What is the Shield TV?
For many, Android TV boxes are a hard sell, as pretty much every new TV has its own suite of streaming apps pre-installed. That was why the original Nvidia Shield TV was such a welcome surprise.
The box offered top-end hardware, a variety of video apps, 4K streaming, plus access to the Nvidia GeForce Now gaming library. This made it a compelling choice for anyone looking for an affordable entertainment hub.
One year on, Nvidia’s chosen not to rock the boat too much with its follow-up Shield TV, and has refined, rather than reimagined, the device, adding things like improved voice command functionality and HDR support.
The end result may look underwhelming, but after three days with it, I can confirm the upgrades are awesome and definitely make the Shield TV one of the better streaming packages around. However, the current unavailability of many of its most interesting features, such as improved game streaming and Zigbee smart home connectivity, make it feel a little like a v1.5 update.
Video: Shield TV review
Shield TV – Design and Controller
On paper the new Shield is technically almost identical to its predecessor. It’s powered by the same NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor and an identical configuration of power, HDMI 2.0, twin USB 3.0 and Ethernet ports.
The appearance of the X1 system-on-chip will annoy spec-heads, who were expecting the device to run Nvidia’s fabled X2 follow-up, but for now the X1 chip is more than powerful enough. Nvidia claims the CPU/GPU combination makes the Shield four times faster than the Fire TV and functionality-wise it still ticks all the right boxes.
The X1 is the same system-on-chip as that seen in the Nintendo Switch. It’s based on Nvidia’s slightly old Maxwell architecture, but it’s capable of 4K HDR playback at 60fps. Unless you’re planning on upgrading to a TV with HDMI 2.1 later this year, this is as good as you’re going to get out of a streaming box.
Nvidia’s also managed to pack the hardware into a significantly smaller chassis, nearly a third smaller than the original, which is an impressive feat. My only concern is that Nvidia’s cut the microSD card slot from the design, which will be a pain for people who buy the basic 16GB Shield and want to download, not stream, video content.
Related: What is 4K?
The games controller and remote have had a more thorough redesign. For starters, they’re now included with the console. The 2015 edition only shipped with the controller.
But Nvidia’s also given the controller a visual overhaul. The new version looks like a cross between an Nvidia Founder’s Edition graphics card and Xbox One pad. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the angular design, which feels a little less comfortable to hold than its smooth predecessor, but I am pleased with its under-the-hood hardware upgrades.
Haptic feedback was woefully absent from the original controller, which made gaming feel slightly less immersive, which is why I’m pleased to see it on the 2017 pad. The addition of an IR transmitter is another nice touch, meaning you can now change the volume on your TV using the gamepad – no need to pick up your remote.
But for me the improvements to the controller’s microphone are key. Nvidia’s tweaked the mic so it can pick up voices from a wider field, which sounds small fry, but it’s necessary for one of the Shield TV’s best new features – Google Assistant.
Assistant is Google’s version of Amazon Alexa, and is designed to let you control smart devices simply by talking to them. Its addition means you can now mount web searches and control apps running on the Shield TV simply by saying “OK Google” followed by your command when near your controller.
The feature worked a treat and during my time with the Shield I found its voice recognition to be more sensitive and accurate than the Kinect 2’s, but slightly behind the Amazon Echo’s. The mic easily picked up simple commands such as “pause”, “play” and “next track”, but it would occasionally stumble with more esoteric queries. Trying to search for VeltPunch albums in the Google Play store lead to some inaccurate results, for example.
Related: What is HDR?
The functionality will also become more useful once Nvidia’s Spot and Zigbee/Z-Wave wireless dongle are released. The Spot is Nvidia’s answer to the Amazon Echo Dot. It’s a small smart speaker that plugs into any wall socket. Once plugged in it enables you to continue using Google Assistant when away from the Shield.
The Shield supports the Samsung SmartThings ecosystem, but Nvidia has said it intends to release a wireless dongle will let it connect directly to any Zigbee/Z-Wave smart device in the near future. If the system works correctly this could make the Shield a central command station for any smart home setup. I’ll be updating this review the moment I get my hands on a Spot cold wrap or nand the dongle.
