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The proposition is simple: pack some of today’s best performing mobile hardware into a sandwich shaped box – for streaming video and media, and playing mobile games. For that you need to pay $200-300.
Aesthetics, Peripherals, and Hardware
The Shield TV is over-designed. It takes two mundane hardware concepts – in this case, the HTPC (what’s an HTPC?) and mini-PC – and crams as much firepower as possible into a 130 x 210mm box. The end result is a sandwich-sized computer capable of Wi-Fi Direct, gaming, media streaming, and 4K video. You can’t play all of the latest PC games – it only plays mobile games and a handful of PC ports. However, using GeForce Now, gamers can stream games onto their gaming machine.
- NVIDIA Tegra X1 octacore CPU + 256-core Maxwell GPU.
- 16GB flash memory storage ($200) or a 500GB SSHD ($300).
- Unknown amount of RAM, possibly 3GB of LPDDR3.
- microSD card slot.
- Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11ac, and dual band wireless.
- 4K playback at 60 FPS; 1080p playback at 120 FPS.
- Remote control.
- Wireless gamepad.
- Buyer’s remorse.
The octa-core (what’s an octa-core CPU?) configuration used inside of the Shield TV isn’t designed for set-top-boxes. It uses what’s called a big.LITTLE configuration, meaning it pairs four high-performance processing cores alongside four high-efficiency cores. In theory, the combination of high and low-performance cores should allow for improved battery performance and reduced heat production – perfect for a tablet or smartphone. It’s a complete mismatch for a continuously plugged-in computer. NVIDIA’s decision to use a mobile processor on a sedentary device is more than puzzling.
In terms of included peripherals, the NVIDIA Shield TV offers a single gamepad. The gamepad functions as a remote control for the user interface, as well as a control for games. For lack of a better description, the controller feels like a clone of the Xbox Controller – it’s built like a tank and offers a few gimmicks, including a volume slider, and touch sensitive system buttons. But make no mistake – NVIDIA for some reason failed to include an accelerometer inside of the Shield Controller, which makes playing a lot of mobile games a great deal more difficult.
Two optional peripherals include a vertical stand ($30) and a media center remote control ($50). Both options come at an uncomfortable price-point. The HTPC remote – in particular – seems to fall short in functionality. It includes just a few simple buttons, the most interesting being its ability to trigger Google Now’s voice recognition with just the touch of a button. Its worst feature is its lack of an accelerometer, which would have allowed it to function as an Air Mouse. (Seven kinds of HTPC remotes.) Overall, the Shield TV’s users shouldn’t even bother buying one, as a fair number of Android Compatible devices exist that do offer motion controls, at a much cheaper-price point.
Software and Configuration
The high point of the Shield TV is that it offers a highly polished, slick-as-ice, user interface and software design. The operating system underneath all the shine is Android Marshmallow. But NVIDIA chose to apply a beautiful and highly functional skin. It feels like a combination between a tablet interface and a media center. Content divides between media, apps, and games.
Like any Android device, users just enter their account information (if any), install their favorite apps via the Google Play Store, and get started consuming media. The majority of the Shield TV revolves around Google’s ecosystem of applications, which now includes a library of video, games, music, and podcasts. In my experience, Google’s flurry of updates to its media apps puts it on-par with that of Amazon or Apple. Combined with the microphone inside of the Shield TV, accessing your files through voice recognition feels simple, intuitive and — quite frankly — amazing. But anyone with an Android device can get the exact same feature suite, without paying for a separate set-top-box. In fact, any mainstream tablet can wirelessly output its audio and video to a television.
Making Use of the NVIDIA Shield TV
First and foremost, the Shield TV’s design should appeal to those looking to stream media at 4K resolutions. I don’t own any 4K content and my television is 720P. In short, NVIDIA did not design the Shield TV for users like me. But even so, there’s a lot users can do with the Shield. NVIDIA packages its own games application inside of the Shield. It includes a lot of titles that have been optimized for performance with NVIDIA’s hardware. So, unlike a lot of third party tablets, the graphics and performance of content played on the Shield are high-end and without bugs. I played a few titles, including Asphalt 8 and War Thunder — both ran without problems, although the lack of accelerometer support for the Shield Controller takes a lot away from the gaming experience. Unlike on a tablet, users can’t steer by twisting the controller.
Overall, I much prefer gaming on a tablet, console, or PC. The Shield feels like a relatively poor option as a gaming platform.
The most interesting ability of the Shield TV is its ability to stream content from any newer Android device, without configurating. Users simply turn the Shield TV on and they can immediately begin streaming media content, if their smartphone or tablet app includes Wi-Fi Direct compatibility (compatibility is indicated by the Wi-Fi Direct icon, as pictured below).
The NVDIA Shield TV’s Tragic, Deal-Breaking Problems
One irritating feature you might notice after configuring the Shield TV is that all your network devices, including computers and smartphones, will perform slightly slower than before. My download and upload speeds dropped off by around 20% – for every single device in my apartment. Here’s a screenshot of my network performance before plugging in the Shield:
My home network download speeds, prior to turning on the NVIDIA Shield, are around 7.5 Mbps downstream and 1.5 upstream. After plugging in the Shield, my download speeds fall to under 6 Mbps.
A sudden drop off in Wi-Fi performance usually means Wi-Fi congestion. (Why Wi-Fi performance drops off.) When two or more devices broadcast over the exact same frequency (or frequency channel), the transmission becomes garbled, reducing network performance. It’s like trying to understand a conversation in a crowded room – you might hear a few words, but noise pollution greatly slows down the conservation.
After checking around with Wi-Fi Analyzer app (how to fix Wi-Fi slowdown), it appears that the Shield TV automatically begins broadcasting its own Wi-Fi Direct signal on my home network, adjusting its channel to whatever my router is broadcasting on. Wi-Fi Direct allows the direct transmission between an Android or Intel device of media. But normally Wi-Fi Direct must be enabled and switched on by the user. NVIDIA seems to believe that users prefer the feature being turned on by default. Perhaps they do, but there is no obvious means of switching off Wi-Fi Direct, without also turning off Wi-Fi. And without Wi-Fi turned on, the Shield cannot stream media.
One might reason that they could just turn the Shield TV off to eliminate Wi-Fi Direct. But pressing the Shield TV’s power button does not turn off or suspend the device. In fact, the fan often keeps spinning and the device feels warm to the touch even while its power light is switched off. That means it’s not really suspended and it’s still fully functional. Turning the Shield off requires navigating a maze of menus and sub-menus. Ultimately, the Shield TV is one of those devices that will drive up your power bill while at the same time slowing your entire network down.
Should You Buy an NVIDIA Shield TV?
The NVIDIA Shield TV remains one of the most curious oddities ever made. It packs in the state-of-the-art in hardware in order to fulfill the modest needs of a media center. It features an elegant and rich user interface which is squandered on a device that you’ll rarely want to use because of its impact on network performance. Overall, it’s an unwieldy equilibrium between over-design and simply poor design.
Absolutely do not buy. It’s a great device for sucker-punching your Wi-Fi performance in the face, running up your power bill, and generally failing as a gaming platform.