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    NVIDIA Shield TV review: the best Android set-top box you can buy

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    Never let it be said that Google gives up on ideas that don't pan out the first time. Remember when it tried invading our living rooms with clunky, disappointing set-top boxes? And then when that very same software went on to find a life right on smart TVs? Think of all that as a prelude to where we are today -- Google TV has given way to Android TV, and now NVIDIA's cooked up an interesting spin on a formula that's nearly a year old. The Shield TV's gaming cred and sleek design make it far and away the most interesting Android TV setup we've seen to date, but does that mean it's worth your hard-earned cash? The short answer is "yes," but the Shield only shines brightest if you've got the right sort of hardware already in place.

    Gallery: NVIDIA Shield Android TV review | 19 Photos

    Hardware

    I dug into the Shield's design in my preview, and the broad strokes haven't changed. It's a handsome, paperback-sized piece of plastic with some angular edges etched into the side and an ever-present green status light that quietly peers at you while you play. Around the back, you'll find a full suite of ports -- aside from the power jack, there's a Gigabit Ethernet port, an HDMI 2.0 that supports HDCP 2.2 for 4K video at up to 60 fps, a pair of full-sized USB 3.0 ports and micro-USB and microSD slots. NVIDIA's $300 Pro-level Shield comes with 500GB of internal storage. It also includes a copy of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, but I've been testing the $200 base box, which only comes with 16GB of free space. If you're the type who likes to hoard media instead of just streaming it, that memory expansion slot will be a lifesaver.

    The Shield is a surprisingly pretty little thing, but its real beauty lies in how easily it squeezes into even the tightest home theater setups. You can even prop it up vertically if real estate is at a serious premium, although the stand that helps stabilize it will cost you extra. (This is something of a recurring theme for the Shield, as you'll see.) Inside the Shield thrums NVIDIA's Tegra X1 chipset, which pairs an octet of 64-bit processor cores propped up by a 256-core Maxwell GPU architecture. I half-expected this thing to wind up in a car before I saw it in a dedicated TV add-on, but its media chops are undeniable; it's about twice as fast as the company's last-gen K1 chipset, and that was already plenty powerful for gaming when we took it for a spin in the Shield tablet.

    Speaking of, I'd bet most people who'd even consider taking the plunge on this thing would do it because of NVIDIA's gaming cred, so the pack-in controller is one thing NVIDIA absolutely had to nail. Its answer: to toss one of those Shield Tablet controllers into a box and call it a day. That'd be a much bigger deal if the thing sucked, but that's thankfully not the case here. Like most other Bluetooth gaming controllers, NVIDIA's takes plenty of cues from the Xbox 360/One design, save for a few twists. A quartet of touch-sensitive buttons lives front and center and they serve as your typical Android navigation keys. There's a handy volume rocker down along the bottom edge of the controller, too, although it's a bit gummy and sometimes needs cajoling before your sound levels get to be just right.

    All the attention NVIDIA didn't lavish on the controller was instead focused on the remote, a dark slab of brushed metal that feels really sturdy despite how light it is. It too has a microphone and all the buttons are clicky and responsive -- full marks. And, as if to drive a stake into the hearts of the Apple TV and Nexus Player remotes, a touch-sensitive strip runs right down the center of NVIDIA's remote so you can adjust system volume on the fly. The whole thing feels much more intuitive than the controller, too, which is probably why it'll cost you an additional $50.

    Software

    The silicon inside the Shield is pretty impressive, but any set-top box will only be as good as the software it's working with. Alas, Android TV hasn't grown much since it launched last year, which is to say it's still far from perfect. Your media recommendations, apps, settings and games all live in their own horizontally scrolling rows, and my beef really lives in that top row where Google tries to figure out what I want to see or hear right now.

    While I was writing this review, Google offered me access to Pretty Little Liars on the Play Store and Hulu Plus (never watched it, despite my sister's best efforts); two separate YouTube videos about pets; a Travis McCoy music video (I only know him from this ages ago); an episode of The Bachelorette (unggghhhh); and a link to download Telltale Games' six-part Game of Thrones series. Only that last one is in any way relevant to my interests, and I've never searched for GoT videos on the Shield itself. Android TV's predictive abilities are sadly underwhelming, especially considering Google is already sitting on data about what I like so it can serve me highly targeted ads on every website I visit.

    Gallery: NVIDIA Shield Android TV software review | 28 Photos

    It's great, then, that searching for things with your voice works so damned well. Ask for Matt Smith and you'll get a neat info card and links to videos he's been in, be they on YouTube, Hulu or the Play Store (sorry, Netflix). Google does pretty well with meatier requests, too -- asking for Oscar winners from a given year works like a charm, though it didn't handle queries like "critically acclaimed sci-fi movies" with quite as much grace. The only two proper film results were 9 and 12 Monkeys, and not many people were kind about the former.

