Review: NVIDIA SHIELD 2017 – As Good As Android TV Gets

January 31, 2017 - Written By John Anon

Hands down the best Android TV experience you can find

If you are new to Android TV then the only thing you need to know is that for the past two years NVIDIA has largely dominated the scene with their NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV. This is/was the best Android TV product on the market and as a result, when the rumors starting fluttering that NVIDIA was gearing up to release a follow-up to the 2015 NVIDIA SHIELD, it created quite the buzz. At CES 2017, NVIDIA did announce ‘the new SHIELD’ and in spite of some notable upgrades managed to keep the new console at the same price as the older one – $199.99 for the base model. Here we are taking a quick look at what you can expect to get if you pick up the NVIDIA SHIELD 2017 Android TV.

Specs

Normally, an updated version of a product comes with updated specs. However, in many ways the NVIDIA SHIELD from 2015 was way ahead of its time and that shows with the newer model as under the hood, not much has changed. In fact, the new SHIELD comes with an almost identical spec list. Which means you are looking at the same 3GB RAM, the same 16GB storage capacity and the same NVIDIA Tegra X1 processor with a 256-core GPU. In terms of its video prowess, the new SHIELD is a 4K HDR ready console and does offer 4K HDR playback at 60FPS (H.265/HEVC), 4K playback at 60FPS (VP8, VP9, H.264, MPEG1/2) and 1080p playback at 60 FPS (H.263, MJPEG, MPEG 4, WMV9/VC1). While audio support comes in the form of Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound passthrough over HDMI, as well as high-resolution audio playback up to 24-bit/192 kHz over HDMI and USB and high-resolution audio up-sample to 24-bit/192 kHz over USB. Although one notable change from the previous model is that the new SHIELD comes running on Android 7.0 (Nougat) out of the box.

In terms of connectivity, the new SHIELD makes use of 802.11ac 2×2 MIMO 2.4 GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.1. While physically, the new SHIELD comes equipped with a Gigabit Ethernet port, a HDMI 2.0 port and two USB 3.0 (Type A) ports. In terms of its size, the new SHIELD measures 3.85-inches in height, 6.26 inches in width and 1.02-inches in width, while weighing in at 8.8 oz.

In the box

If you decide to pick up the new SHIELD, then you do get (almost) everything you need to get off the ground running. Besides the actual console, the new SHIELD comes packaged with a SHIELD Controller and a SHIELD Remote. The latter being a point worth noting as the older SHIELD did not come packaged with the SHIELD Remote. Instead this was sold as an after-purchase accessory and would cost you $49.99 to buy. So the inclusion of the remote control is seriously good added-value this time around.

In addition, you will find the various paperwork and a microUSB to USB (Type A) cable. Which does mean that unfortunately, you do have to buy your own HDMI lead. Which is another difference compared to the previous model as while you did not get the SHIELD Remote, you did get an NVIDIA HDMI cable thrown in.

Hardware & Design

As with any new device, the new SHIELD does come with some notable improvements. Although, when it comes to the hardware, there is not as many obvious design changes in play as you might expect. There are some, but generally speaking, this is more of a refinement exercise by NVIDIA, then a revolutionary one.

SHIELD Console

To all purposes, this is the same SHIELD Console that NVIDIA offered two years ago. Aesthetically speaking that is. It looks identical and you would be forgiven for assuming nothing has really changed. But looks are deceiving and while the new SHIELD looks like the old SHIELD, this one has been dramatically slimmed down. NVIDIA has done away with the form factor of old and managed to condense all of the internals of the own SHIELD within a frame which NVIDIA state is roughly 40-percent smaller. In reality, it looks and feels even smaller than that. It is seriously impressive how small the new SHIELD is.

That is not the only change though as NVIDIA has had to make some compromises in adopting a smaller sized SHIELD. The most obvious of which is the removal of the microSD card slot. That is not to say that owners have lost the ability to make use of expanded storage as they have not. The included USB ports can be used as an external storage. So while you won’t be able to directly switch the microSD card from your own SHIELD to your new SHIELD, you still will be able to make use of a greater level of storage. Which is good news as the standard version of the SHIELD comes with only 16GB storage and only 11GB of that is usable out of the box.

A point worth noting here is that NVIDIA does specifically note that a USB 3.0 stick is needed to really make use of storage expansion. In fact, NVIDIA does list preferential USB 3.0 sticks which are “recommended for best performance”. These include Samsung’s BAR METAL 128GB drive, SanDisk’s Extreme CZ80 64GB flash drive, SanDisk’s Ultra 128GB flash drive, PNY’s Turbo 64GB flash drive, and Corsair’s Flash Voyager Slider X1 128GB flash drive.

Another point worth noting is that NVIDIA has decided to make the green ‘NVIDIA color’ more noticeable on the newer SHIELD. Including when the SHIELD is turned off. The small ‘NVIDIA bar’ now comes encased within a green shell. So whether the SHIELD is on or off, it is far more noticeable as an NVIDIA product.

