NVIDIA Shield TV: Everything they say about it is true

It’s almost a year since I bought the Xiaomi Mi Box 3.  A little longer since I took possession of Safaricom’s own Android box.

The latter remains a good pick but I have found myself gravitating towards the Xiaomi Mi Box a lot more. Mostly because, while not as feature packed as the Giga box from Safaricom (features that I don’t have much use for, anyway), it just has the kind of things I love and appreciate.

While Xiaomi’s Android box ticks all the boxes and has served me well (and continues to do so – save for the bit where it struggles with 4K streaming and its performance chops are slowly being outdated), as expressed in that review, there has always been that part of me that would only be satisfied by the NVIDIA Shield TV.

According to many, the NVIDIA Shield TV is the best of the best when it comes to not just Android boxes but just about any media streamers worth their names in gold out there. As I was to find out over a 6-month period, when it comes to Android, the NVIDIA Shield TV’s status as the king of them all is undisputed.

Introduction

The NVIDIA Shield TV has been around for a while now. 4 years, to be exact.

Within that time, the product has been iterated by its makers several times, adding and removing features in equal measure in the process. Heck, word on the street is that a new model – that has been long overdue – is in the works.

At this point in time, one can find the Shield in three variations.

There is the standard Shield TV that most are likely to pick up that comprises the console and its accompanying remote.

There is a Pro variant, as well. As the name suggests, it’s really meant for the pros among us. For instance, it lets users access rarities (at least on the Android boxes that I have interacted with a lot so far) like a microUSB port, a headphone jack on its remote and, wait for it, a whopping 500GB storage space! That is on top of the gaming controller that comes as standard with such a high-spec configuration. The only problem (besides its Kshs 30,000 price tag)? The last time there was any movement in the NVIDIA Shield Pro’s corner was more than 2 years ago and finding one to buy brand new is a headache and word on the grapevine is, it’s either been quietly discontinued or on course to be.

Why so?

NVIDIA has recently doubled down on the standard Shield TV by including and heavily marketing a smart home edition and a gaming edition. The former includes a (Samsung) SmartThings Link dongle that instantly transforms the NVIDIA Shield, as we know it, into the ultimate smart home hub. The latter, which bundles a game controller in the box, is what I went for and boy, was I in for a treat!

Setting up and first impressions

One of the things that strikes one about the Shield is how small it actually is. Sure, it’s not any bigger than the really minute Mi Box but it’s slimmer and occupies much less footprint than other media consoles and doesn’t look as big in real life as it does in photos on the web. Heck, even its retail packaging is mostly a false alarm as to its actual size and weight.

The retail packaging is as big as it is because of both, NVIDIA’s attention to detail as well as the actual components. In the case of the gaming edition that I settled on, it accommodates both the standard remote control as well as a gaming controller.

The former is not rechargeable, as is the case on the Pro variant. Rather, it uses battery cells that one buys separately. No, not like those that power the remote control on the Xiaomi Mi Box. Tiny cells that one will have to sweat a bit to find locally and which cost an unnecessary small fortune to ship here if one opts to buy them from where I bought the Shield itself: Amazon. Bummer. The latter, thankfully, is rechargeable via its microUSB port through an appreciably lengthy cable that is included in the box, just like the other game controllers I have in the house – my PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4s.

Surprisingly, for some reason or the other, the bright people at NVIDIA didn’t deem it fit to include a HDMI cable to enable the connection with one’s TV.

While I bemoaned Xiaomi’s decision to include a rather short HDMI cable on the Mi Box’s well, box, as compared to what Safaricom had done with the “Big Box 2”, this is a whole new level of absurd. I mean, I’ve had to dig through my cables collection to find one that can allow me to take full advantage of the Shield’s superior tech – one that is at least HDMI 2.0 compliant to allow taking advantage of features like the Dolby Atmos and DTS-X surround sound pass through over HDMI, assuming the Shield is set up in a system with everything that accommodates all that. Then there’s the small matter of 4K and HDR, both capable with the Shield (I’ve tried explaining some of this terminology on my Mi Box review).

Bar the HDMI shenanigans, the rest of the stuff is a journey in self-discovery since the Shield packs a tonne of features and is made to enable even more.

My first discovery was that the famous green LED could be turned on and off at will and even the strength of the light could be controlled. Why would anyone want it off, though? Maybe it’s because I have become accustomed to seeing the green LED but it is, honestly, what gives what is otherwise a rather dull black-grey box that can only be unbothersome to geeks, some character that makes it attractive to anyone doing some window shopping in town.

