As I argued in a controversial editorial a few months back, streaming isn't merely the future of home cinema; in many ways it's already the glorious now of home cinema. But one point that I will continue to drive home until it sticks is that, while we all quibble about the relative performance advantages of Vudu vs. Netflix vs. Amazon vs. whatever, and exactly how many megabits-per-second of internet connectivity are required to get the most out of any of these services, our discussion about video streaming is incomplete until we all acknowledge that the device via which we do our streaming matters. In other words, unless you and I are streaming Netflix via the same (or at least comparable) hardware, we're not having the same viewing experience, even if we have the same internet speeds and the same display.
I say all of that in part to defend (or at least prepare you for) the $199 sticker price of the Nvidia Shield TV Pro, one of the priciest mass-market video streamers you can currently buy. Only the 64GB variant of the Apple TV 4K matches it in price, and let's be honest with ourselves here: a fair chunk of that is the "Apple Tax" (aka "Fanboy Fee") tacked onto pretty much anything that comes out of Cupertino. (And before you Apple fanatics rip me yet another new one, keep in mind that it's a fee I gladly pay every other year for a new iPhone and iPad, so calm down. I'm one of you.)
With no cult of consumer personality feeding wind into its sails, Nvidia has to do a little more to justify its hefty price, especially when you can get a top-of-the-line Roku Ultra streamer for upwards of $100 less. And the Pro does so mostly thanks to the inclusion of Nvidia's Tegra X1+ processor, 256-core GPU, and 3GB RAM (1GB more than the $149 Nvidia Shield TV).
That fancy hardware powers one of Nvidia Shield's most compelling features: its A.I. Upscaling, which is unique among media streamers at the moment and points toward the future of real-time video upscaling in the home, especially as we move from the 4K era into 8K. Mind you, the Shield TV Pro is only 4K capable, with support for UHD video up to 60 frames per second, at up to 12 bits (in other words, it's good for UHD HDR10 or Dolby Vision). But the A.I. Upscaling employed here is the sort that we'll see in better 8K TVs as manufacturers try to justify all of those extra pixels.
Unlike basic upscaling, which relies on different forms of interpolation to increase the pixel-count of low-resolution material to fit a higher-resolution screen, followed by some form of filtering to ameliorate artifacts, Nvidia's A.I. Upscaling starts with a neural network that has been trained by way of a massive library of low- and high-resolution images that then looks at a low-resolution image and imagines what a high-resolution image downscaled to that resolution would look like.
In other words, it's not looking at a configuration of, say, 1,280 by 720 pixels and using math to blow it up to 3,840 by 2,160 pixels; it's instead taking a configuration of 1280 by 720 pixels and using deep learning to instead predict the configuration of 3,840 by 2,160 that would look like this configuration of 1,280 by 720 pixels if it were downscaled. And when doing so, it takes into account things like which objects are in the foreground or background, and recognizes eyes and hair and skin and so forth, treating each of them differently.
This technology is built into both currently available Nvidia Shield TV models, including the aforementioned $149 model. The differences between the two, in addition to the extra RAM in the Pro model, include a wholly different form factor (the basic Shield TV looks like a small tube of 1.57 inches in diameter and 6.5 inches long, whereas the Shield Pro looks more like a miniature video game console, with dimensions of 6.26 inches wide, 3.858 inches deep, and 1.02 inch tall). The Pro also has 16GB of internal storage vs. 8GB (though both are expandable), features two USB 3.0 ports, and can be turned into a SmartThings hub thanks to the sold-separately SmartThings Link. And, perhaps most importantly for home theater enthusiasts, the Pro can also function as a PLEX Media Server.
Unlike older iterations of the Shield TV Pro, this newer model doesn't come with a gamepad, although you can use your PS4 or Xbox One gamepad with it just fine, assuming you own one of those. We won't be focusing on such functionality in this review, though. Although I am a gamer and appreciate many of the gaming functions of the Shield TV Pro, we're a home theater review site, so I'll only be looking at this as a home theater device for the purposes of this evaluation.
The Nvidia Shield TV Pro comes well packaged in an attractive box, although that box is missing a few key pack-ins that I think a $199 media streamer should include: namely, an Ethernet cable and an HDMI cable. Aside from the streamer itself and its power cord (a six-footer with a wall-wart on the end), the only pack-ins are a quick-start guide that reminds me of IKEA instructions (it's mostly just pictures of which cables go where, as well as an illustration of the remote with the enter button highlighted for some reason, along with a URL) and a booklet with conformity declarations and safety information printed in every language known to man other than Shyriiwook and Undercommon.
