All images: Alex Walker (Kotaku)
Whenever a parent or older relative has asked me for recommendations about streaming for their TV, my answer has always been the same: buy a console.
When it comes to streaming services, it's been the go-to response for a good reason. Smart TV apps, by and large, are a pretty awful experience. Many TVs aren't updated with the full range of what's available. TV apps aren't updated as frequently as other services. And most services require a login of some kind, and the slower browsing experience you get on most consumer TVs is simply awful.
Consoles also have much more functionality. Sure, you're paying extra for the experience. But you'll also get apps in the future. You can play a wide library of games, for not much at all. There's lots of support for different video and audio formats. And as a box that sits in your lounge room, modern consoles don't look that bad. They're not even as a loud as a jet engine these days.
But that's not the only experience available.
The best part about the remote - and this is on the controller as well - is a slider in the middle, which lets you control the volume by running your finger up and down.
After being available overseas for literally years, Nvidia has officially brought its little streaming box to Australia. The Shield, which runs off Android TV and Tegra X1 SOC, is available in two formats locally: with just a remote for $249, or with a remote and gamepad for $329.
The RRP price puts the Shield in the same territory as an Xbox One S bundle these days, unless you just get the box with the remote. The box itself is minuscule, as is the remote, and the setup process is pretty straightforward if you're already in Google's ecosystem.
Nvidia Shield (4K HDR)
$249 (remote only), $329 (with controller)
9.8cm x 15.9cm x 2.5cm (250g)
Tegra X1 SOC, Maxwell 256-core, 3GB
16gb internal, expandable by external USB 3.0 drives
Gigabit ethernet, HDMI 2.0b, 2x USB 3.0 (Type A)
802.11ac 2.4GHz/5GHz, Bluetooth 4.1
AAC, AAC+, eAAC+, MP3, WAVE, AMR, OGG Vorbis, FLAC, PCM, WMA, WMA-Pro, WMA-Lossless, DD+/DTS (pass-through), Dolby Atmos (pass-through), Dolby TrueHD (pass-through), DTS-X, and DTS-HD (pass-through)
Once you turn the Shield on for the first time - it automatically wakes your TV up, which is super handy if you've lost the TV remote down the back of your bed or something - you'll be taken through the login process. If you're already in Google's ecosystem, you can fire up the Google app on your Android phone and tell Google Assistant "set up my device".
It'll then automatically detect the Shield, and then you just have to confirm that the code on the two devices is the same. Once that's sorted, and the Shield is connected to the same wireless network, the Shield will pull down your Google account - and all the necessary logins for Netflix, Stan, Spotify, Amazon Prime, Twitch, etc. - to the device.
From there, you just have to wait for the TV to patch - a couple of hundred MB for the console itself, as well as some updates for the controller and remote - and then you'll be greeted with a screen similar to this.
It's not much to look at, although you can customise it afterwards. More importantly, it's very easy to immediately see all the services that are available - a problem that the Xbox One suffers greatly from. You can also access everything from the one screen without having to wait for transitions, like you do on the PS4.
Even little things, like having to type in a code, or a password, or searching for with the remote, is quicker. But the best part: the UI is fast. It's light years ahead of the experience you get streaming something through a Smart TV app, and it's snappier than the experience on a PS4 and Xbox, too.
The whole system runs off Android, so finding and installing new apps is about as simple as finding a new app on your phone.
The biggest key to all of this, however, is the useful integration of Google Assistant.
We've got a 2018 LG TV at home, and plenty of phones with Google Assistant. It's never been a reliable enough experience for me to actively use, though. Google doesn't always pick up my voice that cleanly through the TV, it's not great with accents, and the time it takes to get me the information I want, I often could have found much faster with a manual search.
With the Shield, you've got a couple of integrations. If you use Google Assistant on the homepage - you can just say OK Google to bring it up, press the button on the remote/controller to activate it straight away, or manually click the microphone button at the top of the screen - you can ask a question or use your voice to essentially search Google.
The Shield will then bring up a semi-translucent bar with basic information. If it's a movie or TV show, you can then go straight into the episode/play page for that app, as can be seen with Billions below.
If the app itself has Google Assistant integration, you can even launch it direct with your voice from the main menu (like Chef's Table). There's a row for shows you've recently watched on the main screen, however.
