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NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,861
Location
Montreal
NVIDIA’s SHIELD series has been expanding at a slow but steady pace since its inception nearly two years ago (yes, it really has been that long). Now the newest iteration is being launched alongside Google’s thoroughly updated Android TV. What was initially teased as a console-style platform is actually a high-spec set top box which lives within Google’s Android TV platform but offers much, much more. For clarity’s sake, this new product will simply be called “SHIELD” while the SHIELD Tabled and SHIELD Handheld will continue their respective existences.

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SHIELD’s roots began in a relatively modest way with the original handheld unit which was considered a demonstrator for a number of different technologies. Back then, key parts of the ecosystem as we now know it like GameStream, GRID and even the selection in the Android game store were still in their infancy. Two years later things have drastically changed and this new SHIELD is considered the culmination of years of hard work and is supposed to offer a drastically better experience than its competitors in the Android TV market.

While the new SHIELD initially received an unveiling in March, NVIDIA wasn’t quite ready to launch it since the latest Android TV is only now seeing the light of day. With it, Google is hoping to set themselves up as a bona fide alternative to the upcoming reintroduction of AppleTV. There are some big hopes resting on the shoulders of a relatively new operating system. With that being said, before we get too far into this review, SHIELD’s nuts and bolts should be discussed again.


At SHEILD’s heart lies NVIDIA’s 20nm Tegra X1 SoC with its 8 ARM cores (4x A57 and 4x A53) and 256 Maxwell-based CUDA cores with 3GB of dedicated VRAM. When combined, these specifications supposedly grant the X1 performance that surpasses Microsoft’s Xbox 360, making it by far the most powerful Android TV set top box available right now. That X1 also has the ability to seamlessly play back 4K / 60FPS content using its hardware-based H.265, VP9 and H.264 decoding algorithms.

Alongside the obvious hardware performance advantages, SHIELD comes with a laundry list of every conceivable option home users could possible want. There’s Wireless AC connectivity for blazingly fast Wifi content streaming, Bluetooth 4.1, integrated Google Chromecast and an IR receiver that’s natively compatible with Logitech’s Harmony.

Even though this version of SHIELD has the chops to become a pretty decent game console, NVIDIA will be the first to admit they aren’t targeting the PS4’s and XBox Ones of this world. Rather, the intent is for SHIELD to become a more generalized media consumption device which still has its roots firmly planted in the gaming space. This is why Netflix, Google’s new Live Channels OTA app, the unit’s DVR abilities, SlingTV and other livingroom-centric “cut the cord” initiatives factor so heavily into the equation. Not only should such a step allow NVIDIA access to a much larger market outside its usual niche but it will also open their ecosystem to future expansion.

Gaming certainly hasn’t been left out in the cold though. Like its predecessors this version of SHIELD has access to the ever-expanding library of Android games (not to mention the catalog of PC games which have been ported to Google’s OS) and of course the impressive GRID online streaming service. NVIDIA’s GameStream which allows for low latency over-the-air streaming of games from your PC to the SHIELD expands With all of these gamer-centric features, we don’t feel that NVIDIA even needs a so-called “killer app” or exclusive title to insure success; they already have a massive catalog upon which they can draw their successes and failures.

In the grand scheme of Google’s Android TV initiative, SHIELD’s $199 starting price is extremely expensive for a set top box. As a matter of fact, at launch it will be the most expensive Android TV option out there but with good reason since its integrated capabilities are far beyond the competition.

Notice we said “starting at” $199? That’s of the vanilla basic 16GB version that comes with a single SHIELD wireless controller / gamepad. There will also be a $299 500GB version that boasts an integrated but non-upgradeable Hybrid HDD with 16GB of fast-access flash memory for quick loading of your most-used apps. Adding the various remotes and stands (more on these below) will bring a fully equipped SHIELD’s overall cost to nearly $400. That’s a hefty price to pay but NVIDIA is selling this as a device which can deliver a premium experience in nearly every domain.


The first two things anyone is going to notice about SHIELD’s take on Android TV are its strikingly angular design and size in relation to other set top boxes. At just 8” by 5” by 1” high, it virtually disappears into any environment which is a bit of a shame since NVIDIA’s designers came up with a drop-dead sexy exterior. Composed of brushed black aluminum angles that form a vague “X” shape and topped off with a dimmable NVIDIA logo that pulls double duty as a capacitive button, the SHIELD is a marvel to behold.

