Featured Review: NVIDIA SHIELD

NVIDIA recently threw their hat into the Android TV ring with the release of their NVIDIA SHIELD player. In fact, NVIDIA has already released two variants of the device in the form of the standard 16 GB internal storage model and a much larger Pro version which offers 500 GB's of internal storage. As such, there is a model for the more casual Android TV/Gamer as well as one for those who prefer much heavier usage. Thanks to NVIDIA's emphasis on gaming, the NVIDIA SHIELD is one of the most highly awaited Android TV devices currently available. But was it worth the wait?

Specs

Specs are not normally the first thing you might think of with Android TV but this is an NVIDIA product, and NVIDIA have not been shy when it comes to including a wealth of specs with the SHIELD. In terms of those specs, the SHIELD comes equipped with 3GB RAM, powered by a Tegra X1 processor which is further fueled by a 256-core Maxwell GPU. Connectivity comes in the way of WiFi 802.11 ac and Bluetooth 4.1 support. While, in terms of memory, the device is available in either a 16 GB or 500 GB (Pro) version. Therefore, by any measure, this is is currently the most powerful Android TV device available on the market.

Design & Hardware

Unlike smartphones, Android TV devices are limited in how much they can differ from one another...or so you would think. This is in fact, where the SHIELD immediately sets itself apart from the likes of the Nexus Player. There is no doubt that the Nexus Player is a proof-of-concept device and is therefore limited in appearance, style and design. In contrast, the SHIELD is anything but limited. The design of the SHIELD has been very well thought out and immediately alludes a premium look and appearance.

For those that had been following the SHIELD launch news and seeing the press images prior to launch, the real thing is much smaller than you might expect and this only adds to its nature in a positive way. Resulting in a unit which is in reality, not massively different in size to the Nexus Player or Razer Forge TV. It is bigger than the Nexus Player and Razr Forger and you will hear people comment on it being 'twice the size' but in real terms, the device is compact and fits in nicely without demanding unnecessary space when integrated into your home system setup. Not to mention, that when in place, the SHIELD is designed to impress and adds a sleekness that you will not find with the other options.

In fact, a prime example of the design of the SHIELD is the power button. Although, this sounds trivial (and it is), the power button on the SHIELD is certainly going to be something that excites many of its users. The luminous green V shape which is emitted when the device is on, results in the device being highly identifiable as a SHIELD product. This one almost wants you to know what it is. It is also worth mentioning at this point, that there are no physical buttons on the SHIELD. There is no clicking or pushing and instead a gentle swipe down on the NVIDIA logo will activate the SHIELD. Likewise, a gentle swipe turns the device off. Although, one issue in this respect is the sensitivity of the power button. Any touch within distance, would turn on or off the unit. The touch sensitivity of the on/off function is extremely responsive.

Moving to the back of the SHIELD and you are not short on connections either. The SHIELD comes loaded with a HDMI 2.0 port to connect directly to your TV (support for HDCP 2.2 for the 4K compatibility). In addition, there are also two USB 2.0 ports, a micro-USB port and a Gigabit Ethernet port. Not forgetting, there is also a microSD card slot tucked away, which is especially handy if you opt for the 16GB version.

Software & Performance

OK, first off, this is Android TV. Therefore, a lot of what is on offer here will be similar to what you already know or have encountered with the likes of the Nexus Player. For the most part, and superficially, much of the platform is the same. The home screen is the same (overall), navigation is the same and the whole user experience is the same. That said, this is NVIDIA and they have tweaked aspects of the Android TV OS to better suit their particular product and generally, they are very nicely added tweaks. Once installed and setup, the NVIDIA SHIELD comes running on Android 5.1.

One of the first major differences you will note from the stock Android TV, is what is best thought of as the NVIDIA TV apps. This is the SHIELD Hub and offers the user a more native NVIDIA experience. The main two are 'Stream Games' and 'Download Games'.

The first of these, Stream Games, is exactly that. This app offers users the direct link to the NVIDIA only games which are available. In contrast, Download Games is a shortcut to the games section on the Play Store. However, unlike the standard games section of the Play Store, Download Games offers users a breakdown of featured games, new releases and games that are coming soon. All the games listed in this section come with download/purchase links ready so you can install from here and skip the Play Store altogether. This certainly proved to be a useful addition and highlights the game emphasis of the SHIELD, as well as providing a good way to keep up to date with which games are new or should be tried. In truth, the Play Store was almost never visited due to the inclusion of this shortcut.

