NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Review
SHIELD lays down the gauntlet...
What is the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV?It may be easier to ask what the NVIDIA SHIELD TV doesn't do, as this little device packs an awful lot of functionality and features in to its distinctive casing. Part media streamer, part gaming hub, the NVIDIA ANDROID TV was released in the USA in June 2015 and we’ve been waiting for it with a rare degree of excited anticipation ever since. Why? You may justifiably ask; well it’s a bit of a spec monster, for one, and all that power could – and should - translate in to one of the slickest experiences we’ve had to date with an Android Box. It will also be the first standalone device we’ve reviewed with access to Ultra HD Netflix content and also the first media box to have an HDMI 2.0 output.
The NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV comes in two flavours; the basic model with 16GB of storage and the premium, SHIELD Pro with a 500GB hard drive. Pricing, at the time of the review (October 2015), is set at £149.99 and £229.99, respectively. It does face a lot of strong competition from some major players, however, with new and highly comparable devices either released - or just about to be; the new Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku 4 will be waiting for any slip-ups. The model we have under scrutiny, here, is the 500GB pro version; so let’s see if NVIDIA have their game together sufficiently to tackle the ever-burgeoning media hub market...
SpecificationsAs intimated above, the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is a pretty powerful beast. Processing is done by a Tegra X1 with a 256-core Maxwell GPU and there’s an extremely healthy 3GB of RAM on board; we’re usually more than happy with just 2GB. The basic 16GB model features an SSD (Solid State Drive), which also promises lightning-fast response and you can expand storage using the microSD slot. The 500GB Pro Model is essentially the same spec but obviously with more storage, although it is a mechanical drive so not quite so fast.
It looks powerful and it is!
Video-wise, the SHIELD ANDROID TV is blessed with 4K Ultra HD playback at up to 60 frames per second and it can decode VP9 (important for YouTube), H265 and H264. It also supports MPEG-2/ MPEG-4/ Xvid/ DivX/ WMV9/ ASF/ AVI/ MKV/ MOV/ M2TS/ MPEG-TS/ H.263/ H.264/ H.265/ VC-1/ VP8/ VP9 at lower resolutions. The 2.0 software update improved things on the audio side, too, so it is now billed as being able to pass through up to 7.1 channel DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD, in addition to supporting high-resolution audio playback up to 24-bit/192 kHz over both HDMI and USB and it can also up-sample to 24-bit/192 kHz over USB. We told you it was a bit of a beast!
Design and ConnectionsIt’s not often we get to use the term ‘stealthy’ in a review but that’s the best descriptive term we have for this device. It is all angular, sleek and covered in ridges with a design featuring alternating gloss and matte black, panels. One of the ‘shards’ features a touch-sensitive power button and, at the point of that, begins a V-shaped green power indicator which can be dimmed or switched off completely, should you so choose. Though the press images don’t really show it, the SHIELD Android TV is also pretty small with measured dimensions of 25x210x130mm (HxWxD) but it’s heavier than most of the competition at just over 650g. All the physical connections are on a panel at the rear of the device and it’s an impressive array including an HDMI 2.0 output, two version 3.0 USB ports, a gigabit Ethernet connection and a micro-SD card slot, plus a micro USB 2.0 connection. The SHIELD ANDROID TV is also equipped with 802.11ac dual-band Wi-Fi and version 4.1 Bluetooth.
The surest sign that NVIDIA would rather you look at the SHIELD TV as a gaming device, first, and a streaming box second, comes in the shape of the supplied means of control; it’s a gamepad and not the TV-Box style remote you might have been expecting. There’s nothing wrong with it – in fact it’s very good – but we find it strange you don’t get the option of choosing a standard remote instead of the games controller. We’re well used to using a gamepad for media duties, since the Xbox/PS2 days but some will definitely be put off by that; it’s non-optimal and the fact that the optional TV remote costs nearly £40 - gorgeous as it is - doesn't help. Given the Bluetooth and USB connectivity, and the fact the device runs on Android, you do have lots of alternatives that are cheaper but we think NVIDIA needs to reassess its accessories pricing for the UK market.