SHIELD Controller

In many ways the SHIELD Controller is the main element that has been updated for 2017. While the other aspects have seen revisions, the SHIELD Controller by a country mile is where the real change has happened. Which is probably not too surprising. While other companies might focus on evolving other aspects of a product, NVIDIA after all, is big into its gaming. Likewise, so are their clientele. So it stands to reason that the gamepad is where you will see the biggest changes. And you will.

First off, the new SHIELD controller looks so much better than the older one. The most obvious aesthetic change is the textured coating is now comes with. While there is the argument that this offers a more ergonomic feel and is much more in-tune with gamers, the reality is that it just looks the part. The SHIELD Console was always a very sleek looking device and certainly an attractive one. While at the time the SHIELD Controller did not look any less attractive, when you compare it now to the new Controller, it suddenly does look dated, bulky and a little less appealing.

Looks aside, and in addition to its sleeker and thinner profile, the button configurations have undergone quite the change. The touch buttons on the older model have been replaced by physical buttons on the newer model. That is, in addition to having been moved from the top of the controller down to the bottom of the controller. Which does mean if you are moving from the old SHIELD to the new SHIELD, then there will be a bit of an adjustment period as you will naturally veer towards the top of the remote control during the initial switch. However, the new button placement does make logical sense as you can now very easily hit the back button or the home button with your thumbs while holding the new controller. However in moving the main navigation buttons to the bottom, this has come at the expense of the volume physical buttons. Which have now been replaced by a central touch slider – much like you will find on the SHIELD Remote.

SHIELD Remote

Speaking of which, the SHIELD Remote seems to have gone through the least changes compared to the SHIELD Console and the Controller. However, there are changes. First up, this remote no longer requires daily or weekly charging. NVIDIA has opted to remove the microUSB charge port completely and now you just get a normal remote control with a normal battery. So if you are not someone who is keen on consistently charging the remote, then this will be ideal. NVIDIA state the battery should last about a year so you can expect to have to replace the battery in due course. Although, not for some time.

The SHIELD Remote has also seen a functional upgrade as this is a remote which can now actively control your TV. This is due to the SHIELD Remote’s inclusion of an IR blaster. Likewise, the software has been tweaked so that within the settings you can now find the option to pair the SHIELD Remote with your TV.

You can search by brand name or just scroll through the most commonly owned TV manufacturers and once found, the pairing process is fairly effortless. Be warned though, not all TV makes are compatible. So if you happened to have bought one of the recently released LeEco TV’s for instance, you won’t find any compatibility listed in the SHIELD Remote settings.

Software & User Experience

In reality, reviewing the software on the NVIDIA SHIELD 2017 is a little premature right now as much of the big touted changes are coming in a future update – which will also apply to the older SHIELD. Therefore, much of what you get today with the NVIDIA SHIELD 2017 will be very similar to what you get with the NVIDIA SHIELD 2015. Right now, there are just not that many changes to really speak of.

Although, it is worth pointing out that the new SHIELD does come running on the latest version of Android TV, based on Android 7.0 (Nougat). Which does mean that the new SHIELD is making use of some of the fundamental changes inherent to Android 7.0. So for instance, the settings design has now changed and instead of acting as a separate app (launching and closing the previous app), the new settings menu appears overlaid over your current view. This is one of the most notable changes and does mean that accessing the settings and making changes on the fly is significantly easier and less intrusive.

Then there is the ability to more easily switch between open apps. Simply double-tapping the home key will launch the app switcher feature and as well as being able to switch between apps, you can also very easily close apps that you no longer want open in the background.

In addition, there are some other notable NVIDIA-specific changes that come with Nougat. For instance, the gaming angle has been changed somewhat and the new SHIELD does not come with separate apps for SHIELD Games, GeForce NOW, etc and instead now makes use of a single gaming hub – NVIDIA Games. Here you will find all of your gaming aspects for the SHIELD which does make the whole process of finding a game to play a little easier and certainly more tidy. NVIDIA Games includes all your specific NVIDIA titles, but also all of the games that you can download as an Android game from the Google Play Store.

Likewise, all the favorite features that are somewhat unique to NVIDIA’s flavor of Android TV are once again present. So for instance, the new SHIELD retains the ability to easily record your screen or take a screenshot. Which while being primarily aimed at those who want to record their gaming antics for Twitch, is still a feature you might find yourself using often. On the old SHIELD, this feature was activated by long-pressing the home button – which is the same way it is achieved on the new SHIELD.

Likewise, another notable change is the SHIELD Accessory page within settings. While this was present on the old SHIELD, the new version has been revamped and looks much better. Not to mention it is more informative now as well, due to each controller coming with its own battery image indicator. Before, the tab would simply say ‘good’ or ‘low’ but now you get a much clearer understanding of just how good or how low your battery is. Which might be of specific importance for the SHIELD Remote as this page will actually tell you when the battery is running low and needs to be replaced.