While still doing the house-keeping, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there’s an AV sync feature that lets users who have systems that include receivers and/or DACs to configure the Shield to play nicely with them.

The ethernet connection can also be toggled on and off.

Talking about ethernet, the port can be found on the back, alongside the two USB ports (refer to the above photos) which are the only ones for any sort of storage expansion which is quite a bummer. A past generation Shield allowed users to slot in a microSD card. NVIDIA has since pulled that feature and, here we are. If it is any consolation, at least the Shield can also connect to Network Addressable Storage (NAS) including one’s computer. I found this to be the best way, at least for the advanced user, to transfer files to the Shield from the computer.

The Shield’s remote has a touch interface that is used to control the volume in the absence of volume up and volume down buttons as can be found on the Mi Box 3

Gaming experience

One of the reasons for one to get an Android streaming box of the NVIDIA Shield’s calibre is because it is supposed to be the performance champ that most of the other Android-based media consoles out there are not.

Its powerful Tegra X1 processor coupled with the NVIDIA Shield experience software and the game controller which can be bundled with one’s purchase or bought separately means that when it comes to the best gaming experience that one can do on Android on their television, they are in for a ride.

In that regard, as I quickly found out, it doesn’t disappoint. Sure, there is some learning curve with that controller but that’s nothing when you have already been spending days gaming on other consoles using their controllers. The Shield controller is not like those others but it is close. Its angular design, though, is not the most ideal, at least to those of us used to the rounded corners of the DualShock 4.

Its haptic feedback, while present for things like letting you know that the controller is plugged in and charging, is lacking as games are not tuned to respond to it like they would on an out-and-out game console’s controller, like the PlayStation 4’s. As such, all those barrel-rolls that one does on Asphalt 8: Airborne (Asphalt 9 is not yet tuned for TV) don’t feel as they should.

NVIDIA has gone to great lenghts to offer as many games as possible through its NVIDIA Games hub where both games that users can already access and play through the Google Play Store on their smartphones, other Android-based consoles and even the Shield itself, as well as those that are lacking on Google’s platform can be found. I mean, Steam games can be played on the Shield through a stream under NVIDIA’s GeForce Now program.

So, despite not being available on Android, you can still show off your off-road driving skills in Dirt Rally 2.0. Or go on an adventure on Japanese thriller Yakuza Kiwami or just get over your adrenaline rush in Ride 3. Or some Fortnite. Or PUBG. Or some Rocket League.

On NVIDIA Games, titles are catalogued for ease of access. Games for kids, those that can be played with the remote control, those that are available for free with the Shield and so on. One is spoilt for choice.

The game controller’s battery life is impressive and, on standby, it went for weeks without a notification popping up on the TV that it needed to be charged.

Overall experience

Like other media streaming boxes I have previously reviewed here, the NVIDIA Shield is an Android TV box through and through. As such, we know what that means… Chromecast built-in, that all-too-familiar Android TV launcher, Google Assistant, etc.

It’s all there, albeit at times quite a challenge to use. I haven’t figured out how to go about interacting with the Google Assistant on the Shield’s game controller, for instance.

That can be blamed on either my strong attachment to the remote control’s dedicated button that brings Assistant to life on a single press or the fact that the JBL Link 10 smart speaker I have set up to run the show at my place just does its work diligently. I am not complaining. I am more at home saying, “Hey Google, lower the volume” than having to fiddle with the remote’s touch controls which I have since turned off. Those that pass audio through a receiver or some other setup, that is even less of a going concern.

I have taken advantage of the availability of 2 USB ports at the back of the Shield to plug in the Logitech K400 Plus wireless keyboard since dictating stuff via voice doesn’t always work and typing using that tiny remote on apps with weird onscreen keyboards like Deezer is hell. The other incentive to do so is that just one tap on the keyboard when every device on my home entertainment system is asleep/powered off, is enough to bring them back to life thereby negating the need to constantly keep track of where I kept what remote, thanks to the Shield’s HDMI CEC support. There are better ways of doing that (using some more tech from Logitech) but those cost a small fortune.

Netflix, YouTube and other media apps that one will probably use the Shield for, are glorious. My output is set at 4K 60fps and I can’t complain. There’s also the all-important HDR that made me ditch Safaricom’s box for the Mi Box last year, as well.

