When you hear the name "NVIDIA," the first thing that comes to mind is mostly likely graphics cards, or at the very least the company's Tegra chips that have been powering Android devices for several years now. Either way, it's probably not "the company that makes the killer Android TV box that's hanging out in my living room."
But after today, it honestly might be.
We've spent the last week or so playing with both the base model SHIELD and storage-laden SHIELD Pro, which at this point are unquestionably the best Android TV boxes that money can buy. And while Android TV as a whole is still very immature, SHIELD (which is how we'll refer to both versions of the box moving forward, unless otherwise stated) does an excellent job of providing a great experience with what it does have to offer. Of course, you can also count on NVIDIA to work closely with developers to bring their stuff over to Android TV for stuff like SHIELD, so you'll get content here that you won't find on other ATV boxes.
It's worth noting that while I (Cam) penned the bulk of this review, Michael (Crider), our resident gamer, took over the gaming section in order to provide the best look at SHIELD as a console.
I tried really hard to slow SHIELD down. I installed multiple things at once. I streamed movies. I streamed games. In the end, I just couldn't bring it down. That was a good feeling.
This thing look freaking awesome.
NVIDIA has proven to us that it can support its devices. We like that.
Excellent build quality
The SHIELD unit itself, remote control, and game controller all feel fantastic.
4K Netflix and other NVIDIA-exclusive tweaks
If you have a 4K TV, SHIELD Is the box to own, because it's the first to offer Netflix in full 4K. That's huge. NVIDIA has also tweaked Android a bit to make it easier to use expandable storage options like external hard drives and microSD cards.
The Not So Good
This is somewhat of a slippery slope, because the box is Android TV. But we're still not completely there on the whole experience or content thing. I'm still confident it'll get there, though. (And it's definitely in a better place than it was with Nexus Player.)
Doesn't ship with the remote
If you want SHIELD Remote (which I highly recommend, by the way), you have to shell out the money to buy one separate. Sure, the controller can do everything the remote can do (and more), but it's nice to have a small, streamlined remote for when you don't want to have to use a game controller. I'd like to see a TV-centric bundle that ships with the remote instead of the controller, in fact.
The SHIELD itself has what I'd call "classic" NVIDIA styling: defined edges, green glow, and just an overall "ballsy" design. I really like how it looks. It's designed to be used either lying flat or in the SHIELD stand (which is freakin' heavy for what it is - this thing isn't going anywhere once you put it in place), and it works well either way. I personally prefer it in the stand since it has a smaller footprint that way, but it's not an absolute must.
In terms of overall size, SHIELD is quite a bit larger than both Nexus Player and Fire TV; in fact, it's probably close to double the length of each. That said, it's packing far more ports, storage, and power than either of those boxes. All in all, it's a worthwhile trade off in my opinion (and it's not like SHIELD is the size of a Playstation, Xbox, or even a Blu Ray player).
Remote and Game Controller
When it comes to SHIELD Controller, I'll keep it short and sweet: it's basically the same controller that was already available for SHIELD Tablet/Portable, albeit with a slightly updated design on the home buttons to be better in line with Android 5.x aesthetically. Otherwise, it's still the same fantastic, well-built, killer game controller. I covered it detail in my SHIELD Tablet review, so instead of repeating my sentiments, I'll just link you to that for more info. It's worth mentioning that the controller actually ships with SHIELD, so you don't have to buy it separately.
The remote, however, is all new. As far as it is concerned, I'll say this: I was actually blown away by the quality of the remote right out of the box. In a world where cheap plastic remotes with removable batteries are the norm, SHIELD's remote stands in a league of its own. The build quality is second to none in the remote control world, and the fact that it's USB rechargeable is effing brilliant. It also sports private listening, a la Roku 3, which is equally as fantastic (Note: Private listening can also be done on SHIELD Controller). The only downside is that it doesn't actually come with SHIELD and has to purchased separately. I think it's worth it, though.
Storage. This is easily one of the most important things about SHIELD, because up to this point no one has gotten it right. 8GB of storage on Fire TV and Nexus Player? Rubbish. Even expanding it is a pain because it's nowhere near as streamlined as it should be. All that changes with SHIELD.