If you are someone that wants to display it vertically for better visibility, NVIDIA will happily sell you a stand for $29.


Connectivity is one area where SHIELD has always excelled and this time is no exception. Things start off with a wired Gigabit Ethernet port for fast speed wired connections, a HDMI 2.0 connector for full 4K support, two USB 3.0 ports that support external devices like hard drives, OTA antennas and game controllers. There’s also a micro-USB port.

NVIDIA has also included an SD card slot which can be used to expand the internal storage by up to 256GB. Just remember that an SD card won’t provide access speeds that match the internal flash memory nor the 500GB Hybrid HDD so there will come a point where buyers would be better off buying the 500GB SHIELD rather than the basic SHIELD and a large capacity SD card.


Actually cracking open the SHIELD is actually quite simple despite it being advertised as non-upgradeable. There’s a primary PCB with the Tegra X1 SoC, the various I/O connectors, secondary chips and memory ICs. Meanwhile, NVIDIA’s “superchip” is attached to a dedicated contact plate, heatpipe, heatsink and blower-style fan setup. While the fan wasn’t audible during testing, its presence is testament to the heat produced by the Tegra X1.

Our unit is the 16GB model so that large black insert that runs through the SHIELD’s center area is presumably where the 500GB version’s hybrid hard drive would be installed.


NVIDIA’s wireless controller has been upgraded a bit from the last iteration. In this revision it boasts revised trigger buttons and subtly improved ergonomics making it, in my opinion at least, the best controller available for PC and Android games alike.

The controller utilizes a WiFi Direct signal for low latency input while an integrated headphone jack allows for wireless transfer of audio signals between elements of the SHIELD ecosystem and the controller. In our experience, even with the headphone jack in use you’ll get a good 35 hours of gameplay time out of a single charge.


One of the crowning additions to NVIDIA’s SHIELD is their new remote, a sleek unassuming device that’s meant to seamlessly communicate basic inputs to the set top box. It has a rudimentary wheel for navigating menus, a dedicated headphone jack for private listening, and a capacitive touch sensor which is utilized for volume control.

The remote may have a few buttons but it has been built with an eye towards seamless voice recognition. Google’s speech functions have come a long way and they can now be used to control nearly everything within Android TV. They can be accessed by pressing the mic button and simply talking in the vicinity of the remote. It actually works quite well.


Past the obvious controls built into this remote, NVIDIA has designed it with an eye towards minimalism. It boasts a form-fitting aluminum casing that’s wrapped around a glossy piano black plastic interior which acts as a fingerprint magnet. Unlike the standard wireless controller, the battery life on SHIELD’s remote can measured in weeks rather than days or hours. With a price of $50, it doesn’t come cheap either.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,861
Location
Montreal
Android TV; This May Not The Android You’re Looking For

Android TV; This May Not The Android You’re Looking For


Android TV represents Google’s bright new hope for making an impact within the connected smart TV market. At its most basic, this operating system acts as a jump-off point for online media, streaming services and gaming. All of these functions are wrapped up into a sleek and accessible UI that is supposed to be easy to navigate for newcomers while also incorporating more advanced feature sets for anyone who wants additional control. Think of it as a quasi-XBMC media center but with a large selection of apps, integration of numerous Google services, seamless support for OTA, a robust back-end for voice control and many more features.

While it sounds like Android TV can offer everything someone could possibly want for the consumption of online media, the operating system itself has some notable restrictions. Since Android TV is a highly modified version of their mobile OS, Google requires all apps go through a separate certification process before they can be listed as compatible. As a result, the number of apps currently available is minimal at best and represents a very, very narrow selection of what’s accessible to all other Android users. At least initially, you won’t see many of Google’s own popular apps either. Does this negatively impact the experience? Absolutely since most of the functionality you’d normally expect from Android just isn’t there…yet.


As it’s implemented on NVIDIA’s SHIELD, Android TV is extremely responsive and applications load with a minimum of wait times. The main UI screen features both vertical scrolling for browsing different categories while application selection within each category can be done through horizontal movement.

