NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Review
Date: May 29, 2015
Product Name: SHIELD Android TV
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.
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.