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.
In fairly short order, I got the hang of navigating the SHIELD's interface and found it to be fast, easy, and intuitive to move through apps and menus. Since I'm not a gamer, I preferred using the HT remote for everyday operation, and I found that its few buttons got the job done well. I did use the supplied SHIELD Controller, too; once I learned which button handles which function in terns of AV navigation, it worked just as well.
The player's response time is very fast, and apps loaded and started up quickly. With Netflix, when I connected the SHIELD to a UHD TV, the player would automatically launch the UHD-friendly version. When I connected the player to a 1080p TV, Netflix would revert back to the standard version. Before the October 1st update, Netflix playback had a consistent stutter, but the update appears to have fixed the issue.
To test YouTube 4K content, I queued up Florian Friedrich's dynamic horizontal multiburst 4K test pattern. It would often take a few seconds before full resolution emerged, but it did get there...and looked just as sharp as what I saw through the Samsung UN65JS8500's internal YouTube app.
I rented some Google Play movies, including While We're Young and The Imitation Game. Movie playback began instantly and was glitch-free. With Google Play movies, soundtracks were passed to my AV receiver as multichannel PCM, while Netflix passed Dolby Digital Plus.
The Voice search works very well, and you can do a lot more than just name a movie or TV title. I said, "Show me 2015 Academy Award films," and I got links to the movies, as well as lots of related YouTube clips. When I said, "Show me the artist Dave Matthews Band," I got lists of albums and songs (unfortunately, since I'm not a Google Music subscriber, I couldn't play any of them), as well as YouTube clips and a list of similar artists in iHeartRadio (since I had set up the iHeartRadio app previously).
At first, all of my film/TV searches only listed results from Google Play, which does require a pay-per-use rental or purchase fee. However, after I added and signed in to the Hulu Plus app, I also got TV listings from that subscription service, too. Voice search does not include Netflix results.
On the audio side, I downloaded the SHIELD's Android VLC app and loaded some MP3/AAC files, as well as some 24/96 FLAC and AIFF files, onto a USB thumb drive for playback, which worked well. The VLC player provided gapless playback of Dave Matthews Band's Before These Crowded Streets album. I also tried out the PLEX app to stream files (audio and video) from my Mac computer, and the streaming process was smooth and clean.
I also wanted to download music and movie files to the SHIELD's internal hard drive, and at first I wasn't sure how to proceed. With the more HT-oriented Sony FMP-X10 media player, when I attach a USB thumb drive, I'm immediately given a prompt that asks me if I want to play or import the content. That doesn't happen here, so I had to pay a visit to the online User Guide, which is an excellent resource to walk you through various setup and usage procedures. I learned that I have to physically connect my computer to the player via MicroUSB and manually transfer files. This worked great on my Mac, since I already have the Android File Transfer software to work with a tablet I own. On my PC, the SHIELD didn't show up as a connected drive the first time I connected it, but it did the second time, and the process worked fine. The transferred files instantly appeared in the VLC menu for playback. I wouldn't say this process was hard by any means, but it is a bit more computer-like and less plug-and-play in an HT sense.
As an Android TV device, the SHIELD supports Google Cast technology, which allows you to wirelessly "cast" content from compatible apps on your smartphone, tablet, or through the Chrome web browser. So, if you're watching a YouTube video on your phone, for instance, and want to show it to your friend on the big screen, you can just hit the Cast icon within the app, and the content immediately starts playing through the SHIELD. This worked seamlessly with various Cast-compatible apps I use, including YouTube, Pandora, and iHeartRadio.
Let's talk gaming for a second. I am, by no stretch of the imagination, a gamer who can do an in-depth comparison between this device and the PlayStation or Xbox consoles. What I can say is that I easily downloaded an assortment of inexpensive family-friendly games--like Pacman, Minion Run, Hero Panda Bomber, BombSquad, and Sky Force--and my family had a fun time playing them together. The Android TV platform curently supports about 300 games, including some in 4K for the SHIELD. Some games require the SHIELD Controller, but many will work with both the Controller and the Remote. You can add additional SHIELD Controllers ($59.99 each) for multi-player games, and you can add other companies' controllers via Bluetooth or USB.