Going game-install crazy and not having to think about how much storage is left has been really refreshing.
First off, there's SHIELD Pro, which packs a whopping 500GB of storage. My review unit is a Pro model, and I have to say that going game-install crazy and not having to think about how much storage is left has been really refreshing. I'm not exactly sure on the schematics of the drive itself, but I do know it's a hybrid drive of sorts - there's some sort of flash storage on there, as well as a more traditional spindle HDD - though Android doesn't discern between the two in this scenario. It's all just one big pile-o-storage. I like it that way.
If you opt to go with the base SHIELD model, however, fret not - expanding on the stock 16GB is super easy. Both SHIELD models actually have the option to expand storage (though if you need to add more to the Pro model then I think you may have a hoarding problem), and NVIDIA has done some of the same tweaks you'll find on SHIELD Portable and Tablet: you can move games/apps to external storage, be it microSD or a USB drive. And here's the best part: you can even set a default installation location and have SHIELD only use a specific amount of that storage medium. It's brilliant. Should you decide to go with the base model, I recommend having a good 64GB (or larger) card ready to go right out of the box and setting that as the default storage location. It's better to do it this way because you'll still need space on the built-in storage to download everything before it's installed. It's easier to keep that area cleaned up in the first place than to try to make space by moving things after-the-fact. You can thank me later.
When it comes to wireless performance, SHIELD offers everything you could possibly want: 2.4GHz, 5GHz, 802.11ac, 2x2 Mimo, Bluetooth 4.1...the works. That's crucial to good streaming (especially over GRID), so of course NVIDIA made to sure to make it as good as possible. I have no complaints.
Software and Performance
As far as Software goes, SHIELD is still essentially Android TV. The overall look and feel hasn't changed since I reviewed Nexus Player, so a lot of what was said there about the interface still stands. It can be slightly cumbersome - especially with a lot of content installed - but it's not terrible. It of course gets easier the more used to using the system you get, which is nice. I think the biggest change on SHIELD is Voice Controls, which we'll talk about more later.
First, let's talk about some of NVIDIA's system tweaks (aside from the above-mentioned storage fixes). NVIDIA has done a lot to make SHIELD the box for your living room. It's got audio passthru. It supports Logitech wireless remotes. It can control some TVs. It has audiovisual tweaks that let you control latency for surround sound systems. Really, it has everything a powerful set-top box should have. And then some - like great performance.
Here's the thing: SHIELD is blazing fast. Like, the fastest box I've ever used fast. Probably one of the best, most fluid, unstoppable Android experiences I've ever had fast. I legitimately tried to slow it down, but couldn't do it. I installed things in the background while playing music and pushing the GPU to its limits. Nothing. It blew through everything I tried without so much as a bit of stutter. Honestly, the performance is nothing short of incredible. Tegra X1 is a beast.
Honestly, the performance is nothing short of incredible. Tegra X1 is a beast.
Lastly, I want to touch on the topic of content. I hammered the Nexus Player really hard for having basically crap for content, only to find out that Google was very carefully curating the experience. Well, it's been a year, and guess what? We're still just not there. Here's the thing about the ATV Play Store, though: it only shows featured content, not everything that's available on the platform. So how are you supposed to find out what's really available? By searching for your favorite apps manually. I have no idea what Google is thinking here, honestly. No. Freaking. Clue. Fortunately, NVIDIA threw the SHIELD Hub on here to at least help users find new games. At least there's that.
Voice controls are an important part of Android TV, and they were pretty good on Nexus Player. They're even better on SHIELD, but there's still quit a bit of work to be done here. App integration is slowly getting better, but it's still not great. Certain apps will show up in search results for relevant content; for example, CinemaNow integrates beautifully with result cards, but apps like Netflix don't show up at all. Hulu works to an extent, but only as additional content shown below the primary card. I know that probably sounds confusing, and that's because it is - developers really need to step up and start supporting Android TV completely. That means search integration, cross-app compatibility, and the like. When I search for a movie, I want results from every compatible app I have installed. There was more than one occasion when I checked to see if something was on a certain service, like Hulu, then searched Google for it only to have Play Movies or CinemaNow show up with Hulu nowhere to be found. That's annoying. Stop lying to me, Google.
