(Pocket-lint) - There has been a lot of talk of late about Amazon adopting 4K video streaming for its new Fire TV box, something Apple hasn't adopted in Apple TV. But Nvidia can sit pointing and laughing in a corner as its Shield Android TV is the most capable streaming set-top box of them all.
Coming from graphics card specialist Nvidia, Shield TV is also the first microconsole that genuinely lives up to the second part of the tag – providing the best gaming experience a streaming box has managed yet.
In short, Roku, Amazon, Google and Apple need to keep an eye on the new kid. Nvidia is bringing the biggest conker to the playground, but can it withstand strikes from the already established competition?
Nvidia Shield TV review: Design
In design terms, to be honest, the Shield TV is an ugly beast. It wears its gaming community influences on its sleeve and looks like a mini gaming PC more than a set-top box.
It can lay flat or perch on its end with the use of an optional stand, but the angular flourishes that jut out and the glowing green LED light are at odds with other devices in the category – those that are designed to be hidden from sight.
You can tone down the ferocity of the LED though and safely tuck the slim device into a crevice in an AV cabinet if you're not a testosterone-fuelled teenager, though, so no real harm done.
Nvidia Shield TV review: Gaming controller, not TV controller
The Shield TV comes with a Shield Game Controller in the box, which is normally worth £50 – again highlighting Nvidia's primary focus and market for the device. It works on Wi-Fi Direct, so has very low latency (think PS4 and Xbox One kind of good) and it's nice to see a controller that doesn't simply ape what's already out there.
If you already own a Shield Tablet, the Game Controller works with that too. And if you already own a Game Controller for the tablet, congratulations, you can now play two-player games.
Strangely for a streaming box, the dedicated remote control does not come with the Shield TV itself and must be purchased separately (and at around £40 it's not cheap). The Game Controller can be used as a remote, as it controls everything on the device, but is a bit large and clunky for everyday use. We'd have liked to have seen the remote as a mandatory accessory. However, there is an IR sensor for universal remotes and it can be controlled through HDMI CEC, so some TVs can enforce basic control too.
Plus, there is another alternative in that you can use an Android or iOS device to connect to the Shield TV box as a casting device, which works in the same way as sending content to a Google Chromecast. But if you want a small, slim and light way to control the box for regular use, you'll have to cough up that bit extra we're afraid.
One of the other reasons to do so is that the optional remote also has a microphone for voice control. The Game Controller does too, but it is a much nicer experience on the standard remote.
You can control both search and other functions through voice commands, much like on other Android TVs, and we've found that it is highly accurate in understanding what you are trying to say. It's also incredibly speedy, which is a general trait of the Shield TV. And that's down to the power under the hood.
Nvidia Shield TV review: All-powerful experience
It can safely be said that the Nvidia Shield Android TV is the most powerful streaming box on the market today – at least from a big name brand. It has a quad-core 64-bit Tegra X1 processor and 3GB of RAM under the hood. That's based on Maxwell architecture and is one of the highest spec mobile processors on the market today. Google has opted to add it to its forthcoming Pixel C tablet and on this evidence we can see why.
Everything on the Shield TV moves like it has been greased with warm butter. It is the smoothest media streaming experience we have had to date, and that includes on the Xbox One or PS4. Netflix and BBC iPlayer are quicker to operate on the Nvidia device than on either of those super consoles, as everything just seems to work instantly.
But that's not the only trick this chipset has to offer; it is incredibly capable with 4K video streaming.
With Amazon announcing its new 4K-enabled Fire TV set-top-box, it is clear this is the direction the market is heading. And it must be said that from what we've seen of its output so far, we're impressed. However, that is restricted to 4K video running in 30 frames per second. The Nvidia box is capable of 4K at 60 frames per second – the magic figure every image junky seeks for certain broadcast playback.
To be fair, there is little 4K60 content around and while Netflix offers Ultra High Definition TV programming – also available on the Shield – it isn't in 60fps. It will be eventually, even higher the company has said in the past, but not at present.
Instead, YouTube is the place to go to see videos recorded in and played back at 4K60. And the pre-installed YouTube app on the Shield TV does exactly that. That's where you get to see the future of television and it looks darn good.
Nvidia Shield TV review: 4K codecs and connectivity
The Shield TV is also compliant with all the necessary codecs needed for 4K footage now and in the future – whether that be in H.264, H.265 or VP9 – so there's a decent slice of future-proofing here. And if your 4K TV doesn't have one or more of those, this is an ideal way of getting the most from the panel you purchased.
Shield TV also has HDMI 2.0 out, which is necessary for the 60fps playback, and can also pass through 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound streams. High-res audio output up to 24-bit/192KHz can be transmitted too.
In specifications terms, the box is a monster elsewhere too. There are two USB 3.0 ports to hook the device up to external storage or accessories, such as a keyboard and mouse. There is also a Micro-USB 2.0 port for powering or charging the Game Controller (for example). And a microSD slot gives further storage expansion possibilities or another way to transfer content onto the built-in hard drive.