Shield TV 2 – Software, 4K HDR Streaming and GeForce Now
The dongle and Spot aren’t the only upgrades not currently working on the new Shield. When Nvidia unveiled the Shield it made a big deal about the huge changes it’ll be making to its GeForce Experience software, which is directly baked into the streaming box.
The two biggest upgrades included a performance boost to Nvidia’s GeForce Now remote play subscription service and the ability to link your Ubisoft UPlay account to the shield.
Nvidia claims the new GeForce Now software will let you stream titles at a graphics quality equivalent to a desktop PC running either a GTX 1080 GPU.
The UPlay upgrade means Shield owners will be able to stream games from their Ubisoft library, such as Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, The Division, Far Cry Primal, Watch Dogs, Watch Dogs 2, For Honor, and The Crew, from the moment they’re released on PC. UPlay may not be the best store, but if this functionality carried on rolling out to other stores, like EA’s Origin, or even Steam, it would make the Shield a great choice for gamers regularly on the move.
The Nvidia Store’s existing gaming ecosystem is noticeably more developed than competing streaming boxes. The number of titles isn’t anywhere near as large as Steam’s but it includes some hidden gems and classics you won’t be able get on any current generation console. Scrolling through the library I was able to quickly find a number of retro games I’ve been hankering to replay, like Jade Empire, pretty much all the Final Fantasies and Fear 2. Newer titles are a still a bit of a mixed bag however, you’ll find some new titles like Shadow Warrior 2, but most games released within the last few months are noticeably absent. The gaming experience itself is great. Games easily streamed on my BT Infinity Broadband connection and I never suffered any serious drops in framerate or network errors during my time with the Shield TV. Downloading games is a little tricky on the 16GB model as there’s not enough space to get most modern games but the lower end Android games, like Banner Saga install and ran fine.
Related: Apple TV review
Graphically though, games from the Android store, which is separate from Nvidia’s own Store, are slightly less impressive. As was the case on the original Shield TV some Android games don’t upscale onto the big screen that well and can suffer from pixelation. How bad the effects are depends on the exact title you’re playing.
Outside of this the only other upgrades are the addition of HDR streaming, though this will also be appearing on the original Shield via a software upgrade.The Shield TV is currently the only streamer that offers 4K HDR viewing and is the only box to include 360 Youtube videos.
The feature works well enough and there’s a decent array of HDR 4K content available on the Shield, which has access to all the popular entertainment apps you’d expect – Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube and Google Play Movies, plus some more esoteric ones like Crunchyroll and Shudder.
Related: Best 4K TVs
Should I buy the Shield TV 2?
The Shield TV is currently the best Android TV box around. The 2017 model is noticeably faster than competing packages, such as the Amazon Fire, and has a significantly better gaming portfolio. If you are on the market for an all-in-one streaming box this is one of the best you can buy.
I wouldn’t recommend that existing Shield TV owners should rush out and buy one, however. Too many of the cool new features are either appearing on the old Shield TV anyway, or haven’t been activated on the newer model, so it doesn’t yet feel like a significant upgrade. The new controller will be worth picking up separately, though.
Current-gen games console owners might also struggle to justify the purchase as well, so the Shield is undeniably a niche device.
For gaming, the Shield is at its best when used in conjunction with an Nvidia gaming PC in your house, and makes streaming games from your PC to a TV in another room super easy. The excellent array of apps, streaming services, HDR and exclusive games is also very attractive.
With the basic 16GB model costing a hefty £189 and the 500GB version retailing for £279, the new Shield TV is also one of the most expensive streaming boxes around, which is a drawback even when its features are considered.
Hopefully it’ll feel a little more exciting and justify its high cost when Nvidia rolls out the GeForce Now and smart home upgrades later this year.
The Shield TV is still the best streaming box around, but its best features haven’t arrived yet.