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NVIDIA Shield TV (2017) review - come for TV, stay for the gaming!
The word ‘Shield’ has become synonymous with gaming, thanks to the lineup of NVIDIA’s entertainment-forward portables, tablets, and TV boxes. A little over a year ago, NVIDIA brought not only Android to the small screen, but their own version of gaming Netflix to let the masses experience video games in a different way.
Now, with a slimmed down design and a few upgrades both, under the hood and in the cloud, NVIDIA is looking to make the TV the companion home for Google and gaming to come together. Does it succeed? Here’s our review of the NVIDIA Shield TV (2017).
NVIDIA has taken a few steps to make the new Shield TV pack even more power in a smaller package. Though it retains a similar aesthetic to the original, the base model Shield TV has a smaller footprint that can also be stood up with an optional official accessory. The Shield TV Pro has a larger overall design that accommodates a built-in 500GB hard drive and a microSD card slot, both of which are absent in our regular unit.
The rear of the Shield TV sports all of the ports for connectivity – this includes an Ethernet port for wired internet access, an HDMI port, and two USB ports for charging devices like the Shield Controller and for connecting external drives. For that matter, external drives prove to be a necessity for this box because it only comes with 16GB of onboard storage with only 11 available to the user. Connected drives can be used as removable storage or can be formatted as actual device space for apps and app data. USB 3.0 drives are the bare minimum for reliability – in my case, a USB 3.0 SSD made even more sense and my Sandisk added over 200+ GB of storage that I have happily populated with games.
Users of the previous NVIDIA Shield TV will find the included remote control to be familiar, with the four way navigation circle closing around the selection button up top, the back and home buttons underneath, and a large microphone button that triggers voice search, upgraded in this new model to the full-on Google Assistant. What we thought was quite slick was the touch sensitive area that lines the bottom half, where users can slide finger up and down in order to increase or decrease the volume.
That volume slider is now found on the updated Shield Controller, which also comes in the package. Compared to the previous model, the Shield Controller is significantly smaller and falls in line with the NVIDIA design language utilizing angular shapes and lines. It is similar in layout to a Playstation 4 controller but uses the A/B/X/Y face button layout that is common for XBox or Windows games. The NVIDIA button in the middle still triggers Google Assistant, while underneath it are dedicated buttons for home, back, and a centered start button mainly used in games. The aforementioned volume slider replaces the touchpad that was used in the previous Shield Controller for moving a virtual mouse around various interfaces.
All parts of the Shield TV design delightfully scream ‘NVIDIA’ and will look exactly how gamers expect – the green trim on the controllers and the green light on the box itself are eye-catching without looking gaudy, making them worthy additions to anyone’s existing television setup.
Once the Shield TV is hooked up, you’re good to go. Holding down on the home button brings up the controls where one can take a screenshot, record a gaming segment with or without the microphone turned on (either the mic on the controller or on a pair of plugged in headphones), or even broadcast live to places like Twitch or YouTube Live.
There are virtually no places that are off limits for the recording, meaning that the homescreens and even the settings areas can be captured or streamed. It should be mentioned, however, that the voice recording stops when playing any Geforce Now streams. The quality of the video is quite good, recording Full HD footage that can be edited and uploaded to YouTube – the audio capture, however, is serviceable but far from the best sounding voice recording for this kind of application.
That adds to the crux of the NVIDIA Shield’s focus, which has always been an emphasis on gaming. Back when the original NVIDIA Shield TV was released, NVIDIA Grid was the company’s own gaming solution that was touted as the ‘Netflix of gaming.’ This meant that games could be streamed from NVIDIA’s own servers straight to your Shield device – a solution that was different but potentially added to any existing setups gamers had streaming their own games from NVIDIA GPU powered rigs. Well, Grid is now essentially known as Geforce Now, and marries the subscription model with the current method of video game purchases.
For $8 a month, gamers can instantly stream games from NVIDIA’s own servers with varying degrees of quality and latency depending mostly on the internet connection. What is impressive is the library of games included with the subscription – games range from early titles to more recent AAA franchises, like Tomb Raider and Sleeping Dogs to Batman: Arkham Origins. New games can be purchased for their full price but are only played via the Geforce Now streaming service – the most recent AAA title made available at the time of this review was No Man’s Sky. Not all PC games are made available through this service, but there is a good breadth of products for even seasoned gamers to enjoy – if they haven’t already bought their own copies on Steam or otherwise. That is the main issue I understand many gamers might have – why would they pay an extra full price on top of a subscription service for games they are already have? Personally, I didn’t suffer from this issue because I haven’t gotten around to many of the titles that are included with the Geforce Now subscription – basically, your gaming mileage may vary.