It’s a pretty straightforward process but there’s previous little innovation here since this same premise for navigation can be found in other media center interfaces, often with even more options. This is also a lot more user friendly than the screen-full-of-icons approach most other Android devices take and it is perfectly suited for a connected TV experience. Supposedly NVIDIA has done very little to change the overall design here so we can expect the same basic UI on other Android TV compatible set top boxes. Why fix what isn’t broken, right?

The topmost accessible area consists of most used apps, channels and videos aggregated through apps like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix and seems to be largely based upon your viewing history. Oddly enough, through our time testing SHIELD, this top row didn’t change regardless of how many times different videos and streams were watched.


As with all SHIELD devices, NVIDIA has added their Hub which is essentially a jump-off point for several of the gaming-oriented features within their ecosystem. Netflix has been added as well since it highlight the 4K capabilities of this device quite well. The content of this section (and of course the advanced system architecture) are the primary reason SHIELD commands a premium over other upcoming Android TV options.


There are three separate gaming-oriented areas which include Stream Games, Download Games and GeForce PC Games. Stream Games grants access to NVIDIA’s GeForce GRID gaming service which uses cloud-based servers to render PC games and stream them to the SHIELD over a wired or wireless internet connection. It actually works quite well and NVIDIA has been continually adding new games to their library at a rate of one per week since launch so their library currently includes about 50 titles. The service is free until June and NVIDIA hasn’t disclosed how much the ongoing monthly fee will be so the actual value of this feature may diminish once it’s locked behind a pay wall.


The Download Games area is straightforward in its intent: it shows games which have been optimized for NVIDIA’s hardware within the Google Play store. While the selection here isn’t quite as broad as within the Hub on SHIELD Tablet and Handheld, it seems like NVIDIA has done a good job with insuring their co-branded titles are certified for Android TV.


GeForce PC Games enables NVIDIA’s GameStream technology, allowing users to play their own PC games on the SHIELD over a wireless connection. They can be streamed from either a notebook or PC provided you have a Kepler or Maxwell- based graphics card in the system and GeForce Experience installed. This will be a major selling point for PC gamers since it allows them to easily stream games to their livingroom with a minimum of fuss.

We’ve covered several of these NVIDIA-centric features in the past and from our experience with SHIELD’s Android TV initiative, they all work perfectly in this environment. Simply plugging in a USB or Bluetooth keyboard and mouse combo allows for more involved playing as well.


A bit further down on Google’s launcher is a section which gives quick access to any compatible games which are installed onto the device. Once again, the actual selection is a bit slim right now since there aren’t all that many games compatible with Android TV but that will change quickly as the OS matures.


The final section lists all of the apps which are currently installed along with shortcuts for Google Play’s Movies & TV, Music and Games sections. Naturally, there’s also a quick access box for the Google Play Store as well. As new apps are loaded they appear within this area in a linear fashion and their positioning can’t be changed. This causes quite a bit of scrolling from left to right but, with the well-integrated voice search all of these apps are typically a request away.

Below this area is an area with pictograms depicting Settings, WiFi access, controller status and a power toggle. These round out a simple yet accessible launching pad. Google hasn’t made any great strides forward in terms of interactivity or innovation versus the competition in this area but Android TV’s interface does represent a huge stride forward when compared directly against its predecessor, Google TV.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,861
Location
Montreal
Benchmarking the Experience

Benchmarking the Experience


It’s very hard to put words to any type of interactive ecosystem –which is why you should check out our full video review on the first page of this article- but Android TV did elicit some pretty vocal commentary from members of our team. It was a true love / hate relationship which was largely dependent on what we were trying to utilize the SHIELD for.

With that being said, there were some stand-outs about the OS which need to be mentioned straight off the bat. The Android TV interface is amazingly responsive with lightning-quick transitions from one menu to another. Now this may be due to the incredible power of NVIDIA’s Tegra X1 but Google has obviously put a lot of hard work into optimizing their platform. System loads are also seamless, though it does seem like Android TV caches quite a bit of information as it idles unused apps in preparation for use in the future rather than closing them outright.

One feature that was conspicuous by its absence will likely be infuriating to anyone who uses other versions of Android: customizability. At this point in time, there are precious few settings that can be modified and the locations of apps within the launcher is pre-determined by the OS so they can’t be moved.


