The new Nvidia Shield devices that leaked last week are both going on sale today. There’s the $199.99 Nvidia Shield TV Pro, with a design identical to that of the previous model, and the all-new $149.99 Nvidia Shield TV. Both now feature Dolby Vision, in addition to the HDR10 and Dolby Atmos audio that were offered by the previous Shield, and they come with a redesigned remote. The other big new feature is an AI-powered upscaling system that makes 1080p content look more detailed and closer to 4K quality.
I’ve spent a few days testing the tube-shaped Shield TV, and I think it’s going to appeal to an even wider audience than the home theater enthusiasts who’ve been drawn to the Shield for its sheer horsepower and software (Android TV) that allows for plenty of tinkering. Want to load the Shield up with emulators and game ROMs? Have at it. Sideload to your heart’s content.
Both the Shield TV Pro and Shield TV include Nvidia’s Tegra X1+ chip, which is “up to 25 percent faster” than the older device. The Shield has always been strong when it comes to performance, and I don’t think you’ll find a faster Android TV experience anywhere. This kind of speed and fluidity is rivaled only by the Apple TV 4K. Netflix, YouTube, Prime Video, and other apps open near-instantly and are buttery smooth as you scroll around for something to watch. Google Assistant responds quickly, and Android TV can now be included in routines created with the Google Home app.
I’ve grown rather bullish on Android TV in my time using the Shield. The home screen is nicely customizable and isn’t laced with ads like a Roku or Fire TV. You can Chromecast to the Shield TV, and voice commands through Google Assistant work reliably. Google is also finally improving the Play Store on Android TV for easier discoverability.
The Shield TV’s design is certainly unconventional. You’re not going to mistake this thing for an Apple TV or Roku. And at over 6 inches long, the Shield TV is by no means a streaming “stick.” It’s not meant to hang off from your TV’s HDMI port. Instead, Nvidia thinks most customers will either hide it behind the TV or even leave on the floor behind their entertainment cabinet.
At both ends of the tube are different ports: HDMI, microSD, and a remote finder button on one side, and ethernet and power on the other. The microSD slot is so close to the HDMI port that access will almost certainly be obstructed by any HDMI cable’s housing, so you might have to remove the cord whenever you load up a card with new movies or other content. Still, I’m glad Nvidia included expandable storage here since the Shield TV itself only has 8GB onboard.
The Shield TV Pro, which has a more traditional set top box design, has double the storage (16GB) and more RAM (3GB instead of 2GB on the Shield TV). Those numbers still strike me as low for a $200 device, however. The Pro is the only one of the two that can be used as a Plex Media Server, and you also get two USB 3.0 ports for plugging in external drives, keyboards/mice, or Samsung’s SmartThings Link. I’ve been reading some early feedback from disappointed customers who hoped Nvidia would get more ambitious with this hardware. Besides the ever-so-slightly-faster processor refresh (for an aging chip) and Dolby Vision, there’s really not much that’s new, and the Shield TV Pro lacks Wi-Fi 6 and HDMI 2.1.
Neither version comes with a game controller anymore. The Shield gamepad can still be purchased separately, and Android TV also supports Sony’s DualShock 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One controllers. Nvidia’s GeForce Now game streaming service comes included and is still free — for now — while in beta. Google’s own Stadia service isn’t expected to arrive on Android TV until sometime next year, so Nvidia doesn’t have to sweat that competition just yet.
The remote that does come in the box is vastly improved. It now features buttons for power, volume, and rewind / fast forward. The voice search, home, and back buttons are still present, and at the bottom is a dedicated shortcut button for Netflix. It’s the only service that gets this treatment, and Nvidia told me that’s because Netflix is far and away the most popular service among its customers.
At the upper right corner of the remote is a button that you can customize to open any app (I predict Plex and Kodi will be popular choices), launch the settings menu, take a screenshot, or any number of other possibilities. The remote’s buttons are backlit and activate when motion is detected. It runs off two AAA batteries and has Bluetooth (for communicating with the Shield) and IR (for controlling your TV and soundbar).
The 2019 Shields support Dolby Vision, HDR10 (not HDR10+), Dolby Atmos, and Dolby Digital Plus surround sound. So you’ll find plenty of 4K HDR movies and TV shows from all the usual suspects, and the Netflix app finally outputs Atmos on Shield. But there is one disappointment: the Shield TV won’t play HDR from YouTube since Nvidia hasn’t gotten behind the VP9 profile (and has no plans to).
For any content that isn’t in 4K, it’s worth trying out Nvidia’s new AI-enhanced upscaling. When done well, upscaling can make it seem like you’re watching content at a higher resolution than the original source material; everything looks crisper and more detailed. But TVs and streaming gadgets tend to do a subpar job at it. Nvidia says it trained a “deep learning neural network” on how best to upscale 1080p and even 720p video to 4K, and it runs that neural network in real time whenever you’re playing video on the Shield TV and Shield TV Pro. Here’s more from Nvidia on how it works:
We trained a convolutional neural network (CNN) to predict the residual (difference) between a regular linear scaled video and high-resolution 4K ground truth video (reference quality). After training the network with tons of video content, it gets really good at predicting the difference between the two videos. Then, when fed only the scaled video content, it can apply the prediction and produce near-4K results. Once trained, the neural network model runs in real-time on the Tegra X1+ processor and upscales video just before it is displayed on the TV.
So, is it a gimmick or does it really work? I’d vote the latter. Nvidia’s system makes a noticeable difference, and it’s not just blanketing everything with a coat of sharpening. The AI upscaling doesn’t work for 60fps video, nor does it run when you’re playing games. But for everything else, you can have it optimizing the on-screen picture at all times. And I came away very impressed.
You can’t watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 4K on Netflix, but I definitely noticed more clarity in clothing and on faces when AI-enhanced upscaling was switched on. You can set the remote’s customizable button to toggle this feature on and off if you want, and there’s even a “demo mode” where you can drag a slider along the current frame to see the difference it makes and what part of the image it’s enhancing. By default, detail enhancement is set to medium, but it can be cranked up or lowered if you find it’s producing weird artifacts that aren’t in the source content. I haven’t really encountered that, so I’ve kept the AI upscaling enabled.
The 2019 Shield TV is immediately shooting up near the top of my recommendations list for those who want a top-notch streaming experience in their living room. At $149, it still hangs onto the best elements of the pricier Shield TV Pro — speed, flexibility, and that great new remote — and leaves power user features for the power user product. There’s definitely a feeling of sameness to the Pro model, and I doubt current Shield owners will be compelled to upgrade until Nvidia makes more meaningful hardware advancements. But for those new to Android TV, there’s no device better at showcasing it.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge
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