Nvidia Shield TV (second generation) review: Still the best media streamer for geeks

The Nvidia Shield TV still doesn't appeal to everyone, and that's okay.

shieldtvhero
Jared Newman
At a Glance

The Nvidia Shield TV, a $180 Android-based streaming box with lots of processing power, appeals to a scattershot of audiences. It’s the ideal streamer for media hoarders who want to build a cheap a Plex server, for cord-cutters who want to roll their own over-the-air DVR, for Kodi enthusiasts (with that media center’s morally dubious third-party plug-ins), for a certain breed of living-room gamers, and for people who just want as much computing power as they can get.

At the same time, cheaper 4K streaming devices such as Amazon’s Fire TV Stick 4K and Roku’s Streaming Stick+ have gotten better at the basics, providing adequate performance while rivaling or surpassing the Shield TV’s HDR support at a fraction of its cost.

In other words, the Nvidia Shield TV isn’t for everyone, but it’s an unbeatable streaming device for nerds with money to spend on their nerdy hobbies. I’m glad something like that exists, even if the overall value isn’t quite what it used to be.

Update, January 28, 2019: This review was updated in its entirety to reflect the Nvidia Shield TV’s place in the current media-streaming landscape. While we still consider it to be the best media streamer for hardcore cord-cutters, the competition has made considerable advancements, especially in the area of HDR support. As a result, our bottom-line opinion of the Nvidia Shield TV has dropped from 4 stars to 3.5. We have preserved our original review here.

The more things change

The latest Nvidia Shield TV hardware isn’t much different than the first-generation version from 2015. It has the same Tegra X1 processor, 16GB of storage, 3GB of RAM, dual USB 3.0 ports, gigabit ethernet, and an 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter. The main difference is a smaller enclosure that no longer includes a MicroSD card slot.

Those similarities aren’t a bad thing. The Shield TV’s X1 processor still tears through apps that can induce long load times and choppiness on other devices—it offers one of the speediest PlayStation Vue experience you’ll find outside of Sony’s own PS4 console, for instance—and it never skips a beat when you’re switching between apps. While cheap 4K streaming devices have gotten faster over the last two years, the Shield TV still holds a noticeable edge.

When we first reviewed the second-generation Shield two years ago, it came in two configurations: A $200 bundle included the Shield, a traditional remote control, and a game controller, while the $300 Shield Pro had a built-in 500 GB hybrid drive instead of 16 GB of flash storage. (It also maintained the original Shield’s larger figure and MicroSD slot.)

Nvidia has since discontinued the Shield Pro and added a remote-only bundle for $180. You can also bundle the Shield with a SmartThings Link dongle for $220, letting you connect light bulbs, motion sensors, and other smart home devices to your network over the ZigBee or Z-Wave protocols. You can then control those devices via a phone, smart speaker, or the Shield’s voice remote. (Check out our full SmartThings Link review for more details.)

With the additional configurations, the Nvidia Shield TV aspires to be a more mainstream product, yet there are still some issues that hold it back on the hardware front.

The biggest problem is the headache-inducing remote control. With practically every other streaming device, hitting left or right on the remote gives you an instant 10- or 15-second skip so you can easily move forward or back in a video. On the Shield, the behavior is inconsistent from one app to the next, with some apps offering a quick skip, some scrubbing more continuously through the the video, and others still forcing you into a menu of on-screen playback control buttons.

Even worse, the remote uses a touch-sensitive strip to control volume instead of discrete buttons. Sliding your finger along the strip works fine with the Shield’s built-in volume adjuster, but it becomes far less reliable if you set up the Shield to control your TV’s volume via the remote’s infrared emitter. Precise volume adjustments become nearly impossible, especially if you’re not sitting squarely in front of the TV from less than 10 feet away.

shieldtvremote Jared Newman / TechHive

With IR control enabled, the Shield remote’s volume strip (the glossy surface running along the bottom half) doesn’t always work as expected.

As a device that launched in early 2017, the Shield is also behind the times on HDR video support. It’ll handle basic HDR10 without issue, but it doesn’t support Dolby Vision or HDR10+, which can adjust color output on a scene-by-scene basis. The $180 Apple TV supports the former, and Amazon’s $50 Fire TV Stick 4K supports both.

As for audio, the Nvidia Shield does offer pass-through over HDMI for Dolby Atmos, Dolby TrueHD, DD+/DTS, DTS-X, and DTS-HD. It does not, however, offer Atmos support in Netflix, and the box itself has no optical audio output. If you need a Toslink connection, you’ll have to use an HDMI splitter.

Example-setting software

shieldhome Jared Newman / TechHive

The Nvidia Shield TV, running Android 8.0.

