Nvidia Shield (2017) review: Even more of a good streaming, gaming thing

The powerful $200 Nvidia Shield has so many features you'll probably never use them all. But it sure is fun to try. Here's the full review.

David_Katzmaier.jpg
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."

See full bio
8 min read

CNET editors pick the products and services we write about. When you buy through our links, we may get a commission.

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.

nvidia-sheild-ces-2017-14.jpg
8.0

Nvidia Shield (2017)

The Good

The 2017 Nvidia Shield Android TV streaming box offers just about every must-have app, including Amazon Video, and many include 4K along with HDR. It's a versatile gaming platform with an improved controller. Voice search and interactivity, from controller or remote, work well. It has Google Assistant.

The Bad

More expensive than competing streamers. Not as many 4K and HDR apps as Roku, and no access to first-tier games without streaming from a PC.

The Bottom Line

The 2017 Nvidia Shield is better than ever, and the addition of Amazon finally makes it a viable high-end alternative to Roku.

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 or PlayStation 4, let alone a full-fledged gaming PC.

It even has Google Assistant, allowing it to do everything an always-on, always-listening Google Home speaker can. But you'll need to use the game controller or a $50 plug-in accessory mic to do the 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.

Nvidia Shield adds Amazon, Google Assistant, tons of games (hands-on)

See all photos

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.

nvidia-shield-comparison-shots-02.jpg

The original Shield (left) is bigger than the updated 2017 version (right).

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

nvidia-shield-comparison-shots-04.jpg

The original Shield (bottom) has an SD card slot that the new version (top) lacks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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)

First and foremost the Nvidia Shield is a streamer, serving up Netflix, Amazon (finally!), Hulu, YouTube and many, many more apps and services to your TV.

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.

nvidia-sheild-screens-ces-2017-01.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

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).

nvidia-sheild-screens-ces-2017-02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Google Play Store on the Shield doesn't have nearly as many apps as the one on Android phones and tablets, but it's pretty comprehensive in the categories that matter for a TV streamer. The few missing at press time include DirecTV Now and Flixster Video, a handful of "TV everywhere" apps such as Nick Jr, NBC, USA Now, Smithsonian and Lifetime, news apps ABC News and CNBC, sports apps NHL and NBC Sports, and music apps Rhapsody and Amazon Music. Almost all of those can be cast using the Shield's built-in Chromecast (aka Google Cast) feature, which lets you use your phone to access and control the app on your TV.

Overall I like Android TV, although I could do without the main "recommendations" bar at the top, since its suggestions never seem to cater properly to what I want. The interface is simple, stable and responsive, and further simplified by the elimination of the old Shield Hub row on the home page. Now the only rows are Apps and Games, which populate automatically with recently used items, and allow you to "pin" favorites at the beginning of the row.

nvidia-sheild-ces-2017-02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

Three ways to game

The Shield is better at gaming than any other streaming device (by a mile) but don't expect immediate access to the kind of Tier 1 titles that come on launch day to Xbox, PlayStation and PC. The games available on Shield are typically older big-name titles, as well as games originally designed for phones and tablets. Its library is growing all the time, however, and there are plenty of options available for all kinds of gamers.

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. Like the original it has a headphone jack and a mic that can be used for voice search.

nvidia-sheild-screens-ces-2017-03.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

All games accessible in a new single, consolidated Shield Games app. It does a great job dividing the library into different categories, and there's a "My Library" tab that shows every game "ready to play," but I do wish there was a way to display all Android games you "own" for easier download (you can sign in to the Google Play Store on the web and download games to Shield from there, however). Nvidia says it's working with Google to get "My Android Games" data, so this feature might appear eventually.

You have three avenues for gaming on Shield.

Google Play games: Sure you can play Android games (both free and paid) like Riptide GP 2 and Goat Simulator on the big screen, but there are also plenty of more advanced games available on the Shield's specialized version of the Play Store. Marquee titles include The Witness, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Doom: BFG Edition and Final Fantasy IX. I gave The Witness a spin and it was fine, although the graphics weren't as good as what I'm used to on the PC.

GeForce Now streaming: To stream games from Nvidia's servers you can either subscribe for $8 per month or buy them individually. The newest is No Man's Sky, available for purchase for $60 (a price that also nets you a download key on Steam so you can play it, without streaming, on a PC). The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Shadow Warrior 2, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens and other high-end titles are also available for purchase, but the the all-you-can-play subscription access unlocks mostly older titles such as Thief, Mini Ninjas, Hitman: Absolution, Saints Row IV and Trine: Enchanted Edition.

Among other improvements Nvidia says it has boosted the streaming experience with new Pascal servers, but my tests over a couple of different days with The Witcher 3 weren't great, despite my network testing as "optimal for streaming," according to the app. At times there was noticeable lag on the camera when moving around, plenty of dropped frames and drops in video quality. The game cut out a couple of times in the few minutes I played, the action freezing completely while it buffered. I did have better experiences on less demanding games, and your mileage may vary quite a bit with network quality, but don't expect something as flawless as playing a game locally.

GameStream from a PC: If you have a compatible Nvidia-equipped PC, you can stream games from it to your TV. I didn't test this feature this time around, but in previous tests with the original Shield it worked very well on my home network (and less so remotely). One advantage is the ability to feed higher resolutions and even HDR to compatible TVs, but for now such support on the game side is very spotty. I do appreciate direct access to Steam's big picture mode via an app on the Shield.

roku-nvidia-comparison-shots-02.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

So who needs all that?

In a word, techies. In addition to all those features, the Shield especially excels at dealing with questionable "files" -- namely TV shows and movies downloaded from various no-questions-asked corners of the internet, usually ripped by somebody from Blu-ray -- and streaming content from less-than-legal add-ons for the Kodi media center software. Of course, it also costs more than many other file- and Kodi-friendly devices.

If having all of those capabilities in one box appeals to you, the Shield is great. But for everyone else it's still quite expensive, and separate devices -- such as a dedicated streamer (Roku or Apple TV), a game box (Xbox One, PS4 or PC) and home assistant (Amazon Echo or Google Home) -- will do the job better.

nvidia-sheild-ces-2017-14.jpg
8.0

Nvidia Shield (2017)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Ecosystem 9Features 10Performance 10Value 6