Apps & Google Play Store


Due to Android TV’s need for an app certification process that’s separate from Google’s main Android OS’s, the current selection of programs is quite limited. Normally this would be perfectly fine since what’s offered, particularly on the gaming side, is adequate for the time being and the handy PLEX media server has been pre-installed. However, several key Google-branded first party apps like Gmail, Calendar, Docs and even Google+ are conspicuous by their absence.

Perhaps the most egregious omission is Google Drive. Cloud storage access to photos, videos and other content is something Android TV should excel at but without Google Drive, it simply can’t until support gets added or a third party supplier addresses this shortcoming.


With “not available for this device” messages popping up for many of Google Play’s most popular apps, Android TV users do have some options to get access to their account’s purchases. Android TV allows for the side-loading of apps but that’s the last thing this OS’s intended “plug and play” audience wants to do. Another option is to utilize the built-in ChromeCast to view or play compatible content without the need for it to be locally accessible within the SHIELD.

Some may argue that devices like AppleTV, the Roku and Amazon’s Fire TV generally don’t include applications that are secondary to raw media consumption since their primary focus is to extend online media streaming into the living room. We expect more though. These small but powerful set top boxes can be used for more complex tasks so why not capitalize upon those abilities? Google is obviously trying to implement a certain amount of market segmentation but in Android TV does feel lacking in this category in a big way.


You can actually tell which areas of the Android TV platform Google spent the most time fleshing out in time for launch. Take the Google Play Movies for example. It is well designed, the interface is simple to navigate and searching couldn’t be easier. Google also stands to make a large sum of money from selling these streamed movies.


Voice Recognition


While navigating through the SHIELD’s menus is blissfully smooth, due to the amount of scrolling required to get through multiple categories and large quantities of apps you’ll likely use Android TV’s voice commands more often than not. Luckily, they’re extremely well implemented.

In our testing, almost every single command was immediately recognized. For example, we searched for Hardware Canucks and it showed our latest YouTube videos and had Chrome been installed our most recent website articles would have popped up in a separate column below the YouTube area. Even one of the hardest commands “Start Playing YS Chronicles” was picked up without a hitch and the game loaded immediately. It seems like we are quickly reaching a point where voice commands are finally becoming accurate enough to use on a regular basis.

Much of Android TV’s success in the voice recognition field can be attributed to NVIDIA’s excellent (but optional) remote. Its round directional pad may look like the primary source of interaction but it’s that little mic that will do the lion’s share of work most of the time. Since it picks up commands without being held up to the mouth, you won’t look ridiculous talking to it either. We have to applaud NVIDIA for designing such a sleek, well integrated means of communication with SHIELD.


Gaming


Gaming is obviously SHIELD’s forte even though it possesses some awesome media enhancing capabilities. With features like GRID, GameStream and enhanced Android games all backstopped by the towering power of Tegra X1, this is as close to an all-in-one console as we’ve ever seen. We don’t even need benchmarks to tell us that SHIELD will demolish everything available in this department while still working to upscale the image to 4K on compatible TVs.

In regular Android games the Tegra X1 provides a buttery smooth gameplay experience without any serious hitches. Meanwhile, the included controller is simply excellent. It is accurate, ergonomically perfect (for my hands at least), boasts some of the best feedback we’ve come across and includes a battery that lasts a LONG time. Lag was literally non-existent but that typically isn’t a worry for most mobile games anyways.


Both NVIDIA GRID and GameStream utilize off-system processors for heavy lifting of rendering tasks so the Tegra X1 doesn’t get overwhelmed. It still does some post processing and audio signal decoding, though we did notice the GRID games (which can now be streamed from the cloud in 1080P) didn’t seem to get upscaled to 4K, which resulted in a slightly pixilated image. Luckily, enabling the HDTV’s native upscaling mode can fix that. There was some input lag but that is to be expected given our ping times on the days we tested weren’t optimal for GRID in the first place.

As for GameStream, it worked flawlessly with compatible titles. This is where SHIELD’s dual band Wireless AC connection is able to really flex its muscles since we were able to play content from a gaming PC on the SHIELD without any hiccups or noticeable lag. Granting SHIELD the ability to use a USB keyboard / mouse combo really helped as well, though only for certain games since using those peripherals on a coffee table is a prescription for a sore back.


