Now that it has Amazon Video, the Nvidia Shield is finally a good enough streamer to go toe-to-toe with Roku. But it also costs a lot more.
It's also a capable gaming device, with an improved controller and three different sources for games. But it's no substitute for an Xbox One ($450 at Amazon) or PlayStation 4, let alone a full-fledged gaming PC.
It even has Google Assistant, allowing it to Google Home speaker can. But you'll need to use the game controller or a $50 plug-in accessory mic to do the listening.an always-on, always-listening
Today Nvidia Shield is a lot better than it was when it first launched in May 2015. It actually includes a remote, it has more apps and capabilities, and it's adding new ones seemingly every day. It also retains its heritage as a video geek's dream machine, with stuff like 4K resolution (in 24p!) and HDR (high dynamic range), NAS access, native Kodi support, Plex server capability, HDHomeRun integration and much more.
With all of those improvements, the Shield deserves a place in the upper echelon of streamers alongside the Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV. All of those devices cost less, however. So unless you're also getting the Shield for Kodi media center or file support, for gaming or for its potential as a smart home hub too, it's not the best bargain. It's more of a luxury splurge, albeit one with so many capabilities you could find it pretty easy to justify.
Hardware tweaks, software parity
The 2017 Nvidia Shield is 40 percent smaller than its predecessor but has the exact same processing power and runs the same Android TV software. Pricing is also the same as the older version: $200 for the basic version with 16GB of onboard storage, and $300 for the Shield Pro with 500GB.
The old and new Shield TV have what Nvidia calls "software parity," so the the differences between the two are all hardware-based:
- The 2017 Shield lacks an SD card slot (you can still augment its storage via USB)
- The new controller is smaller and easier to grip
- It has better battery life, haptic vibration and a far-field mic for Google Assistant
- A remote, previously a $50 add-on, is now included in the box
That's pretty much it. 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 control numerous brands of TV via infrared (IR), which worked well in my tests (as did IR from the new controller). 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.
As of press time Nvidia hasn't released the software upgrade that will bring Amazon and the latest software to the original Shield, but it should happen "in the coming days" according to Nvidia.
Android TV, meet Amazon (in 4K HDR)
Unlike the Apple TV, the Shield can output 4K resolution and even supports HDR (high dynamic range). It doesn't offer as many 4K/HDR apps as Roku devices such as the Premiere+, but it has 4K where it counts: namely Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Vudu and Google Play Movies and TV. Netflix and Amazon apps also support HDR, in the HDR10 (not Dolby Vision) format. Nvidia reps told me that when Vudu launches HDR10 support (expected later this year) the Shield will also support its HDR.
I checked out 4K and HDR movies from every app using a variety of TVs in CNET's test lab, and the Shield performed as expected. No difference was apparent between its video quality and that of the TVs' built-in apps, and as usual the improvement while watching 4K video wasn't major. (The Shield did pass the full resolution of YouTube 4K according to this test, via both the app itself and casting from a phone.) The improvement afforded by HDR was more obvious, but ultimately depends much more on the TV than the source device or HDR format.
In the coming months the YouTube app will get an upgrade to work with 360 video, which lets you pan around to get different views of the action. This feature will also come to other devices, but Shield's game controller makes it more natural to use. In a demo I tried at CES, I found it much easier to scan around using its thumb sticks than it would be using a standard remote controller.
The Shield uses Google's Android TV, the same operating system found on Sony TVs of recent vintage, along with lesser-known devices such as the Xiaomi Mi Box and the discontinued Google Nexus Player. Sony sets have the Amazon app, but the latter two boxes do not (and Xiaomi told me it has no plans to add Amazon right now).