NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Review
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.
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 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.
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.
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