Moving on, the software on the SHIELD does come with a number of other smaller NVIDIA tweaks, these include a separate section for the SHIELD Accessories (standard Android TV Bluetooth accessories section still present for non-SHIELD devices). The SHIELD Accessories shortcut effectively acts as a hub for your SHIELD remote and SHIELD Controller and as such, the user can see what devices are connected and more importantly, the current status of the battery life. Very handy if you are planning a big gaming night, as you can check hours in advance the status of your battery and charge accordingly.

Speaking of the accessories, the software for the remote control and controller receives updates separately to the main unit. When those updates are ready, they conveniently show up in the main homescreen feed and can be activated from there which again proved useful.

By now, the news reports have largely covered that this is a 4K streaming device and as such, you can stream, watch an enjoy content in 4K. Of course, at the moment, the variability of compatible products which can feed your SHIELD device 4K content is severely limited. Therefore, although this is one of the big advantages of the SHIELD, this feature might be a little early in terms of mass appeal. That said, what the 4K (and the SHIELD in general) does highlight is how future proof this device is. If purchased now, you will be able to use the SHIELD for the foreseeable future as there doesn't seem to be anything on the horizon that will compete with the unit. Not to mention, that once 4K becomes more widely accessible, the SHIELD will still have maintained its relativity. To put this into perspective, with the launch of the SHIELD, the Nexus Player is now already starting to seem and feel extremely dated.

Last up, and although not a specific NVIDIA Android TV feature, the SHIELD does come with native Voice Search included. Voice Search can be activated form pretty much anywhere within the OS and works much the same way as it does on the Nexus Player.

GRID games are also searchable via voice command and do show up in the search results, although not often towards the top.

Overall, the user experience and workings of the operating system was considered to be one which was very well thought out. The software takes the stock Android TV OS and effectively incorporates a much clearer emphasis on gaming and adds nice tweaks which did improve the overall user experience. In fact, all the tweaks noted were ones that I found myself using often and forgoing the native alternatives of stock Android TV. In short, NVIDIA have done a good job of gently skinning the stock Android TV software. The overall stock feel of Android TV is still very much there, just better.

Gaming on SHIELD

There is little doubting that those interesting in buying the SHIELD, will be interesting in the gaming abilities of the player. After all, this is one of the main selling points of the SHIELD and in short, it does not disappoint. Regardless of your level of gaming or the extent to your gaming needs, the SHIELD is designed to offer you something. At the more superficial gaming level, the SHIELD is an Android device and therefore, the same selection of android games that are available for other Android TV devices are on offer. That said, NVIDIA have clearly been working hard to make the standard android gaming experience greater for their product and as a result, there are a number of games on offer for the SHIELD that you will not find on other Android TV devices (and android in general). These games make use and are best played with the SHIELD Tegra X1 processor and a prime example of this, is the recently released Half-Life 2, Episode 2. As these games are designed for the SHIELD, the playback was seamless when tested and impressed each time the gaming aspect was tested.

First up as a SHIELD-only gaming aspect, is the onboard NVIDIA GRID compatibility. NVIDIA GRID effectively allows SHIELD owners the option to play from a number of more premium gaming titles directly through the SHIELD. The GRID does this by streaming the games and allowing the user to save their progress online. As such, none of the GRID games played are added to your device offline. Which means you also do not have to worry about the storage being occupied. Of course the downside of this, is that there can be elements of stuttering and lag that you won't encounter with offline games. To be fair, during testing, this was (almost) never an issue. The SHIELD consistently performed extremely well in this respect and playing streamed content was largely a faultless experience.

Note: The serious gamers out there might take issue with the selection of games on offer. Personally, there was no issues with the selection and you do have a great variety of AAA titles available. However, they are not exactly the newest titles on offer. As such, those interested in the cutting release games will find some of what's on offer through GRID a little dated. For the clear majority of users, the choice of games is excellent and even more so as they are currently free.

For the more serious PC gamers, the SHIELD's gaming options are not limited there either, as the device allows the ability to stream your PC games directly from their laptop to their SHIELD device using the GameStream feature. Of course, to do this, you do need to have an account setup, games already purchased or downloaded and a PC powerful enough to stream them. All those boxes ticked and you will find the NVIDIA SHIELD very accommodating in this respect.

