Every Tuesday afternoon, I appear on the BBC Asian Network as the regular “tech expert”, and I try to answer questions that have been sent into the show from listeners. Almost every week I’m asked for advice when it comes to buying a new TV - and almost every time, I resort to what has become my catchphrase: Buy a dumb screen, and plug something smart into it.
I repeat this mantra because it’s the only sane way to buy a TV: Samsung, LG, Sony and everyone else have all tried to turn their TVs into computers there’s a massive problem: Technology moves really fast, and when you buy a new TV you want it to last a more than a couple of years. Whatever operating system is running on your TV now might work fine for the time being - but how can you be sure that all of the apps and services that you’re plugged into will continue to be supported in five, or even ten years time? Will Netflix’s software development department in 2027 really be concerned whether your specific 2017 Samsung model will be able to use its app?
The solution then, is like I say: Plug something smart into it. It’s much easier cheaper to upgrade a Chromecast or an Apple TV every couple of years than buy a new 60 inch screen.
The question then, is what smart thing to plug in? Unfortunately this isn’t an easy question to answer because of the dozens of modern services that we expect devices to support - no device can yet claim to be universal. But the Nvidia Shield TV - now on to its second iteration - is perhaps one of the boxes yet that are capable of doing everything.
So if you’re anything like me, you probably have tonnes of devices plugged into your TV. I'm running a Chromecast, a PS4, a Freeview HD box, and an old Mac - all in a vague attempt to get everything I want on the big screen. Could the shield be about to consolidate this down to one device?
The Hardware & Setup
The Shield TV 2 makes a number of improvements on the first iteration, which was released in May 2015. The new device is about 40% smaller - and Nvidia says there’s been a weight reduction in the order of 70-80%. But this hasn’t come without any trade-offs: The processor inside is still the same Tegra X1 chip (though the company still argues their streamer is still two or three times as powerful as their nearest competing streamer), and the new device lacks the SD card slot that was present on the previous version (but memory can still be expanded via USB). The first Shield also supported 4K - but the new box one-ups it by also adding HDR into the equation.
Unfortunately, I was unable to test just how good the new device was at pushing 4K or HDR, because I’ve been unable to accidentally break my existing telly, and therefore convince my girlfriend that we need a new one. But prior to getting my review unit I saw a demo of the HDR in action at an Nvidia product briefing - and the box seemed to handle it absolutely fine.
The new remote looks very similar to the old one - and contains directional buttons, an action button, back and a menu button. And volume can be controlled using a touchpad-style slider along the bottom. Unlike the first version, this is instead powered by a removable battery rather than Micro-USB, and it has also lost the headphone socket (though if you want to wirelessly beam audio to your headphones, you can use the game controller instead).
Like it’s predecessor, it runs Google’s own Android TV variant, but with a particular Nvidia-spin given to the gaming features.
Setting up was delightfully straightforward. All I had to do was visit a specific URL in a web browser on my phone and enter a code, and I was connected to my Google account - no need for a fiddly on-screen keyboard. And then it was time to explore.
This was my first experience of a Shield - and an Android TV device for that matter - but my first impression was that it felt slick. One of the most annoying things about many underpowered smart device was that they simply feel a bit janky. Smart TV menu systems are a pain, and Google’s el-cheapo Chromecast dongle, while a life-changing bargain - still feels weirdly fragile when you’re watching something on it.
Apps-wise, many of the major services are represented: Netflix, YouTube and Spotify are all on the platform. Even Amazon Instant Video is available: Nvidia has somehow managed to prise it from Amazon’s clutches, and is the first non-Amazon streamer to officially support it. The BBC iPlayer is also there - though curiously it has been developed in-house by Nvidia, rather than the BBC.
There are some notable “missing” apps though - such as Sky’s Now TV or the on-demand services from other broadcasters like ITV and Channel 4. But luckily Android TV has built in insurance in the form of Chromecast technology. If an app supports Chromecast (and many more do), you can fire your content straight to the TV. It’s a smart idea and integrates beautifully: If you just leave your device idle, the screensaver will kick in - and the screensaver is the same, identical cycles of landscape and artsy photos and paintings that users of Google’s cheaper dongle will be familiar with.