Playing games via Geforce Now, however, is about as easy as can be. Very little data storage is taken up on the device because the game is being streamed – the quality of the stream depends on one’s internet connection, and I have one main tip to get the most out of it: go Ethernet. Even fast routers may have problems getting the sheer amount of data needed for a good quality stream, as it did in my experience. Getting an Ethernet cable into the Shield made for an immensely better gaming experience that I could see myself using for full playthroughs without any issues. What surprised me the most was the input response time – you would think that inputs from the gamepad would take a noticeable amount of time to register on a streamed game, but when the connection is good, the game is virtually one-to-one to a local experience. Fighting as Batman or Wei Shen felt right – a feat that can be tough to recreate in a stream compared to local play.
While i did have a couple of drops in connection to NVIDIA’s USA servers, reconnecting simply required opening the game again and the stream was still available for me to pick up where I dropped out. You’re basically streaming a game from NVIDIA’s own computer – literally. Those drops were a little harrowing in Batman: Arkham Origins because the game kept playing while I was gone – this resulted in Batman losing a little life while I was stuck in the Android TV interface for a few seconds. Thankfully, these drops only happened those couple of times and haven’t been an issue since.
NVIDIA gaming is still about as good as ever, providing an actually reliable way for gamers to get their fix without needing a crazy rig or even the actual game in some cases. However, this is an Android TV box and, as such, much of the Google Play Store is at your disposal. Most games that are available for your smartphone can be converted to your larger television screen and with the Shield controller the gaming experience can be multitudes better. Games that have been adapted for Android TV also leverage the gamepad and this is far better than even the best touch controls. I focused mainly on RPG games with my Shield TV, installing and enjoying Final Fantasy 9 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
I’ve made the point in the past – Android is a wonderful place to enjoy classic and retro games. So many past games have made the conversion to mobile that nostalgic players can enjoy them in an updated, current fashion and new gamers can see why we look back on titles like Jade Empire and Chrono Trigger so wistfully. And with the NVIDIA Shield TV, all of these games get a bit of new life in a format that is spiritually like a console. There is no shortage of power to play everything in the NVIDIA or Google library, as the powerful Tegra X1 and 3GB of RAM have been reliable and speedy throughout all experiences.
The Android iteration on the Shield TV isn’t without its holes – from the gaming standpoint, some games that have gotten plenty of play on my phones are still not adapted to the television. My main example is any 3D Grand Theft Auto game whereas Chinatown Wars is prominently shown in the NVIDIA Games hub. And even then, some games are available for installation but aren’t gamepad ready, so playing them is more of a nuisance than they really should be.
And from a purely entertainment standpoint, there’s little to fault Android TV for – so many of the expected video services make it here, from Plex to Netflix to Kodi to network applications like Comedy Central and ABC. There is no shortage of content available for one’s viewing pleasure. I was a bit miffed to find the listening experience quite lacking, in which applications like NPR Now and Pocket Casts didn’t seem to make the Android TV cut while Google Play Music is pre-installed; thankfully, the solution for this is to simply Cast the content to the Shield’s built-in Google Home capabilities.
So, the experience with the Shield TV is largely the same but definitely refined and updated for the current gamer or entertainment buff in all of us. NVIDIA made a big deal, however, of adding in a tool for even better utility – Google Assistant. Google Voice Search has always been a part of the Shield experience, but now it gets a facelift to look like the Assistant we’ve become used to since the dawning of the Pixel. Unfortunately, much of what I might end up using the Pixel Google Assistant for somehow doesn’t translate to the television experience.
One glaring difference is the lack of a ‘Daily Briefing’ voice trigger, which would give me the weather and then play one of many news podcasts on my smartphone. Instead, I get a number of YouTube search results regarding Donald Trump. The same lack of functionality shows even in the searches that trigger proper results – a search for actors or movie trivia only shows the same top splash screen that you’d get in a Google web search, without an accompanying voice dictation. For such a powerful Android box, the focus on entertainment and gaming seems to be a little bit too strong for NVIDIA to actually call it full-on Google Assistant – and I would use Google Assistant more if it was as capable on my television as it is on my smartphone.
All in all, the NVIDIA Shield TV is a ton of fun in a box, with a delightfully short list of caveats. NVIDIA continues to champion the gaming focus of their Shield products and it shows in their conversion of Android into a console experience. Built-in recording and streaming features help the more avid players tap into a now huge community of gamers sharing their playthroughs. Geforce Now is an effective but limited way to get a gaming fix and gamepad-ready games are a joy to play on a bigger screen and with the Shield controller, which is still the best one to use in the mobile space.
The actual Android iteration has a few growing pains that are at once mitigated by built-in Google Cast support but continuously frustrates due to some losses in translation. Google Assistant is great to have, on paper at least, but it has some ways to go if it is to compete with Amazon’s Alexa that is being injected in multiple products; in the new NVIDIA Shield TV, it simply doesn’t bring enough yet. Bolstering support for functions that Google Assistant relies upon is the first step, then Google Assistant can make those strides forward.
For everyone that is looking for a better way to play their Android games and to watch their streaming services, NVIDIA has continued to provide the best apparatus for doing just that. Anyone that still has the previous Shield TV may not find much to make them upgrade, but viewers and gamers who hesitated on pulling the trigger can do so now, with what we think will be great results. Come for the TV, stay for the gaming.