Nvidia unveiled the new Shield TV box at CES just a couple of weeks ago and now the diminutive Android TV streamer is out, bringing PC gaming to a living room near you and making the lounge PC effectively obsolete.
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For a PC gamer, with a GeForce-powered rig, Nvidia’s Shield has almost become a must-have accessory. The ability to bring your gaming into the living room, writ large on your big-screen TV, was always part of the promise of the Shield devices, but neither the handheld, the tablet or the previous Shield box, could fully deliver. With this update that’s certainly not the case anymore.
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Nvidia Shield specs
Despite Nvidia's CES reveal proclaiming this a new Shield Nvidia have actually retained the same specs list as their previous streaming box. That’s no bad thing - the Tegra X1 processor inside the old Shield box is still pretty much the most powerful mobile chip around, especially if you want to do anything graphical with your device. And hey, we’re gamers, so we want graphics, right?
The Tegra X1 is an Arm-based SoC with a quad-core Cortex A57 CPU component running at around 2GHz. The GPU side of the equation though is what makes it such a gaming powerhouse - it’s rocking Nvidia Maxwell silicon with 256 CUDA cores and a 1GHz operating frequency.
All that’s really changed with the new streamer itself then is a little weight-loss and the culling of the microSD slot. The Shield is now around 40% smaller than the previous design, making it look far more like a modern streaming device, more akin to the slimline 4K Amazon Fire TV. That aside there’s no difference to the older device, especially as Nvidia will be updating the existing Shield with the same software as the new device.
With the older controller, however, there is no far-field microphone making the Google Assistant update in a couple of months less interesting for existing Shield owners.
That lack of movement on the specs sheet means this base device comes with 16GB of built-in storage and 3GB of system memory. There is, once more, a larger ‘Pro’ version of the Shield which comes with a 500GB hard drive inside, but that is essentially unchanged from the version which was released in 2015.
In terms of ports it comes rocking a wired gigabit ethernet connection, a pair of USB 3.0 sockets and an HDMI 2.0 display connection with HDCP 2.2 to deliver the 4K goods in Netflix and Amazon Video. As well as the LAN port the Shield also comes with 802.11ac WiFi for those with a cable phobia.
Out of the box the new Shield also comes with the latest Android 7.0 based version of the Android TV operating system. Android TV has come along a fair bit since I last tested it while reviewing Sony TVs and the latest Shield integration is well done. Android TV will also gain Google Assistant when Google eventually get around to releasing it, which will take advantage of the far-field microphone built into the new Shield controller. That means it can be constantly listening in to your conversations (tin foil hat not supplied) so you can control the device without ever having to lift a finger. Just chat to your Shield and it will display whatever you’re looking for, so long as the devs of the relevant apps have plumbed in the Google Assistant API.
This opens it up to be the hub for your connected home (you future-living son of a gun, you) with Samsung’s SmartThings integration to control your intelligent kettle or washing machine (yawn) and the upcoming Nvidia Spot. This is a little far-field mic you can plug into any wall socket around your home and use it to control devices connected into your Shield as a hub when the controller's out of earshot.
The new Shield wireless controller is a much more streamlined beast compared to its predecessor, though the tessellated design, owing much to the 10-series GeForce shrouds, might be divisive. It’s also powered by Bluetooth now instead of WiFi Direct, which means you can easily use it for other devices if you so wish. Nvidia have also added an IR blaster to the controller, so you can control your TV, and haptic feedback with dual vibration engines in the handset.
I much prefer the smaller scale of the new controller, though it doesn’t quite have the quality feel of the DualShock or Xbox controllers. It’s still mighty responsive, though personally I prefer the offset analogue sticks of the Microsoft layout over the symmetrical Playstation setup. The battery life is impressive - after a full weekend of gaming it’s still about 40% full.
My one genuine issue with it is the layout of the secondary function buttons. As it’s an Android device there’s a homescreen button as well as the now-standard Start and Select buttons. They’re arrayed close together in a line messing with my thumbs’ Xbox controller muscle memory.
This is where things get exciting, so long as you’ve got a GeForce-based graphics card, anyways...
For us PC gamers the biggest change to the setup is the re-architecting of the Gamestream feature. It allows you to connect to your desktop rig over a local network and stream onto your TV for some couch-based gaming.
I’ve been using game streaming in some guise or other to escape being tied to the desktop for a few years now; I’ll use Steam to stream to my laptop when I’m sat on the sofa, and have spent a long while using my old Shield tablet to stream onto my TV too.