Although, from the Android TV perspective, one of the biggest benefits on offer with the NVIDIA SHIELD 2017’s software is the inclusion of Amazon Video. This is an app that is largely absent from Android TV, although you will find it on some devices like Sony’s TV sets that are powered by Android TV. But generally speaking, unless Amazon Video comes as an included feature with an Android TV device, you won’t be able to make use of the service as Amazon Video is not available to download directly from the Google Play Store. However, it does come installed on the new NVIDIA SHIELD and works very well. If you are already an Amazon Prime member, then this will be a very good addition to your Android TV app repertoire.

Of course, the software on the SHIELD is only going to get much better. NVIDIA has confirmed that the new SHIELD will be receiving an update where among other things, will include Google Assistant integration. This will essentially turn the SHIELD into a home hub product like Google Home and offer owners a far more smarter home-integrated console. This feature will also be available to owners of the old SHIELD, although the hands-free features that are on offer with the SHIELD Controller does mean that the whole Google Assistant feature will be far more intuitive and natural on the new SHIELD. Which will certainly be one of the selling points for picking up the new SHIELD, or at the very least, a new SHIELD Controller to work with your old SHIELD.

To sum up, the software on offer here is much of the same as what you will find on the old SHIELD, but better. The changes in effect as of today are not massive, but they are there and continue the refinement approach that NVIDIA has been building on over the last couple of years with the SHIELD Android TV. Those who migrate from the older SHIELD will instantly feel at home with the layout and general navigation, while those new to the SHIELD in general, will find that they are getting the very best Android TV experience and interface that is currently available.

Performance & Gaming

Owners of the older SHIELD will likely tell you that there are few, if any, problems with the device when it comes to gaming and performance in general. Thanks to fairly regular updates, the NVIDIA SHIELD has always been one of the better-performing and less-buggy Android TV devices on the market and the new SHIELD continues that trend.

Although it is early days and ‘fresh’ units seem to work much better than ones that have been filled with apps over time, the early impressions of the performance of the new SHIELD is nothing short of impressive. Building on the performance that was already on offer with Android 6.0 (Marshmallow), the new SHIELD with Nougat seems to work effortlessly. So far, there has been next to no issues noted with the performance. No issues with lagging, apps force closing (which was sometimes an issue on the older SHIELD), or otherwise. Everything just seems to be working as it should with Android TV. The same can be said for gaming. This is a machine that is built for gaming and although not much has changed under the hood or in the gaming software department, the gaming prowess of the SHIELD is unrivaled in the Android TV world and the new SHIELD performs great so far when gaming. This goes for both downloaded Android games and streaming games through GeForce NOW.

Although, this does bring up the one issue which could be made – the level of storage that is on offer. While the new SHIELD comes with the same level of storage as the older SHIELD, you will likely want to invest in a USB stick. Although NVIDIA removed the microSD card slot on the new model, the ability to make use of adoptable storage is present and you can simply insert a USB stick into the SHIELD and have that adopt the position of your main storage space. In testing, the setting up of adoptable storage was super easy on the new SHIELD. Just insert the USB stick and immediately the SHIELD will recognize the stick and ask whether you want to open its contents or use it as your new storage. If you select “set up as as device storage” the on-screen instructions guide you through the process which is quick and painless.

Overall, the performance of the SHIELD is probably as most will expect – extremely good. There are no glaring issues at the moment with the SHIELD and everything seems to be working just fine. As already noted, there are some big updates on the way to the SHIELD so it could be fair to expect one or two teething problems in the future. Although since the launch of the NVIDIA SHIELD 2015, NVIDIA has been seriously good with keeping the SHIELD updated and fixing issues as and when they arise, so there is no reason to suspect the new SHIELD will be any different. What you are getting out of the box today though, is a very well oiled and running machine.

Wrap Up

When the rumors first started surfacing that a new SHIELD was en route, some might have expected that the new one would easily be a step-up from the previous model. However, the truth is that it is not a massively different device to the 2015 NVIDIA SHIELD. Although, that is not a criticism of the 2017 version at all and more represents how far ahead of its time the older model was. It has been two years since the original NVIDIA SHIELD came through and no device has managed to come close to it since then. So without the new version, the NVIDIA SHIELD 2015 would still be the best Android TV device (if not the best set top box in general). When you then factor in the smaller sized console, the neater presentation, the upgraded Controller and the longer-lasting Remote, the new SHIELD is better. Which also now makes this the best Android TV device currently available.

Should You Buy The NVIDIA SHIELD?

In short, yes. If you are in the market for a new Android TV device, then the new SHIELD is the only way to go. Not only does the new SHIELD offer you all the benefits of the older SHIELD, but does so in a smaller form factor. This really is the current benchmark for Android TV and at $199.99 can easily be recommended as a must-buy. If you already own the older NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV, then it is a little harder to recommend picking up the new one just yet. There are improvements, but whether there is enough to qualify this as an automatic update, is hard to say. One thing is for sure though, you will certainly want to upgrade your controller.

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