Also, some apps, like Netflix, still don't support voice search. That drives me insane. Searching Netflix using the remote is really annoying. But that's a developer issue, not a Google or SHIELD issue.
It's still annoying.
This section was authored by Michael Crider.
The SHIELD TV, like its Tablet and Portable predecessors, is the most powerful Android gaming device on the market at the time of its release. But that fact is deceptive. While SHIELD has access to the best and brightest that the Android gaming market has at the moment, its platform is its Achilles heel. The immaturity of Android TV, and its gaming capabilities in particular, is something that drags down the experience for gamers. Perhaps that's why between the original GDC reveal of the "SHIELD Console" and now, NVIDIA has chosen to focus on the product as a holistic set-top box ("The Flagship of Android TV," as the press material puts it) rather than a pure game machine.
For those interested in gaming in particular, there are three aspects of the SHIELD to consider: native Android games, NVIDIA's still-infant GRID streaming service, and the GameStream remote function that debuted with the original SHIELD Portable two years ago. Let's take a look at all of them.
With its Tegra X1 processor, a generous 3GB of RAM, and an excellent console-style controller included with the base package, the SHIELD's hardware is unmatched by its set-top box competitors. Over the review period I played just about every game I could coax onto the device, and it handled most of them with aplomb. Even the most demanding high-end games that are currently on the Play Store will be no match for the SHIELD's horsepower... if you can access them. Therein lies the problem with basing the whole thing around Android TV: Google still seems to be granting access to the platform on a app-by-app basis, so the vast majority of hundreds of thousands of games in the Play Store are currently off limits.
This is extremely frustrating, since even full console-style games (some even with controller support!) are currently inaccessible, at least without manually installing apps by various methods. You can play Asphalt 8, but not Crazy Taxi. You can play Dead Trigger 2, but not Shadowgun. SNK's Garou: Mark of the Wolves and King of Fighters '98 is accessible, but not Samurai Showdown or Fatal Fury Special. Support from major publishers is spotty - for example, all of TellTale's high-end adventure games are available on Android TV, but you can only access a few of Square Enix's classic RPGs.
The immaturity of Android TV, and its gaming capabilities in particular, is something that drags down the experience for gamers.
Complicating matters is Google's piss-poor implementation of the Play Store on Android TV. There's a Play Store icon on the default "leanback" launcher, but inside is only a curated selection of apps and games, around a hundred or so. Other titles that are compatible with Android TV simply don't show up in the Play Store app, and must be either manually searched for or (more easily) installed via a PC with the web interface. As if Google's apparent complacency with a mediocre app and game searching experience wasn't enough, some of the publishers just don't seem to care about the experience of their games on Android TV. The normally reliable Halfbrick has left Age of Zombies unplayable thanks to controller glitches, and the ATV version of Soul Calibur seems incapable of accepting commands for fighter grabs. When you try to start a multiplayer fight in Mark of the Wolves, the game searches for a second Android device via Bluetooth - there's no recognition of the possibility of multi-controller play. In a word, disappointing.
As with previous iterations of the SHIELD brand, NVIDIA isn't content to stand by and accept the status quo. They've secured exclusives for both the SHIELD devices in general and the SHIELD set-top box in particular, with a focus on games that were previously exclusive to consoles or the PC. This is a major boon for SHIELD, since many of these games are the most technically advanced on Android. In addition to the previous releases of Portal, Half-Life 2, and others, the SHIELD set-top box gets several mobile firsts. These games are displayed in the "Download Games" section of SHIELD Hub on the leanback launcher. During our review time we were granted access to Doom 3: BFG Edition, an updated version of the 2004 shooter sequel, The Talos Principle, a Portal-style first-person puzzle game with intense graphics that was released for the PC just a few months ago, Hotline Miami, an unapologetically violent top-down 2D action game, and War Thunder, a free-to-play PC WWII battle simulator.
Some of these exclusives give the SHIELD the software challenge that its top-of-the-line hardware is begging for. Doom 3 is the clear standout: its fast and frantic shooting ran at a rock-steady 60 frames per second when I played on my standard 1080p television. (The SHIELD supports 4K output for at least some functions, but I don't have the hardware to test it.) And that is certainly impressive for a chipset that, at least technically, is "mobile" hardware - I'd be interested to see how the latest Qualcomm and Samsung designs measure up. But even with some enhancements, Doom 3 is over ten years old; the relatively low-poly character models and low resolution textures (by current PC and console standards) don't create the "wow" factor the game had when it launched.