Streaming is fine for games where you don’t need split-second reaction times, like most adventure games or third-person titles, but for things like racing or sports games the input lag is too disruptive to make it a workable alternative to gaming directly on your PC. I’ve always used FIFA to test this and everything from the original Shield box and tablet to the Steam Link has failed. And normally failed miserably.
With Nvidia’s reworked Gamestream though the latency has been dropped to the point where it’s essentially invisible. In terms of responsiveness I can tell no difference when I’m downstairs playing on my TV compared with when I’m sat at my desk, playing locally. Visually it’s excellent too. The original version, even on a strong local network, had regular artifacting and constant drops in image quality down to 720p at 30fps.
I stopped using the Nvidia application for previous Shield devices, preferring the third-party Moonlight game-streaming app because it felt more robust and I could lock it to 1080p and 60fps. Now there's no need. Nvidia have also introduced 4K HDR playback - for compatible TVs and games - and haptic feedback for the new controllers across Gamestream. Though you’re still going to need a hell of a GPU in your streaming rig to spit out the 4K vibes.
Another big thing is that there is now a Steam Big Picture Mode app installed as standard which simply allows you to bring up the standard TV-based Steam interface running from your remote gaming rig. It allows you full control over your Steam account from within the Shield, effectively turning it into a Steam machine.
This all makes the Shield the perfect living room accompaniment to your GeForce-based PC. Sadly if you’re running an AMD graphics card in your gaming rig your options are far more limited. But if, like the majority of PC gamers, you’re running an Nvidia graphics card (from the GTX 650 onwards) the now-excellent Gamestream is there for you.
It’s still not 100% perfect, however. There are still a few teething issues with using multiple controllers on the Shield for gaming. You have to activate a multiple controller setting on individual games (like FIFA) or they’ll only see a single input. It doesn’t always work though, sometimes leaving subsequent controllers invisible to the game.
I also had a conflict when running Rise of the Tomb Raider from my desktop rig which corrupted settings files for it which took a lot uncovering. It also has some issues if your stream machine uses multiple monitors. I’ve had instances where it chose to launch the stream on the non-primary screen which left the TV downstairs blank. When streaming FIFA it would also periodically think the GPU had been pulled from my PC and the graphics driver would have a bit of a fit. I found that so long as I was running something on my PC’s second screen it was fine.
Less exciting than the genuinely impressive new Gamestream re-working is the GeForce Now service and enhanced access to Android games via your Shield. The GeForce Now service on the Shield is going to remain the same as it ever was, with a monthly subscription - $8 (£7.49) per month - covering a small base library of games to stream from Nvidia’s own servers and some other newer titles you can pay to add to your streaming account. It’s different from the credit-based system Nvidia were talking up at CES apparently because the Shield isn’t really being aimed at hardcore gamers, at least not at those without an existing machine they can stream from.
The actual online streaming of GeForce Now games is pretty good, even over the moderately restrained network we have in the PCGN office. It’s slick, generally robust and looks great. But for the monthly price I’d want a larger game library, or at least a way to link in with my existing cloud saves for those games.
You can also purchase Android games which have been tweaked specifically for the Shield box, like Doom 3, Half-Life 2 and Trine. They use the native rendering power of the Shield to full effect, letting you game just using the power of the device itself.
Nvidia might well have just killed the living room gaming PC. If not then they’ve certainly taken to it with a bat, leaving it looking like Walking Dead Glenn, all popped eyeball and everything. Sorry... spoiler.
With my GeForce-based PC in my home office and the Shield streaming invisibly to my TV, I’ve got no need to have an expensive dedicated gaming machine in my living room. Now the input lag has been all but expunged the stream is pretty much seamless. The Steam Link has got nothing on the Shield.
There are slight glitches, but I’m confident those will be ironed smooth given time and the overall experience is good enough on the whole I can forgive them for now.
It’s also a brilliant streamer too. The Shield can cope with pretty much any media file you care to throw its way, linking in to the likes of Kodi and Plex to bring your (totally legitimate) library into the living room in a super-slick way. It’s got built-in Google Cast support so you can toss content from your phone at your TV too.
And with 4K HDR support, as well as pass-through support for Dolby Atmos, TrueHD, Dolby 7.1 / 5.1, DTS-X, DTS-HD Master Audio and audio playback up to 24-bit / 192KHz, it’s not going to be out of place plumbed into your existing home theatre setup either. The Shield is one feature-packed little streamer and future-proofed to boot.
You don't need to get the latest Shield box to enjoy the fruits of Nvidia's labours, the old version will be getting an update now its diminutive sibling has launched, but the smaller scale and improved controller make this the superior version.
If you’re a GeForce gamer the Shield really is the only streamer you should consider getting for your living room.