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 2×2 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.
Getting cozy with Android TV
As a premium Android TV device, the Shield runs Android 5.1.1 Lollipop with version 1.3 of Nvidia’s firmware. For the most part, it’s the stock Android TV experience with some Nvidia-specific features baked in.
Setup is easy. Once you connect to Wi-Fi using the controller and on-screen keyboard, the Shield will prompt you to enter a short URL on a smartphone or PC. If you do so, you can log into your Google account on that device, which can then log into Google on the Shield, saving you the trouble of typing with a controller. This step is optional, because you can also use the controller to log in directly on the Shield and complete the setup process locally.
Results from Google’s recommendation engine dominate the home screen. These links can come from any video service, but they seem to heavily favor YouTube and Google Play Video. Below the recommendations are Nvidia’s built-in features and any installed apps and games, as well as links to the console’s settings pages. The interface is easy to navigate with the controller: use the directional pad to select an item, and press the A button to open it.
A microphone icon in the upper left connects you to Google voice search. You can ask Google just about anything, including the weather forecast or pointers on something to watch. The search functionality doesn’t have any predictive results like the Google Now application on other Android devices, however.
If the lack of an in-box remote wasn’t enough of a clue, Nvidia really wants you to play games on the Shield. The Shield Hub presents three different ways to get your fix: locally installed games, local network streaming from a GeForce-equipped PC, and Internet streaming by way of Nvidia’s Grid streaming service.
Streaming games to Twitch is built right into the Shield, too. Log into your Twitch account, and you can begin streaming your session at the press of a button. By default, Twitch doesn’t use the microphone in the controller, so you don’t have to worry about your intimate life details being unintentionally streamed over the Internet. Probably.
One other useful feature Nvidia included in the Shield firmware is the ability to move installed applications to microSD storage. Like Android phones with microSD slots, you can dig into the console’s settings, select an application, and move it to the microSD card. The Shield has the ability to limit app installs to a specific percentage of the card’s capacity, and it can move apps automatically every time you install or update one.
For the most part, this feature is a success. The Shield moves a good portion of many apps out of main storage and onto the card, making the 16GB version more viable. However, similar to Android phones that allow apps to be moved, the Shield can’t store everything on the card.
What can be put on the microSD card and what can’t seems to be application-dependent. NBA Jam left 300MB of itself sitting on the internal flash, while War Thunder has nearly 3.5GB of assets that cannot be moved to the microSD card. Grand Theft Auto III can move all of its 1.1GB of data to the card, and Portal can shift approximately 2.3GB of data onto removable storage. This capability is useful, but the inconsistent interactions between large games and removable storage is frustrating. It’s difficult to predict how far the 16GB Shield’s internal storage will go even when it’s paired with a microSD card, and that’s a liability for a device that’s trying to be a game console.
One other note about external storage: as of Shield firmware version 1.3, the device has an issue with full read and write access to both SD cards and USB drives. According to a post on the Shield forums, the Android TV platform lacks a module to allow file manager applications such as ES File Explorer to move to or delete files from external storage. Nvidia has informed us that this problem will be resolved in the next over-the-air update.
The Shield as streaming TV device
If you’re looking for something to watch, the Shield Android TV has some popular content sources, including Netflix and Plex, preinstalled. Several other services are available, including Hulu Plus and Sling TV. Most major sports leagues have Android TV apps, too, so subscribers can watch to their hearts’ content.
This is a good start, but it may not be enough for everybody. If you can’t find the shows or content you want, some workarounds exist. Kodi (formerly Xbox Media Center) is also available for Android TV devices, and it has several plug-ins for streaming video and music services. The Shield Android TV can also act as a Chromecast for apps that support it.
However, many high-profile video services are not compatible with Android TV. Those include Amazon Prime Video (a Fire TV exclusive), HBO Now, Showtime Anytime, and most network TV apps. (Although Nvidia announced in June that HBO Now is “coming soon” to the Shield.) Android TV also misses out on service-provider-specific apps including DISH Anywhere, DirecTV, and Xfinity TV. The sparse selection isn’t particular to the Shield, since these apps are also listed as incompatible with Google’s Nexus Player. This selection pales in comparison to the options available on streaming-only options such as the Apple TV and Roku 3—not to mention an HTPC.
Nvidia’s gaming platforms
Nvidia’s extra software is the real star of the show on the Shield. You can get your game on in three ways, ordered by distance from nearest to the TV to farthest.
- Downloaded games: The Shield Hub has links to new and popular Android TV games, as well as “Shield-enhanced” games such as Half-Life 2 and Doom 3. This selection is curated by Nvidia, but the purchases are still made through the Google Play store using your existing payment methods.
- Grid game streaming: A portal to Nvidia’s Grid streaming service is pre-installed on with the Shield, and as of right now, the service is free.