The Shield TV Pro is powered by Android TV, and as such setup is incredibly easy, especially if you own an Android phone or even if you just have a Google account (for Gmail, YouTube, etc.). Sign in with your Google account and some apps will even pull your passwords saved in Chrome, further speeding things up.
Although the Shield TV Pro has some of the most extensive audio and video setup features that I've seen to date, chances are good you won't have to tinker with many of them, other than enabling Dolby Vision if your display supports it. You might also choose to upmix any two-channel audio to 5.1, and you'll likely want to tinker with the A.I. Upscaling to see which of its three levels of intensity (Low, Medium [Default], High) does it for you.
If you want to set up a PLEX Media Server, setup might get a little more complicated, but not prohibitively so. Likewise, I found the process of setting up Nvidia GameStream (which allows you to play PC games in your media room or home theater) very straightforward, but again, we won't be digging into that feature in this review.
Overall, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro strikes the right balance between configuration flexibility and intuitiveness, giving you more setup options than my go-to Roku Ultra media streamer, but not getting mired in confusing terminology and counterintuitive default settings like Apple TV 4K.
The remote control packaged with the Nvidia Shield TV Pro operates via Bluetooth and is shaped a bit like a Toblerone package (or a Pono, if your memory for failed portable music players goes back that far.) Although comfortable in the hand, I'll admit that I find the button layout to be a little odd, and even after a few months of regular use I just cannot seem to find the fast-forward, rewind, and play/pause buttons by feel alone, perhaps because of their stacked rather than side-to-side configuration. And yes, I've found it necessary to use the included remote, and not Control4, for reasons we'll dig into in the Downsides section.
With support for HEVC, VP8, VP9, H.264, MPEG1/2, H.263, MJPEG, MPEG4, and WMV9/VC1 codecs, and Xvid, DivX, ASF, AVI, MKV, MOV, M2TS, MPEG-TS, MP4, and WEB-M file containers, the Nvidia Shield TV Pro is pretty thoroughly equipped for pretty much any HD and UHD decoding you could hope for, whether you're a streamer or a media ripper.
The one shortcoming here is its lack of support for VP9 Profile 2, which means no 4K HDR video from YouTube. Whether or not this is an issue is for you to decide.
I began my evaluation of the Shield TV Pro by putting it through my standard battery of load-time tests and comparing those to the baseline measurements of my 2018 Roku Ultra. I started off by timing how long it took to load to the user-select screen for Netflix. The Shield TV averaged 1.15 seconds after a few runs, compared with 3.05 seconds via my Roku Ultra. I then timed how long it took on average to launch a video program via Netflix. The Shield TV Pro averaged 2.28, as compared with 3.20 seconds on average via my Roku Ultra.
I then loaded up the Test Patterns program on Netflix and navigated to the episode "YCBrCr 10-bit Linearity Chart: 3840×2160, 23.976fps." I use this pattern in particular because it has a bitrate meter at the top of the screen, and it's handy for gauging how quickly a device ramps up to full quality. With my Roku Ultra, the pattern starts at full resolution and bit depth, but runs at 12mbps for an average of 4.15 seconds before ramping up to full 16mbps. (My smart TV, by comparison, takes an average of 47.18 to switch from HD to UHD resolution, and doesn't reach full 16 mbps bandwidth until an average of 142.54 seconds into the stream.)
The Nvidia Shield TV, like my Roku, started the stream at UHD resolution with 10-bit color immediately, but was a little harder to pin down in terms of time to reach bitrate. Sometimes it would start at 16mbps immediately. Like, literally immediately. Sometimes it would take as long as 12 seconds to ramp up from 12 to 16mbps. After a number of runs, I found it took an average of 9.52 seconds to reach 16mbps, but the individual numbers are all over the place.
I also tested the Nvidia Shield TV Pro on WiFi instead of wired Ethernet and was frankly blown away by how consistently good the experience was. Load times didn't suffer. Time to reach full bandwidth didn't change in any appreciable (or predictable) way. Simply put, I've never come across any media streamer that functions exactly as well on WiFi as it does via a wired network connection until now, so if you have a good wireless connection and can't find a way to get Ethernet to your gear, that's something to consider.
