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Nvidia's Shield Android TV reviewed

The flagship of Android TV sets sail
— 3:13 PM on August 12, 2015

You can hardly turn around these days without someone trying to sell you a device that promises to converge all of the other devices in your living room. Who can blame them? In many homes, the living room has a comfy couch, a big TV, good sound, and a coffee table (that I promise not to put my feet on).

Nvidia's Shield Android TV is one of these supposed one-stop set-top boxes. Today, we’ll take a look at this box (which I'll call the Shield from here on out, for brevity's sake) and see how it stacks up against some competing products in the fight for living-room superiority.

The Shield is what Nvidia calls the flagship of Google's Android TV initiative. Nvidia's launch announcement says as much, so it must be true. But Android TV isn’t the only smart TV platform out there, and the competition is pretty stiff. Microsoft and Sony have included non-gaming entertainment features in their consoles for the last two generations. Dedicated streaming platforms are available from Apple, Roku, Amazon, and even Google itself in the form of the Chromecast. Home-theater PCs are another option. The Shield needs to bring something new and interesting to the table to make it a worthwhile purchase in today’s connected home. Let's see what it can do.

At the Shield’s heart lies Nvidia's Tegra X1 system-on-a-chip (SoC). The Tegra X1 has eight ARM-based CPU cores: four Cortex A57s and four more Cortex A53s arranged in a big.LITTLE configuration. For graphics processing, Nvidia includes Maxwell-based GPU with 256 shader processors. (For reference, the GM107 chip that powers the GTX 750 Ti features 640 such shader processors.) The Tegra X1 is connected to 3GB of RAM that's shared between the CPU and the graphics processor. 

The Shield can be had with two storage configurations. One comes with 16GB of flash storage (just over 11GB of which is available for apps) for $199. The other includes a 500GB mechanical hard drive, and it costs $299. Both Shields support microSD cards as big as 2TB and external hard drives with two full-sized USB 3.0 ports. USB storage is limited to media files only, though. Apps can't be installed there. 

Nvidia packed all that power into a box that measures 8.3" wide by 5.1" long by 1" thick. The enclosure has an angular design on top, with a large green LED arrangement built in. The light only turns on when the system is awake, and it can be turned off entirely should you find it annoying. The Nvidia logo on top doubles as the console's sleep-wake button. You can also wake the console with the Nvidia button on the controller.

Along with the microSD slot and USB 3.0 ports, the Shield also has a micro-USB 2.0 port for file transfer from a PC, similar to many Android phones. The Shield attaches to a TV via HDMI 2.0, and the HDMI port supports resolutions up to 4K at 60Hz. 

The Shield connects to Wi-Fi by way of an 802.11ac adapter with a 2x2 MIMO antenna configuration. The console's wireless controller and remote sync via Bluetooth 4.1. Universal remotes such as Logitech's Harmony series can talk to the Shield with an infrared port. Nvidia also throws in a Gigabit Ethernet port for good measure.

In the box, you’ll find the Shield wireless controller, a 4K-ready HDMI cable, a micro-USB cable, an AC adapter, and the Shield system itself. The USB cable is suitable both for charging the controller and for connecting the Shield to a PC, though the console needs to be plugged into the wall to talk to a PC, as well. Notably absent from the box are the optional $50 media remote and $30 vertical stand.

The Shield wireless controller feels good in the hand, and its body doesn’t creak or groan under the stresses of gaming. The body has a matte texture that repels fingerprints, but the buttons, triggers, and directional pad all have glossy finishes. The controller has a microphone built in for Android TV's built-in Google voice search, and it works well, in my experience. The controller is also fairly hefty.  Inside, there's dual-motor force feedback and a rechargeable battery that adds to its weight. The Shield reports controller battery life through its onscreen UI, and I found the battery lasts for about two weeks of heavy use. 

The controller is about the same size as the Xbox 360 controller, which many PC gamers are probably familiar with. The Shield controller's dual analog sticks are side-by-side, however, and it has a few more features than its Microsoft counterpart.  The controller charges through a micro-USB port around back, and private gaming sessions can be conducted using the controller's combination headphone and microphone jack. I tested this jack with Apple’s EarPods, and everything except for the headset's volume controls worked as expected.

That leads us to the controller’s second extra: volume controls. The Shield logo is flanked by + and – buttons for raising and lowering the volume, although this feature can be disabled in the Settings app. The quasi-triangular area above the volume buttons functions as a clickable touchpad in other Shield-family devices, but pointer support isn't a part of the main Android TV interface here. Finally, the controller features four capacitive buttons—Home, Back, Start, and an Nvidia logo button used for pairing and waking the console from sleep.

The media remote carries over the headset jack, volume controls, and built-in microphone into a smaller, slimmer package. The remote feels more natural as a control for watching TV and movies, and this impression is enhanced by its solid, metallic body and relatively weighty feel.