- Game streaming from the PC: Stream games over your local network from a GeForce-equipped PC. The PC requirements are simple: you need a GeForce GTX 650 card or newer, and the GeForce Experience software has to be installed so the Shield can connect.
Local and remote game streaming can be demanding for a wireless router. Nvidia recommends routers from many manufacturers for use with the Shield TV. Fortunately, you can try streaming with your current router and decide for yourself whether you need to upgrade. My testing was performed with the current-gen Apple AirPort Time Capsule, which has dual-band 802.11n and 802.11ac on the 5GHz band. Nvidia recommends a 30Mbps broadband Internet connection for Grid streaming at 1080p at 60 frames per second, which my 100Mbps connection easily clears.
Given the Shield’s Maxwell-based pedigree, the system should handle pretty much every Android TV game you can throw at it. The selection of games is limited compared to the larger Google Play selection available for phones and tablets, though. This limited selection is more of a damper on graphical fidelity than the hardware, since most Android games cater to the lowest possible hardware specs.
Thanks to the Shield’s wireless controller, playing a game is a good experience. Games on Android TV require game controller support—you could try jabbing at your TV all day, of course, but it won’t respond. As I noted earlier, the Shield’s controller is well-built and responsive in use. NBA Jam may not look totally sweet, but it plays well thanks to the quality of the hardware.
Nvidia also has a growing collection of Shield-enhanced games. The list ranges from free-to-play titles including War Thunder and Zen Pinball to premium titles such as Doom 3, Portal, and Half-Life 2. Shield-enhanced games are much more detailed than standard Android fare, and they’re tuned for smooth frame rates.
Here’s a comparison between Portal running on the Shield and on the PC. First is Portal on the Shield, followed by Portal on the PC. They look pretty similar, though the Shield drops anti-aliasing in order to maintain high frame rates. Full-sized versions of these screenshots are available in the gallery for your up-close perusal.
Nvidia does have some newer fare in the works for the Shield. “Coming soon” games like Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel have been taunting me since I received the Shield, and Nvidia promises even more Shield-enhanced titles in the coming months.
Streaming games from your GeForce PC
The Shield promises the best of both worlds with GeForce game streaming: play PC games on your TV without paying for a full-fledged home theater PC. Nvidia’s implementation of this feature needs to work well for the Shield to be worth buying. Games have to be easy to access, they have to look as good as they do on a PC, and the must be controllble with minimal input latency.
If your PC meets the hardware requirements, connecting is easy. Nvidia’s GeForce Experience application automatically checks your PC’s game library for Shield-compatible software, and only the games it finds and supports will show up in the GeForce PC Games application on the Shield. GeForce Experience also detects whether you have Steam installed, so you can launch Steam in Big Picture Mode and play games that way, too.
As I noted earlier, Nvidia recommends either a 5GHz 802.11n or 802.11ac network for wireless streaming, and it also recommends a variety of Shield-compatible wireless routers. My router isn’t GameStream-certified, but the streaming app allows you to try out the experience on your existing network regardless of the router you own. If you’d rather go with a wired connection, the Shield has Gigabit Ethernet onboard. My AirPort Time Capsule with 802.11ac was positioned approximately 25 feet from the Shield during testing.
At first, I ran into an issue where the Shield stopped seeing the 5GHz network, which I could only resolve by rebooting the router. I initially thought my router was at fault, but the issue seems to have disappeared with Shield firmware version 1.3, which specifically addresses Wi-Fi connectivity issues.
Once the network setup is sorted, you can launch the GeForce PC Games app on the Shield to get to your games.
The GeForce Experience application on the host PC can optimize your game settings to match the resolution of the TV, and a slider in the program allows you to bias performance presets toward performance or quality. I chose to disable this feature in the Shield app, since I didn’t want it to mess with my previously-configured settings.
The resulting stream looks very nice. The Shield Hub settings allow you to force the resolution to either 1080p or 720p and to a framerate of either 60 or 30fps, though I left both settings at Auto. Those settings produced a stream that was generally free from compression artifacts and banding. Over the course of around eight hours of Grand Theft Auto V, I did notice occasional dropped frames, but that could have been the game itself and not the stream. Less intensive games I tried streamed perfectly. Below is a screenshot of Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that is also available on Nvidia’s Grid streaming service. We’ll use this image later to compare the two streaming options.
Even if the games look great, they’re sometimes difficult to play due to input lag. Depending on the game, input latency ranged from a minor irritant to a pretty annoying problem. While streaming PC games to the Shield, I found that Batman often ran into walls, and GTA V‘s Franklin often ran into people with his car. Playing with a controller wasn’t an optimal experience—I adjusted to the lag eventually, but I was never fooled into thinking that I was playing a game natively.