Update: As of November 16 2015, NVIDIA has decided to include the TV remote as part of the package with no increase in price which we think is an outstanding move.
The gamepad, itself, is your classic PlayStation/Xbox hybrid with non-offset thumbsticks and the usual assortment of buttons, triggers and shoulder buttons. It, too, features a (very) touch sensitive power button at the top with the NVIDIA logo upon it, which is surrounded by the Home, Back and Play buttons. At the bottom of the pad is a volume rocker which adds a bit of extra bulk without really impacting on comfort, although we do have to say the general finish and feel of the controller is quite lightweight and ‘plasticy’ and we did expect a more premium feel. The battery does last an awful long time from a full charge, however – 25 hours in and it’s still going strong! The controller also features a headphone jack for private listening which we found to be a bit temperamental. Whether that was the wireless signal, between box and controller or the headphone out stage to blame is difficult to fathom but it did seem to struggle the more powerful and less sensitive the headphones were, so NVIDIA are investigating this for us.
SetupFollowing the usual Android network settings and Google sign-in process you will be greeted with a rather sizable, non-optional software upgrade which comes in at around 717.9MB. Depending on your internet speed, that might mean you’ll be sat around waiting for a while but the Wi-Fi and Ethernet performance are excellent so we were done in around 5 to 6 minutes. Following that, you are given a brief control tutorial – i.e. you’re shown what the buttons do – and then you’re good to go.
Leanback LauncherWe’ve already become quite familiar with the Android TV interface, with its Leanback Launcher, following our experiences with the Sony and Philips Smart TV platforms and it’s definitely growing on us. It is an inescapable fact that it’s primarily designed to promote Google owned apps and services, however, so the constant pushing of YouTube and Google Music, Film and TV in the top discovery bar might start to grate in time. There are also some useful, SHIELD TV specific, tutorial videos in there too but you’re not stuck with it and you can install alternative Launcher (homescreen) apps should you wish; an early nod would go to HALauncher which also displays any sideloaded (more on that later) apps you might have. You also have the option of removing any of the recommendation sources -e.g. YouTube, Google Play Games etc- in the Settings Menu, which might be preferable for some.
Below the content discovery bar are rows for the ‘Shield Hub,’ which appears to be all the specially tailored apps and there’s a further row of apps beneath that to cover any others, provided they were downloaded from the Google Play store. Right at the bottom of the homepage are a series of settings shortcuts covering Power, SHIELD accessories and Network, along with the general settings icon. If you’re used to Android - or just about any modern operating system, in all honesty – you won’t struggle to navigate around the Settings Menu but if you’re looking for the one to allow sideloading – i.e. the installation of apps from other than Google Play, you will find that one under Security and Restrictions labelled as Unknown Sources.
Optimised AppsIf you’re used to the boundless selection of apps available through your Android phone or tablet, the cut-down version of the Google Play Store presented through the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV might come as something of a shock. It’s understandable on a couple of fronts; firstly NVIDIA will need to make sure an app is fully useable with their pad, as a minimum, and there’s also the fact that the OS is fairly immature. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to get your teeth in to but the SHIELD TV definitely needs a bigger and better selection of native apps.
For the moment, ‘mainstream’ video service apps are a bit thin on the ground so if you’re looking for a box that has all the UK catch-up services, for example, you will be better off looking elsewhere; at least for the time being. NVIDIA has told us they are in talks with all the relevant broadcasters and providers and there could be some exciting news coming soon. So, at the time of launch we basically have Netflix, which is very soon to be followed by a unique version of BBC iPlayer. NVIDIA has been working closely with the BBC for maximum optimisation of the hardware which will result in an app featuring adaptive streaming technology – i.e. if you have a good internet connection, you will get HD but as bandwidth diminishes so will bitrate and resultant picture quality. At launch – due to other BBC apps (News/Sport) - resolution will be pegged to a maximum of 720p but 1080p content is coming soon.
