We recently posted a news blurb about a Parks Research report showing that Roku, Google, Amazon, and Apple accounted for 86 percent of all dedicated streaming media players sold in the United States in 2014. There's no denying the stronghold these four companies have on the market, but it's worth pointing out that Amazon didn't enter the fray until early 2014 yet still managed to break the top four and overtake Apple in sales with its Fire TV products...so a quality competitor can certainly eke out a space.
In a separate report, Parks Research found that game consoles are actually the smart device of choice for streaming services in U.S. households, above even the dedicated streaming media player. So, the newbie isn't only competing with the likes of Roku and Amazon, but also with Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox....which begs the question, is it even worth it to introduce a new streaming media player?
NVIDIA thinks so, and the company has introduced an offering called the SHIELD Android TV. It doesn't hurt NVIDIA's case that the SHIELD already has one of the four big guys in its corner, since the player is built around on Google's Android TV platform that also appears in new Sony smart TVs and in the similar Google Nexus streaming media player.
NVIDIA is also going after a piece of that other pie: gaming. The company is no stranger to the gaming world, and the SHIELD, as it's packaged, definitely has a gaming emphasis. The player comes with the gaming-style SHIELD Controller, not a handheld remote. Thankfully, an optional AV-style handheld remote is available for us non-gaming types.
What gives the product instant home theater appeal is its support for 4K video and hi-res audio. The SHIELD supports 4K/60 signals at 4:4:4, 10-bit color, and HDR and contains the necessary HEVC and VP9 codecs to stream 4K Ultra HD content from the likes of Netflix and YouTube--something Roku and Apple don't yet offer (Amazon's first 4K player goes on sale today). The SHIELD can also store and play 24/192 music files.
The company sent me the standard SHIELD player, which carries an MSRP of $199.99 and has a 16GB hard drive for media and game storage. The company also offers the $299.99 SHIELD Pro with 500 GB of internal storage.
The SHIELD uses NVIDIA's Tegra X1 processor with a 256-core GPU and 3 GB of RAM, and it runs the Android 5.1 OS. The box is a little bigger than the competing streaming media devices, measuring 8.3 inches wide by 5.1 inches deep by one inch at its highest point. It has a wedge shape, so the front face is only about a quarter inch high. NVIDIA has etched some triangular wedges into the top-panel design, one of which is the power button, and a thin green light emanates from the device when it's powered up (you can adjust the brightness in the Settings menu). The design has a cool futuristic look that helps it stand out little from the basic black-box approach. NVIDIA sells a stand accessory for $29.99 that allows the SHIELD to stand up vertically.
The back panel includes one HDMI 2.0 port with HDCP 2.2, as well as a MicroSD card slot, two USB 3.0 Type A ports, and one MicroUSB port. The Type A USB ports charge the controllers/remotes and allow for the connection of media servers, USB storage devices, USB DACs, keyboards, Webcams, etc. For network connectivity, you can choose between a wired Ethernet port and dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The player lacks an optical or coaxial digital audio output for use with a non-HDMI-equipped receiver or soundbar.
The supplied SHIELD Controller and optional SHIELD Remote ($49, or $25 if you initially bundle it with the player) communicate with the player via Bluetooth, and the first step in the setup process is to pair your control device with the player. I began with the HT-style remote and paired it without issue. Both remotes include two noteworthy features: a headphone jack that allows for private listening (a la Roku) and a voice function to search for content (a la Amazon). The HT-style remote has a simple layout that includes a directional wheel and buttons for enter, back, home, and microphone. There's no keyboard to input text. Voice search makes that irrelevant for general content searches, but you will still need to input text within the various apps (although voice search did work within certain apps, like iHeartRadio). You can connect a USB or Bluetooth keyboard for text input. NVIDIA does not offer its own iOS/Android control app for this device; however, a general Android TV Remote Control app is available through Google Play. Since this Android TV device also supports Google Cast, you can control compatible apps directly through your smartphone or tablet (a la Chromecast).
The next step in the setup process is to select your language of choice, then connect the player to your network via the wired or wireless option. Finally, you must create or sign in to a Google account. Again, this is an Android TV device. Much like the Amazon Fire TV is intricately linked to the Amazon Prime service, Android TV is linked to Google Play for music, movies, TV shows, and games.
Below that is a row called SHIELD Hub, where you'll find options to stream and download games. This is also where the Netflix 4K app sits--at least, that's where it sat after I performed the necessary firmware update to add Netflix 4K support to the player.
The next row shows all the games that you've downloaded, and the row below that shows available apps. By default, you'll find apps for Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Games, Google Play Store, Google Play Music, YouTube, and Photos & Videos (for playback of personal media files via USB). Within the Google Play Store, you can browse a huge list of Android-friendly apps to add to your Home Page. As of this writing, there are over 1,000 apps for Android TV; not all of them have made it to the SHIELD yet, however. On the video side, you'll find apps for YouTube, Sling TV, Hulu Plus, Epix, Crackle, CinemaNow, Showtime, CBS All Access, Kodi (formerly XBMC), and Plex--but not HBO Now/Go, Vudu, M-Go, or UltraFlix. (HBO Go/Now is pexted to arrive this fall.) Google's "Live Channels" app is available for those who own an over-the-air antenna and a TV-tuner box like the HDHomeRun and want to integrate the live-TV experience into the SHIELD interface. On the audio side, apps include Pandora, TuneIn, Vevo, iHeartRadio, and Songza--but not Spotify, Tidal, or Rhapsody.
At the bottom of the Home page is the where you can adjust settings, check your network signal strength, add/delete SHIELD accessories, and power off the unit. Within the HDMI settings, you can enable/disable CEC, adjust AV sync and overscan, and (as of an October 1st update) select to output 4K resolution at 60Hz, 50Hz, or 23.976Hz. If you're mating the SHIELD with a 1080p TV, your output options will be 1080p 60Hz or 1080p 23.976Hz. I mated the player with three different TVs during the course of my review: the Samsung UN65JS8500 4K TV, the Vizio M60i-C3 4K TV, and the Samsung LN-T4681F 1080p TV.
For movie playback, the SHIELD supports pass-through of Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital Plus, DTS, and (again, as of a major October 1st update) Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio. The player also supports hi-res 24/192 audio playback via USB and HDMI, with file support for AAC, MP3, OGG Vorbis, FLAC, AIFF, PCM, and WMA. You can set the device's audio output for fixed or variable and adjust volume level via the SHIELD Controller's +/- buttons, if desired.
Finally, the SHIELD has a built-in IR sensor to be compatible with IR-based universal remotes, like the Logitech Harmony models.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...