Nvidia is skipping straight over pre-orders for its Nvidia Shield Android TV, letting people buy the streaming set-top box for immediate shipping.
At $200 with 16GB of flash storage, or $300 with a 500GB hard drive, the Shield is more than twice the price of most other TV boxes, but Nvidia is hoping 4K video support and a bunch of gaming options will justify the cost.
The Shield is the first product with Nvidia’s X1 64-bit processor inside. Despite its ARM-based architecture, which usually winds up in phones and tablets, performance is on par with previous-generation game consoles. In my hands-on time, the Shield played Portal at close to 60 frames per second, and The Talos Principle in the 30 fps to 60 fps range. (Other modern games such as Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel are also coming to Shield, but weren’t yet playable on the review unit I received.)
While the performance is impressive for a device that’s easily cradled in one hand, Nvidia seems to have realized that its gaming-centric pitch didn’t stick when it first revealed the Shield last March. If you already have an Xbox One or Playstation 4—or are willing to pay $350 to $400 for one—there’s not much the Shield can do for you as a gaming machine.
So now Nvidia is emphasizing 4K video playback as equally important. Apps for Netflix and YouTube both offer 4K content, as do Pluto.TV and UltraFlix, and you can load your personal 4K videos onto the device as well. (There’s a MicroSD card slot on board, and support for USB storage devices.) I haven’t been able to try 4K streaming myself, but the Shield is certainly a speedy machine.
For software, the Shield runs Android TV, a living room-friendly version of Google’s operating system. I’ve always enjoyed the layout of Android TV (as seen on last year’s Nexus Player), and Nvidia doesn’t mess much with the stock software. The biggest differences are a special menu section with Shield-specific games, and a shortcut for recording your gameplay or broadcasting it to Twitch.
At this point, the main thing holding back Android TV as a platform is app support, as there just aren’t as many video and music options compared to Roku or Apple TV. But Google is announcing some new partners at this week’s I/O developers conference, and you also can send video to Shield from certain phone and tablet apps using Google Cast. (Here’s a detailed breakdown of Android TV and Chromecast apps compared to other platforms.)
Beyond downloadable games and 4K video, Shield Android TV can stream games from Nvidia’s Grid cloud gaming service, and from networked PCs with compatible GeForce graphics cards. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Grid, but it is heavily dependent on your network and Internet connection, and on my TV it seemed choppier than my past Grid experiences on Nvidia’s Shield Portable. (Nvidia suggested waiting for Grid’s subscription service to arrive next month before diving into performance testing too deeply.)
Local streaming from a networked PC isn’t as demanding, provided you have a good router, and I had no issues piping my Steam library into the living room with very little input lag. As I’ve written before, this was the main reason I was interested in Shield Android TV, so I’m relieved the feature works as advertised. Although Valve is working on a $50 device that does exactly the same thing, that becomes yet another device to add to the media center. Having PC games, streaming apps, and Chromecast on a single device makes things so much simpler.
That doesn’t ensure Shield Android TV will find a sizeable audience. 4K still doesn’t feel like a necessity, and it’s unclear how many people have just barely enough interest in games to make Shield their sole investment. (There’s also some mixed messaging here: Nvidia has stopped calling the Shield a gaming console, but bundles it with a controller and charges $50 extra for a proper remote, instead of offering buyers a choice.)
Still, I like the idea of a flagship Android TV box that’s thoroughly future proof. If rumors of a high-powered Apple TV come to fruition, it’ll be nice for Android fans to have their own box of boundless potential.