Next, I ran my HEVC decoding stress test: a few minutes of particularly hard-to-decode footage from the Our Planet episode titled "From Deserts to Grasslands." I mentioned in my review of the Apple TV 4K that it struggled to decode this sequence cleanly. I also mentioned in my primer on HEVC that my smart TV renders this sequence as an artifact-riddled mess. The Nvidia handled it perfectly -- every bit as smooth, crisp, and artifact-free as my Roku Ultra, but with the added benefit of Dolby Vision, which Roku lacks. (I should state for the record here that Dolby Vision doesn't make a significant difference on my TV, but if you have a lower-cost LCD TV, it could be a big benefit. At the other end of a spectrum, it's also a much bigger deal if you have a pricy OLED display thanks to the dynamic metadata. DV will also become much more important as the peak brightness capabilities of new TVs continues to climb. But for now, for those of us with higher-performance backlit LCD displays, it's simply a nice bonus feature in my opinion.)
Satisfied that the Shield TV Pro could decode even the most complex HEVC streams at least as well as the Roku Ultra (which is to say pretty much flawlessly), I next turned my attention to its A.I. Upscaling.
I started with I Lost My Body, a French animated film that's unfortunately available only in 1080p on Netlix. Turning the A.I. Upscaling on and off (there's a button on the remote that allows you to toggle between the two instantly), I noticed that the feature definitely added crispness and definition in a completely organic and natural way, enhancing lines and detailed textures without really affecting softer or more out-of-focus areas of the screen. A better test came when I brought up the demo mode (by holding that button instead of tapping it). Doing so brings up a split screen, the center line of which you can shift left and right using the d-pad on the remote. Using this feature, it's easier to see exactly what the A.I. Upscaling is doing, and how well it's doing it.
And while it wasn't exactly a mind-blowing effect with animation, switching over to some 1080p live action, in the form of the first episode of The Good Place on Netflix, was a lot more impressive. Being a relatively recent show, having just ended its run after four seasons, The Good Place looks pretty good for HD to begin with. But I found the A.I. Upscaling really added something to the experience. Again, using the demo feature, I could see that the upscaling was selective: background elements and out-of-focus areas of the screen were largely left untouched unless a bit of smoothing was needed. But things like the pen set on Michael's desk, the twinkle of light in Eleanor's eyes, and everyone's skin textures benefited from a really organic and significant boost in resolution, detail, and vibrancy.
What I found after hours of playing with the A.I. Upscaling is that the worse the source material, the more impressive the results. With Critical Role (my and my wife's favorite show) via Twitch, I was at times staggered. A few weeks back, the gang of nerdy-ass voice actors did a live show at Arie Crown Theater in Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center. While live-streamed Dungeons & Dragons gameplay isn't exactly the first place you turn for high-quality video, I still found that the A.I. Upscaling greatly enhanced our enjoyment of the episode. One of the players, Marisha Ray, was wearing a green sequined outfit for this episode, and with the A.I. Upscaling turned off, you could tell from context that her outfit was sequined, thanks to the random scattering of pinpoints of reflect light. With A.I. Upscaling on, though, we could literally pick out the individual sequins. The difference was night and day.
Fast-forward to the next week, and Marisha's outfit once again became a topic of interest for my wife and me, mostly because we were scratching our heads to read her T-shirt. It occurred to me at some point that I had turned the A.I. Upscaling off and left it off during some testing, so I picked up the remote to re-engage it. As soon as I did, the message on her shirt was immediately readable.
The same was true during a recent broadcast of TYT, in which I was struggling to read the spines of the books on John Iadarola's desk during their live coverage of Super Tuesday. With A.I. Upscaling off, the text on those books was just a blur. With it turned on, I could read every book title with no issue. What's more, I never noticed any sort of artificial or processed look to any of it.
If you could knock it for anything, it's that with 720p material containing a lot of aliasing, A.I. Upscaling isn't quite up to the task of completely removing that, but that's my only real caveat.
Overall, I have to say, my experience with the Shield TV Pro's A.I. Upscaling has left me super excited for the future of home video. I want this technology available on everything I feed my TV, from my Kaleidescape to my PS4. Of course, this level of A.I.-driven upscaling will become the norm in the future, especially as 8K TVs become more mainstream (because, let's face it: we won't have much if any native 8K video to watch on those displays, so advanced video processing is going to be critical).
