UPDATE Dec 9: NVIDIA has now confirmed to us that the SHIELD Android TV will be updated in due course to support encrypted VP9 and Google Play Movies & TV 4K content. You can read more about NVIDIA's response by clicking here.
Earlier this week Google announced that Google Play Movies & TV now supports the playback of 4K content. Which is good news for those who have a 4K-compatible device. In fact, the announcement detailing the new support, specifically noted that devices which can take advantage of the newly-added 4K support include the "Chromecast Ultra, your Sony Bravia Android TV, or your Xiaomi Mi Box 3". Interestingly, there was no mention of whether 4K content could be consumed on the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV. After all, this is one of the most popular Android TV devices and certainly one which does supports 4K content.
After reaching out to Google, a representative confirmed to us that the SHIELD is not included in the list of supported devices. Specifically stating that "you can only stream 4K movies that you buy on your Chromecast Ultra, Sony Bravia Android TV, or Xiaomi Mi Box 3". Which is in line with the main announcement provided by Google on Tuesday. However, as part of a followup explanation, it would seem the reason as to why the NVIDIA SHIELD is not included as a supported device – is that the SHIELD does not support VP9. With a Google rep confirming that the support is only extended to devices which do support VP9. But here is the curious thing. According to the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV product listing page, the specs do very clearly highlight that the SHIELD does support VP9.
For those unfamiliar with VP9, this is a video codec which in basic terms helps to condense and supply 4K content in a manageable way to devices. It is specifically beneficial to 4K resolution content and is what Google uses for high-resolution content on YouTube, Chrome and so on. So it stands to reason that Google Play Movies & TV would also support VP9. Especially considering, VP9 is basically a Google product. In terms of the SHIELD, the specs do note that the SHIELD supports "4K playback at 60FPS (VP9, H265, H264)". To explain, VP9 is the already noted support behind the 4K content on Google Play Movies & TV. H.265 on the other hand, is a competing video codec which essentially does the same thing as VP9. While H.264 is more commonly associated with HD and Full HD content and is largely assumed to be the predecessor to H.265. So in the very shortest of terms, when it comes to 4K playback, a device can either make use of H.265 or VP9 – as they are competing technologies.
Although, there is no definitive reason as to why a device cannot support both. Which according to the NVIDIA website is exactly the case with the SHIELD Android TV. According to the numbers, it does support H.265, as well as VP9 and in addition to H.264. That is, for 4K playback at 60FPS. In terms of 4K capturing (at 30FPS), VP9 support is not present. Instead, the SHIELD only support H.264 and H.265. Of course, when it comes to 4K playback, one would assume the 4K capturing specs would not really be of concern.
So while it does seem as though there is a contradiction here between what Google states is a 'supporting device' and what the SHIELD specs state, there may be some explanation hidden within the specs for the Xiaomi Mi Box (which is currently listed by Google as a Play Movies & TV 4K content-supported device). According to those listings, as well as supporting H.264 and H.265, the Mi Box does also support VP9. However, the Mi Box is specifically listed as a device which support 'VP9 Profile-2' and this maybe where the issue resides. As well as there being different types of video codec (like H.265 and VP9), there is also different profiles of VP9 which largely differentiate in color depth and chroma subsampling. The range of current VP9 profiles extend from 'Profile 0' (which is largely considered to be the basic requirements for a VP9 device) up to the latest, 'Profile 3'.
Therefore, it would seem to be the logical conclusion that it is not simply a case of Google's 4K content being accessible on only VP9-supported devices, but specifically, on devices which support one of the higher up VP9 Profiles. With the assumption being that the NVIDIA SHIELD only supports either the VP9 Profile 0 or Profile 1. Although, until further clarification on this comes through from either Google or NVIDIA, the Profile level of the NVIDA SHIELD does remain an assumption for now. Either way, it does certainly seem to be the case that if you own the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV then you cannot take advantage of the newly-available Google Play Movies & TV 4K support. Furthermore, if the issue is based on VP9 profiles, then it would seem that this is not something that will be resolved on the NVIDIA side of things. Google will likely have to extend the VP9 Profile support down to lower Profiles to offer support to the likes of the NVIDIA SHIELD – Again, providing the profile is is the discrepancy here.