4K Streaming


While the vast majority of online content is currently available in 1080P or lower formats, several online services like Netflix and Youtube are quickly moving into the 4K era. Even our YouTube channel is totally shot in 4K these days.

This is another area where the SHIELD feels like a cut above, provided you have a UHD TV or monitor. The Tegra X1 is able to seamlessly process a 4K video signal without missing a beat and in testing it never felt taxed. This is a far cry from its competitors from Amazon, Apple and other, all of which either don’t have 4K support to begin with so simply fall on their faces when trying to process the content.

Ultra high definition TV’s don’t have all that much market penetration right now but SHIELD certainly provides a good amount of future proofing if you ever decide to make the move.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,861
Location
Montreal
Parting Thoughts; Android TV Is a Work in Progress

Parting Thoughts; Android TV Is a Work in Progress


Let’s call this The Tale of Two Reviews. In one corner we have NVIDIA’s SHIELD, a device that boasts incredible hardware specifications packed into a minute chassis, its a set top box that feels well ahead of its time. In the other corner there’s Android TV, a pretty looking OS with its roots firmly planted in a safe zone but still able to deliver a great overall experience. At first these two may seem like an odd couple but they end up working quite well together.

We’ll start off with the star of this show: NVIDIA’s SHIELD. What an amazing little piece of hardware this is. It is compact, well designed and absolutely silent even though it packs an almighty hardware-based punch. With the pace of mobile processor technology moving along so quickly, the Tegra X1 won’t be the fastest SoC on the block forever but there’s a huge amount of longevity packed into its confines. You can buy the SHIELD feeling confident it will have no problem playing future Android games, streaming 4K60 content or blasting through other tasks for some time to come.

In creating the SHIELD, NVIDIA could have very well fallen into the same “jack of all trades, master of none” rut that so many of its competitors have found themselves in. We've seen it time and again; throw too many features into a device and it becomes a mishmash of half developed ideas and missed opportunities. Somehow NVIDIA deftly avoided those potential problems and have created a device that feels polished, well designed and properly supported. It has been asked to wear numerous hats but manages to deliver a convincingly holistic experience regardless of what you ask it to do.

The only real flaw we can find with SHIELD is that without the optional remote, the Android TV experience feels a bit clunky despite its well-integrated voice commands. The SHIELD Controller is a perfect companion for gaming but it is a poor substitute for a proper remote.

Despite how good the hardware is, NVIDIA’s SHIELD will ultimately live or die based upon the success of Google’s Android TV platform. Therein lies a bit of a problem for now. Unless you absolutely need seamless integration of 4K content, there are better, more mature options out there. Android TV is immature and it shows. We’d actually go so far as to say Google left the door wide open for Apple to come in with an updated, more functional version of their Apple TV, completely burying their Android competitor in the process.


One-upping Google won’t take much since there’s really nothing that feels particularly innovative here. There was an opportunity to make their next generation streaming platform a leap forward rather than yet another set-top product that tows the status quo. That didn’t happen. Android’s app system is vast, allowing for limitless expansion opportunities but only a fraction of it can be accessed through Android TV right now.

Much of the stymied potential lies in Google's bewildering choice to launch such a well-connected OS but avoid porting over many of the functions that make their current ecosystem feel so tightly integrated. Google Drive, Google Now and even their Calendar, News and Docs applications are all compelling reasons to choose Android but they are conspicuous by their absence. Want an internet browser? Good luck with that. The lack of any ability to move apps around within their categories is infuriating as well. These omissions will likely (or hopefully) change in the near future though.

On the flip side of that coin, there’s actually a lot to like about Android TV. It boasts fluid animations, there’s true plug and play functionality, the integration of OTA TV signals is very well done, Netflix looks and feels right at home and the voice commands are actually useful. Plus, many of the issues with the OS we mentioned above can be alleviated via side-loading or just connecting your phone to the SHIELD via the integrated Chrome Cast function. In its TV form, Android is still a very adaptable OS, you’ll just need to be a bit creative to get the most out of it.

NVIDIA’s SHIELD is an almost flawless piece of machinery which feels right at home with Android TV. When combined, these two elements become one of the best and least expensive 4K experiences available on the market. All Google needs to do now is step up their OS game to better align with the hardware advantage SHIELD gives them.
 
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