Expanding the storage is probably necessary for the standard model as it only comes with 16GB (less when system software is taken into account). There is a 500GB version available for a £70 premium, but that's a hell of a bump and really for those expecting to download hundreds of apps, dig deeper into Android games, or store their media content on the device itself.
Connectivity for the device is provided through 802.11ac Wi-Fi that's capable of receiving 4K video, but we'd recommend you hook it up through the Gigabit Ethernet LAN connection, as that will ensure a stress-free experience with no drop-out in video or game streaming.
Bluetooth 4.1 is on board too, so you can use any Bluetooth devices you fancy with the box. Even Bluetooth games controllers can be substituted or used as a second-player option, although the latency will be higher than on the Wi-Fi Direct connection of the included Shield controller.
Nvidia Shield TV review: Gaming box
As previously mentioned, gaming is a huge focus for the Shield TV and Nvidia's gaming services are front and centre of the experience. While it is at heart an Android TV box, running on Google's TV-centric version of Android 5.0 Lollipop, there are plenty of portals and apps you'll not find on comparative devices, such as the Nexus Player.
The dedicated Shield Hub, for example, gives access to the 4K version of Netflix and BBC iPlayer – the latter of which are being added through an agreement by the BBC and Nvidia rather than availability on Google Play and Android TV generally. And there are the manufacturer's own services too.
GameStream will be familiar to owners of the Shield gaming device or Shield Tablet, which offers the ability to stream and play games stored on a remote PC in 720p; as long as the PC has a suitable Nvidia graphics card and matches other minimum specifications detailed by the firm.
It works well with the wireless controller and although you get a slight drop in resolution, it is like running the game directly on your big screen TV. Depending on the quality of your PC, you might notice the occasional frame drop or stutter, but it is a great way to experience the games you have already bought through services like Steam in a different location.
A Shield Games portal lists all the recommended Android games for purchase or free download that work best on the box, including some that are optimised to present the best experience on the Tegra X1 chipset. There are also some, like Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 & 2 that only work on Shield. And others that are coming soon include full versions of console and PC hits, such as Borderlands 2 and Resident Evil 5.
Nvidia Shield TV review: GeForce Now
Last, but by no means least, is GeForce Now, Nvidia's truly superb cloud game streaming service.
Originally called Nvidia Grid when it was in beta, GeForce Now is the company's answer to PlayStation Now or the now defunct OnLive. It offers instant access to a large library of games that are either available to buy or are part of a monthly subscription package (the first three months are free upon sign-up), but rather than play them from the box itself, the video of the gameplay is streamed over the internet, with the game control codes going in the opposite direction.
Where Nvidia's service differs from the failed attempts by OnLive and even Sony's more successful PlayStation Now rivals is that it works almost as well as playing a game on a dedicated console. Games stream in resolutions up to 1080p60 (PS Now is limited to 720p) and we have to say that the image quality is significantly better than we've seen on any other cloud gaming platform. Colours are deep and saturated, as are blacks, and the resolution stays crisp throughout.
Admittedly, we were using a Samsung 55HU7500 4K set to view it on, which is abundant with picture processing flair of its own, and streaming through 152Mbps broadband (10Mbps is the recommended minimum) but the casual observer would swear we were playing Xbox One or PS4 games.
Even the collection of games currently available is impressive. There are more than 50 games on the platform at present, with most being offered as part of the £7.49 monthly subscription fee. And big name titles such as The Witcher 3 and Resident Evil: Revelations 2 are offered to buy and play instantly.
What's more, if you buy a game outright, you also get the Steam or GOG download key for the PC version too, where applicable.
Nvidia Shield TV review: Streaming
In all other senses, the Nvidia Shield Android TV is a very capable movie and TV streaming box, that has Plex and Kodi apps for DLNA and other home network media streaming and access to all of Google's services.
If there's an Achilles heel it's that Google's Android TV platform needs more apps or Nvidia has to strike deals with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 to be more aggressively placed against other content providing peers. But with Google Cast built-in, it can at least be fed shows and films from services such as Now TV and Amazon Instant Video from a connected Android or iOS device.
And as Android TV becomes more widely used – after all, both Philips and Sony TVs are starting to emerge with it built-in – app support will naturally increase.
Number of Android TV-supported apps aside, the Nvidia Shield Android TV is the best media streamer out there bar none. There are devices that profess to offer more content and channels, such as those by Roku, but when it comes down to it there are only a handful of key services you will access on a daily basis.
Some of those channels aren’t quite available yet, which was the issue we found with Nexus Player, but they will no doubt join the platform or at the very least add a Google Cast button to their Android smartphone or iPhone apps, thanks to the new and improved Chromecast also becoming available recently.
Where the Nvidia device more than makes up for the current lack in the popular services of today is in offering the very best support for the services of tomorrow. You can watch Ultra HD shows through Netflix now or 4K60 streams hosted by YouTube from the off, but the potential is even greater going forward and the Shield TV is well-poised to capitalise.
Oh, and it’s a bloomin' good microconsole to boot, of course, which is where a lot of its interest will come from, and why it stands head and shoulders above the likes of the Nexus Player.