The NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Review: A Premium 4K Set Top Boxby Ganesh T S on May 28, 2015 3:00 PM EST
The NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV is based on the Tegra X1, which is, without doubt, a very powerful SoC. Ostensibly designed for mobile platforms - particularly tablets - Tegra X1 none the less finds itself in a very interesting (and perhaps unexpected) role as the heart of a set top box. In the SHIELD Android TV, the thermal limits are relaxed and there is no battery life to worry about. Therefore, the SoC performance handily surpasses the currently existing competition in the over the top set top box market.
Our experience with Android TV was a mixed bag. There are definitely more things to like about it compared to Google TV from a few years back. Advancements in the Android ecosystem and more powerful STB platforms have contributed to the positives. The removal of the web browser from Android TV clears up things for the average consumer.
- A good 10-ft UI is essential for interaction on a TV. Subjectively speaking, the Leanback Launcher provides an acceptable experience.
- Android TV enables cord-cutting with a "Live Channels" app that takes advantage of TV tuners with IP interfaces and provides an interface to watch them on a television (allowing the TV tuners / antenna to be placed somewhere suitable for good reception and not necessarily near the TV).
- Google's voice search (with cross-app searching capabilities) is quite advanced.
- Android TV comes with Google Cast - a feature that allows devices like the SHIELD to act as Chromecasts
- Android TV comes with an improved selection of relevant apps compared to Google TV from a few years back.
- Android TV is more open than any other Smart TV platform - it brings along a lot of the advantages of the Android ecosystem
- Android HID support ensures many USB peripherals such as mice, keyboards and webcams are compatible with Android TV devices
On the other side, Android TV still suffers from trying to do too many things at the same time. The 10-ft. UI could be modeled on the default Kodi skin, without the 'Recommendations' row trying to be an advertising window.
- Android TV needs better configurability - for example, users should be allowed to change the order of rows in the Leanback UI or even remove some of them altogether. Not everyone wants ad-like 'Recommendations' as soon as they power up the unit. On Android, the 'Notifications' feature is often abused to push advertisements. Users need more control. The option to control the fading and distance between each row in the launcher would also be nice to have.
- The Android TV framework needs to do away with forcing 60 Hz display refresh rate for the system. Ideally it should be synced to the frame rate of the content being played back (whenever possible). 3:2 pulldown of 24 fps material for display at 60 Hz creates judder that could be irksome for certain consumers.
- Android TV could do with better stability - We encountered a few 'Leanback Launcher has stopped' messages. In certain scenarios, users would also appreciate better responsiveness - for example, the 'fetching recommendations' at startup doesn't allow the user to navigate to the rows further down for a few seconds
The NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV has plenty of plus points to talk about, once the target market is understood. Simply put, the powerful nature of the platform makes it the undisputed flagship Android TV box right now.
- Netflix 4K streaming is flawless. It is the only 4K Netflix certified STB we are aware of. Everything so far has been using in-built Smart TV apps.
- The Android TV support is comprehensive. Microphones and headset ports in both the gaming controller as well as the Remote enhance the user experience when combined with the voice search capabilities. The high-performance SoC ensures smooth navigation in the UI.
- The SHIELD has full support for decoding HEVC Main and Main10 profile streams. These are the only H.265 profiles that matter for end consumers
- Unlike some other 'HDMI 2.0'-capable SoCs, the SHIELD has extensive HDMI 2.0 compatibility with HDCP 2.2 support. It is also firmware upgradable to HDMI 2.0a (HDR extensions). In fact, it fits all our criteria for a future-proof 4K HDMI source.
- The CEC capability works seamlessly. A swipe of the NVIDIA logo on the gaming controller and everything in the playback chain turns on.
- The bundled gaming controller and the SoC's GPU performance enables Android gaming to go beyond the current casual, free-to-play ecosystem
- The device has excellent thermal performance and acceptable / reasonable acoustics despite being an actively cooled device
The SHIELD unit does have scope for improvement. Fortunately, all of them seem to be firmware-dependent. Given NVIDIA's track record with software updates on the PC side, it is likely that most of the show-stopper issues will get fixed soon.
- The AV receiver compatibility list needs to be expanded. Dolby Digital Plus bitstreaming (from Netflix) was a no-go with a Pioneer VSX-32, though such cases will soon get fixed via firmware updates.
- NVIDIA has skimped on licensing for various audio and video codecs keeping the target market in mind. Only H.264, H.265 and VP9 decode have been licensed on the video side. On the audio side, we only have Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus bitstreaming support. The absence of HD audio (DTS-HD MA / TrueHD) bitstreaming is particularly disappointing, given the capabilities of the core platform. NVIDIA talked about making available a 'codec pack' in the Play Store for users needing hardware acceleration for certain codecs. We will have to see how that plays out.
- NVIDIA's experience with HTPC GPUs has not been translated to the SHIELD Android TV due to the limitations of the Android TV framework. We expected NVIDIA to work around that, providing differentiation aspects with local media streaming and video post processing in addition to the 4K Netflix feature.
- It would be nice to have better compatibility with local playback apps (like Kodi, MX Player and VLC). NVIDIA indicated that they are working with the developers already. Hopefully, we should see local media playback apps behave better with the Tegra X1 in the coming months.
Moving on to the pricing aspect, the non-Pro model that we reviewed here is priced at $199. This includes the gaming controller (other Android TV boxes treat it as a separate purchase) and a high-speed HDMI cable (supporting 4Kp60 signals). Meanwhile, for a short introductory period, the $199 price point will include a $30 Google Play store credit and a 90-day subscription ($30 value) to Google Play Music All Access.
Otherwise, not reviewed today is the Pro at $299, which throws in a 500GB internal hard drive and a bundled copy of Borderlands. The Pro's further $100 price tag is no doubt going to draw some comparisons to the current-generation consoles - and for good reason, witht he 500GB Xbox One starting at just $50 more - and may be a harder sale for NVIDIA. The large hard drive is definitely wel suited towards gaming, however possibility of also using it for DVRing TV programming through the Google Live Channels app offers an interesting alternative for all of that space.
The SHIELD Android TV is a reasonably priced premium 4K over-the-top set top box with gaming performance that well exceeds any other STB. In that respect, given the rising importance of OTT streaming and casual gaming in the living room, NVIDIA has achieved what it set out to do.
However, HTPC enthusiasts expecting the SHIELD to be a device that combines leading-edge OTT capabilities with perfect local media playback will be disappointed. The constraints imposed by the closed nature of an embedded system (compared to PCs) mean that the situation is unlikely to alter in a major way in the near future.
Consumers need to get their expectations right - the SHIELD Android TV needs consideration only if OTT streaming (4K Netflix, in particular) and gaming credentials are important. Keep in mind - if you are getting it for 4K Netflix, ensure that each HDMI port in your display chain is capable of both 4Kp60 and HDCP 2.2.