Going back to Netflix, as we do, the SHIELD Android TV just squeaked out of the door as the first media box to output their Ultra HD content in the UK. This is a fairly big deal for owners of some first and second gen 4K Smart TVs from the major manufacturers and also for those looking at a budget brand which might not carry the service. The 2.0 SHIELD software update brought the capability of 23.976Hz signal output for both ‘4k’ and 1080p, which is a massive plus in our eyes as the vast majority of US blockbuster TV shows, and nearly all movies, are captured in a framerate which matches exactly that. The results are more filmic playback and a truer representation of what you should be seeing than most Netflix apps provide. It’s not all good news, however, as we did detect (and have seen Forum members report) there are some issues with colour mapping that can give images a washed out look. But there’s good news, based on feedback provided by AVForums and its members - and imparted to us by NVIDIA just prior to publishing – the issue has been identified at NVIDIA’s end and is to be fixed with a software update due 13/10/2015. You can’t beat that for service and it’s great to see a manufacturer so receptive to – and proactive with – feedback! We’ll update the review once we’ve verified whether the fix is successful, or not.
Update: Following further discussions with AVForums, NVIDIA has also confirmed it is working with individual app providers to build in automatic refresh rate frequency switching to their services, which would be great. Presumably that means Netflix, at the very least, but any others would be more than welcome.
So, to summarise, whilst there are a decent number of apps available through Google Play on the SHIELD TV, it’s clear more content partnerships need to be negotiated with the major players. We’ll give NVIDIA these suggestions to be getting on with, although we know they are fully aware – Sky NOW TV, ITV Player, ALL 4, Demand 5, Spotify & TIDAL. Oh, and Amazon Instant Video, but good luck with that! You can work-around, somewhat, with the use of Google Cast to send content from your Phone, PC or Tablet but native apps would definitely be preferable. While we’re talking Google, we have to say the voice search facility is extremely well implemented through the controller and we can’t remember it getting anything wrong.
Sideloaded AppsThe easiest way to install Apps not available for the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV in the Google Play Store is probably via a USB stick. Download the .apk to the stick, pop the stick in to the SHIELD and then use ES File Explorer, which is available free on Google Play, and navigate to the file and install. You will also need to allow ‘Unknown Sources’ in the Security & Restrictions area of the Settings Menu. You could also install a third party app store but we’re not great fans of those. We managed to get TIDAL and Spotify working well enough, with the caveat that you’ll need a controller other than the one supplied to actually play anything because they require touchscreen controls or at least something that can mimic them, i.e. a mouse or an airmouse controller. The ‘missing’ video apps that we did get working weren’t really worth the bother as picture quality was poor with all featuring standard def resolution and/or choppy playback.
NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV KODIPart of what’s lacking in the Android app department can be compensated for by the use of KODI, which is also on Google Play. You can, for instance, install add-ons for ITV player, Spotify and TIDAL which are all controller friendly and in the case of the www iPlayer add-on, it’s as good an experience as you get outside of the web browser. Until recently, there used to be an excellent Amazon Instant video add-on although it’s not working at the moment but hopefully it will be fixed. With all the horsepower at its disposal, it’s no wonder the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is such a capable KODI player with near seamless loading of thumbnails, cover art and data, even if you have a relatively large build. We stress tested it with an unnecessary 1.1GB build based on the FTV Skin, with a deliberately excessive number of thumbnails and it didn’t blink.
KODI works great with further optimisation on the way
As things stand, the current stable release of KODI for Android doesn’t take full advantage of the new capabilities of the SHIELD TV following the 2.0 update. So, for now, there is no pass-through of 7.1 DTS-HD, DTS-HD MA or Dolby TrueHD, although we were impressed that KODI was able to switch video refresh frequencies correctly when needed. Development work is well underway to utilise the new feature set and when a release hits, it’s likely to see the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV as the best option for KODI on the Android operating system - if it isn’t already.
