Android TV has certainly had a weird life. It was pretty hyped up after initially being announced, and Google even tried to create a reference box with the Nexus Player. And, to be fair, it’s still getting updated and being supported, but I don’t think you can still buy them outside of places like eBay.
Fast forward a few years, and surely the Nexus Player has spawned off a robust ecosystem of hardware just like Android phones, right? Not so much.
Even on Google’s own site, if you check out the available Android TV devices, you’ll see two brands of TVs and three boxes: the Xiaomi Mi Box, the NVIDIA Shield TV, and the Razer Forge TV. And, uh, that’s it. And you can’t actually buy the Razer Forge TV anymore.
Right, but this an NVIDIA Shield TV review, not a commentary on the state of Android TV. NVIDIA easily maintains their spot as the most popular brand of Android TV partners, but is their hardware a worthwhile investment into Google’s TV-focused software? Let’s dig in and find out.
Most set-top boxes try to blend into the background and not cause a distraction on your entertainment center. The Shield TV doesn’t buck that trend too heavily, but it does have a more distinctive look to differentiate itself on your shelf.
It’s still a plastic rectangle, but it sports some sharp edges and lines all over the top. It also has a green strip that does in fact light up when the box is on. It’s an NVIDIA device, you had to expect some green accents somewhere.
On the bottom of the device you’ll find some vents, and the back houses two USB ports, an HDMI output, an ethernet port, and the power connector. There are zero ports on the front, which isn’t a huge deal for most people, but if you end up with the extra controller it’s a pain to not have a front USB port for charging.
It feels sturdy enough, but it is going to end up somewhere that it doesn’t move often, so it’s no surprise NVIDIA didn’t opt for ultra-premium materials here.
|NVIDIA Shield TV|
|Processor||NVIDIA Tegra X1 with 256-core Maxwell GPU|
|Storage||16GB or 500GB|
|Video||4K HDR @ 60FPS|
|Sound||Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound|
|Ports||USB 3.0 x2, HDMI 2.0b, Gigabit Ethernet|
|Software||Android TV 7.0|
|Connectivity||WiFi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1 LE|
|Measurements||98 x 159 x 25.93 mm|
The Shield TV uses NVIDIA’s own Tegra X1 CPU with an in-house Maxwell GPU. No, it’s not going to legitimately rival a desktop-class GTX 980, but you’ll get some seriously impressive performance for a box running Android at its core.
Navigating the interface is incredibly smooth and jumping in between apps is pretty quick. The only kinds of slowdowns I ever actually hit were when trying to multitask while running a native game on the Shield TV, but even then it’s still its a pretty competitive experience next to a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
It doesn’t take much to handle app switching and Netflix in 2017, though. If you’re in this review, you’re probably interested in how gaming fares, and surprisingly (unsurprisingly?) it’s a legitimately good experience.
I tested out a few games that were native to the Shield TV that I also had on my gaming PC to try and compare apples and apples. No, the $200 box can’t compete with a high-end computer, but it’s not supposed to, either.
Resident Evil 5 felt mostly on par with the original versions of the game on Xbox 360 and PS3, albeit with slightly lower resolution textures. It’s definitely the “worst” version of the game, especially with a solid PC port and remasters for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, but it holds frame rate really well and is definitely playable even in intense scenes.
Doom 3 held up better in my opinion, looking crisper and with more impressive lighting effects. It runs at full 1080p and was a pretty consistent 60fps, which is a huge plus. Can’t argue with that optimization.
Tomb Raider fell somewhere in between, although it’s another case of being extremely well optimized. The game runs very well on a broad range of PC hardware, and it’s been ported to MacOS and Linux. That means it didn’t exclusively rely on Microsoft’s DirectX, which likely helped the jump to Android. It didn’t run quite as well as Doom 3, but was also more graphically impressive. Definitely one of the better showcases of the Shield TV’s power.
Also, to take a screenshot on the Shield TV, you have to hold down the home button. This opens a menu that allows you to capture gameplay and even stream to Twitch, which is really cool, but it makes it impossible to screenshot without the “Tap HOME again to exit the app” toast message. I couldn’t figure out how to get around that, but if any of our trusty readers know, drop a comment so I don’t look stupid next time I need screenshots.
