October 30, 2017

1781 words 9 mins read

Living Room perfection with NVIDIA SHIELD TV

For cord cutters like myself, TV entertainment has been dead for years. I bought a TV out of instinct; every living room I’ve seen has a couch and a TV. Netflix and YouTube lived on my lovely desktop monitors, which allowed for multitasking and not actually watching that video content. However, my living room life changed when I came across the Roku 3 box. This wonderful box allowed me to put the very same content up on the living room screen — but it was flawed. Clunky and a weak app ecosystem, it left me hungry for more. To satisfy the craving, I tried to eat an Apple. Their 4th generation Apple TV was almost perfect with their rich app ecosystem and slick interface. However, with 4K content finally available, I craved to eek out the best from my TV. I took a risk on the NVIDIA SHIELD TV — I was not disappointed.

Apple TV Life

While I can’t speak to the modern Roku Streaming stick nor the Fire TV, the Apple TV has served me well for about a year and a half. I was able to watch YouTube and Netflix using official apps. I was able to watch content from my NAS using the official Plex app. I had even found an unofficial app to stream from Twitch. The Pandora app worked fantastically to provide music for guests and living room projects. During this time, I’ve been improving my living room experience. I bought a sound bar with surround sound, a Steam Link, and a Chromecast. I also found a reasonable 8 port HDMI switcher and hooked all my devices, including game consoles, to this switcher. When I found the 5th generation Apple TV was coming out with 4K, I contemplated what I would need to do so I can see all the new pixels. TV: check. HDMI cables: check. Switcher: Nope. Sound bar: Negative. Oh, and none of my devices output 4K either.

Why I bought NVIDIA

The decision to buy the NVIDIA SHIELD TV was not something I had ever thought about. From my point of view, the SHIELD was some gaming tablet that was better done by the fabulous Nintendo Switch. After doing some research, I found that the SHIELD tablet project looked to be dead. The NVIDIA SHIELD TV is a small box, similar to the Apple TV. After finding that the SHIELD TV itself was the same price as the Apple TV (or only $20 more if you get the bundle with the game controller), I decided that the device had the potential to be “pretty neat”. Shortly after, Jon had sent me a link to a SmartThings Hub that uses the SHIELD TV’s USB port for power and brains. Sold! (I’ve been drooling over IoT for years, but never could warrant dropping hundreds of dollars just to turn lights on with my phone.)

Upgrade Build Out

The upgrade was a fairly easy process in hindsight. I replaced my 8 port, 1080p switcher with a 4 port, 4K HDMI switcher from Zettaguard. Having never heard of the company before, I relied exclusively on the tech specs and customer reviews (which were mostly favorable). The only problem I’ve had with this little guy is the PIP functionality does not appear to work at 4K resolutions.

I found that, after setting up the switcher, everything was in 1080p. Through trial and error, I discovered that my sound bar and several HDMI cables, which were acting as the video passthrough for everything on the switcher, didn’t fully support HDMI 1.4a. This spec introduces support for resolutions greater than 4K. Annoying, but the solution was to downgrade my audio a little by finding a Toslink cable from Amazon and connecting that between my TV and sound bar.

With that all sorted away, the SHIELD TV detected everything was compliant and started to output 4K @ 60fps.

Hardware Impressions

The SHIELD TV hardware and peripherals feel high quality. The box itself is a little … “Cool.” It looks like a device for gamers (as most NVIDIA gear does). This is in stark contrast to the Apple TV’s slick, media center look. Personally, I hold no strong feeling one way or the other on the SHIELD TV’s aesthetics. Regardless, it sits behind the TV.

The remote is nothing special. It’s a remote with a microphone that connects via Bluetooth with 8 physical buttons and an IR blaster. Using coin-cell batteries, NVIDIA promises a year of battery life with “typical usage.” The microphone seems to pick up my voice well enough for Google Assistant, and that’s all that matters. Interestingly, there’s a touch surface that acts as a volume slider that I found by mistake. Protip: You can double-tap it to pause/unpause media too!

The most interesting piece of hardware I got from the SHIELD TV box is the NVIDIA SHIELD Controller. This peripheral is both my most and least favorite. The button layout and feel is similar to the Switch Pro controller with on-axis dual analog sticks and large face buttons. The controller has, in addition to the standard gaming controls, a Back, Play, Home, and Assistant buttons and the touch surface for volume tucked away between the analog sticks. The controller has a rechargeable battery pack, charged via USB. NVIDIA added a headphone jack to the controller, which routes sound from your TV to allow for personal listening. Having previously loved this feature on my Roku 3, it was a welcome feature to have again. My understanding is that the controller connects over WiFi Direct, so the audio lag is not noticeable. The reasons I don’t like the controller itself? NVIDIA decided to texture the controller with their polygonal theme. Gripping the controller feels a bit weird to hold with this theming and slim grips. Back to my DualShock 4!