    Still, I spent one particularly boring evening saying random names and titles into the remote's mic and just... sifting through all the YouTube and Hulu results that came back. In fact, the only times voice search didn't understand exactly what I was saying was when the Shield -- for some obnoxious reason -- kept insisting it didn't have a network connection. Never mind the fact that everything connected to the same router was just peachy: The Shield occasionally did the networking equivalent of sticking its fingers in its ears and going, "Lalalalala, I can't hear you!" Thankfully, the Shield has gotten a handful of updates since I first set it up and that's not an issue anymore. If you're specific with your requests, though -- and I think most of us are -- voice search is mostly a treat.

    That just leaves us with all the stuff NVIDIA layered on top of Android TV, not that there's a whole lot of it. The biggest features live in a Shield Hub row of their very own, and from there you can dig into yet another app store dedicated solely to games. Convoluted? A bit. Holding down the home button brings up a quick settings panel that'll look familiar to Shield Tablet users -- from there you can start or stop your Twitch broadcast, or grab a screenshot for posterity. If you've got one of NVIDIA's GTX-series graphics cards, your Steam game collection doesn't just have to live on your PC. GameStream lets you funnel the horde of digital titles you picked up on sale straight to the Shield and your TV and -- surprise, surprise -- it works very nicely. There's also GRID, a subscription service that's simultaneously free and a great addition to the traditional Android TV formulas. We'll dig into those more a little later.

    Performance

    No one's going to consider buying the Shield solely for its chops as a media streamer, but it does an awfully fine job on that front. Now, I haven't bought myself a 4K television since the last time I wrote about the Shield, but I have spent some extended playtime with a friend who did and the results are mostly great. Between the strength of Google's voice search and the picture quality the Tegra X1 is capable of pushing out, the Shield's lean-back experience is easily one of the most fulfilling I've seen to date. The issue is, there's only so much 4K content out there right now, and Android TV as we know it plays nice with just some of it. Netflix is its most obvious partner -- you'll get a nifty Ultra HD badge on super hi-res content in the app, and the Shield box has been certified by the media company. YouTube has its share of 4K video, too, but other major players like Amazon are noticeably absent from the mix.

    Of course, you don't just have to stream all your videos. If you really wanted to, you could hook up a TV tuner like those made by SiliconDust... but there's a pretty good chance that route is just redundant thanks to the TV service you're already paying for. Still, the live TV interface is clean, functional and offers all the information you'd expect from the usual grid of show listings. The addition of full-on USB ports around the back make it pretty trivial to hook up an external hard drive or two if you horde old anime episodes like I do, and getting them up and running on the big screen thanks to apps like VLC and Kodi is easy. Fun fact: Android TV boxes also more or less double as Chromecasts, so if you go for a Shield, you can ditch the dongle. At times, this little addition becomes a straight-up lifesaver. The number of companies and content providers making apps for Android TV is on the upswing, but for players that haven't gotten around to it -- I'm looking specifically at you, Crunchyroll -- casting videos from their mobile apps to the big screen is a no-brainer.

    Now, let's move on to the meaty stuff; I suspect you're all a little more interested in how the Shield holds up as an honest-to-goodness gaming machine. Well, between Google's ecosystem of apps and NVIDIA's connected gaming services, the answer is "pretty damned well, as long as your expectations aren't too high." Let's make one thing perfectly clear: The Shield Android TV box won't replace your Xbox One or your PlayStation 4, at least not completely. But it's got moxie enough to try. It helps that the native stuff -- apps coded strictly for Android -- has gotten really damned good over the past few years. To wit: I spent my days with the Shield plowing through converted versions of Doom III and Croteam's The Talos Principle, both of which ran admirably on the Shield and my 47-inch TV. Yes, they're technically older games that were released elsewhere first, but they still provide a level of immersive, visually impressive fun that can be hard to come by on Android; I felt like I was playing Xbox 360 games most of the time. What's more, we're going to see a spate of biggish recycled titles (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and Crysis 3, to name a few) hit the Play Store within months, so be on the lookout.

    There are, of course, other ways to get your game on (assuming you've got a solid internet connection and a beefy router). First up is GameStream, which lets you stream games straight from the Steam collection on your PC to that big screen in your living room... as long as you've got the right hardware. If you want to GameStream at all, you'd better hope you built your last PC around one of NVIDIA's GTX-series graphics cards -- you're SOL otherwise. Naturally, my two-year-old gaming rig (cobbled together with an AMD graphics card at its core) didn't come close to meeting the requirements needed to get this going. The thing is, I'd bet that's the case for most of the folks in the market for a streaming box for their living rooms. Anyway, I got my hands on an obscenely powerful gaming rig to put GameStream through the wringer, and after some software-fueled drama -- it took a beta update to the GeForce Experience Windows app to finally make GameStream work -- everything was peachy. (NVIDIA says mine was an edge case and that the fix will go live for everyone shortly.)

