But the Shield console is different from its predecessors, both in its form factor – obviously – but more importantly in its intentions.
This is the world’s first-ever 4K Android TV set-top box, and the first widely offered streaming device that’s capable of handling Ultra HD. That means, unlike the Roku 3, Chromecast or even Amazon Fire TV, you can actually connect this to a 4K TV in your home, throw on Netflix or Amazon Instant Video, and be treated to stunning 3,840 x 2,160 resolution content.
Where the Shield Portable failed to capture the Nintendo 3DS’s spot in our pockets and the Shield Tablet a spot in our bags, the Nvidia Shield is attempting in earnest to claim a space beneath our TVs.
The craziest part? The Shield pulls it off. Well, sort of.
Whether you need Nvidia’s game console inside a set-top box of the future comes down to three simple questions. "Are you interested in the Nvidia Grid game streaming service?"; "Do you mind spending $199 (around £130, AU$255) for a faux-gaming system?"; and "Do you even have a 4K TV?"
(Unfortunately for those of you in Europe, Nvidia tells me that the Shield will release there in Q4 2015, and pricing will be announced closer to launch.)
Answering yes to any of those questions means you’ll find something about the Nvidia Shield to latch onto. Answering yes to all three means you can give up the search for a set-top box. The Shield is exactly what you’ve been waiting for.
But maybe you can’t see yourself enjoying gaming on a micro-console with a limited library of PC-quality games, or you’ve decided that you’re not ready for 4K yet (or more likely it’s not ready for you). In either case, then you should probably save yourself some cash and buy one of the half-dozen other equally good, if not a hair more complete, set-top boxes.
Streaming set-top boxes, by and large, look exactly alike. They’re usually inconspicuous, black little boxes no bigger than a CD case and either look like a rounded puck, like the Roku or Nexus Player, or a deck of cards, like the Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV.
The Nvidia Shield is neither round nor flat, but an interesting mix of criss-crossing lines, unique slants and stark angles. It’s also longer than it is wide – 1.0 x 8.3 x 5.1 inches or 25 x 210 x 130mm (H x L x D).
Some will find its off-kilter design endearing, while others might think it enraging, and others still will be left slightly perplexed.
On the top of the obelisk-like device, you’ll find an Nvidia logo, a touch-capacitive power button in the top-left corner and a green, v-shaped LED that lights up whenever the system is on. Spin it around back, and you’ll find plenty of ports: Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI 2.0, Two USB 3.0 (Type A) ports, micro USB 2.0 and a microSD slot.
And that’s only the outside.
Inside, the Nvidia Shield is packing some serious plastic: a Tegra X1 processor with 256-core Maxwell GPU, 3GB of RAM and, in the base package, 16GB of internal storage which can be upgraded via microSD.
If you plan on downloading more games than you have time for, consider stepping up to the 500GB version, available for $299 (around £195, AU$385).
The Tegra X1 processor makes the Shield the fastest, most powerful set-top box to date, only bested by the Xbox One and PS4. On top of being excellent gaming machines, those consoles host a bevy of streaming services themselves.
What does a faster processor mean in terms of performance? You can play better looking games, apps and menus load faster and videos, especially those in Ultra HD, will buffer without issue as long as your internet connection is up to snuff.
The Shield also comes with a single controller that looks, at a distance, almost like a mix of the Xbox One and PS4’s gamepads. It has two in-line control sticks, four face buttons (A, B, X and Y), two sets of shoulder buttons and a directional pad.
Even more interesting than the Micro-Sony mix of controls, however, is the decision to include a 3.5mm jack on the top of controller for headphones, a volume rocker along the bottom edge and a micro USB port for charging.
The controller isn’t exactly the most natural-feeling pad I’ve ever come across. But when it came down to a firefight, the paddle pulled through.
In TechRadar’s review package, Nvidia also included the optional remote, available for $50 (around £30, AU$65). It’s slimmer than both the Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku 3’s remotes, but doesn’t come off as cheap or flimsy. Like the controller, it has a volume slider, which is a nice addition over the Nexus Player’s pad, but lacks a play/pause button.
Content and streaming
It’s impossible to talk content on the Shield without acknowledging its underlying OS, Android TV. In the time since the Nexus Player’s launch, little has changed for the better and it’s mostly the same system I saw six months ago.