For the most taxing stress test available, we turn to The Talos Principle. This game was released for the PC back in December by Croteam, the developers of the Serious Sam series. The game's shooter lineage is clear: despite being primarily about logic and spatial puzzles, it uses a first-person perspective. That's the ticket for high-end graphics, and indeed, The Talos Principle has a lot to show off. Its Garden of Eden stages are littered with highly-detailed ancient ruins, plant life, and advanced lighting to create a playable environment more complex and taxing than anything else on the Play Store. And here we see some of the SHIELD's technical limits for the first time. While the game is perfectly playable (not to mention enjoyable) on the SHIELD, it's clearly running at a lower framerate than even a modest gaming PC can produce, and the lighting effects and textures appear to be toned down as well.
I compared the demo version to the same game my home-built desktop, equipped with a GTX 660 graphics card. On the SHIELD, it appeared to be running at about 60% of the performance of my PC, which managed 60 frames per second without issue at 1080p resolution. And keep in mind, the Talos Principle is a relatively low-key game, without fast-moving enemies or dozens of complex character models. If you dive into the settings and bump up the quality to maximum, the game starts to chug at around 15 frames per second, and it becomes clear that this is not the hardware Talos was originally designed to run on.
NVIDIA's best exclusives are yet to come. In the "coming soon" section of the SHIELD Hub's Android selection are high-end console titles, some of the most-anticipated of their day. Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Resident Evil 5. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. A short time ago thinking of running these games on any kind of mobile hardware would be laughable, but they'll be available for Android - or at least NVIDIA's branded Android hardware - soon. It will be interesting to see how the SHIELD will hold up to high-end games designed to run on Xbox 360-level hardware - the demonstrations we saw at GDC, not to mention the somewhat subdued performance of The Talos Principle, leave me with less than stellar expectations.
Compared to other Android-based options, the SHIELD's extra power is worth it for casual gamers who are interested in a little extra gaming oomph. A similar set top box and controller combo costs around $140-150 for the Nexus Player, Fire TV, and Forge TV. If you're interested in a little extra gaming capability with your media device, the premium for the SHIELD (particularly the $200 model) is justified by its huge hardware advantage and access to some exclusive high-end Android games. Also, early buyers of the SHIELD and SHIELD Pro will get $60 in Google Play Store credit (plus 90 days of Google Music All Access), which helps overcome the price difference.
A final point: NVIDIA's insistence on 16GB of storage for the base version of its hardware is a real downer. (A model with a 500GB hard drive, the clear choice if you plan on playing huge local games, is available for $100 more.) If you want to play high-end Android games on the standard SHIELD, external storage via MicroSD or USB is more or less required. That said, NVIDIA has a lot of experience dealing with local storage limitations. Once I threw a 64GB MicroSD card in the slot and set all new apps to install to external storage, my worries were over, though you do need to keep enough space clear on the primary drive to install any new apps first. The 500GB model doesn't have this problem, because it's all formatted as a single drive.
For the interested: here are the SHIELD TV's benchmark scores.
Let's be specific here: NVIDIA GameStream is the ability to stream games that are hosted on a Windows PC on your local wired or wireless network, while GRID is more like OnLive. For GameStream you need a Windows PC with a compatible NVIDIA graphics card, plus a bought-and-paid-for copy of whatever game you want to play.
GameStream has been around since the original SHIELD Portable, where it had a rocky start. It's been improved quite a bit over the last two years - cutouts of video and audio are rare now, and the interface can handle the odd hiccup caused by "tunneling" into a Windows machine that might be doing quite different things with a staggering array of variables. That said, the experience is still less than ideal. For fast-paced games I saw anywhere from .1-.25 seconds of delay between performing an action and seeing the result, even with 5GHz Wi-Fi at all points. You can take advantage of the SHIELD's built-in Ethernet port to alleviate this... but unless you've already wired your home for a hardline to your entertainment center, what's the point? You might as well run a 30-foot HDMI cable from your PC to your TV and cut out the middleman.
