Nvidia SHIELD review: the most powerful media streamer today

The 4K set-top box is mighty powerful, but is being sadly hampered by an Android TV OS which still feels half-baked.

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The Nvidia SHIELD Android TV console is the most powerful set-top box around and has today been released in the UK and across Europe. Having been available in the US since the early Summer Nvidia has been working to make sure region-specific content and applications are in place before pulling the trigger on this Old World release.

With a superfast Tegra processor at its heart, and the same GeForce GPU architecture used in the fastest gaming PCs, it's the only set-top box that's capable of a full 4K stream at 60Hz.

But does simply being the fastest necessarily mean that it's also the best?

Nvidia SHIELD hardware

The SHIELD uses Nvidia's Tegra X1 processor at its heart, the fastest mobile silicon it's ever designed and the fastest available. It's the same chip Google has used in its new Pixel C convertible tablet/laptop hybrid.

In tests the Tegra X1 runs over twice as quick as the aging silicon in the new Apple TV and around five times quicker than the new Amazon Fire TV. A big part of the Tegra X1 chip is its Maxwell GPU component. It's this graphics part that gives the SHIELD console its 4K Ultra HD performance and uses the exact same graphics architecture that sits inside Nvidia's fastest PC graphics cards.

Only it's using a 256 core version as opposed the full GTX Titan X's 3,072 cores.

That may sound laughably off the pace, comparably-speaking, but considering Nvidia was still releasing actual desktop graphics cards with fewer cores in the last generation you could genuinely call this PC-level hardware.

On top of that the standard SHIELD device comes with 3GB of system memory, 16GB of internal flash storage, a microSD slot to boost its capacity - potentially up to 2TB with future cards - a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a micro-USB port for attaching to PCs, Gigabit ethernet as well as 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 4.1 connectivity.

There is also a slightly more expensive SHIELD Pro version with a spinning 500GB hard drive if you need the extra built-in storage.

In terms of its 4K Ultra HD support though the big news is that HDMI 2.0 connection with HDCP 2.2 to allow it to run DRM protected content - like UHD Netflix - at a full 60Hz.

The £150 SHIELD console also comes with the same wireless controller the SHIELD Tablet has as a £50 optional accessory. Nvidia has opted for bundling the controller rather than the wee SHIELD remote because of both its gaming heritage and the fact that a good many TV manufacturer's remote signals can be captured by the SHIELD and used for its control too.

Nvidia SHIELD software

The SHIELD is running the latest version of Google's Android TV operating system, designed specifically for running on the bigscreen. As the name would suggest…

That though is both one of its biggest draws and one of the device's main failings.

My experiences of Android TV haven't been great when testing Sony's current 4K crop of teles, but historically Nvidia has been incredibly quick at getting its SHIELD Tablet updated whenever Google releases anything new. That should mean that whatever happens the SHIELD console will likely always have the best version of Android TV around.

The TV manufacturers are unlikely to be as quick at getting OS updates out.

And that's also meant my experience with the SHIELD's OS hasn't been the bug-ridden frustration I felt using it on a TV.

But Android TV still suffers from a lack of apps. If you're a regular Android user you'll likely often run into a brick wall trying to track down the apps you love on your mobile device that are inexplicably unavailable on the rejigged Android TV system.

The Play Store is a much more sparse place on Android TV; there isn't even a compatible version of Chrome available. I mean, that's a definite wtf, right?

There are though many of the most important media-streaming apps, like Netflix and iPlayer, for instance. Though some glaring omissions, like NOW TV and Spotify seem utterly unforgivable.

None of this is Nvidia's fault, or the fault of the SHIELD, but that doesn't stop it from being a frustration when using the device.

With the missing apps though there are ways around it. The SHIELD comes with a built in Google Cast setup, allowing you to either mirror the screen of your mobile Android device or Cast from compatible apps.

This worked to a greater or lesser extent in my experience though. The built in Cast option on NOW TV kept throwing me back to the SHIELD homescreen whenever I tried a stream and, like Sky GO, it doesn't allow screen mirror-ing.

You can also side-load your favourite Android apps, though you won't find the shortcuts appearing on your homescreen. And there's also the fact some mobile applications don't play nice with a physical controller replacing a touchscreen interface.

It will get better, but right now Android TV can be a frustrating OS.

Nvidia SHIELD performance

As I've said, the hardware inside the SHIELD is the best around.

I love my SHIELD Tablet, even with it's older Tegra K1 processor, and the updated hardware inside the new SHIELD Android TV console makes for an even more slick experience. That's especially true when connected to a 4K Ultra HD TV.

