Nvidia SHIELD And SHIELD PRO 2020 Review: Still The Best Streaming Device

Nvidia SHIELD And SHIELD PRO 2020 Review: Still The Best Streaming Device
The Nvidia SHIELD Pro out of the box. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku Australia)
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The original Nvidia SHIELD quickly became my favourite way of watching TV. It was slick, regularly updated, and would often load shows faster than the time it took my consoles to boot up. It was just a better user experience for watching TV, hands down.

But there was one problem. A major problem, actually: I kept losing the damn remote.

The original SHIELD shipped with a thin, lithe black remote. There was a ton to like. There was an IR volume control on the front, super long battery life, and the wireless range was great. But the remote was too damn small. When you’re sitting at bed, on the verge of falling asleep, it’s all too easy to send the remote flying behind the bed, lose it under a pillow, or just not even noticing that you’ve knocked it off to the side.

It’s one of those things you don’t think about in a traditional review. But it’s something that crops up when you actually live with a device.

So you can understand my pleasure when the new Nvidia SHIELD had a lost remote button.

It’s such a neat, simple option. You can activate it with your regular TV remote (if the SHIELD remote has gone missing). You can ping the remote with using the SHIELD mobile app. Calling out to Amazon Alexa works too, if there’s a paired Echo device nearby.

But the best part is you won’t even need to use it that often – because the new triangle-shaped remote is a lot harder to lose.

The Nvidia SHIELD shows a ton of games you could play – if GeForce Now was actually available in Australia. Generally, you’ll have to stream games from your PC, or download them from the Google Play store. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku Australia)

It seems like such a small, petty thing. But I wanted to call it out because it’s one of those things that absolutely affects what it’s like to use a device day in, day out. It shows that Nvidia had thought about what it could functionally improve with the SHIELD that would make a difference.

Of course, there are a lot more upgrades with the newer models. If you’re getting the cheapest SHIELD model, the whole unit comes in a circular tube that’s about half the weight of the 2017 SHIELD. There’s 8GB of storage on the base version, but you can expand it using a microSD card.

The more expensive Shield Pro has a bit more RAM and storage — 3GB/16GB vs 2GB/8GB — as well as two USB 3.0 ports on the back. There’s no fancy Shield controller this time, which is fine, because you can just pick up any PS4 or Xbox One controller and pair that within seconds.

On the playback side, support for 4K/60 HDR, 4K/60 and lower is included. There’s H.265/HEVC, VP8, VP9, H.264, MPEG1/2, MJPEG, MPEG4, H.263 and VC1/WMV9. AV1 isn’t included, which is a bit of a shame since YouTube has been rolling out AV1 videos for a while and Netflix is doing the same on Android. AV1, however, requires a lot more processing power than the older codecs. It’s also still quite new, and it’ll be a few years before AV1 becomes standardised.

You’ll mostly be playing older content with the Nvidia SHIELD. And if you’re playing especially old content – content that’s not even in 1080p – then the new SHIELD has an extra bonus.

Image: Nvidia SHIELD (Kotaku Australia)

In the menu settings you’ll see an “AI Upscaling” mode. It basically utilises a deep learning neural network that Nvidia trained offline on a list of popular TV shows and movies. When enabled, it lets you get slightly crisper images and details on low resolution content – provided you’re actually watching them in a low resolution.

I found in a lot of instances the AI upscaling couldn’t work, because the video was too high a quality to work with. Even firing up classic anime in Crunchyroll or Animelab, for instance, wouldn’t let me upscale anime from 1080p. However, dropping the resolution down to 480p on Cowboy Bebop offered a neat window into how AI upscaling can help.

The before/after view is controlled by the SHIELD remote, and you can run a side-by-side view in real-time if you want to mess with the different upscaling levels. Most of the time you’ll keep this disabled, though.

Beyond AI, the main benefits you’ll get are support for Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision HDR. The new remote also has dedicated buttons for fast forward/rewind/pause/play, and dedicated volume buttons instead of the IR slider. You’ll have to dig through the controls to setup IR control if you want the SHIELD to control your TV or soundbar volume, but that experience is pretty painless.

There’s a neat picture-in-picture experience now when you skip back to the main menu in the middle of a show. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku Australia)

For most people, the original Nvidia SHIELD is the best option. Available from $289 – it was $40 cheaper until COVID-19 happened – you get a small device that’s powered through HDMI. It’s clean, neat, and fits easily behind your TV cabinet or TV itself, even though the styling does remind me a bit of a dunny roll.

The larger SHIELD Pro, which retails for more than $420, is a similar rectangular shape to the previous model. You get two USB 3.0 ports on the back, Plex Media Server support, the ability to record gameplay (if you wanted to record some Android games), and access to “Advanced Android Games” like Tomb Raider, The Witness, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Half-Life 2, DOOM 3, Portal 2 and a few more.

