Back to the Future
Within its Shield line of products, Nvidia has a tradition of offering devices with incredible hardware but limited appeal—primarily due to being ahead of their time. While competitors focused on providing the basics and perhaps one or two premier features, the original Shield and the Shield Tablet packed in impressive hardware and various features previously unseen (before Steam launched in-home streaming, there was Nvidia GameStream) or rarely found all at the same time (the Shield Tablet had an HDMI-out port, microSD card slot, and front speakers, and also offered a model with LTE connectivity).
But the original Shield was limited by the selection of non-casual Android games; also, streaming PC games to it wasn’t consistently smooth due to the Wi-Fi routers of the time. The Shield Tablet, for its part, was hampered by the operating system’s consistent booting of hulking games like Portal and Trine 2 out of system memory if you switched between apps more than once or twice.
This year’s Nvidia Shield continues that trend. This supercharged Android TV-based set-top box features Nvidia’s brand-new Tegra X1 mobile processor, 3GB of RAM, two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 micro-USB port, a gigabit Ethernet port, 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi, an HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2, a microSD slot that supports up to 2TB, and an infrared port that works with Logitech universal remotes. Other set-top boxes have similar features, but not with maximized specs, and not across the board at that. The Roku 3, for example, has a single USB 2.0 port, while the Amazon Fire TV‘s 2×2 MIMO Wi-Fi runs on a slower 802.11n protocol. The competition also can’t do playback in 4K at all, much less 4K at 60 frames per second.
Nor does it have the breadth of gaming options, nor the same level of horsepower. On the Shield, you can buy games via the Google Play store and play them locally (with ports like Crysis 3 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel to come, thanks to Nvidia’s partnerships with developers); Nvidia’s GRID service lets you stream current AAA games from the cloud; and you can of course still stream games from PCs equipped with relatively recent Nvidia video cards. And in 3DMark’s Ice Storm Unlimited benchmark, for example, the Shield reaches the same range of performance as Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablets.
Speaking of speed, navigating the interface is nice and fast. After having endured slower (and sometimes even sluggish) UI elsewhere, I found the snappiness of Android TV especially refreshing. It’s still novel and entirely pleasing to speak into the included Shield controller (or the optional $50 remote) and watch the OS parse it accurately within a second or two, instead of having to patiently repeat myself at a very slow clip.
The improved loading times for local and GRID games, as well as better speed and stability for GRID and GameStream gameplay, left a similar impression. To be fair, some of that was based on using an Ethernet connection, which helped speed and stability for streamed games via GRID and GameStream. But even taking that into account, the experience allowed me to imagine an alternate universe where I completely commit to the Android ecosystem for my mobile and gaming needs.
However, that scenario is a long ways off. Despite its strong performance, a combination of the Shield’s own ambitions and Android TV’s limitations keep the device in check. Streamed 4K content, for example, looks gorgeous and runs well once loaded—but even on the connection at IGN’s offices, I ran into painful moments of buffering. And that was while testing at 30 fps; unfortunately, 4K TVs and monitors with HDMI 2.0 ports (and HDCP 2.2 compliance) are only trickling out now, and our equipment closet doesn’t include any yet. That meant I had to stick with YouTube’s scant offerings, as Netflix requires HDCP 2.2 for its 4K streams. I suspect my situation is common right now, too—so the chances you’ll need to shell out for a blazing fast broadband connection, as well as buy a 4K TV at the same time as the Shield to take advantage of the set-top box’s full capabilities, are very high.
The GRID service also is very much in beta at the moment. While the load times are fast, I encountered some audio/video sync issues, as well as audio glitches like distorted background music overriding all other tracks. Nvidia PR did indicate that the service would be getting updates soon, but GRID will eventually exit beta and become a paid service. On top of that, the number of games available through the service is still quite small relative to the libraries of other platforms. Once a monthly fee goes into effect, access to GRID becomes a far less valuable feature for Shield owners uninterested in a subscription service.
The Shield is also quite a bit larger than other set-top boxes. Presumably, its shape is due to Nvidia having crammed as much hardware and ports as it did, but unless you dole out for the optional stand that’ll set it vertical, it has a much wider footprint. Leaving it out in the open at least doesn’t detract from an entertainment center setup, though—it does have an attractive design, with interesting angles and a slash of green light to indicate power on.
As for Android TV, the problems that plagued it when we first saw it on Google’s Nexus Player still remain. It still has an surprisingly limited app selection; in terms of widely recognizable services, you’ll only find Netflix, Hulu Plus, SlingTV, and Pandora (with HBO Now to come). If you must scratch an entertainment itch, you can close some of that gap by playing local or network media through VLC for Android, but it’s baffling why apps for common services like Amazon Instant Video and Spotify are still missing. Compared to something like the Roku 3, which has a dizzying amount of channels, this seems like a huge oversight.
Arguably, the sparseness of the Shield’s operating system does far more to cripple its usefulness than Nvidia’s bells and whistles—particularly given its two prices. Its $200 16GB base model is double that of the upcoming Razer Forge TV, which (if it performs reasonably well) will be its strongest challenger. The Forge TV also runs Android TV, so it’ll have the same media limitations, but it’ll still offer a USB 3.0 port, gigabit Ethernet, and support streaming from a local PC (and doesn’t limit you to just Nvidia cards). In other words, Razer’s box should have just enough of everything a PC gamer might want for their living room without costing too much more than a Roku 3, an Apple TV, or an Amazon Fire TV.
On the other end, Nvidia’s $300 500GB Shield model begins to lose out to the Xbox One. Microsoft’s console offers a more even experience: it has a much stronger and larger library for those interested in a core gaming experience, a wider selection of major video apps, and a cheaper accessory for watching broadcast TV. It does cost $50 more than the Shield, but if you’re looking for a combination of streaming media and gaming and don’t need 4K support, its more robust multiplayer gaming support and ancillary uses (like for chatting) can potentially justify the higher price.