Walmart) can, and even works as a full SmartThings hub if you plug in the $30 SmartThings USB dongle (coming later this year). Also available later this year will be the $50 Nvidia Spot, a far-field mic/speaker that plugs into a power outlet on the wall and extends Shield's listening range.

Sarah Tew/CNET

We'll have a full review of the new Shield at CNET soon, but it's already one of the most powerful all-in-one TV boxes you can buy, and it just keeps getting better.

PS: If you happen to own an existing Shield, rejoice. With the exception of the always-on mic and new remote, all of the upgrades described above will come via a software update that'll be available the same day the new Shield ships (around January 16).

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