NVIDIA's SHIELD Android TV console has been, since its launch in 2015, the only Android TV you really should be paying attention to. For 2017, it has received a very light hardware refresh. Even with the changes overall being minor, it is still the only Android TV device you should be paying attention to.
Now, many of the changes in the 2017 version of SHIELD came to the existing SHIELD console today via the 5.0 upgrade, including Android 7.0. The old model, too, will get Google Assistant, SmartThings support, and Amazon Instant Video. And this brings me to the second major point of our review: If you already have a SHIELD, there's no reason to replace it with this refreshed version. It shouldn't be any faster (or slower), it has the same overall set of capabilities, and all of the software features* will come to the existing console anyway, because NVIDIA is cool like that. (*Except always-on 'OK Google' hotword detection - you'll need to pick up the new 2017 gamepad or remote to get that once the feature is activated in an OTA that adds Assistant. But those new accessories will work with the older SHIELD just fine.)
Unfortunately, some of the new features I really want to try, like Assistant for Android TV, won't launch for a while yet. That means I'm essentially left with the console itself and the new gamepad and controller to tell you about, as well as the Android 7.0 software experience. SmartThings support isn't live, either, so I can't really tell you about that. And the SHIELD's new NVIDIA Spot companion device has an as-yet unknown launch date, so there's nothing I have to say about that. This will be a short[ish] review, in case that wasn't getting obvious.
It's smaller! A lot smaller. And lighter. The new SHIELD console is about the size of a 6" smartphone, but still sits comfortably in the previous-gen SHIELD's little display stand. It uses the same power supply as the old version, too. The diminished size does mean a couple of small feature deletes, however. Both the microUSB port and microSD slot are gone, and the latter will probably be the source of some consternation. NVIDIA points out that you can simply use a USB flash drive or external HDD over USB instead for your expandable storage needs, but there's no doubt that a microSD cards always feels a bit more neat and tidy. Still, given its fixed nature and the relative cheapness of USB 3.0 flash drives, I'm not especially miffed over this. You get two USB 3.0 ports and gigabit ethernet, so the SHIELD is still pretty capable at connectivity. And if you really want the microSD or microUSB ports, the 500GB Pro model has retained them.
The old enclosure, which now is limited to only the SHIELD Pro model, includes microSD and microUSB ports.
Other than that? NVIDIA says these are the same internals as the old box (meaning a Tegra X1 processor with a powerful Maxwell 256-core GPU), just in a smaller package at a better value. And yes, the new SHIELD is a better value. While the MSRP is the same as the outgoing version ($199), you get the SHIELD remote control included at no extra cost, whereas previously it was a $50 accessory. The new gamepad is also, of course, included.
NVIDIA's New and Improved gamepad does, in fact, feel both new and improved. It's lighter, more ergonomic, and a bit easier overall to use than last year's gamepad. The capacitive navigation buttons are gone, the trackpad is gone, and the overall design of the controller is much more in line with that of a modern game console. Physical navigation keys now sit bottom center of the face, and there's a big SHIELD button at the top to activate voice commands.
The joysticks generally feel good to use, the buttons have decent action, and the triggers are smooth with good, firm recoil. I don't expect to do a ton of gaming on the SHIELD (I never did on the old one), so I'm afraid my thoughts don't extend too far beyond that on the gamepad. I will say the itty-bitty navigation buttons are taking some getting used to.
Oh, and NVIDIA has removed the volume +/- buttons on the gamepad in favor of a capacitive slider similar to the SHIELD remote. I hate this volume control system on the remote, and I hate it on the gamepad. It sucks, full stop. It's terribly imprecise, easy to accidentally trigger, and just generally makes it feel like you're drunk when you're operating your television. I so hoped this was going away, but NVIDIA's doubled down on it. On the upside, like the new remote, the SHIELD gamepad now also features an IR blaster.
If you liked the old SHIELD remote, the new one is basically the same but for two things. First: it now has an IR blaster for direct control of your TV or stereo (including CEC support). Second: It now uses replaceable batteries. They're the disc-style batteries you see in a lot of small electronics, and NVIDIA says with typical use the pair of batteries in the remote out of the box should last you about a year before needing to be swapped out.
Given how often I've started to have to charge the old remote as it has aged (every two or three days), I am happy to see this change, at least in theory. Not everyone will share my opinion, of course, but to me this was an easy trade-off to justify.
So, how does a Bluetooth remote with old-school batteries not totally drain itself just sitting around? The remote senses when it's been picked up to turn itself on, which seems to be a bit hit or miss if I'm honest. It definitely takes a few seconds for the remote to know I've grabbed it and activate sometimes, and mine in general seems a bit spotty. For example, the battery on mine constantly reads low, though if I swap the position of the two cells in the remote, it then reads full again. It's possible I've got some bad batteries (they're Panasonic and were included with the remote, for what it's worth), but I haven't had a chance to go buy a second set to see if that resolves the issue.
