The set top box market is filled with devices that essentially all do the same thing with just minor tweaks here and there. But what happens if you throw a gaming console in there as well to give it an extra boost? You end up with the NVIDIA Shield.
NVIDIA has made a real family out of the Shield brand name with remote PC gaming controllers and tablets, and now it is joined by the NVIDIA Shield Android TV set top box. As the name implies it runs on the Android TV operating system, but the horsepower behind it is definitely unique, as is its overall look.
The question now is like a peanut butter cup, should you ever mix two things that you don’t normally think of going together? While gaming consoles have added apps for services such as Netflix, there is never any question that their primary focus is on gaming. With the NVIDIA Shield you are left wondering just what exactly you have purchased.
Lets start with the design of the NVIDIA Shield Android TV. Lets face it, everyone gets tired of a sea of sameness in their gadgets, but the set top box market seems to be a bit different. With the exception of the Roku and Apple TV looking a bit similar, every other box out there has some uniqueness to it, and the NVIDIA Shield has that in spades.
The Shield looks like some alien relic you would find as the MacGuffin in any number of science fiction films with warring planets all in search of its ultimate power. It’s angular ridges were a bit concerning to me when I first unboxed it as to how it would play with the other devices around my TV, and I had very definite flashbacks to the hideously designed Boxee Box.
The good news is the Shield, while looking unique, really doesn’t have any issues in the integration department. It’s natural state is horizontal, but you can place it vertically as well with an optional $30 stand.
The front of the device is fairly plain, but on the back you will find a nice assortment of ports which include Ethernet, HDMI 2.0, two USB 3.0 slots, a microUSB port and a microSD slot. You will not be lacking for options when it comes to connecting this device.
Where the physical body of the Shield shines, the controller needs some help.
The included gaming controller feels like an Xbox controller before it went on a diet. It’s chunky hand grips make it feel a tad awkward in your hand and extended use could definitely lead to some cramping. The buttons are certainly clicky, but almost to a point of feeling as if they aren’t made of the highest grade materials and leaves you wondering how it could stand up over extended use.
There is also the fact the gaming controller is the only one included with the Shield which leads you to believe this device truly is more about gaming than streaming. If you want to go with a more traditional remote there is an optional one that you can purchase, but it will cost you an additional $50.
While the included controller is serviceable, and does indeed support a voice search feature of the Shield, it just feels like a clunky way to navigate the interface. A gamer is going to feel at home with it, but someone who is just looking more at a streaming solution is going to feel a bit lost. Not to mention it is also not going to fit nicely with your other remotes.
I debated how to approach this device as this is far more of a knock on Google than it is on NVIDIA, because Android TV is just not there yet.
While it is capable, it definitely lacks in developer support. Too many developers are taking the “casting” route and saying that you can simply cast the apps you want from your phone or tablet to Android TV. While this does indeed work, it isn’t optimal. A set top box should be an all-in-one solution with that being the only item you need.
All of the big guns are indeed here (Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, Sling TV and so on), but it is missing other cord cutting staples such as Showtime Anywhere, CBS All Access, NBC Sports and so on. Android TV is still in its infancy, and from the selection of apps it still feels like it. More apps are sure to join the fray, but you have to wonder how quickly it will happen and if your patience will run out before they do so.
The interface is also lackluster with no way to organize your apps other than by most recently used. If you have an app you only use once a month for some reason then you are going to have to scan through all of them to find it again. A way to favorite or put them in an order that better suits your needs is definitely needed.
This all may be a cunning plan by Google to remind you just how much easier it would be to get whatever you need from the Google Play Store. You are never more than a few seconds from some sort of reminder that you can purchase games, apps, movies and TV shows from the service.
The Shield may be lacking in apps that you find on other devices, but it does have a trick up its sleeves in the form of gaming. From Google Play store selections to the NVIDIA Grid service, there are a lot of options here for you to get a gaming fix.
Of course, the big question is how does gaming, that is almost purely streamed, work. I tried a few different games from combat (Arkham City) to racing (Dirt 3), and only once did I see really noticeable lag. I was actually fairly impressed with how well it worked and it felt seamless in some ways. Load times, however, did seem noticeably longer than you would experience on a console with a physical or downloaded copy.
If the Grid service just isn’t that appealing to you, you also have access to games from the Play Store and logging into your Steam account so the gaming selection could be significant for sure. The only question is just how ready you are to go down the completely digital distribution road for your gaming.
If you want some gaming mixed in with your streaming, then the Shield is going to be the device for you without question. Will it be a good answer for serious gamers, however? That seems doubtful. From the chunky controller to the load times, it’s difficult to imagine hard core gamers flocking to the Shield.
So much unrealized potential
The Shield is trying to be your all-in-one entertainment solution, and while it feels like it could potentially get there one day, it just isn’t going to happen soon. Again, as I said in the software section of the review, a lot of this lays at the feet of Google’s Android TV. The support just isn’t there from developers, and who knows how long that will end up taking.
For those who do a lot of local network streaming, the Shield may be a good answer for you with its generous number of ports on the rear of the device. There are some notes online as to missing support currently for things such as MKV containers, but NVIDIA promised it will be supporting the Shield with firmware updates for some time to come, so anything that is missing now could quite easily show up down the road with the flick of a server switch.
As it stands now, the Shield is just difficult to recommend because it feels like it’s still trying to find itself. Is it a gaming console that also happens to do media? Is it a streaming device that happens to support games? Is it both, but not doing either job fully? It is going to totally come down to what you want to get out of the device to form your own conclusion.
Personally, at the current price point ($199.99 for 16GB, $299.99 for 500GB), I would wait and see what a few more updates add to the mix.
Disclaimer: NVIDIA provided us with an NVIDIA Shield for this review. We used it for a week before beginning our review.