Nvidia Shield Android TV review: Linux conquers the living room

nvidia shield
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

This is the best media consumption and gaming device out there.

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Google has been trying to get into our living rooms for quite some time. As much as they dominate search, mobile phones, and now are making a serious dent in the PC space with Chrome OS, they have been virtually missing from our living rooms, losing out to the likes of Roku and Apple TV.

In 2010 the company launched Google TV, which turned out to be a massive disappointment and Google ultimately killed the platform. In 2013, Google released Chromecast, which revolutionized the market for digital media players. And in 2014 the company announced Android TV at its Google I/O event.

But up to this point, Android TV hasn't seen much success. That might be because Google, unlike Amazon or Apple, didn’t have a huge repository of content to play on its devices. Or it might be the hardware itself.

Google’s own Android TV offering, Nexus Player, didn't gain the same popularity as did its Nexus line of smartphones. Many other companies have also built Android TV devices, but none of them have made any waves in the market. This is going to change with Nvidia Shield Android TV. (From this point forward, I will call it NSAT due to its long name and I can’t just call it Shield as there is a Shield Tablet which may cause some confusion. So NSAT it is.)

Nvidia was kind enough to send me a review unit of NSAT and I have been playing with it for a while now.

First things first: The hardware

NSAT sits somewhere between game consoles like PS4 and Xbox and set-top boxes like Apple TV 4.

At the heart of NSAT beats Nvidia’s extremely powerful ARM based Tegra X1 processor. It’s an eight core 64 bit processor with four Cortex A57 big cores and four A53 small cores.

While ARM based Nvidia chips are energy and heat efficient, what gives NSAT an extra edge is that it’s not tied to a battery and doesn't have to worry about heat dissipation so it can run all burners at full throttle for best performance.

This octa core CPU gets a sidekick in Nvidia’s Maxwell based GPU that has 256 cores, which can easily drive 4K videos at 60FPS. And 3GB of RAM is more than enough for playing the most resource intensive games, even Crysis. Yes you heard it correct. You can also play Crysis on it. More about that later.

NSAT is an extremely open device, thanks to Android’s open ecosystem. The device comes with 16GB of storage but it also supports microSD cards so you can expand the storage. I have added a 64GB microSD card so now I have over 70 GB of storage for games and apps.

In addition to that, it has two USB 3.0 (type-A) ports and one micro USB 2.0 port so you can plug in peripherals and hard drives to it.

NSAT comes with HDMI 2.0, which means you can play 4K videos at up to 60 frames per seconds (FPS). It supports almost all video formats, including MPEG-2/ MPEG-4/ Xvid/ DivX/ WMV9/ ASF/ AVI/ MKV/ MOV/ M2TS/ MPEG-TS/ H.263/ H.264/ H.265/ VC-1/ VP8/ VP9. And if that’s not enough, you can always install VLC Player on it and play whatever you have in your box.

In terms of audio, it supports 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound through HDMI and you can play any media file including uncompressed FLAC for lossless quality. It has built-in dual band wireless plus 4.1 bluetooth, in addition to Gigabit Ethernet.

All of this is packed inside one of the best looking devices out there: both Apple TV and Nexus Players, with their squarish and circular design look boring compared to this futuristic box.

shield remote Swapnil Bhartiya

Apple TV 4 remote, Nvidia Shield remote and Amazon Fire TV Stick remote.

The remote: It’s a sleek good looking remote that’s on par with Apple TV remote and much more elegant than that of Amazon TV. The remote has four buttons: navigation click wheel, back, home and Google Now. It has touch sensitive volume controller. Nice. After using Apple TV for a while I now despise the trackpad, which is horrible for everything except rewinding and forwarding a video. So I have no complaints about the click wheel navigation.

shield controller Swapnil Bhartiya

Nvidia Shield Android TV game controller.

The game controller: It has everything that you would expect from a game controller given the fact that Nvidia is a powerful player in the gaming landscape. In addition to all those gaming buttons it also has a voice search button that integrates Google Now on the home screen. In addition, it also has a button that allows users to record videos of everything happening on the screen. And you can also take screenshots.