The idea of playing high-end PC games on your television also has to bow to the realities of consumer technology. The SHIELD hardware and GeForce Experience on Windows will often run games at a lower quality and resolution to keep the framerate up. The quality can be manually bumped up, with predictably poor results. To use a relevant example, playing the Talos Principle on SHIELD was faster than playing it through Gamestream, but the graphics running on the PC were noticeably better.
To NVIDIA's credit, its efforts to stream local PC games create about the same results as similar setups, like Steam's native Windows-to-Windows streaming capability. NVIDIA now seems much less interested in streaming local games than in creating a full end-to-end solution, and considering the general headache of trying to play games on Windows through a digital tunnel, I can't say I blame them.
GameStream can take advantage of the SHIELD's full-sized USB ports, or a simple Bluetooth connection, to use standard PC mice and keyboards. This is ideal for actually playing some games, especially strategy titles, but actually using them while sitting on a couch or recliner is less than ideal. I'm eager to try Razer's Turret system for this reason.
First, NVIDIA's product managers specifically asked us to wait for a full review of GRID until the service rolls out formally in June. At that point it will be sold as a subscription, a la Netflix or OnLive. But as a major selling point of SHIELD and NVIDIA's mobile strategy as a whole, I'm duty-bound to cast a critical glance on it, even in this non-final implementation.
GRID is, simply, what we all hoped OnLive would be. It's a system that allows the SHIELD TV, SHIELD Tablet, and SHIELD Portable to play full PC games over the Internet. The games themselves are hosted in NVIDIA's custom-built data centers and streamed down to your local hardware, where you use your controller (or for some games, a USB or Bluetooth mouse or keyboard) to play. Once you're "in," the game plays exactly like it would on a top-of-the-line gaming PC... so long as the connection holds up.
In an ideal setting, using GRID is remarkable. While I could spot definite artifacts while playing some games at 1080p, it was the same kind of compression artifact you might see on a YouTube video. In terms of playability, it's perfect. When you think about the technical proficiency required to get all of it to work from end to end with almost invisible lag, you can't help but be impressed.
SHIELD owners have had free access to the beta version of GRID for a year and a half, though it's only recently been upgraded to 60fps-1080p quality. That will change next month at the formal launch, when the company will offer subscriptions at two tiers of quality... and we still don't know the complete details of those. GRID access comes with a Netflix-style library of "free with subscription" games, but you'll also be able to purchase newer games directly on GRID. Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Batman: Arkham Knight, and the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, $60 games on PCs and consoles, are the poster children for this upcoming super-premium option.
As nice as GRID is, the concept has some built-in problems. First, you'll need premium high-speed Internet - NVIDIA engineers told us that at least 60Mbps was ideal, though I seemed to be able to access 1080p/60fps streams with my 40Mbps connection. This can easily be disrupted by downloads on your local network, by the way; I could see almost instant slowdown when I started a large download on my PC and tried to play Street Fighter IV remotely. Next you'll need a solid connection to your router, either over 5GHz Wi-Fi (which most freebie cable and DSL modem-routers don't include) or with a hard Ethernet connection.
If you have the hardware and you're willing to pay the to-be-determined price, the last thing to consider is selection. At the time of this review, GRID features 52 games with a combined value of just under 1000 US dollars. (Check out this neat tool for evaluating GRID in monetary terms.) That's a lot, but it doesn't tell you everything. For example, the average price of these games if you bought them on Steam would be $20, approximately one third of the cost of a new game - which is probably why new games will be sold instead of included in the subscription fee.
Also, each and every one of these games had to be negotiated for and distributed in much the same way that digital music must be. That means that inevitably, some publishers and developers won't be interested in GRID as a platform. Right now the library features a lot of 2K, Warner Bros. Interactive, Capcom, and Codemaster titles, but zero entries from such major publishers as EA, Valve, Blizzard, and Ubisoft... which, not surprisingly, all have their own game distribution services. That's without even touching the games that are limited to one or more consoles. It also means that some of these games will appear and disappear as agreements expire, just like movies on Netflix.
What are gamers getting?