Playing Android games with an Xbox One controller isn’t too bad. Image: Alex Walker (Kotaku Australia)

However, finding those “Advanced” Android games was a bit of a pain. There was no tab on the Nvidia Games page that immediately surfaced the games. Searching for The Witness didn’t return any results, so I ended up looking for Tomb Raider and then scrolling down until I saw “More by NVIDIA Lightspeed Studios”.

Unfortunately, while you are able to access those games, you still need to pay for them. Ultimate Chicken Horse was selling for $16.99, while the Tomb Raider reboot was selling for $19.99. It’s a bit of an annoyance that a game that’s listed as free for SHIELD users through GeForce Now isn’t actually free to play locally.

You do, of course, have access to whatever you can find on the Google Play store. There’s also the option of Gamestream, which streams games from your PC over the local network. You’ll want the SHIELD and your local PC to be connected via Ethernet if you’re even considering doing this.

For fun, however, I decided to fire up the SHIELD with The Witcher 3. The SHIELD was connected via 5G, while my PC was connected via ethernet. You can definitely see the lack of quality even when streaming at 1080p, but hey, it works.

For the most part, the SHIELD is a streaming device first and foremost. The GeForce Now element would be interesting if we had access to it in Australia, but alas, that’s not likely to happen any time soon.

But it’s the streaming experience where the SHIELD absolutely shines. The whole device wakes up in a matter of moments – if you don’t mind pressing buttons, you can generally get a program playing before your TV has woken up. The Android TV experience is clean and doesn’t shove ads in your face. It’s regularly updated, both on the developer side and Nvidia’s side, which corrects one of the biggest problems with console and smart TV apps (especially when new services roll out). You can even remap any of the remote’s buttons, which is a great piece of accessibility that Sony and Microsoft should seriously consider.

That’s especially helpful particularly if you have an older TV – or you’re trying to help someone with an older TV, like your parents, get access to new services like Kayo, Binge and so on.

The updated remote also has much better vocal recognition. The older SHIELD TV was fine if you were using the controller, but the remote – which most people will use – was more miss than hit. The newer SHIELD models ditched the controllers, so the microphone in the remote had to be good – and it is.

It makes searching for various things a hell of a lot easier. And if what you want is on a major service like Netflix, then using your voice from the main menu can work too. (You might find some of the apps load up faster than Google Assistant, however.)

Google Assistant works well, although Google’s AI still takes a bit of time to do the searching. GIF: Alex Walker (Kotaku Australia)

The rest of the featureset isn’t that different from the original SHIELD TV box, which was pretty overkill for what you got. The older model didn’t support Dolby Vision, but it wasn’t supported by Android back then.

You could even get creative with the SHIELD if you wanted to. Users have transformed the streaming box into an IoT device through SmartThings USB attachments. It’s also an excellent retro emulator, if you want to go through that hassle. That said, the older SHIELD TVs are still great emulator devices – if you can still find one.

The real kicker is that coronavirus has made the new SHIELD TVs just a little too expensive. At $249, there was a strong argument for the base SHIELD as an alternative streaming box. You could use the expandable microSD slot to install things like RetroArch (you’ll just have to tell RetroArch where to look).

At $289, it’s a bit of a harder sell. You’re basically looking at the cost of a cheap console at that point, although for families or non-gamers or anyone who is just sick to death of the PlayStation and Xbox UX, I’d still argue the SHIELD is a better option.

The UI is, honestly, what the consoles should have adopted in the first place. It’s snappy. It’s well designed and easy to navigate, particularly for those who are less tech literate. It works great as a Chromecast device. Videos and different codecs don’t sit there buffering, which is nice if you have a friend come over with a bunch of shitty movies on a USB device.

It just works. It’s a luxury product, for sure, but it’s a damn good one. I’d highly recommend waiting until Amazon Prime Day or Black Friday or some equivalent event for a solid sale, because $289 and over $400 is too much.

But when prices drop, and if you’re in the position to afford that bit of luxury, I genuinely can’t speak highly enough of how solid it is. When I turn on the TV and want to fall asleep to something dumb, or I just want to tune out with some anime, I don’t want to sit there fucking around with a terrible UX, waiting for the console to load, and navigating my way around an app that hasn’t been updated in the last three years.

You don’t get that with the Nvidia Shield. To quote Apple’s overused phrase, it just works. And it works in a way that other devices should work.

I love it a lot. It’s too expensive for what it is right now, the AI upscaling technology just didn’t prove useful for most of the content my partner and I like to watch. I know others might prefer the pain of Chromecast or annoyances of their existing hardware, and that’s totally fine. But if you want the best, cleanest experience for streaming a lot of media, you cannot go past the versatility and functionality of the SHIELD or SHIELD Pro. Just set some alerts so you can pick it up when it drops to a much better price.

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