GeForce NOWAt the outset of this review the brief was to concentrate on the media functions of the NSATV – this is AVForums, after all – and only to have a bit of a dabble with the gaming side of things. Well, I didn’t really stick to that, purely down to the fact I was just having too much fun. Before we go on, it’s probably best we preface a little; I am not the gamer I used to be (I was never any good but I played a lot) and my only current-gen (yes, it is) console is a Wii U. I can’t, therefore, claim to know how good some of the latest PS4/Xbox One titles look but anyone coming from a PS3 or Xbox 360 will not be disappointed, in terms of video quality.
The newly branded NVIDIA GeForce NOW service is billed as ‘Netflix for games’ and whilst that’s only partially true, it could well be a glimpse in to the not very distant future of console gaming. You pay a monthly subscription (£7.49 in the UK – currently free for 3 months to new owners) which then entitles you to stream around 50 games, as part of your subscription, with the option of paying extra for newer titles which you will then digitally ‘own’; prices range from £14.99 up to £49.99, for the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. How good a value you’re getting from this deal will be a personal thing; for a lapsed, infrequent gamer like myself, that £7.49 a month would be excellent as there are enough desirable catalogue titles to keep me going for at least a year. For a more regular gamer there will obviously less to go at and the service might seem a bit content-starved.
We guess GeForce will live or die by the regularity, and numbers, of updates to the selection available under the monthly subscription – we’re not sure how many takers they’ll get for the paid-for titles - but what can’t be understated is just how impressive the streaming is. I do benefit from having a 152Mb internet connection with average ping less than 10ms but even running it over Wi-Fi, from two rooms away from the router, the experience was console-like in terms of load times, latency and visuals. We had one minor hiccup over the wireless connection in two hours of gaming and none once we’d gone wired in around three hours up-time. For the record - and scoff if you like - games played included PC ports of Lego Batman (1080p60), Gas Guzzlers: Extreme (1080p30) and HomeFront (1080p60). Ok, you can’t max out absolutely all the effects but you can play on very palatable settings and we never once felt disadvantaged by network latency. Things have come a long way since the days of OnLive and five years of development, with a further one year in beta testing, has reaped rich dividends for GeForce NOW.
I’ll admit I didn’t go greatly in to the SHIELD Games section – which is a collection of optimised Android titles – and nor have I got a gaming PC with the required NVIDIA graphics card to allow me to test out GameStream but you can bet the SHIELD Android TV knocks spots off the rest of the competition in this department. We would like to suggest NVIDIA opens GeForce NOW up to debit, as well as credit, card payments and the whole detail inputting system is beyond laborious using the gamepad but if that’s the only real criticisms we can come up with, it should tell you something. Provided your network is up to it, it’s time to stop fearing games streamed over the internet.
If ever there were a device for the AVForums demographic, surely this is it?
- Exceptional power
- Great connectivity
- Proper 24p Support
- HDMI 2.0 output
- Unrivalled gaming experience in sector
- GeForce NOW is amazing
- Great KODI integration that's getting better
- 7.1 HD audio pass-through
- Excellent manufacturer support
- Lack of native apps
- (Temporary) Colour Space Issue
- No TV remote and optional one is pricey
- Audio drop-outs with less sensitive headphones
- Some will think it expensive
NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV ReviewThe NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV emerges in to a product sector that is gaining favour with manufacturers and consumers alike. Apple, Amazon and Roku have all released – or are about to – very similar devices to the SHIELD TV. They are designed as a one-stop-shop for your all your gaming, movies, music and TV needs. NVIDIA is aiming the Android SHIELD TV at those that want the best and are prepared to pay for it. In fact, had a certain beer manufacturer not coined the phrase first, we don’t think NVIDIA would baulk at the tag-line, ‘Reassuringly Expensive’.