All of these drawbacks, both technical and environmental, lead to an unfortunate conclusion: while the SHIELD has a lot to offer gamers, it doesn't offer much that they haven't seen before. The high-end SHIELD exclusives available both now and in the future are mostly games that have been available elsewhere for a long time, and someone who already has a game console or PC will be unlikely to be interested in SHIELD except as a high-end Android TV device.
SHIELD has very few advantages over the original SHIELD Portable and the SHIELD Tablet except in terms of raw power, and quite a few limitations.
And therein lies another problem. Because of its Android TV software, the SHIELD has very few advantages over the original SHIELD Portable and the SHIELD Tablet except in terms of raw power, and quite a few limitations. While its Tegra X1 hardware grants it access to a few exclusives like Doom 3 and The Talos Principle, its Android TV software cuts its general game library into a fraction of that available on the other devices, or indeed, on Android smartphones in general. The $200 SHIELD Portable can play 99% of the games that the SHIELD TV can, and it also works as a console when you toss in an HDMI cable. It can host SHIELD and Bluetooth controllers just like the SHIELD TV. In exchange for an admittedly clunky 10-foot interface, you get a gigantic selection of Android games and the ability to go portable, and you keep essentially identical access to GRID and GameStream. And don't forget, the SHIELD Portable is due for a refresh soon.
Let's draw the bottom line here. On its technical merits alone, the SHIELD TV is amazing, and clearly the best Android TV device on the market. But as a device aimed at gamers, who almost certainly have a gaming PC or console that they're already using, it doesn't make much sense to buy one. Access to GRID may be interesting for someone who wants to augment their home theater with a more casual gaming experience, but for those who've already spent money on dedicated gaming machines, the library limitations are a real downer. This might change at some point - particularly if GRID gets more publishers onboard and offers a wide selection of both free and paid games with its subscriptions - but right now SHIELD TV is a very hard sell to dedicated gamers.
If you haven't already figured it out, SHIELD is the device to buy if you want Android TV. It smokes Nexus Player, and I honestly don't see the Razer Forge even coming close (especially without Netflix out of the box). While ATV is still lacking somewhat in the content department, there's still enough here to make it a useful box - Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, Sling, Plex, Crackle, Pandora, Play Music, Play Movies, and several other big names are all on board. There are, of course, some key providers missing - like HBO, for example - but I imagine we'll see some of those available soon enough. The one major player that we'll probably never see on Android TV is Amazon, which is a huge bummer for Prime members. Still, I can't say that I consider the lack of Prime Movies to be a dealbreaker.
And then there's the whole gaming thing. If you're a hardcore gamer, the odds are that SHIELD just won't do it for you. Why? Because most of the exclusive games here are just ported PC or console titles from three or so years ago. In other words, you've probably already played them. But then there are people like me - I like gaming, but I honestly don't have the time to keep up with the latest titles. For me, SHIELD is great. It gives me the option to sit back and play some quality titles with a traditional controller (I hate playing on touchscreens) on the same box where I'm already streaming movies and music - no need to buy multiple boxes to fill up my living room, or spend an extra $400 on a console that's only going to get touched a couple of times a month. I honestly feel like I'm the market for SHIELD.
But there are a few questions raised here, mostly when it comes to value and which box to buy. Is SHIELD worth the $200-300 asking price? Is it better than the competition? Here are my thoughts on those things: if you want one box that can do everything from playing games to streaming most of the content you want, then I think SHIELD is easily worth the money. However, Roku has far more content than Android TV, though the vast majority of it is just a lot of fluff. Roku and Fire TV both have access to Amazon's Prime streaming library, so if that's the only way you get your movie fix, then Android TV probably isn't for you. Nexus Player is also another option, but I'm just going to be blunt here: it's trash compared to SHIELD. NVIDIA's box is easily worth twice (or more) the cost of Nexus Player, because it's easily twice the box, in performance, storage, and content.
With SHIELD, I feel like you're not just buying another Android TV box. You're getting the most future-proof (as much as I hate that term) box on the market today. NVIDIA is quick to update its software, works with several development partners to constantly bring new content to its platforms, and SHIELD easily has the most advanced hardware in the set-top/streaming box market right now.
If those are things that are important to you - which I think they should be - then there's no question. Buy a SHIELD.