Again, how fast it loads the app and episode will be dependent on your internet connection. But even on a regular ADSL2+ connection, loading up the initial Google Assistant info is quick. Using it in apps is an absolute lifesaver too - the last thing anyone wants to do is type with their remote to find an app in Stan, Netflix and so on. It's intuitive, which is a major benefit for those unfamiliar with controllers and navigating around a new UI.
You can have some fun with the tool, as well. Looking for movies by a particular actor? Search for it with your voice, and you'll be given a list of movies and shows they've appeared in. Need some backing music for your D&D night? Pop the mic button on the remote and you'll get a list of YouTube results that you can play immediately.
Being tied to the Android ecosystem has another major advantage: the world of Android is more universal than of, say, the apps on smart TVs. Or the console ecosystems. And as a result, Android apps tend to get updated a little more frequently. The tenplay experience, which I've ranted about before, is a great example of this. It was designed an age ago and hasn't been touched since, offering such a poor experience that it actively drives me away from shows that I genuinely want to watch. The Android TV version, on the other hand, doesn't. It's clean, offers the information I want at a glance, and isn't actively frustrating to use.
But it's worth noting that not everything is available locally. 7Plus and tenplay are available, but iView, SBS on Demand, and 9Now aren't at the time of writing. That's one area where other Android-based TV offerings have the advantage, and there isn't an ETA on when the other major networks will have their apps available on Shield.
With last night's finale, my annual ritual of food snobbery - watching Masterchef - has come to an end. And fortunately, that also means the end of another, substantially more painful annual ritual. having to use the tenplay app on Xbox.
But what if you're happy with the streaming offerings you've got. And when Gizmodo's Tegan and I got a pre-briefing from Nvidia on the Shield earlier this year, we asked Nvidia that question in a roundabout way. Most people already have the capacity to stream everything they need, so who exactly did they think was the target market for the Shield?
From Nvidia's perspective, it was people buying the second iteration of a streaming box for the living room. If you're the kind of person who invests in a NAS for the home, or sets up a Plex server, you're typically the kind of person that's more interested in the added support the Shield brings.
You could also plug an external drive via USB 3.0 into the back of the Shield, and then run a Plex server off the shield directly. Doing that does have some limitations - you'll only get full performance transcoding H264/H265/MPEG 2, for instance.
This is partly why I mentioned parents and older relatives at the top of the article, because they're the group that's most likely to not already have a dedicated streaming device. More often than not, it's a hand-me-down Xbox 360 or something else doing the job.
For that target market, or someone looking at a streaming device for another room in the house, games aren't a primary or even a secondary feature. They're a bonus.
Which brings me to the other part of the Shield.
The back of the Shield.
On the main menu you'll see the giant green Nvidia logo, indicating the Shield's other selling point: games. You've got two options, broadly speaking: the ability to play games on the console directly, if it's built for Android TV. Others, particularly newer ones that you'll see on the front page like PUBG and Assassin's Creed: Origins, are streamed through GeForce Now, Nvidia's cloud gaming service. You can also enable GameStream on your PC - through the GeForce Experience app - or login to your Steam account directly, and start streaming games that way.
Both PCs will need to be connected to the same network for this to work, and you'll want to use a wired connection for the best experience as well. The full list of what you can stream is here - it's a few hundred titles long, and includes most of the larger titles released on PC over the last couple of years that you'd want to play on a big screen TV.
A game everyone should own - Sleeping Dogs - although Wei and Jackie deserve better than this.
There's also a range of free games that come with the Shield. They don't download to the console, but if your connection is good enough you get the following: Tomb Raider, Batman: Arkham City, Sleeping Dogs, Bioshock: Remastered, Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, Saints Row 4, Just Cause 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Arkham Origins, two LEGO Harry Potter games, Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine. On top of that, you've still got the free-to-play offerings (once you've got an account with the respective launchers): Fortnite, Paladins, Realm Royale, Trials Frontier, Shadowgun Legends (basically Destiny on Android) and so on.
This is probably the most painful element of the Shield. Because you're logging into each of these services as if you were using uPlay, the Epic Launcher and so on as if it was a PC, you're effectively using the Shield remote or gamepad as a virtual keyboard. Add the slight delay from what is effectively a remote desktop, and the whole experience is about as joyful as a smart TV app from 2015.