Not that the SHIELD TV costs the earth, the base model with 16GB of storage will set you back £150 with the 500GB Pro version retailing at £230. It should be noted that it comes bundled with a gamepad, and not a conventional TV-style remote, which we think is not necessarily the best decision; at the very least there should be an option on the controllers, especially when they SHIELD remote costs £39.99. It’s nice but not that nice, although the Bluetooth capability and USB ports mean third party remotes can be added easily
UPDATE: As of 16/11/2015, UK customers now get the TV remote control in addition to the games controller as part of the package, with no increase in pricing. This makes an already excellent product just that much better!
In fact, the SHIELD Android TV packs in great connectivity, besides, including a HDCP 2.2 compliant HDMI 2.0 port, two v3.0 USB ports, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and gigabit LAN. The horsepower also leaves the rest standing with a Tegra X1 processor, a 256-core NVIDIA GPU and a 64-bit CPU and 3GB of RAM at its disposal. It is, as you would expect, extremely responsive and slick to operate, as a result, and some of that power comes to roost with its ability to display 4K images at up to 60 frames per second; a trick only the Roku 4 can match, in this product sector, and there’s no certainty we’ll ever see that device in the UK.
But it’s obviously no good having all that power with no means of showing it. It is put in to genuinely excellent effect through Ultra HD/4K Netflix and YouTube apps with others on the way. Two weeks after release NVIDIA will also be releasing a specially tailored BBC iPlayer app with a unique adaptive streaming capability but if there’s one thing lacking with the SHIELD TV it is native apps for the UK market. It is early days for both the SHIELD TV, and the operating system for that matter, but a shot in the arm would be welcome here. There is the option of sideloading, of course, but it’s always best to go native where possible.
There are plenty of Android TV box owners who couldn't care less about the mainstream services and would be more interested in the KODI performance which, we have to say, is generally excellent. It will get even better soon when the developers bake in all the exciting new features added in the 2.0 software update; including the pass-through of 7.1 DTS-HD, DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD, plus support for high resolution 24-bit 192 kHz audio over HDMI and USB. You can already use these abilities via the native players but it will be even better when KODI gives them official support. PLEX lovers will also be pleased to learn their favourite media software is pre-installed to the device.
Whilst we’ve been focussing on the media streaming side of things, it’s with gaming where the Android SHIELD TV is truly special. It provides access to a range of possibilities — including the new GeForce NOW ‘Netflix for Games’ cloud service – and PC GameStream compatibility for your NVIDIA gaming rig – GPU permitting. For £7.49 a month (free for 3 months right now) you are eligible for unlimited streaming of more than 50 PC games, including titles from the Batman and Lego series. Whilst new AAA blockbuster games including Witcher 3, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell can be purchased on top.
What value that represents to you will vary but if you have any fears about streaming games over the internet – and believe us, we did – then provided your network is up to the task, prepared to be surprised with GeForce NOW. It is a stunningly implemented system with console quality graphics at up to 1080p at 60 frames per second; it plays as though you had a disc inserted or all the data on your hard drive. We don’t know quite how they’ve done it but they have and we’re instant – and massive - fans.
So, for the tricky part – at least as far as I’m concerned - and that’s the decision on the AVForums badge. Judged up against the likes of the new Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Roku 4, the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is undoubtedly more powerful but lacks the number of blockbuster streaming apps some of those do/will offer. As compensation for that, it’s the best choice for KODI, certainly, and likely PLEX as well. We’ll call that a flush based on personal requirements but where the SHIELD TV is unreservedly more gifted than the rest is with games and GeForce Now is nothing short of a revelation. We also think it’s high-end audio/visual feature set , including 7.1 HD audio pass-through, hi-res audio support and Ultra HD, at up to 60 frames per second, make it the choice for the discerning customer – and that’s you AVForums readers – so it will be our reference device (against which the others will be compared) going forwards, despite the fact it’s not altogether perfect.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £149.99
Networking, Internet, Streaming quality10
Set up, Menus, Remote8
Value for Money9
Where to buyNVIDIA SHIELD Android TV
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