    I put several hours into GTA V and Batman: Arkham Origins, both of which ran rocksteady without any additional setup or settings tweaks. Considering all the buzz though, I spent most of my time with the Shield poking around the world of Witcher 3, and that's where some issues started to pop up. Just like watching streaming videos, though, quality can vary pretty dramatically depending on how much oomph your network has. Steering Geralt around Witcher's insanely vast world usually looked pretty great (I'd still peg it at Xbox 360-quality), but those occasional flare-ups of network congestion meant picture quality could get smeared and blocky. Thankfully, none of the games I tested ever, ever ground to a halt because of network issues, so there's at least that.

    If that's the case, your only chance to stream games you don't own will come in the form of GRID, that streaming subscription service that won't cost you anything just yet. In exchange for buying into the Shield vision, you get access to a slate of big-name titles that run on remote cloud servers so your teensy monolith doesn't have to. My existing Apple AirPort only just met the requirements (sometimes the Shield would nag me about diminished quality as a result), but you know what? I'm still mostly floored by how well it works. Considering how strongly they hinge on timing and precise movements, I spent my time testing GRID by playing Street Fighter X Tekken and DIRT 3.

    Despite the occasional network slowdown -- a problem that more or less disappeared when I swapped in a high-end ASUS router -- both games were fluid and perfectly playable. Things could get smeared and blocky once in a while, but that never got in the way of laying the smackdown with my man Ken and his furious Hurricane Kicks. And honestly, I found it pretty hard to argue with the $0 price tag attached to the service right now, though that'll change soon too -- GRID will switch to paid service come July 2015. The thing you've got to remember with either of these remote gaming options is that they're just not as good as having the game running on a dedicated box in front of you. They're close -- startling close sometimes -- but not quite the same.

    The competition

    The Shield stands alone in its melding of Android TV's media catalog and NVIDIA's gaming credentials, but that only means it's got two broad categories of devices to compete against. When it comes to streaming boxes, there is of course the Android TV forerunner. The vanguard. The Nexus Player. We weren't too thrilled with the thing when we first reviewed it, but that's sort of the issue with reference devices: They're meant to act as equal parts landmark and jumping-off point for companies to keep in mind while they make their own stuff. Putting that aside, though, it's dirt-cheap at $79 and you could probably nab a bundle with it and an official ASUS gamepad for a little more than half of the base Shield's $200 asking price.

    If streaming is all you're after, you could feasibly go with the even cheaper Apple TV ($69), which already has access to key media services like HBO Now. Still, you'd be giving up the ability to play games of any kind, and the hunt-and-peck mechanism for punching out movie names is just miserable compared to Google's voice search. Oh, and Razer's Forge TV -- the only other game-centric Android TV box -- just hit Google's online store a few days ago. You'll be able to stream PC games to it eventually and it's a touch cheaper than the Shield at $150, but you can kiss all that 4K content goodbye.

    Interestingly, if you're tempted by the top-end $300 Shield with the 500GB of storage, you've got another decision to make: Do you get this, or an Xbox One (only $50 more)? Or a PS4 ($100 more)? The Shield will never beat them at sheer horsepower and graphical intensity, plus they can stream video all the live-long day too. Still, the Shield's PC game-streaming chops and Android's inherent openness just might help swing the battle in its favor for some really persnickety geeks.

    Wrap-up

    Let's be clear here. If you're going to buy an Android TV device right now -- and that's still a pretty big "if" -- make it this one. The Tegra X1's horsepower and fondness for 4K video make it the most future-proof of the Android TVs you'll find right now, and the extra layers of gamer friendliness NVIDIA added mean it's the most well-rounded of the bunch too.

    And the caveats? Well, as I write this, E3 is winding down and Microsoft and Sony just gave their fanbases a few more reasons to get hyped. The price difference between the Shield and actual, dedicated gaming consoles is virtually nil, and if you're a die-hard gamer with teams and reputations, you're not going to give up your Xbox or PS4. More disappointing than that is how much extra you'll have to pay to squeeze the most functionality out of the Shield. I don't have a 4K TV, but I'd really like one now. I won't have a fancy NVIDIA graphics card once I send this loaner laptop back, so there goes my days of streaming my Steam collection. I could always use GRID, but that'll cost extra in just weeks now, too. Oh, and I like how the Shield looks standing up -- guess I'll have to buy a stand, as well. The core of the Shield experience is powerful, valuable and worth your attention; whether you re-engineer your tech to take advantage of it is up to you.

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