I also experimented with the company's gaming cloud service, NVIDIA GRID (which will be renamed GeForce Now)--which falls in the same vein as PlayStation Now. NVIDIA offers a three-month free trial, then the cost is $7.99 month with no long-term commitment. The service includes over 50 games that are built into your monthly subscription, as well as the ability to "buy and play instantly" new releases that NVIDIA says will be offered the same time they come out on other platforms. The ability to stream games at a 1080p/60 resolution is available if you have a robust network (50 Mbps is recommended). Like Netflix, the service analyzes your network speed and optimizes quality on the fly. In the few samples I tried with a wired network connection, gameplay was smooth.
While the SHIELD was ahead of the game in offering Netflix and YouTube 4K options in a standalone media player, I do hope to see the addition of more 4K movie services, like Amazon (less likely) and M-Go and UltraFlix (more likely). Because of its download option, M-Go would be a particularly good mate, due to the SHIELD's internal storage.
In general, this player is missing some marquee apps that you can get through the Roku, Amazon, and/or Apple platforms--such as Spotify, Vudu, Rdio, and Watch ESPN (and other ABC/Disney properties). That's more the fault of Android TV than NVIDIA, and we'll see the addition of those apps as Android TV continues to mature. However, it's important to point out that support for Google Cast means that you can access many of those missing apps using a phone or tablet--such as Vudu, HBO Go/Now, M-Go, and Watch ESPN. Get the full list of Google Cast-supported apps here.
Given the SHIELD's $200 asking price, it would be nice if the HT-style remote were included in the base package price. The SHIELD Controller is more important for the person who plans to play a lot of games, and that is certainly an emphasis for NVIDIA; still, if you want to appeal to our side of the home entertainment industry, it's best not to charge us extra for the remote.
A few times during my evaluation period, audio from one app would continue to play over another--for instance, if I played music through the VLC app and then launched a game, the music would continue to play over the gaming sound effects. I would have to go back and force quit the music app.
Also, several times during my review period, the SHIELD Controller and Remote stopped communicating with the player for no apparent reason, requiring me to restart the player to re-establish a connection. Other times, they were sluggish to wake up from sleep.
Comparison and Competition
In the realm of dedicated streaming media players, I consider the Amazon Fire TV to be the most direct competitor to the SHIELD, due to the similarities in voice search, interface navigation, and gaming focus. However, the Fire TV has the opposite emphasis, providing the HT remote with the unit and offering its game controller as an optional accessory. The new 4K-friendly Fire TV, which goes on sale today, is half the price of the SHIELD, has 8 GB of internal storage, and has more comprehensive search than the original Fire TV.
In the 4K realm, Sony's FMP-X10 4K media player is another competitor. It, too, has support for Netflix's 4K streaming service, as well as access to Sony's 4K movie-download store. It comes with a 1TB hard drive and also has hi-res audio support. It's also $700 and is vastly more limited in the overall number of content/streaming services it offers.
TiVo just announced its 4K-friendly Bolt HD DVR and streaming media player; the 500GB version will cost $299.99, plus the monthly/yearly TiVo subscription cost. Other 4K players include Samsung's $50 UHD Video Pack that comes preloaded with a few 4K movies and access to M-Go's 4K streaming/download service, but that's it. The Nanotech Nuvola NP-1 player ($299) is another 4K media player with access to the NanoFlix Ultra HD channel and lots of 1080p apps.
Of course, the current Roku and Apple TV boxes are also competitors that are priced at less than half the cost of the SHIELD, but they only support 1080p at this time. The new version of the Apple TV ($149 to $199) will be available this month, which adds voice search, an Apps store, internal storage, and gaming options; however, it still does not support 4K streaming.
If you don't need 4K, you might consider the $80 Google Nexus player that's also built on Android TV and shares many features with the SHIELD.
The NVIDIA SHIELD is indeed a compelling new entry to the streaming media market that's loaded with worthwhile features like 4K and hi-res audio support, excellent voice search, downloadable/streaming games, an internal hard drive, and Google Cast. If all you're looking for is a basic streaming media player to play back your favorite apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Pandora, there are certainly lower-priced options that will get the job done just as well. The SHIELD is clearly targeted at someone who wants a more sophisticated all-in-one home entertainment device without jumping all the way up to a full-fledged gaming console. For them, the SHIELD can ably blend AV media serving/streaming and gaming in a fast, powerful package. Although it may look on the surface like the SHIELD has more of a gaming bent, the NVIDIA team has put a lot of thought into what the home theater user wants, such as 23.976Hz output, Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD MA support, AV sync, and the IR sensor for universal-remote compatibility. And, as is evidenced by the major October 1st system/feature update, the company is actively and aggressively updating the device to respond to user feedback and problems, which means the SHIELD should only continue to get better over time.