My SHIELD TV Experience

The SHIELD TV was not a letdown. In fact, it has exceeded my expectations. The initial setup was fantastic — it’s just an Android device. I plugged it into my TV, plugged in the ethernet cable, and used my Google Pixel phone to send over my account info. The app ecosystem, for what I care about, is richer than the Apple TV. In addition to Pandora, Netflix, and YouTube, I’ve found Amazon Video and an official Twitch app. Unfortunately, if you’re part of the Apple content ecosystem, you will be unable to play that content directly on the SHIELD TV.

Gaming, which I didn’t buy the SHIELD TV for, is unexpectedly fun. Mobile games like Crossy Road and Pacman 256 benefit from the physical buttons on the SHIELD TV remote and game controller D-pad. Those devices make a world of difference when comparing to the touch surfaces of phones and Apple TV remote. Additionally, if you have a compatible video card, you can use NVIDIA Gamestream to stream PC games to your big screen. I’ve found this experience comparable to using my Steam Link. The Steam Link is fantastic for single player experiences such as the oh-so-adorable A Hat in Time. I played the game in its entirety on my couch using a DualShock 4 and SHIELD TV whilst streaming from my desktop. I have to call out the setup experience, which is a tad different from using a Steam Link. If you pair the DualShock directly with the SHIELD TV,  you lose the extra functionality that Steam provides via the Steam Controller API. However, if you have Bluetooth on your gaming machine, you can pair the DualShock 4 directly to the PC and fully utilize the DualShock 4’s touch pad and motion controls. However, after that, simply launch the Steam app with your SHIELD TV remote and off you go.

Chromecast functionality works great with the SHIELD TV, although it’s a little strange. It appears the Chromecast functionality doesn’t use the apps installed on the SHIELD, but instead some Chromecast-specific application. This is usually fine, but this restricts you from using the SHIELD controllers to seek in the video; instead forcing you to dig up a device to connect to the Chromecast session (or dictate commands using a connected Google Assistant).

IoT is in a unique situation. At $180 for a SHIELD TV and another $40 for the SmartThings USB hub ($220 total), it’s certainly not the cheapest smart home brain. The “hub”, as it were, has your TV hooked up to it for the setup process (as well as, y’know, being a media consumption platform). With that said, the setup and process was flawless and refreshingly easy. I plugged the hub into the SHIELD TV and it popped up with a message asking to install the SmartThings app. I installed the app on my SHIELD TV, installed the SmartThings app on my Pixel phone, and screwed in a light bulb. Immediately, the app detected the light and I was controlling it through my phone. With some futzing in the Google Home app, I got it connected to the Google Assistant on my Google Home.

Media is perhaps the most boring part of the device. It all just works. As NVIDIA offers no multi-media products, they have no reason to force any specific service on you. I love companies that can act as a neutral party; I don’t have iTunes or Prime Video pushed on me at every search. However, as an Android device with Assistant, Google services can have bias.

Perfection (with caveats)

The title does indeed say “Living room perfection,” but nothing is perfect. I’ve had a few odd, very minor issues. Similarly, the Apple TV had its own quirks. Since they’re so minor, bullet points!

  • Starting the SHIELD TV by sending it a Chromecast stream sometimes turns off a few minutes later
  • There’s the odd software issue, such as Twitch not handling multitasking well
  • HDMI-CEC isn’t working in my setup. I attribute the problem to my HDMI switcher.
  • IR blaster does not work with my TV nor sound bar.
  • I’m using the SHIELD TV’s internal audio controls as a workaround
  • Bonus: works great with other Google Assistants because of this
  • The Apple ecosystem is lost on this device.
  • iTunes purchases need to be Chromecasted
  • AirPlay functionality no longer exists in my house

That’s All Folks

For the price of $220, I’ve replaced my Apple TV ($180), Steam Link ($50), Chromecast ($35), and added the functionality of SmartThings IoT to my apartment ($100) with a single device that I’m quickly relying on for daily entertainment and a near drop-in replacement for each device. I can only hope that NVIDIA continues to support and iterate on this device. (And that I can somehow sell all this hardware I no longer need ;])