Running natively at 3840 x 2160 and at 60Hz the interface is incredibly smooth and responsive. Amazon's Fire TV has made a bit of a fuss about its 4K playback, but its upscaled interface and 30Hz limit mean that, while it may be a cheaper device, I'd happily pay the extra cash if I wanted to get the most out of my Ultra HD TV.

Applications load quickly and the media playback is exemplary.

Booting up an Ultra HD Netflix stream is speedy and glorious; it's smooth, clear and utterly beautiful. The sweeping vistas of something like Marco Polo are perfectly suited to the resolution top table. The same goes for any attached 4K content too.

Running the Ultra HD demos I regularly use to test 4K TVs the performance is similarly excellent. There is no judder, no slowdown and the playback feel robust and completely consistent.

General media playback is also excellent. You'll have to work exceptionally hard to find some rare codec, or video file, that won't playback perfectly on the SHIELD.

With Plex pre-installed on the device you can get your stored media playing on your TV in a trice and with an Android TV Kodi app the SHIELD is perfectly positioned to be the best media streaming box that's ever been released.

Nvidia SHIELD gaming

Nvidia is one of the biggest names in PC gaming, and with the other recently-announced set-top boxes - such as the Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV - making noises about their gaming prowess, it's no surprise to find one of the biggest features of the SHIELD is its own gaming chops.

You have myriad options for getting your game on too.

You can stay local, downloading SHIELD-optimised games, like Half-Life 2 and Trine 2, you can stream from your existing Nvidia-powered gaming PC or you can pay to stream directly from the cloud via the GeForce NOW service which launched at the same time as the UK SHIELD release.

The local gaming performance is seriously impressive.

Half-Life 2 still looks good and plays brilliantly, and you also have a whole world of more casual Android games to play too. While the SHIELD controller may be a little chunky, it's a very responsive Xbox controller clone, with a built-in mic for voice-chat and search, as well as one-touch access to Twitch streaming directly from the SHIELD itself.

Streaming from your PC is just as good as it is via the SHIELD Tablet, namely pretty fantastic. Though there are issues with maintaining a consistent stream across a powerline-style network on the Nvidia streaming app. Thankfully there's always the more robust, third-party, Moonlight app which has an official Android TV version.

With the Nvidia software my Metal Gear Solid V streaming session sometimes dropped down to 576p, rendering a very, very ugly picture, but with Moonlight I was getting a consistent, stable and utterly playable 1080p/60Hz experience. There are some games though which don't work on the stream - I really wanted a living room base for playing FIFA on my sofa, but both the last and latest versions of the game suffer from some strange controller malfunction which duplicate inputs multiple times.

GeForce NOW worked impressively enough through the cloud though, but to hit the highest 1080p/60Hz stream Nvidia recommends a full 50Mbps download connection from your service provider.

And pay a £7.49 a month subscription too.

Nvidia SHIELD verdict

The Android TV SHIELD console is an impressive, powerful, angular, little device. But it's sure got an uphill battle on its hands.

Apple and Amazon are by far the bigger names and their respective set-top boxes will undoubtedly garner more sales, despite being weaker devices with fewer high-end features.

And that's a shame, because the SHIELD could easily be the perfect partner for all those new 4K TVs which will be flying off the shelves over the next six months.

Sure, at the high-end, those 4K TVs will all come with the necessary media playback applications to get going with UHD Netflix and the like, and some will even come with Android TV themselves. But they won't have the power inside to necessarily deal with what the future holds for more advanced Ultra HD sources.

The SHIELD on the other hand is probably a little over-powered for what it's doing right now, but that gives it room to grow as more demands are put on media hardware in the future.

There will also be a great many 4K UHD TVs sold that don't come with any connected TV smarts too, but so long as they come with HDMI 2.0 / HDCP 2.2 connections - as many of the latest cheap 4K TVs are - the SHIELD will be an ideal way to make those cheap dummies super smart.

Well, as smart as Android TV will let it.

Google's TV OS does still feel a little half-baked, with those odd, frustrating, missing apps often putting barriers up to your gleeful media fun. But Nvidia is committed to keeping the updates flowing and has certainly been true to its word with its previous SHIELD products.

Android TV will certainly get better over time, and with it the already impressive Nvidia SHIELD will too.

And at £150 this future-proof media device is also rather good value - and if you're a PC gamer with an Nvidia gaming rig then this is surely the only box you'd ever want to plug into your living room TV.

The Nvidia SHIELD then is easily the most powerful, most versatile media streamer around and the best thing is that will only get better over time too. If you've been considering getting a new media streamer, the SHIELD is the one I'd recommend for the 4K future we're all stumbling towards.