It also records the sound from the content playing on the device as well as from the microphone. And if you don’t want it to gather ambient noise from the microphone, you can turn it off. Doing the same on Apple TV is a painful ordeal.

So from the hardware perspective this device is a monster. Period.

The software side of the equation

Whenever I talk about the software side of the equation, whether it’s Apple TV, Pixel C or iPad Pro I get disappointed. But in case of NSAT, I am speechless. It exceeded my expectations.

NSAT brings to the table everything that I love about Android, namely its PC-like capabilities and open ecosystem. Currently my NSAT is running Android 5.1, but Nvidia has announced that they are bringing Android 6.0 (a.k.a. Marshmallow) to NSAT with even more control for users and customizations (that’s why I love Android over iOS).

I was able to pair my bluetooth keyboard and mouse with the NSAT so entering username and password for services like Netflix was a breeze, something that’s a painful ordeal on Apple TV 4.

You get complete access to the Google Play Store, so you can play all the movies, music and TV shows that you purchased from your account. In addition you also get access to Google Games so you can play all those games that are supported on the device.

You can install apps like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and Plex for optimal media consumption. On top of that you can sideload any app that’s available for Android. As I said before, you can also plug in any hard drive and play media stored on it. Shield comes with ES File Manager preinstalled and you can use it to browse plugged in storage devices.

That’s not all.

Since I also have a file server I was able to log into my file server using ES File manager and played media stored there. If you have a PC, simply create a shared folder and then you can easily access all media stored on your PC. Awesome.

The remote and controller have built in microphones that are integrated with Google Now, so you can easily search for content as well as ask questions like ‘What’s the walking dead?’ or 'What's the distance of Mars from Earth?' Again, pure Awesome.

What it can’t do, however, rewind or forward while playing some video. But that’s not a deal breaker as Google Now can do so much more than SIRI on Apple TV.

In a nutshell, it’s a great device to take care of your entertainment needs.

Gaming

Nvidia is a powerhouse when it comes to gaming and you can see it in NSAT. It’s a gaming powerhouse. There are four options for finding games: the Google Play Store, the Shield Game store, GeForce Now and GameStream.

Google Play Store has decent stock of games, but unfortunately very few support NSAT. So you can’t play games like Need For Speed. (Although you can always install emulators to play different games.)

Shield Game Store has a huge selection of games, including Half Life. But there seems to be some confusion; many games that are available for Nvidia Shield tablet won’t play on NSAT. That includes Need for Speed. But NSAT is a relatively new device so I am assuming these games will arrive to the platform sooner or later. You can search for the supported games on Nvidia Shield Games site, or just check out the Shield Store.

GeForce Now is a subscription game streaming service. You pay $8 per month and have access to high end games like Batman: Arkham Origins and many more.

And then there is Nvidia GameStream. I love it. If you have a supported Nvidia GPU on your PC then you can basically stream your PC game to the Shield and play it there. That includes powerful games like Crysis and Call of Duty. Virtually every PC game will stream on NSAT.

Yes, the default selection of games may not be as big as it is for PCs or PlayStation, but Nvidia is a known force in the gaming industry so I am assuming more and more games will come to the platform.

The good

Awesome design
Superfast CPU and GPU
Open app ecosystem
Game emulation
Ability to play PC games
4k Video
Support for peripherals and external storage devices
Google Now

The bad

Many Shield games won’t play
A majority of Android games are not supported
GeForce Now doesn’t have huge selection of games despite the $8 subscription

Conclusion

This is the best Android entertainment device you can buy. If you are not already locked into Apple's ecosystem it makes more sense to get NSAT than Apple TV. You'll get a much more intuitive interface, a much more open app ecosystem, and a much larger selection of games.

If you are heavily into streaming services, NSAT is a no brainer: you have Netflix, Hulu, Sling… the only player that’s missing is Amazon Prime. But Nvidia may yet be able to crack a deal with Amazon to bring their TV to the platform because unlike Chromecast and Apple TV, Amazon has not banned NSAT from its online store.

$200 is not a bad investment for a device that can do so much.

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