The Nvidia Shield TV is one of a handful of streaming boxes that run Google’s Android TV software. The idea behind Android TV is to combine all the phone control features of a Chromecast with a proper on-screen menu system and a physical remote, while also leaning on Google Assistant for powerful voice controls. To date, the Nvidia Shield TV is the only device that’s done this idea justice.

Over the last four years, Nvidia has routinely delivered software updates for both the 2015 and 2017 versions of the Shield, adding features like Google Assistant support, Alexa voice control, and an overhauled interface based on Android 8.0 Oreo. It has none of the Chromecast issues I’ve experienced on other Android TV devices, and it’s navigated the Amazon-Google rivalry to support both Amazon Prime Video and Amazon Music. The Shield TV even has a native YouTube Kids app, which isn’t available on Roku, Fire TV, or Apple TV.

shieldtvvoice Jared Newman / TechHive

Voice control is a strong suit for Android TV.

Google Assistant also remains a standout feature on Shield, with a voice remote that lets you search YouTube, launch videos from supported apps (Netflix among them), conduct detailed genre searches (try “show me 70s sci-fi movies”), control smart home devices, or just ask for general information. You can also link a Google Home speaker to launch videos or control playback with hands-free voice commands. (Nvidia’s game controller can optionally support hands-free commands as well, though at a cost to the controller’s battery life.)

But despite Nvidia’s admirable commitment, Android TV remains in a state of limbo. Certain apps, such as DirecTV Now and Nick Jr., are absent from the platform, while others, like Hulu, support it only halfheartedly. Concepts like App Channels and the Play Next bar, which are supposed to help you find things to watch directly from the Android TV home screen, just aren’t getting enough attention from app makers to feel indispensable. There’s also a disconnect between Android TV’s on-screen apps and Chromecast: If you launch something via one method, you can’t control it via the other.

androidtvhulu Jared Newman / TechHive

Hulu’s home screen recommendations on Android TV are more than a year old.

Google says it’s now rethinking many of Android TV’s menu systems and features, with the goal of making it more consumer-friendly, but until we’ve seen those changes and have an idea of when they’ll arrive, it’s hard to recommend Shield as a streaming box for mainstream users.

Nerdier endeavors

Now that we’ve scared away most prospective buyers, let’s talk about why the Nvidia Shield TV is still worth considering for everyone else.

For one thing, it’s the only streaming box that can double as a Plex media server for either local USB storage or mounted network hard drives. That means you can stream your personal media library to other devices at home or on the road without a much pricier desktop PC or NAS box. With a USB TV tuner or HDHomeRun networked tuner, Plex can even become a whole-home DVR for cord cutters.

shieldplex Jared Newman / TechHive

The Nvidia Shield TV lets you run a Plex server for cheap.

Plex isn’t the only way to watch and record over-the-air channels on Shield. Channels DVR is another whole-home option, with higher subscription costs but slicker software. And if you’d rather build something cheaper, you can plug in a USB tuner (such as the Hauppauge WinTV-DualHD) and use it with either Android TV’s free Live Channels app or the subscription-based Tablo Engine service. No other streaming box lets you build your own DVR like this.

On top of all that, Shield supports the popular media center software Kodi without the arcane sideloading methods that Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV require, and the $40 SmartThings Link is an inexpensive way to connect all kinds of smart home devices. The Shield isn’t too shabby as a game console, either, letting you stream games from either a networked PC or Nvidia’s GeForce Now cloud service, and offering a respectable collection of downloadable indie titles.

smartthingslinkwshield Jared Newman / TechHive

The $40 SmartThings Link dongle lets you control ZigBee or Z-Wave smart home devices from a phone, smart speaker, or the Shield TV remote.

This kind of power has its downsides. I’ve noticed, for instance, that SmartThings Link struggles to connect with my home’s lighting when an external hard drive is plugged in at the same time, and getting the Shield to recognize my networked hard drive required a lot of forum sleuthing and digging into Windows settings. I've also found that streaming from Plex is much more reliable when hardware transcoding is disabled through Plex's web settings menu.

Still, when everything’s up and running properly—with the Shield running my home’s lighting, recording over-the-air channels, responding to voice commands, and smoothly streaming games from my desktop PC—there’s really nothing else like it. The Shield’s greatest strength is that it doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator.

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At a Glance
  • Nvidia’s excessively powerful streaming box won’t appeal to everyone, and that’s okay.

    Pros

    • Speed is unrivaled by most streaming boxes
    • Possibilities abound with Plex Media Server, USB tuners, Kodi, and SmartThings Link
    • Capable voice search with Google Assistant

    Cons

    • Headache-inducing remote control
    • No Dolby Vision or HDR10+ support
    • Android TV is still behind on TV guide features and app support
  
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