But I don't want to wait for that. I'm ready for it now. Not to be too hyperbolic, but this A.I. Upscaling business is the sort of meaningful video innovation I assumed we had seen the last of for a while once HDR reached the mainstream. And it's a huge selling point for the Shield TV Pro, if you're willing to drop the extra coin.
I mentioned in the Hookup section that I relied on the Nvidia Shield TV Pro's remote control instead of my preferred Control4 remote, and there's a reason for that. There aren't any first-party IP drivers for Shield TV in the Control4 database, and any third-party drivers I could find necessitate the use of an IR-USB dongle add-on and generally cost a pretty penny. Of course, given that Shield TV is powered by Android TV, if anyone actually did manage to cobble together an IP driver for the device, it would require ADB, which introduces all manner of lag (see my review of the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K for more griping about this). Why on earth Google doesn't allow IP control of Android TV (aside from via its own proprietary mobile app) is beyond me, but it's infuriating.
Of course, that's of little concern to those of you who don't use advanced control systems in your home theaters, but as mentioned above, a far more universal concern is that the layout of the Shield TV Pro's remote is less than intuitive.
I also ran into issues at times where I simply couldn't exit the Netflix app without restarting the Shield TV Pro completely. It was an infrequent problem, mind you, but a frustrating one nonetheless.
Another bummer is the lack of support for VP9 Profile 2, which means no 4K HDR for YouTube. Again, that's a complaint that many of you may not care about, but I would estimate that a full 60 percent of my non-movie-watching video entertainment these days comes from YouTube, and there are a few channels in particular that I enjoy watching in 4K, including Baumgartner Restoration, so the lack thereof via the Shield TV is a disappointment. As good as the A.I. Upscaling is, it's not quite a replacement for actual native 4K. Close, but not quite.
Comparisons and Competition
I think it's no secret around these parts that Roku Ultra is the media streamer I recommend most frequently. For $99 retail (between $75 and $80 street, depending on which way the wind blows), I think Roku Ultra is the best bargain in the home theater world right now. Its decoding of HEVC is virtually flawless, I love the functionality (though not necessarily the look) of its UI, and there's very little I need it to do that it doesn't do, aside from Dolby Vision support and Atmos from Netflix. The Shield TV Pro covers those bases, has a much more attractive (though not quite as customizable) UI, and its video decoding is as good or better, even before you add the amazing A.I. Upscaling to the equation.
Throw PLEX Media Server functionality and SmartThings hub capabilities into the mix, and I think the Nvidia Shield TV Pro earns its $199 price tag, though whether you're willing to pay extra for those bonuses is up to you. It's an even harder decision if you have an advanced home automation and control system, since the Shield TV Pro doesn't support third-party IP control.
Apple TV 4K comes in at the same price as the Shield TV Pro, but it struggles to justify its price tag unless you're deeply imbedded in the Apple ecosystem. Its HEVC decoding is not up to the same level as that of Roku or Nvidia Shield TV, and its remote is as frustrating as it is gorgeous. Apple TV does have the best screensavers I've ever seen, though, and its integration of iOS features is nice for those of us with iPhones. But on the whole, it's hard to recommend.
If you're looking to save $50 and get most of the non-PLEX/non-SmartThings functionality of the Shield TV Pro, there's also the $149 Shield TV, which sports a smaller form factor, a little less RAM, a little less internal storage, and no USB ports. Still, it does support A.I. Upscaling, which I think is Nvidia's ace in the hole.
If it seems like I've gone a little looney over Nvidia's A.I. Upscaling capabilities, you'll have to forgive me, but this is a game-changer. Seriously. This feature gives us a tantalizing taste to the future of home video, and makes watching non-4K streaming video so much more of a pleasurable experience, especially if you're watching on a larger screen.
Even without that feature, the Shield TV Pro is one heck of a video streamer. Its HEVC decoding is top-notch, its Android TV UI is well-designed, its voice-search capabilities, while not quite as good as Apple TV's, are wonderful, and the only significant thing I can find to gripe about is that those of us with advanced control and automation systems either have to live with using the included remote or deal with a control setup so convoluted that it's almost not worth the effort.
• Visit the Nvidia website for more product information.
• Check out our Streaming Media Player category page to read similar reviews.
• Home Cinema's Streaming Future Is Now at HomeTheaterReview.com.