Nvidia's Shield range has already tried to infiltrate the handheld console and tablet arenas, and it was rather surprising to see the company abandon portability with its latest offering, the Nvidia Shield Android TV console. However, the ethos is very much the same - the device is, first and foremost, a showcase of Nvidia's own hardware and has a strong gaming focus. But is this set-top box really worth considering with the likes of Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV already on the market? Let's find out.
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Design
As set-top boxes go, the Shield is certainly unique in terms of aesthetics. From a distance it looks like a flat slab of plastic, but closer inspection reveals its angular surface and intriguing mixture of matt and glossy panels. The power light runs across the middle of the system, and when it lights up it makes the console look like something out of a sci-fi movie. Around the back things are a little more normal, with an array of ports including USB 3.0 (x2), HDMI 2.0, Ethernet, Micro USB and MicroSD.
Despite its unusual look, the Shield is small and easy to accommodate into even the tightest of AV setups. It can be placed horizontally, but by purchasing the official stand you can have it standing vertically as well. If you want it to be on display during use then this is the best option - especially as the "nano coating" on the base of the stand means it won't fall over or even move without some serious force being applied - but the accessory is pricey for what it is (£24.99).
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Controller & Remote
The fact that the Shield comes bundled with a gamepad speaks volumes about what kind of consumer Nvidia is aiming for. The pad will be familiar to those who owned the Shield tablet from last year - Nvidia has standardised the controllers across its range and the pad also works with the Shield handheld - and overall, it's a pretty decent interface. It's very close in feel to Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Xbox One controllers, with an almost identical button placement. The dual analogue sticks are precise and comfortable to use, and the 8-way directional pad - so often the Achilles' heel of modern controllers - is wonderful, featuring a "rolling" circular top which makes hitting diagonals easy.
In the middle of the controller is where you'll discover the biggest deviation from other controllers. There's a capacitive touch-pad zone on the lower edge (sadly this doesn't work with the Shield Android TV) and physical volume buttons, as well as the standard Android commands of "Back" and "Home", as well as a "Play" command. The power button is also capacitive, and lights up when the pad's in use. On the top edge there's a Micro USB port for charging the pad's internal battery and a 3.5 headphone socket, in case you like to game late at night but not disturb the other occupants of the house.
Connecting the pad to the Shield is easy, and it's possible to link up four controllers to the same device for those rare moments when you have a game which offers multiplayer support. While pairing wireless pads to Android-based hardware isn't anything new, Nvidia has baked-in this feature to the core OS, streamlining the process and making it feel more like a traditional home console experience. Just turn on the pad and it will connect to the Shield instantly.
Not included in the box is the official Shield remote control, which costs £39.99 and is arguably essential if you have any aspirations of using the unit as a media playback device; while everything can be controlled using the gamepad, it's hardly an elegant option. The remote has a circular D-pad for moving around the menu system, a back button, home button, voice search button and a capacitive panel for adjusting the volume. On the bottom edge - just like on the gamepad - there's a Micro USB port and 3.5mm headphone socket. The remote is a fusion of metal and plastic and is incredibly thin and light, making it a much more effective means of harnessing the Shield's potential as a media player - it's just a shame that it's not included in the box as standard, as buying it pushes the total cost of the package close to £200.
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Software & User Experience
The Shield runs Android TV, the successor to the much-maligned (and largely ignored) Google TV. The concept is simple enough - this is basically Android 5.1 dressed up in a TV-friendly interface which relies on remote or pad-based input as opposed to the touch-based control you'd normally find on a phone or tablet.
Because you expect your TV set-top box to offer different functionality to your handset, things are a little different to standard Android here. Elements like email, web-browsing and notifications are all removed, turning the unit into little more than a media-consumption platform. This is evidenced by the fact that the home screen is automatically populated by recommendations from the Google Play store, such as compatible games, the latest movies and recent music. You can pick and choose which sources offer recommendations, but on the whole, the system does an admirable job of putting interesting content in your field of vision the moment you switch the unit on. Android TV is, for the most part, intuitive and easy to navigate, and certainly dials down the complexity of Google's OS to present a more accessible UI.
Amazon's Fire TV made good use of voice commands and Android TV follows suit - a logical approach when you consider that, as standard, there's no physical keyboard interface here (the on-screen keyboard is, nevertheless, nice enough to use). The issue is that searches are restricted to certain apps and don't delve as deeply as you might assume. For example, searching for a movie or actor throws up plenty of info, but it's always limited to Google's own services, such as Google Play store or YouTube. If the film you're looking for is on Netflix, voice search won't make the connection and suggest it. This may well be something that developers can fix in the future.
