Nvidia Shield TV review: Go-to streamer for PC gamers and geeks
The Nvidia Shield TV combines powerful streaming and gaming features, but for most users it’s not worth the high price.
Compared to the $50-ish Roku and Fire TV streamers of the world, the $150 Nvidia Shield has always been a relatively niche proposition. When all you need is YouTube, Netflix and Disney Plus, it’s overkill. Nonetheless it remains a popular choice for geeks and gamers who want more extras and capabilities, including 4K HDR (now with Dolby Vision), built-in Google Assistant and an array of gaming options that makes Apple Arcade seem like a one-trick pony, especially for PC gamers.
In addition to the GeForce Now game streaming platform, Android games store and GameStream ability for compatible PCs, another extra makes this device a head-turner for gamers: Steam. As the Steam Link now lives on in software only, the Shield TV is one of the “cheapest” ways to get PC games from Steam to your TV screen. Yes, the Shield TV costs more than most competitors, and the price is tough to justify for “just a streamer,” but once again geeks and gamers will find plenty of reasons to splurge.
Is it a cigar? Or a USB power bank?
The latest Nvidia Shield TV comes in two versions: the the familiar-looking Pro version ($200) basic Shield TV reviewed here. The Shield TV is the most covert device I can recall from the gaming company. It’s roughly the size and shape of a runner’s baton; at 6.5 inches in length the all-black Shield TV is designed to be tucked behind your television — and there’s not even any lights to tell you it’s on. If I were a marketing guy, I’d call this the “Shield Ghost” or the “Ninja” or something.
The Shield TV comes with a total of four ports, with two at each end — one side houses a standard power socket (no adapter required) and Ethernet, while the other includes an HDMI port and a microSD expansion slot. There is a single reset button, but sadly, there’s no room for USB.
Unlike in previous years there’s no controller in the box, but you can connect compatible PS4/Xbox One/PC controllers over Bluetooth.
As far as speeds and feeds are concerned, this features an Nvidia Tegra X1+ processor with a 256-core Nvidia GPU and 2GB of RAM. It offers 4K compatibility with both Dolby Vision and HDR10 as well as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X pass-through. The device is also able to upscale streamed content using its proprietary AI upscaling.
Here’s how the two new Shields compare with the previous version from 2017.
Nvidia Shields compared
|Shield TV (2019)||Shield TV Pro (2019)||Shield TV (2017)|
|Processor||Tegra X1+||Tegra X1+||Tegra X1|
|USB 3.0 ports||No||2||2|
|Wi-Fi and Ethernet||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Android TV with Google Assistant||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Plex Media Server||No||Yes||Yes|
|4K HDR video||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Dolby Atmos||Yes||Yes||Pass-through only|
|Backlit remote with remote finder||Yes||Yes||No|
The remote that comes in the package is completely rebuilt from before and features a new, Toblerone-like triangular shape. While on paper this sounds pretty terrible, it’s actually quite comfortable to hold. The button array now includes dedicated volume, settings and Netflix shortcuts. It’s a Bluetooth device and also comes with a remote finder (though it’s menu-based and not a physical button like on the Roku Ultra remote). If you have an older Shield, you can add the new remote for an extra $30.
Having tested and used Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa devices for several years now I’m used to voice assistants getting things wrong, but sadly the tiny mic on the Shield TV remote is one of the worst yet. For instance, if I asked for “Steam” — which most gamers would as users of this device — each and every time the Shield heard me say “theme.” Also, my request for the other Nvidia feature “Gamestream” was hilariously misheard as “famous train.”
Android TV: Google’s best TV menus yet
As a user of the Sony NSX-GT1 TV, I’ve seen Google’s TV operating systems evolve quite a bit. With the latest 8.x version of Android TV, the Shield is the most user-friendly Google streaming device I’ve yet experienced. The interface now focuses on content — in a similar, but less spammy way to the Fire TV ($35 at Amazon) interface. Users do have some control over the individual columns, as well as the first line of app shortcuts.
Android TV may not be at the top of mind for people who don’t own a recent Sony TV, for example, but the system offers almost every app available, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Spotify and Disney Plus. Back when we reviewed the 2017 Shield there were quite a few apps missing, but this has since been addressed with big ones like NHL, NBC and Amazon Music now available. The MIA list still includes AT&T TV Now, Nick Jr., USA Now and Napster, however.
The interface boasts an attractive high-contrast look, and with some tweaking is easy to navigate. One annoyance of previous Google interfaces — having to leave an app to adjust settings — is avoided on the Shield TV with the dedicated settings button and sidebar.
Shield TV, gaming and you
The Shield includes the beta GeForce Now app for streaming cloud games (also available on mobile devices, PCs or Macs) and the GameStream app for streaming from a Nvidia-toting gaming PC. Then there’s the Steam Link app, which doesn’t require an Nvidia graphics card.
I still use the Steam Link box to stream games from my PC and so was looking forward to seeing the corresponding Nvidia solution: an app running on the Shield. I spent some time setting up both Gamestream and GeForce Now and found them much less user friendly than Steam Link — for instance, I experienced numerous system time-outs and had to make multiple attempts at creating user accounts — despite using a wired connection. But when I finally got it working, the first thing it did was suggest I play Steam games!
Even if the game was listed as a GeForce Now title, the shortcuts kept directing me to the Steam store to buy it. Once I finally managed to find one that was streaming — Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed — I found that the system functioned as if I were a playing local game. It may not be the most taxing game out there, but the controls, using an Xbox One joypad, were responsive and I never experienced any gameplay lag.
Using the Shield
Like a lot of recent streaming boxes, the Shield TV keeps recently used apps in its buffer memory, so if you only use one streaming service, you’ll find that it loads almost instantaneously each time. When testing Netflix, for example, if I closed and opened it again, it loaded straight away. To test load times properly I opened a different program between each of the three different timing runs. As expected from a Google device, the Shield was able to load YouTube in a very quick 5.7 seconds, but its Netflix load time was one of the slowest I’ve seen in a dedicated streamer.
Streaming loading times
|Roku Streaming Stick Plus||2.92||8.83||38|
|Roku Ultra 2019||2||7.21||30.06|
|Nvidia Shield TV||8.19||5.7||58.79|
The interface performs in a similar way to other streamers, even if the voice search doesn’t always integrate as well as it should. For instance, most apps have a search box but they don’t automatically correspond with voice commands initiated via the handset — if you press the mic, the icon still appears as a separate search in the bottom of the screen.
I also checked out the image quality of the various apps, with particular attention on Nvidia’s AI upscaling feature. HDR content from Netflix (Lost in Space) and Disney Plus (The Mandalorian) looked as impressive as I expected.
The effects of AI upscaling were more or less noticeable depending on the content, and I found it worked best on YouTube clips. On a Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon clip, for example, the building backdrop and microphone were enhanced and the screen made more HDR-like with the AI settings enabled. These differences were apparent from a normal 6-foot seating distance, while smaller improvements such as facial detail were only visible from a distance of a couple of feet in its default Medium setting. I also noticed some moire in the YouTube clip, but the AI engine didn’t clean this up or deal with any other video artifacts like compression. In other words, it’s a subtle difference and won’t work miracles.
Should you buy it?
The Shield TV is a very capable streamer and it would also make a decent travel unit due to its portable shape and easy-to-find power connector. Is it the ultimate gaming streamer? No, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a PC gamer. It’s fun, it’s compact and offers some unique image quality functions that set it apart from cheaper devices like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus and the expensive options like the Apple TV 4K.