The Shield also supports keyboards and mice, so I tried a few PC games that employ these more traditional controls. Games that rely on mouse input are far more succeptible to lag—I found moving the mouse to be disorienting. Diablo III and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm were unplayable for me, and while I’m not normally a twitch-shooter gamer, Battlefield 4 on the Shield felt even less precise than the same game on the Xbox One with a controller.
Nvidia Grid: All the hits of yesteryear
Nvidia’s Grid cloud-based game streaming service still wears the beta tag, but the service performed well for me. Results will vary based on Internet connection speeds, and the official recommendations are pretty steep: 1080p streaming requires at least 30 megabits per second. As with local network streaming, input lag was apparent, but I adjusted after playing each game for a bit.
Grid’s game selection is mostly made up of older titles, and they generally don’t require precise, twitchy movements. The service has around 55 games right now, including the first three Batman Arkham games, The Witcher 2, and several Lego mash-ups like Lego: Batman. I found Ultra Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken to be curious selections. Fighting games generally require precise input, and I found them tough to play with Grid’s input lag factored in.
In Grid’s settings, you have some control over the stream quality: video is rendered at either 1080p or 720p, and at 60 or 30 frames per second, and Nvidia says you will need at least a 30Mbps connection for full quality. Performance was good on my 100Mbps Internet connection. When I forced quality levels to 1080p and 60fps, the stream remained smooth.
The actual graphics quality of the stream wasn’t as good, though. In motion, it’s possible to pick out banding and occasional noise, but more distracting than either was the low level of detail. Below is a side-by-side screenshot from Batman: Arkham Asylum, with the Grid stream on the right. Compare the security guard’s uniform from the local PC stream with the Grid version, and you’ll see a marked difference in texture quality:
The camera angles are different, but the difference in quality is obvious. Pay special attention to the shoulder straps and the “Security” label on the back of the vest. Grid not only uses lower-quality textures, but it reduces other graphical details in a similar fashion.
In the full screenshot comparison above, other quality differences are evident, such as the textures for the Joker and his restraints. Other games like Borderlands and Alan Wake are similarly degraded, and all of these games are pretty old. Playing with Grid instead of your own PC dials back the level of detail. There isn’t really any overlap between Grid’s library and the Xbox One, but I don’t think you could say that Grid’s games feature console-quality graphics.
A brief, subjective look at performance
Subjectively, the Shield feels fast. The UI is smooth and responsive at all times, and it handled every game and media stream I threw at it with aplomb. Nvidia says the Shield supports 4K H.264 and H.265 playback at 60 frames per second, so my 1080p MKVs barely made it sweat.
As we often lament on The TR Podcast, mobile benchmarks don’t meet our standards for precise, meaningful results (and the Shield qualifies as a mobile device, since it runs Android 5.1). The only benchmarks available across all the platforms we’d like to test are browser-based. The Shield’s main competition is the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and those consoles can only run benchmarks in their unoptimized browsers. That results in awful performance figures that aren’t really useful to us. For instance, the Xbox One running Internet Explorer completes Mozilla’s Kraken benchmark in 88,238 milliseconds, compared to 4,468 milliseconds on the Shield. Besides, browser-based tests on game consoles are a waste of time—a smart TV box probably won’t browse the Internet much. Games are much more important.
On the other hand, Android does have a couple of 3D benchmarks, but none of them represent what you find in current Android games. Even today, Futuremark’s 3DMark Ice Storm test looks better than many Android 3D games, because those games are usually written for lowest-common-denominator hardware. As a result, it’s hard to compare the Shield with its console competition. Systems like the Xbox One and PS4 don’t have 3D game benchmarks, but I can say that the quality of the graphics on my Xbox One games is generally much higher than the quality of Shield games.
Taken on its own, the Shield is an interesting device. It packs quite a bit of graphics power into a small, thin box, and both the console and controller are well-built. Android TV’s interface is intuitive and fluid. Nvidia has tried to distinguish its console from the competition with novel features such as local PC streaming and Grid, and those features work well enough, even if they’re a little laggy on the input side.
I can’t recommend the Shield Android TV to a true PC enthusiast, though. Despite the extra cost involved, PC enthusiasts who want to game in the living room would undoubtedly be better served by a home theater PC. I can’t recommend the Shield to a console shopper, either. Both main console competitors have larger game libraries with better-looking graphics, and they can match or better the Shield’s media-streaming capabilities. The smoother input and higher-quality graphics from modern consoles are also well worth the extra cost over the Shield.
For $199, Nvidia’s solution is easy to use, and it has some interesting features like Grid and local PC game streaming that other consoles can’t match, at least not yet. For considerably less than an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4, you can get a console that can take advantage of Android games with controller support—something many Android users may already have in their Google Play libraries—and stream media from the major services already available on the platform.
If Google’s immature Android TV platform grows up a bit with time and more developers release games that take advantage of the Tegra X1’s graphics prowess, the Shield could become a more compelling product. We’ll be watching.