Set-top boxes have been a growing trend over the past few years, something I can’t really say I’ve understood. They appear to be game consoles for people who’d be embarrassed to own game consoles but want the same functionality. “Just buy a laptop or build an HTPC!” I cried. “They do more! They’re easier to use! They’re vastly more powerful!” But consumer electronics care not for logic, so box after box after box has come out, ranging from Amazon’s middling Fire TV to the upcoming redesigned Apple TV. Hell, one of the most high-profile crowdfunding disasters, the OUYA, was essentially an Android-based set-top box.
There’s clearly gold in them thar hills, at least until over-saturation kills this market as it has so many others. After striking out with the Shield Portable and Tablet, graphical chip superstar Nvidia has decided to go all-in with the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Box, an Android-based sorta-console that easily bests previous Shield attempts.
The guts of the SHIELD TV are impressive, particularly by Android set-top box standards. We’ve got 3GB RAM, 16 to 500GB of onboard storage (the only real difference between the base model and pricier PRO models) with the option of adding more via microSD or USB, and the piece de resistance: the mighty 64-bit Tegra X1 quad-core CPU. Well, “mighty” in the mobile device sense. This thing isn’t going to run Crysis at max settings, but it doesn’t have to – we’ll get into that later. It plugs into your screen of choice via HDMI and even includes a cable for doing just that.
So it’s not going to run Crysis at max settings, but what it is going to do is run pretty much anything else you can throw at it and do so in 4K if at all possible. Netflix? The SHIELD TV laughs at Netflix, running content at 4K like a boss. Content streaming? Fire up PLEX and have at it. Emulators? Sure, knock yourself out, up to and including GameCube and Wii games. Gaming? Oh yeah, this thing can do gaming. The Tegra X1 soundly kicks the butt of pretty much everything you can finagle the Shield TV into running. There are plenty of apps available via the Google Play store, though this will only offer Android TV apps by default and you’ll need to sideload anything else.
If you’re familiar with Android, it hardly needs to be mentioned that the Google Play store boasts all the high-end curated content of a dumpster in a seedy back alley – in other words, it’s still better than post-Greenlight-and-Early-Access Steam. How fortunate, then, that NVIDIA offers direct access to games and apps that work great with the SHIELD TV! You’ve got three main options for gaming if you don’t want to mess around with emulators: native SHIELD TV games, GeForce NOW (or GRID, as it was previously known) and GameStream.
The SHIELD TV, as mentioned, can do games. This is a game machine through and through. Titles running natively on the box look and sound great almost without fail, including games with higher-end graphics like The Talos Principle and Doom 3: BFG Edition. There aren’t really any killer apps here that you couldn’t get elsewhere – in fact, many of these games have been ported to every platform under the sun already. But the fact that the Shield TV takes the ball and runs with it every time is certainly nice. Games are added fairly regularly, with future updates promising fan favorites like Borderlands 2: The Pre-Sequel and Metal Gear Solid: Revengeance. All in all, it’s nice that these are available, but I get the feeling that anyone who wanted to play stuff like this already has a means of doing so.
Next, then, we’ve got GeForce NOW. This is a streaming service along the same lines as PlayStation Now. It works about as well, meaning it can’t really compare to playing on a console…but in this case, you’re running the games on a set-top box instead of a console that could do a much better job of running the games in question. With that in mind, it’s a pretty effective means of expanding the Shield TV’s library. Obtaining games via GeForce NOW can be a little odd; there’s a $8/month subscription option that includes access to a moderate library of older games, but you can also drop cash outright to buy access to higher-profile titles like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. This is, of course, a terrible idea if you have another way of playing these games, but at least a few of them offer digital download keys for Steam or Origin so it’s not a complete waste. If you don’t have a gaming PC or high-end console, this becomes a more tempting idea.
My favorite feature of the SHIELD TV and my vote for the console’s selling point is GameStream. If you’ve got a gaming PC with a medium-to-high-end NVIDIA GPU, you can use the free GeForce Experience software to set up GameStream, allowing you to stream games directly to the Shield TV. This hooks into certain GameStream-specific games, but you can also hook it into Steam and use that client’s Add Non-Steam game functionality to run pretty much anything you want. Under ideal conditions, this is a delightful experience on par with running your PC directly to your television display; under less-than-ideal conditions, however, it’s kind of awful.
You’ll absolutely need an Ethernet connection for both the gaming PC and SHIELD TV, for instance, with Wi-Fi drastically reducing the quality of the stream, and if you don’t have a nice TV then it’s easier to just run the games on the PC in the first place. If the stars align, though, this works incredibly well and almost sells the SHIELD TV by itself. It’s almost completely free of input lag and your game’s graphics will come through in glorious fidelity.
Of course, if you’re willing to emulate then all of this goes out the window. The horsepower provided by the SHIELD TV’s CPU makes it one of the best emulation boxes I’ve used. It runs everything, it runs it all well, and the emulators you’ll need are all readily available. A little time spent setting up the multi-console RetroArch emulator will result in hours of entertainment. If you aren’t going to buy the SHIELD TV for GameStream, this would be your second reason.
You’ll manage all of this via a game controller that comes with the SHIELD TV. This isn’t the best controller I’ve ever used, but it’s serviceable; it’s probably on par with the Xbox 360’s original controller, with decent analog sticks and buttons and a terrible d-pad that might as well not be there at all. Some USB gamepads apparently work with the device, though I haven’t messed around with this myself. The SHIELD TV’s controller is rechargeable via microUSB and will last for a hours on a full charge, which is a plus, and for general navigation it works well enough. It also works for games, though I’ve run into GameStream games here and there that aren’t happy with it.
All in all, like any set-top box the SHIELD TV’s worth is going to vary based on what you’re planning on doing with it and what you’ve already got to work with. As a solo console, so to speak, it does a decent job but it’s not going to beat out a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. As a media center device for PLEX or Netflix it’s outstanding, but it’s also $200 in a market where boxes that can do the same thing might cost half as much. As a big, fancy emulator box, it’s probably the best you can buy, but you might not need this kind of horsepower. Finally, as a PC game streaming device, it’s easily the best and cheapest on the market assuming you can get it into a working setup, though this may change once Valve’s Steam Link launches in November.
Really, the NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Box is most worthwhile if you’re going to be using it for a variety of these purposes. If you’ve already got a set-top box in your home, the SHIELD TV might not be for you. If you’re looking to get into that particular game, however, then it’s a serious contender that does plenty and keep on ticking; you just might need to dig a bit to find the apps and features that best suit what you want it to do. The use you get out of this thing will vary based on your need, but if that need is there, the SHIELD TV will suit you nicely.