Without even trying, the Shield has passed the first basic test - it can stream from all of the services I use.
One of the thing’s that is brilliant about the Shield, and Android TV as a platform, is that it isn’t locked down like Apple TV. This means that if there’s an app you can’t download officially from the Play store, you can still “sideload” it on. And it runs normal Android apps too, not just TV-specific ones - opening up the possibilities of what you can get working on your telly. So if there’s an Android game you love, you could soon be playing it on the big telly in the house.
Though without even needing to sideload, the Shield is already well optimised for anyone who perhaps has a large archive of (definitely 100% legally obtained) video files, as it comes with Plex pre-installed, and Kodi is but a download from the Google Play store away.
I personally found this super useful, as I’ve got a Synology backup server running in my house. Using the DS Video app from the Play Store, I was able to login and within seconds fire up my own personal Netflix - so all of my drone videos and the like were readily available.
Another feature I really liked, but is applied inconsistently (for understandable reasons) is the built in Google Assistant. Hit the microphone button on the remote and just like on your phone, you’ll be able to ask the Shield a question - be it about content (“Show me films set in London”), or more general stuff like the weather. In the case of the latter, and in a possible advantage against the likes of the Amazon Echo, it will also display information “cards” in addition to speaking an answer.
The only downside is that searching content within apps depends on having that app’s support. So, for example, if you search for films set in London, it’ll only search the catalogues of the Google Play Store and Netflix - which enable that sort of searching. Amazon hasn’t opened up its Instant Video catalogue for indexing in this way. But fingers crossed this is something that will grow with the platform.
Now, let’s move on to a product category where Nvidia is hoping to set itself apart from all others: Gaming.
The Shield TV isn’t just for TV. In fact, it comes bundled with a games controller that basically looks and feels like an Xbox controller, rendered on a Sega Saturn, owing to its (rather stylish) angled curves. Playing games, it essentially feels just as solid as a “full size” console controller. My only complaint is that the circle-symboled back button is positioned rather precariously next to the play-symboled start button. Meaning that if you’re not careful, pausing your game could quit you out entirely. Be careful.
Down the middle of the controller is a similar touchpad-style volume control, and the Nvidia button in the centre can be used to activate the Google Assistant.
But what to play? What’s clear is that Nvidia isn’t just trying to take on the likes of Roku or the Amazon Fire Stick - it’s gunning for Sony and Microsoft too. Which is why it is pushing hard to make games available.
Essentially, games can come from three different sources. Nvidia doesn’t discriminate, listing them all with equal prominence on the main games menu and in the Nvidia games app, but they all work slightly differently.
First off, there’s normal Android games, running natively on the device. Many of those available feel fairly casual, but there are increasing numbers of “proper” games available. In fact, Nvidia itself has a hand in porting over “full size” console games, like 2013’s Tomb Raider, to run on Android - which it then sells on Google Play. Though many will be familiar to you from when you played them on the train or on the toilet, seeing them blown up HD on your telly is a striking demonstration of just how powerful Android is getting. And while not packing the same power as the PS4 or Xbox One, Nvidia has another trick up its sleeve: Streaming.
If you’ve got a powerful gaming PC running Steam with an Nvidia graphics card, you can use the Shield to liberate yourself from the spare room and game on the sofa like a civilised human. By having your computer do the hard work, the Shield essentially acts as a relay - taking images from your computer and feeding back commands from the controller. And yes, you can also connect a keyboard and mouse the Shield via Bluetooth if you really want to play a ten hour Starcraft campaign in comfort.
Sadly though, I don’t have a gaming PC so can’t vouch for exactly how well this works. But there is one final source of gaming fun for people like me: Streaming from the Cloud.