Note: Although, there were no issues noted with the streaming of games, you do need to make sure the SHIELD is running on 5 GHz to play properly. When tested on 2.4 GHz ,the stuttering and lagging was an issue and did effect the level of gaming experienced. As such, you will need to make sure your router is configured to 5 GHz. Better still connecting the SHIELD directly to the router proved to be the best solution.

Accessories

The SHIELD came straight out of its pre-order status along with a bunch of accessories. For most people, these are more necessities, than accessories. Overall, there are three main elements to the accessories range and these consist of the controller, remote control and the stand.

Shield Controller

Starting with the controller, this is the only accessory you will receive when you purchase the boxed version. Of course, this is not an issue as the controller is completely self-sufficient and will allow you to do everything you need it to. In fact, the controller is pretty much the same controller which is available with the SHIELD tablet and therefore, anyone already using the SHIELD tablet controller will be right at home with this one. Not to mention, it is not too dissimilar in looks, function and build to an Xbox 360 controller.

That said, of all the accessories on offer, the controller is the least attractive. There is nothing wrong with the controller appearance, however, it does lack the sleek design of the rest of the SHIELD. To add to this, the controller is a little on the bulky side. When held in hand you will know you are holding it. Looks aside, the controller does perform well and there were no notable issues when being used. In fact, the controller does include a number of features that you will not find on the Asus GamePad for the Nexus Player. These include the ability to adjust the volume and the ability to connect your headphones directly to the controller. In particular, the ability to connect your headphones is a great feature and works similar to how it does on the PlayStation 4. Last up, this is a microUSB rechargeable controller. Although a number of users will prefer the SHIELD to come with the remote than the controller, it is worth pointing out that this is the most expensive of the current accessories, coming in at $59.99 each.

Shield Remote

For the more TV based users, the lack of a remote control included in the base price will be disappointing. Although the remote control is an after sales purchase, once it arrives, you will be happy you paid extra for it. The design of the remote control is excellent and easily surpasses that of any other remote you might have. This is designed with a similar sleekness to the main SHIELD unit and instantly fits in with the device's design.

The Bluetooth remote is roughly the same length as the one that ships with the Nexus player. However, the SHIELD remote is extremely thin and significantly thinner than the Nexus Player alternative. Not to mention the remote control has also seen a feature upgrade and comes with some neat features. One being the use of a touch slider for the volume control. In truth, the sensitivity of the volume slider on the remote control was a little lacking, but the implementation of the touch slider does make up for it. Not to mention, that like the controller, the remote offers the option to directly insert your wired headphones. Perfect for those late night TV viewings. Like the controller, the remote is rechargeable via microUSB and in terms of pricing, the Shield Remote costs $49.99.

Shield Stand

Generally speaking, there is not much you can say about a device stand and although this one is limited in description, it is still worth pointing out. The design again takes similar cues from the SHIELD main unit and remote control and has an element of sophistication about it. The stand is anodized aluminum built and is bottom heavy enough to ensure your SHIELD will be solid when standing. In fact, the stand comes with a bottom adhesive "non-slip nano-suction base" that when testing proved to be remarkably stickier than expected. As such, if you use the adhesive bottom, you really will not have to worry about the SHIELD moving at all. This thing is solid.

Once in place, the SHIELD fits extremely snugly into the stand and again, there were no real issues noted with the style, design or function of the stand. In terms of pricing, the Shield Stand will set you back $29.99.

Summing Up

Should you buy the NVIDIA SHIELD? In short, yes, you should. This is simply the best option for Android TV on the market at the moment. In fact, NVIDIA are probably less keen on this being referred to as simply an 'Android TV player' as it does feel like so much more and especially when compared to the built-in options on the Nexus Player. As a result, you are getting more than just an Android TV device. However, with great specs and performance comes great prices and this is the one aspect which will be of concern to some consumers. The NVIDIA SHIELD is not cheap. Of course, what you're getting is not cheap either, so for the price, the device is a worthwhile investment. But when you compare the cost of other standalone units, the SHIELD is inescapably expensive. The cheapest option is the 16 GB storage player which will cost you $199.99 while the Pro version comes in $100 more at $299.99. Not forgetting that if you want the stand and remote control too, you are looking at another $100 on top. In balance, the SHIELD is likely to receive a lot of criticism for these points. It is expensive (compared), it is centered between being overkill for some and too immature for others, but that all said, if you are into your android gaming and interested in the Android TV format, then you cannot go wrong with the NVIDIA SHIELD. In fact, not only can you not go wrong, you currently will not find better.

NVIDIA SHIELD 16GB

NVIDIA SHIELD Pro

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