And the remote still has the same crappy capacitive volume slider, and it's absolutely maddening to use with IR on my TV, so I don't use it. Everything else is sensibly laid out and, but for the lack of a dedicated play/pause button, I think is a solid design. Hopefully my issue with the batteries is an isolated one, though.
Another negative to the new remote, if you used it: NVIDIA has removed the 3.5mm headphone jack, citing low uptake among users, though it's still there on the new gamepad if you want it.
Android TV based on Nougat is the bulk of what's new in the software experience, but that's really not all that much in terms of features. Android TV 7.0 means a new settings UI, new multitasking UI, support for PIP, and DVR for streaming apps (Android TV already supported it for live TV). Those last two are the most exciting, but the number of apps actually supporting those experiences seems negligible at this point. And as to DVRing streaming video apps, I'm not sure there's any incentive for content providers to add support for a feature that might reduce the effectiveness of ads or make viewers able to skip pre-roll content plugs. But I guess we'll have to wait and see what those providers choose to support in the coming months.
The actual OS changes are pretty minimal on the user-facing side as a result. This still feels like the same old Android TV we've had for a while. You also get Amazon Instant Video for the first time on an Android TV box, which is probably the single greatest addition to the software experience. That said, the old SHIELD gets this as well, along with all the other software changes, so I want to be clear that none of this is at all exclusive to the new box.
How did NVIDIA manage to get Amazon, whose relationship with Google has become quite tense in the area of TV and streaming, to put their video service on an Android TV? Some have suggested NVIDIA must have paid for the privilege, but I'm not so sure. Amazon's entire reason for not putting its streaming video service on the Play Store is monetary: Google requires that purchases of digital content in apps distributed on the Play Store be subject to a 30% sales fee that goes to Google. Amazon, obviously, has absolutely zero interest in giving up 30% of its digital rental and purchase revenue. By preloading the Instant Video app on SHIELD, Amazon gets around this, with the rub likely being that NVIDIA gets no or little income from those digital sales. This would in and of itself be a rather tough negotiating tactic, as app preload agreements generally involve money going to the device-maker, not the other way around. I don't think Amazon is blackballing Android TV, I just think they want to make a stand on the issue of revenue share. And I can't say I blame them. Anyway.
NVIDIA has also completely revamped its gaming experience by lumping local games, GeForce NOW, and NVIDIA Gamestream into a single app. It's fine. Gamestream itself has seen some overhauls to improve performance and reliability, too. While I still find the idea of giving up my mouse and keyboard to play PC games on a TV little more than a novelty, even on a Google Wifi mesh point games like Battlefield 1 were shockingly playable (others, like Project CARS, less so). GeForce NOW was a bit hopeless, though - the local network just created too much latency. If your SHIELD is hardwired into the network, obviously none of this will be an issue.
As to the Google Assistant and SmartThings support, they aren't there yet, so there's nothing to really discuss about them from a review standpoint. I'm hoping Google Assistant comes sooner rather than later, though.
If you have a 4K TV, I think SHIELD is the only truly good buy you can make for a streaming box. Nothing else has hardware as powerful, nothing else is as expandable and capable. The NVIDIA SHIELD is ready for the future of TV, and it's just as ready for your living room no matter what TV you have right now. If you don't have a 4K TV, it's still the only Android TV device you should even be looking at (not that there are many other options).
The refreshed SHIELD brings you basically everything that made the original SHIELD great at a better value and in a more compact package. What's not to like? While I'm not the biggest fan of the remote, it's far from bad, and makes for a minor blemish on a product that is otherwise hard to critique. NVIDIA doesn't have any legitimate competitors in the Android TV space, because I don't think anyone - even Google - could legitimately build a better Android TV box than this one for less money. NVIDIA owns this category.
Android TV has a good steward in NVIDIA, and with their updates to the original 2015 box that bring it dead in line with this new 2017 edition, I think they've proved that. If your concerns with the SHIELD essentially boil down to "$200 sounds like a lot of money for a streaming box," let me assuage them: people who bought these over a year-and-a-half ago don't even have a reason to upgrade because NVIDIA is that dedicated to supporting the product. This feels like a product in for the long haul, and NVIDIA has to date only made it better over time. I'm inclined to continue trusting they'll keep on doing that - and it's hard to put a price tag on peace of mind.
Given all that, we're also naming the 2017 SHIELD one of our Most Wanted products, and it's the only Android TV on the market we'd award that distinction.