It couldn’t hold a candle to my beefy gaming PC rig, and it was definitely still below current generation levels of console performance. Despite all of that, the games that have been ported over are plenty playable, especially for someone that just wants a few AAA games to complement their media habits. It won’t scratch the same itch as buying an Xbox for Halo or a PlayStation for Uncharted, but it does have its place.
Side note, since we’re going to talk about performance as a gaming console, the Shield TV is very quiet. There are no loud fans that spin up when it’s under load, but I am also using the model with the flash storage, not the spinning hard drive. That might make a bit more noise just because it’s mechanical, but overall this thing does an excellent job of staying out of the way in both appearance and sound.
Android TV’s interface feels like it’s almost there. Like Google went 80% of the way, they’ve been making iterative changes to get it to version 1.0, but they just can’t quite finish the job.
Functionally, it gets the job done. There’s a row of suggested content on the top of the interface, which is nice, and below that are all of your apps. The third row beyond that is NVIDIA’s custom row of GeForce games. It’s simple, but can get a little unwieldy if you install a ton of apps. Honestly, though, most of us are probably just using a handful of apps and sticking to that. Google’s recommendations will handle getting you into a video.
Navigating the interface feels a little awkward, too, since it’s basically just an Android phone with the buttons split from the screen. You still have a home button and a back button, and you can double tap the home button to use multitasking. It definitely works, but as someone that’s spent a good chunk of time with the Apple TV, it does feel a little behind Apple’s polished up interface.
For reference, Apple still has the default “grid” of applications that you can move and sort into folders. The home button equivalent dumps you into the Apple TV’s main application that groups your available video apps to try and find you something to watch. That can be new episodes of a show you’ve been streaming, popular movies that are available on VOD services you’re signed into, and content that fits your tastes and is available to purchase or rent. Pressing the button again then brings you to your main application screen.
It’s also simple, but compared to Google’s implementation of “hit the home button and we’ll throw everything on the device at you at once lol” it’s way more streamlined. It removes some of the clutter from your face and tries to curate relevant content from within services instead of just showing you Hulu and HBO icons. Google’s recommendation row works similarly, but just not as well, and I’d like to see some improvements made on that front.
Worst case, the Shield TV is basically just a super powered Chromecast. Turn it on and control it with your phone if the interface doesn’t jive with how you use your TV.
GeForce Now & GameStream
Alright, so the Shield TV can play a few high-end Android games and some ports from the last generation of consoles, but what if you do want to try and use this for a current-gen console substitute? On its own, that’s just not happening, but if you use NVIDIA’s GeForce Now or GameStream, it might work for you.
These are two different solutions, and we’ll talk about GeForce Now first. It’s NVIDIA’s approach to cloud streamed games, not unlike Sony’s PlayStation Now. Instead of playing the game natively on the Shield TV, the games are rendered on NVIDIA’s servers and streamed to your TV over the internet. The upside to this is that they don’t take up much storage, and NVIDIA uses some beefy hardware to render at high resolutions and graphical options.
It’s the technical equivalent of rendering with a GTX 1080, which means you can play titles like The Witcher 3 in 1080p at mostly ultra settings, and that’s certainly going to blow away your Xbox One. However! There’s a catch, and it all depends on how your network is.
Since nothing is being rendered locally, there will be input lag. Your controller inputs are sent to NVIDIA’s servers, which render the input before being sent back to your Shield TV to be displayed on the TV. On a fast connection, the lag really isn’t bad, especially for titles like the aforementioned Witcher 3. I even played the original Borderlands without a problem.
With that being said, I’ve been running all of this on a very fast mesh network. Hardwiring your devices to your router will also provide a good experience, but if you’re using an older router or one with inadequate bandwidth, you might not have a great time.
GeForce Now will cost you $7.99 per month and you’ll get a ton of extra games included in your membership. Honestly, with a solid connection, it’s not a bad deal. There’s a good mix of older and current games that should last all but the most enthusiastic gamer for a while.
Now, if your connection is good and you don’t want to pay a recurring subscription, you have NVIDIA’s GameStream tech. Instead of letting NVIDIA render things, your computer (with a capable NVIDIA GPU) will handle the workload and stream it across your WiFi network to the Shield TV.