A bigger problem is compatibility. The issue is that by adopting a touch-less interface means that many existing Android apps aren't immediately compatible with the Shield. Browsing the Google Play store on the device shows some worrying gaps - if you're an existing Android user then there are bound to be several essential apps which you won't be able to install directly to the device. However, with Android being Android, you can always "sideload" these apps by turning on a permission which allows the installation of "unknown sources" and grabbing the .apk file online. Our approach was to obtain a trusted and verified .apk of Dropbox on a computer, copy it to a USB drive (a Micro SD card will work just as well) and then insert that into the Shield. Using a file manager is possible to install the app as normal,after which point all we needed to do was either upload .apks to Dropbox using our phone or computer and access them via the Shield, or download a web browser such as Chrome and download directly to the unit.
All of these processes require additional hardware, such as a keyboard and mouse - wired or Bluetooth is fine. Dropbox in particular shows the perils of running non-optimised Android apps on an Android TV device - while you can scroll through things using the gamepad's D-pad, you can't make selections without a mouse as the app expects touch-based control to open some menus.
While the process of getting the apps you want installed on the device isn't anywhere near as onerous as it was with the Mad Catz .M.O.J.O. micro console, it's still far from user-friendly, and those users who aren't so tech-savvy might find the entire exercise a little bit befuddling.
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Gaming
Given that it comes bundled with a gaming controller - and taking into account Nvidia's reputation as a company which pushes gaming tech forward - the main reason that many people will be shelling out £150 for the Shield is to play games. Nvidia has done a lot of work lately to ensure that its Shield range has the kind of software which will entice players, and that includes securing exclusive Android ports like Half Life 2, Portal and Trine 2. These games do look and feel amazing, and are leagues ahead of your typical Android fare. However, even when supported by the insane power of the Shield - it's packing Nvidia's Tegra X1 processor which boasts a 256-core GPU and 3GB RAM - performance can be sketchy. Titles like Half Life 2 fall foul of inconsistent frame rates, although Doom 3 runs like a dream. This inconsistency proves that such problems are down to the code itself rather than the hardware.
When it comes to "standard" Android releases the story is largely the same; some games run as smooth as butter while others are prone to bouts of stutter which really shouldn't occur when the hardware is this potent. Android games are famously tricky to optimise because of the massive range of different hardware configurations out there. While everything is still perfectly playable and the presence of a proper controller makes compatible releases a lot more enjoyable, but it's still a little way away from the kind of performance you'd expect to get from a "proper" console. Needless to say, totally touch-based games are a no-go unless you're willing to wrestle with a mouse.
If this was all the Shield had to offer then we'd struggle to recommend it, but thankfully it also has Nvidia's take on the cloud gaming concept, GeForce Grid - which was previously playable on the Shield tablet and handheld and has now been rechristened GeForce Now. Mention cloud gaming to most people and they immediately think of OnLive, the pioneering service which delivered on the idea but suffered from fuzzy visuals and off-putting input lag. While GeForce Now still has these issues, they're reduced to almost being inconsequential, especially if you're blessed with a fast home broadband connection and choose to make use of the Shield's ethernet port for a wired net connection.
The service requires a monthly subscription fee of £7.49, but if you sign up now you get your first three months for nothing. Even after the trial period ends the price isn't bad at all, but the software on offer is predictably outdated. The games you get unlimited access to are decent but rather old - stuff like Saints Row: The Third, GRID Autosport, Borderlands and Homefront - while the more recent latest releases require you to spend extra cash on top of your monthly sub. For example, The Witcher 3 costs the princely sum of £49.99, but you do get a download code for the PC version with each one. That softens the blow a little if you're a PC gamer, but begs the question - why would you play a game on your Shield via GeForce Now when you could arguably obtain a superior experience on your desktop PC for less cash? The console also allows you to stream gameplay from your PC as long as you have a compatible Nvidia graphics card - this was a neat extra with the Shield handheld and tablet but it makes less sense when you're talking about a device which lacks mobility - although it has to be remembered that many people have their PC outside the living room, so this does at least allow you to enjoy a big-screen experience on your television.