Through Nvidia’s GeForce NOW service, you can pay a subscription or one off fee to have a far away server somewhere do all of the processing - with you feeling the benefits, as long as your internet connection is sufficiently fast. What’s cool about this is that even though the Shield is a dinky little device, if the game you’re playing can handle it, you could end up getting games out of it that look like high-end PC games running in 4K (because, er, they are).
In my testing - connected via ethernet to a roughly 30Mb internet connection - it worked pretty flawlessly. Playing Batman’s Arkham City was indistinguishable from when I played it back on the Xbox 360 (it probably looked a bit better too). Connection was quick - it takes roughly 20 seconds to establish and connection and there was no noticeable lag.
Playing the ultra fast-paced Street Fighter vs Tekken was marginally more challenging. 99.9% of the time it functioned, again, perfectly. But there were a couple of moments when the pictures couldn’t keep up with what was going on so there were a couple of “jump cuts” in the stream of maybe half a second. But I was still able to win the fight, so it didn’t bother me too much.
The only other slightly weird thing is that on a few games, the control prompts on screen didn’t match the controller in front of me, telling me to press buttons on the keyboard rather than the gamepad.
The only real disadvantage Nvidia has in games compared to the home consoles is the selection of games that are available. At the time of writing there are 119 games on the service available for streaming and this includes many AAA games of recent years - such as Hitman: Absolution, The Witcher 3, and all of the Lego games. But crucially, if you are a hardcore gamer it doesn’t have everything yet.
At the product briefing, Nvidia’s representative explained how in the coming months Ubisoft’s entire catalogue will also be available for streaming - so that’s stuff like Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed. And crucially, future games will be available on the same day they are released for consoles. If Nvidia can keep this up and strike similar deals with the likes of EA, Rockstar and Activision - it might have a serious competitor on its hands.
So far I’ve been through all of the features that are currently available on the Shield TV 2 running the latest available software. But what is also exciting about the device is what the developers promise is only a few months away in a future major software update.
For example, Nvidia has said that the Google Assistant will be taking on an increased role in future updates, and that you’ll be able to “converse” with it. In other words, rather than start from scratch every time you talk, it’ll know the context of what you’re talking about. “Show me action films”, you might say, “now show only those starring Arnold Schwarzenegger” - and it’ll know you’re still only interested in action films too.
The Shield could also soon become the centre of your connected home as the plan appears to be to make a push to take control of your Internet of Things gadgets. Once the software update goes out, it’ll pick up any connected lightbulbs and the like, and will let you control them using your voice alone. (If you have a device that uses Zigbee or Z-Wave to connect, you’ll need a special Samsung SmartThings USB adaptor to plug into the back of your Shield). Apparently it will even work when the TV is switched off.
And finally, it isn’t available in any meaningful sense yet, but one feature I absolutely loved seeing in the product demo was the ability to watch live Freeview TV through the Shield, using an app called “HD Homerun” that then plugs into a Google app called “Live Channels”. Essentially, you need to have a TV tuner that will send TV signal around your home network - and then you can use the Shield to watch Live TV. So you’ll be able to chuck away that cheap and crappy box you picked up at Argos - and you can use the power of Android TV as a DVR and TV guide. More importantly, it means you’ll no longer have to rely on the very limited electronic programme guide that is being broadcast with the TV signals as Google instead downloads it from the internet. Perhaps even more crucially, it means no more fiddling about with TV inputs, as it will all work from the one box. Finally, it could mean that you can get away with having only one box that does everything: live TV, on-demand, your own local videos and even gaming, all in one single box.
So would I recommend the Nvidia Shield TV 2? If the last few days are any indication, it has already become my primary streaming device and the one I default to when I switch on the TV. What’s clear is that it can already do a lot - and future software updates will enable it to do even more.
It also feels as though I’ve future-proofed my AV setup a little. The new Shield supports 4K HDR, Dolby Atmos and DTS - so when I do finally get around to splashing out on a new TV, I’ll be safe in the knowledge that I’m already good to go.
The Nvidia Shield TV 2 is £189 and is out today. I’ve always said buy a dumb screen. And this might be the smart thing that you need to plug into it.