Also, if you plan to binge the just-concluded final season of The Grand Tour (at least in the format we knew it for throughout the 3 seasons) in all its 4K HDR glory then the NVIDIA Shield is the only media streamer in the Android world that will let you do so. Why? Well, it’s the only one that has been certified for Amazon Prime Video at the moment. Before getting my unit, I could only rely on the pre-installed Amazon Prime Video apps on my Samsung and LG smart TVs to sort me out.

Its impressive feature-set also means that it is more than able to keep things going for long. None of the apps I usually have open – Plex, YouTube, Netflix, etc – gets closed when I switch to another. They are all kept in memory and, by double-pressing the home button on the remote, I can resume playing music or a YouTube video just where I left off before I got distracted by a new podcast in Plex.

Misgivings

One of the things that one is bound to notice about the NVIDIA Shield straight out of the box is the lack of an HDMI cable. That is a big omission given that the box is entirely useless without one. For something that costs as much as the Shield does, why is that so?

The other thing that one is bound to notice is the prevailing input lag. It takes a moment between pressing the Shield’s remote control and the corresponding intended action taking place on-screen. Sure, that is something one can learn to live with but it’s bound to irk those of us who are used to today’s “instant-action” world.

Where one is not being bugged by the slow response when using the remote control (things are much better when using the controllers – if one has one), they are constantly being limited by the Shield’s storage.

For all its power, it’s quite a bummer that the NVIDIA Shield has just 16 gigabytes of onboard storage. To make matters worse, newer variants of the Shield, including the one in my possession, do not have microSD card slots to facilitate memory expansion. They, instead, have just two USB ports to take care of all our storage needs. Sure, the Shield supports the use of external drives as internal storage (thanks to Android adoptable storage) but… more onboard storage is always a good idea. Speed matters. Thankfully, one can plug in any hard drives they use on their Windows systems that are in the NTFS format and the Shield readily accepts them.

READ:  Adoptable storage on Android: What is it and why does it matter?

Is it just me or GeForce Now game streaming is not as smooth as I’d want it to be? There are many factors involved here and the Shield is not the only party to blame. My internet service provider (ISP) has some part to play in the high latency I experience every time I fire up Tomb Raider or Just Cause 2, some of the games available under NVIDIA Games for free.

I wish there was optical audio out.

To be honest, I dread the day that I will need to replace the battery cells on the Shield’s remote. I know, that day is coming but nothing has prepared me for it, yet. Sure, I can use NVIDIA’s own mobile app or the standard Android TV remote app but… There’s the game controller which does well being a navigation buddy like the remote but I have to figure out some basics there first. Like how the hell to return directly to the Android TV home screen without having to hit the back button 1,000 times, something that doesn’t work when you’re on Netflix.

There is also the small matter of Android updates. Sure, this should be the last concern for most people but some of us are suckers for updates. I have received my fair share of those from NVIDIA over the last 6 months that I have been using the Sheild but those are updates. Not upgrades. My Shield is stuck on Android 8.0, Oreo, with the December 2018 security patch. That is not bad but, remember, we are in 2019 and Android 9, Pie, has been out for so long that its successor is already here.

For me and others like me, the Experience software updates are just not enough. Besides fixing critical flaws in the game controller and the remote as well as the entire system, their headlining feature additions are those meant for the North American market content-wise. Just let me have my slice of Pie, please?

The lowdown

The NVIDIA Shield is an expensive way to TV. For the Kshs 17,000 I spent on my unit, there is no other way of saying it.

However, for the Android (and Android TV) enthusiast who wants lots of power, wants the best and wants to occasionally burn some rubber in Real Racing 3, this is the tried and tested answer. Sure, there are worthy competitors and alternatives to the Shield out there but none offers a much more complete ecosystem as what NVIDIA has managed to put out with it and that is its biggest strength.

For everyone else who just needs the best Android TV experience, some Netflix binge, to be able to cast stuff from their phone from the TV occasionally and not much else, Xiaomi’s Mi Box S remains the best option out there and there is no need spending Kshs 10,000 more on the Shield. Like with the Mi Box 3, you get real value for money.

If you happen to be in Kenya like yours truly and money is not a problem, the other hurdle you are going to encounter is availability. Chances are, you’ll have to buy online off overseas e-commerce platforms like Amazon (where I bought mine) and that means not only having to figure out a way to pay but also the logistics involved. Shipping costs and duty, if any, can easily negate any gains you had made if you are buying the Shield on a deal (there are many of those these days) and that works against the device.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com