The final element worth covering is, depending on your stance, the most impressive. Emulation on Android is something of a dirty secret; everyone knows it's there and emulators are permitted to exist on the Google Play store, but few companies are brave enough to advertise that their hardware allows users to break copyright law and play ROMs illegally - and Nvidia is no exception. However, as a emulation machine the Shield is peerless; the raw power means that even quite recent "retro" consoles like the Dreamcast, PlayStation, N64 and - surprisingly - Sega Saturn are replicated with near-faultless accuracy. The Saturn is a famously tricky machine to emulate but recent apps like Yabause have been updated to take advantage of OpenGLes3, which means that the 3D visuals are upscaled and improved and performance is very decent indeed - that's quite a step forward when you consider that around a year ago, Yabause could barely register double figure frame-rates on the Shield tablet.
If you're truly serious about emulation then the Shield could well be the ultimate machine, as it mixes excellent performance with a fantastic controller which is perfect for all kinds of games. The list of consoles supported is incredible - as well as the mentioned systems you can play Mega Drive, SNES, Game Boy, Neo Geo, PC Engine, Amiga, Spectrum, Commodore 64, Wonderswan, Game Boy Advance, Neo Geo Pocket Color and MAME (arcade) titles with barely a single problem. The 16GB of storage in the standard model (a more expensive Pro version comes with a 500GB HDD) limits the number of games you can download, but it's easy (and cheap) enough to bung everything on a roomy USB stick or MicroSD card. We simply stuck everything on a 64GB thumb drive and had storage to spare.
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Media
Android TV's main focus - as the name suggests - is the moving image, despite Nvidia's attempts to turn the Shield into a games console. Netflix comes pre-installed and offers 4K playback if you have a suitable television, while Google Play is packed with movies and TV shows to download and watch. If you want to use your own files then you can make use of Plex - also installed out of the box - or use one of the many other Android players. MX Player is a personal favourite as it allows hardware acceleration, delivering smooth performance even with high-resolution videos (the normally excellent VLC Player struggled with many of the videos we attempted to play). Furthermore, you can cast media to the Shield from other devices using the Chromecast function - so if you have clips or photos on your phone you can display them on your TV. You can also use your phone as a remote control, playing movies or music via the Chromecast connection.
However, there are some glaring issues here, and these are mainly related to Android. The Android BBC iPlayer app doesn't display in HD yet - something that even the cheapest, non-Android set-top boxes can manage. There's also no Amazon Instant Video access, which has more to do with Amazon's own policy towards rival hardware than anything else - the retail recently removed all Android-based set-top boxes from its online store.
Still, if you're used to getting your own files rather than streaming them then the Shield is an excellent piece of kit - the support for 4K, 60fps footage will ensure that it is very attractive for those on the cutting edge of AV tech.
Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Conclusion
The Shield Android TV console is without a doubt a cutting-edge piece of hardware, and the fact that Nvidia doesn't have to worry about throttling its power to maintain battery life or keep the temperature down (incidentally the unit has a fan, but it's barely audible even when running at full speed) means that for once, its Tegra tech can really fly. The problem is that outside of a handful of games, 4K video and an admittedly impressive selection of emulators, the console doesn't really get the chance to soar. When software is tailored to its strengths the results are mesmerising - Trine 2 looks gorgeous, as does the Doom 3 - but worryingly, other "exclusive" Shield games suffer from performance issues which take the shine off things. App support needs to improve, too - sideloading is an option but we'd rather see developers add Android TV compatibility.
Elsewhere, GeForce Now is without a doubt the most impressive implementation of the cloud gaming concept yet seen, and comes with an agreeable monthly subscription fee as well. It's held back by a lack of really new software and the need to hand over additional cash for the latest games, but as a platform for Nvidia's tech, it's incredibly impressive - and perhaps that's the point. The Shield range has always been about Nvidia blowing its own trumpet and showing off the effectiveness of its hardware.
Despite its shortcomings, it's still early days for the Shield. The issues we've mentioned - such as a lack of apps, games and features - can be remedied with updates, and since launch the console has already received an OTA update which has smoothed out some niggles. Android TV as a platform is at a very early stage in its life, too, and given time it can mature and improve. For the time being, the Shield comes with a slightly cautious recommendation; the power is incredible, the interface is decent and software which has been coded with the system in mind really does sing. However, if you're simply looking for a media-streaming device then you might be better off elsewhere, and serious gamers might balk at the lack of killer titles.