Content is displayed in large, image-heavy blocks with recommendations appearing at the top of the home screen and individual rows for games, apps, settings, search and the Shield Hub. Here, you’ll find the launching pad for Nvidia Grid , Android TV downloadable games and games available to stream from an Nvidia GeForce GPU-equipped PC.
The main event, of course, is the 4K content, available either through YouTube or Netflix. (Editor’s note: We were not able to test Netflix 4K streaming, as it requires a TV that supports HDCP 2.2 to stream UHD content.)
YouTube in Ultra HD is absolutely gorgeous and works – like you might expect for a system with download speeds of 125Mbps – near flawlessly. While I wasn’t able to test 4K content on Netflix for this review, I’ve seen the feature enough in press demos to know that it looks as sharp and rich as you’d expect. Of course, your mileage will vary greatly depending on your Internet connection speed.
Flexing your thumbs on Nvidia’s game console hybrid can be done in three ways: game streaming from Nvidia’s cloud streaming service, streaming games from a nearby PC wirelessly or playing games local to the Shield itself. The latter are essentially Android games adopted and approved for the big screen. Some can be played with the remote, but most, however, require you to use the controller.
As I hypothesized in my Nvidia Grid hands on review, streaming works better when the system has a wired Ethernet connection. Dropped frames still happened occasionally during first-person shooters, like Borderlands, and fighting games, like Street Fighter x Tekken, but they happened less frequently and with fewer consequences than when I tested the service on the Nvidia Shield Tablet.
The selection of local downloadable content is a bit sparse at the moment, but it’s not completely devoid of good games. Valiant Hearts, Goat Simulator, Hotline Miami and Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars are all available right now to download and play.
Android TV’s biggest fault is that it’s still missing most of the big-time streaming services. Amazon Prime Instant Video is still MIA and HBO Now, while announced, has yet to make an appearance on the console.
The Nvidia Shield isn’t the first set-top box to be lacking in the content department, but something about its minimalist interface makes the small app library seem even smaller.
It doesn’t help that the recommended content bar isn’t all that good at discovering new content. Watch a cooking show on Sling and, instead of recommending you YouTube videos on how to cook or movies from Netflix about cooking, it shows you new movies on the Google Play store that are completely unrelated to what you’re doing. It’s slightly better at recommending games, but it was rare that Android TV actually pointed me in the right direction.
Where it points 99% of the time is to paid content from the Google Play store, even when you’re trying to find a movie you know is available for free on Netflix. Is it fair for Google to push its own content first? Sure. Does it make for an egalitarian or even user-friendly system? Absolutely not.
It’s not all bad, though. Android TV was the first system to offer real-time info on the TV shows and movies you’re watching. Plus, it has an excellent search function that returns relevant IMDB pages that often lead to unexpected and interesting places. And while the amount of native apps are a bit sparse, you can always stream content from any one of the hundreds of iOS or Android apps that support Google Cast.
The Nvidia Shield’s design, both inside and out, is completely different than anything available today. It’s faster than the traditional set-top boxes we’ve grown to love and holds the title of the first Android TV device capable of 4K streaming.
This box also has the best selection of games, bar none, thanks to its ability to stream from the cloud, a local PC or download full games from the Google Play store. A high-end processor and plenty of memory means your games will never suffer from severe slow down. And while the 16GB version can run out of room quickly, the expandable microSD card slot means installing extra storage is a breeze.
While the specs are spot-on, Android TV, however, is still a mixed bag. First-party content from Google ends up at the top of most results, and the recommended content section usually fails to provide anything substantial.
And at $199 (around £130, AU$255) for a 16GB version, it’s double the price of its closest competitors, the Amazon Fire TV and Roku 3. The silver lining is that you’re getting more power and game selection for the price, but whether that content is worth the extra money up front is another question entirely.
The Shield is one part set-top box and two parts gaming system. The latter is better and more functional than the former, but even the former is not without its benefits. More limiting, however, is the fact that Netflix in 4K only works with TVs that are HDCP 2.2-compliant. At this time, TVs packing this content protection software are few and far between.
But while native content isn’t necessarily Android TV’s strong suit, it does benefit from the hundreds of Google Cast-ready apps available on iOS and Android phones and tablets.
There’s a lot of potential in the Shield, thanks to its killer specs. But until Google gets Android TV’s act together by curbing its urge to push first-party content and working with developers to create more native apps, the Shield will stay a "good, but not great" addition to growing number of set-top boxes trying to dethrone Roku from its top spot.