The stream will automatically configure itself to your network environment, and if things aren't right it'll downgrade the stream to suit. It won't stop you from playing something with a crappy connection if you really want, which is handy if there's a one-off situation that spikes while you're trying to start a stream (like, say, your phone suddenly updating or Steam randomly downloading an update).
But even for the older games, you'll really want a wired connection. I fired up Sleeping Dogs above in the office over Wi-Fi; the bandwidth isn't a problem, but the latency over the Wi-Fi wasn't great (150ms at the time). And despite pulling more than 50Mbps into the Shield, the bitrate was pretty low (and the quality isn't improved by jumping into the in-game options and changing the resolution to 4K; the game defaulted to 720p, instead of the monitor's default resolution of 1080p that the Shield was using elsewhere).
I could live with the blur, but the latency is another kicker altogether. Apart from making twitch-based games unplayable, it also causes the video and audio to be slightly out of sync. It wasn't just the GeForce Now or GameStream games: here's a clip below from Minecraft: Story Mode - a native Android TV game that installed on the console - to demonstrate.
That said, when you're connected and the connection is relatively smooth, the experience is fine. It's still best for games where you have a bit more leniency - I wouldn't be playing CS:GO or Overwatch under this environment, but Assassin's Creed: Origins and even a casual shooter like Borderlands would be fine. It helps that the Shield controller is decent too: the buttons and D-pad aren't as well engineered as an Xbox One or PS4 controller, but it feels good in the hand, and the bumpers and triggers are light enough to the touch.
So it's best to keep the Shield in mind as a streaming device first and foremost, either as an alternative to a console or an upgrade from a low-rent NAS or Plex server. The gaming potential is a bonus, but I wouldn't think of this as a device to play games on that could also stream - the gaming experience is too reliant not only on having a wired connection, but having a good internet connection to boot.
That said, I did - anecdotally, anyway - get a more consistent streaming performance from the Shield over the last few weeks. In the living room, where the router and 4K HDR TV is located, the Shield loaded faster, buffered less and was generally smoother than the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X that we have residing there. It was crisp enough that I didn't have to plug the Shield in via ethernet (which the Xbox One X typically uses), although as mentioned before, that wasn't the case when using the Shield's gaming services.
In the bedroom, the situation is a little different. The Wi-Fi signal there isn't bad, but it's dulled enough that the Nintendo Switch can't get a good enough signal for smooth online gaming. Streams on a stock PS4 are typically OK - it buffers on occasion, but when you're lying in bed you tend not to mind too much.
The Shield, however, barely skipped a beat. There was the occasional issue where a prompt would flash that the internet had dropped out or it'd lost connection to the Wi-Fi, but it never interrupted an episode.
The screen's never occupied with anything that isn't genuinely helpful.
Let me be clear here: the Shield is not a perfect device, by any stretch of the imagination. Android TV is nicer than other interfaces, but it doesn't have everything. The console's ease of use is directly tied to how much you're prepared to live within Google's garden. If you're an Apple user through and through, the startup process of getting all your apps loaded and logged in is much rougher: you're still typing in a password with a remote or a controller, and that's still a crappy experience.
There's also weird quirks that sometimes can't be explained. I spent a whole day, for instance, just trying to get Animelab to work. I downloaded all the updates, fired it up, and the app just sat there, with the hexagonal icon spinning on the screen for an eternity. Frustrated, I went back to the home screen, uninstalled the app, and tried again. Same result.
This continued until I took the Shield into the office and downloaded Animelab there. For whatever reason, it worked just fine there. As an added test, I uninstalled the app a third time and redownloaded it again from my home ADSL2+ connection. This time, the app booted up without fault and I was able to login with no troubles - but I couldn't tell you what was wrong in the first place. Luckily, Amazon Prime still had Food Wars.
But when it's all up and going, the Shield is a great reminder of how accustomed humans can become to things. Take the streaming interface on the Xbox One and PS4. Both consoles could vastly optimise the experience, and you don't get an appreciation for how inefficient things are until you use something that's a bit snappier, a bit cleaner.
Is it improved enough that you should buy a Shield if you already own a PS4 or Xbox One? Probably not. But I know the next time my parents upgrade their TV, and they want something to watch Netflix and Stan in the living room, I won't be recommending them a console. Unless I'm giving them one for free, that is.