If you don’t have a great gaming PC, this option won’t work well. If you have a great gaming PC with an AMD GPU, this option won’t work at all. In my case, I have the same GPU that GeForce Now streams with, and that makes GameStream seriously fantastic.
For comparison, I do already have a Steam Link hooked up to my TV doing basically the same thing as GameStream. The games are rendered and beamed over to my TV on a fast WiFi network, and it’s essentially like having my PC hooked up to my TV but without running dozens of feet of cables. The Steam Link does work with AMD GPUs (and Intel integrated graphics if you’re feeling especially brave) but GameStream seems to perform better. I keep everything wireless so I expect a bit of lag and hitching every so often when my network gets congested, but GameStream has very, very few issues, unlike the Steam Link.
I’ve managed to play through a significant chunk of Bayonetta on GameStream, and if a fast-paced game like that is playable across network streaming, I’m convinced just about anything will be. CS:GO professionals might disagree with me, but I doubt they’ll care much about this part of the review, anyway.
On top of that, it integrates really cleanly into the Shield TV’s interface. NVIDIA reserves a section of the UI for your GeForce and GameStream games, making it really easy to hop back into Netflix or YouTube after a gaming session.
I’ll be up front, I’m a mouse and keyboard guy. I like the Xbox One controller well enough and prefer it to the PS4 controller, although I do think both are usable. The PS3 controller is the worst thing I’ve ever used and the Gamecube controller will always have a special place in my heart. But truthfully, I hate aiming with analog sticks, and I’d rather stop playing games completely than permanently ditching WASD.
The NVIDIA Shield controller is really, really okay. As far as ergonomics go, it’s actually one of the better controllers to fit to my hand. The fractal, edgy design looks kind of silly, but it does fit against my palms really nicely, so big plus on that side of things. However, some aspects leave a bit to be desired.
I prefer asymmetric analog sticks like an Xbox controller over the symmetrical PlayStation design, but that really is just a preference thing. The sticks on the Shield controller are symmetrical, which I’m not crazy about, but they’re pretty solid for a non-major console gamepad. The buttons, on the other hand, feel kind of mushy and aren’t satisfying to press, and the D-pad is pretty bad. The triggers are just okay, but they don’t feel as clicky and sturdy as a typical console controller.
The start/select/home button combination on the bottom of the controller are really, really awkwardly placed, and I repeatedly hit the home button trying to pause a game. Oh, and the triangle NVIDIA button in the center of the controller exclusively brings up Google Assistant. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to multitask or take screenshots with it like you would with an Xbox or PlayStation pad.
Overall, it’s really not a bad controller, but it’s certainly not great, either. I played through titles like Resident Evil 5, Tomb Raider, and Doom 3 without any problems (relatively, anyway. I can’t play a shooter with a controller), but getting into more demanding games that were streamed from my PC still left me reaching for an Xbox One controller.
Android TV is in a really uncomfortable position. It’s not being supported as well as Android on smartphones, and it doesn’t seem like Google particularly cares. On the other side of that, it doesn’t seem like NVIDIA cares that Google doesn’t care. They’ve taken the torch and sprinted off with it, laying out features and optimizations that Google hasn’t bothered with.
The Shield TV is the only legitimate contender to the Apple TV, but it also carves a niche for itself as a phenomenal streaming companion for gamers in addition to media enthusiasts. It handles 4K video streaming, it plays a huge variety of games and supports emulators, and if you’re into PC gaming, it’s an easy way to expand your gaming setup onto the big screen. Apple can’t touch that.
It’s not perfect, especially since Android TV apps aren’t quite as built out like what Apple’s done with their ecosystem (where’s my DirecTV Now app, AT&T?!), but NVIDIA is happily handling as much of that support as it can.
If I need to pick something to complain about, I wish the remote
had volume buttons like the Apple TV it does have volume buttons, I wish there was a USB port on the front of the device, and I wish NVIDIA made a better controller. Small gripes, but hey, I need something.
Seriously, if you’re considering any streaming box and you don’t mind the price, go with the Shield TV. It’s miles ahead of everything else and I don’t see anything catching up anytime soon.