Nvidia's Shield TV has been Android nerds' streaming box of choice for going on half a decade, and for good reason: it's got ample power, plenty of features, and software that's always up to date. Now, the company has introduced two new versions with a bit of a twist. The base model, this tube-shaped guy right here, fills a role that's decidedly niche: a premium Android TV box (cylinder?) that does everything you'd want a streamer to do and nothing else, for a price that's high-end but not too high-end. I'm not sure how many people are looking for exactly that, but I'm confident anybody who is will be thrilled with this year's Shield TV.

Specs

CPU Nvidia Tegra X1+
RAM 2 GB
Storage 8 GB, expandable via Micro SD
Ports Ethernet, HDMI, Micro SD
Price $149.99

The Good

AI upscaling More than marketing ballyhoo. Really impressive.
New standards Support for Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos surround sound is great for owners of compatible hardware.
New remote Worlds better than previous iterations.
Form factor Small and unobtrusive. Not Chromecast discreet, but easily hidden.

The Not So Good

Missing features Less storage and RAM than 2017's Shield TV. No USB ports. Can't be used as a Plex server or SmartThings hub. No bundled gamepad.
Price Personally, I'd pay $150 for it, but cheaper basic options and the Shield TV Pro costing just $50 more put this particular device in an odd spot.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

So, yes, the new Shield TV is a tube. It's not quite a dongle — it doesn't hang off the back of your TV. (Nvidia says this is because devices situated directly behind your display have suboptimal Wi-Fi reception.) Instead, you plug an HDMI cable into one end and a power cable into the other, and it goes wherever you've got room for it. The design is really sleek, almost like you're running a single cable from your wall to your television.

HDMI and Micro SD at one end power and Ethernet at the other. That's it.

That slick design means there's nowhere to put USB ports, though. Without those, the Shield TV can't be used as a SmartThings hub or a Plex server — if you want to do either of those things, you'll need to drop an extra $50 for the Shield TV Pro. The base model does retain its Ethernet port, and features a Micro SD card slot next to where you stick the HDMI cable. Micro SD support might take some of the sting out of another of the 2019 version's downgrades: eight measly gigabytes of storage.

RAM is another step back from previous models. Whereas 2015 and 2017's Shield TVs had three gigs, this year's only has two. This change doesn't affect streaming performance in any appreciable way, but it does make some intensive Shield-exclusive Android games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 incompatible. (You can still play all of Nvidia's Android console ports on the Shield TV Pro, which retains three gigs of RAM and 16 of storage.)

There may not have been room for adequate storage or memory, but Nvidia was able to finagle the power supply into the Shield's chassis. I love this. With the previous model's bulky external supply, there was no plug orientation that didn't block at least two outlets behind my TV. I mean, just look at the difference:

Left: Shield TV 2019's power adapter. Right: Shield TV 2017's.

There's a new remote, too, and in keeping with the funny shapes theme set by the Shield itself, it's triangular — which, yes, makes it look very much like a certain candy bar. As it turns out, though, that shape is really comfortable to hold; its bottom corner settles very naturally into your hand.

 

Left: New Shield remote. Right: New Shield remote next to my (very beat up) old Shield remote.

The remote has a whole lot more buttons than its predecessor. New additions include a power key; a user-programmable multipurpose button; fast-forward; play/pause; rewind; proper volume controls; and a dedicated Netflix button. (That last one is the result of a partnership between the streaming service and Nvidia.) Their placement isn't particularly intuitive — fast-forward before rewind? — but there are little nubs on the play/pause key and the mic button to help orient your thumb. The buttons light up when you pick up the remote, too, which saves hassle in the dark. And even with backlit keys, Nvidia says two AA batteries will keep the remote running for six months.

You can set the top-right multipurpose button to do just about anything you want, be it opening quick settings, launching an app, or toggling AI upscaling (more on that later). The new volume keys directly adjust your TV or sound system's volume — no more wrestling with Android TV's finicky software volume setting. And if when you lose the remote, you can use the newly-redesigned Shield TV app to make it emit a high-pitched beeping loud enough to hear through couch cushions. (Side note: testing this feature seemed to really stress my dogs out.)

Software

Aside from helping locate your lost remote, the new Shield TV app lets you launch apps and control the device. App launching is crazy quick, and you can choose to use your phone's screen as a traditional directional pad, a swipe pad, or a simulated laptop-style trackpad — the last of which lets you select stuff on your TV with a cursor. It's all very thoughtful stuff.

On the big screen, it's Android TV as you know it — same broad selection of apps, same customizable home screen, et cetera, et cetera. If you've used an Android TV device in the past year or so, you know what you're in for. It's a clean, smooth experience, despite the Shield's modest-on-paper hardware. Apps load quickly and run without a hiccup, even in 4K/HDR.

Same ol' Android TV.

Speaking of HDR, this year's Shield TV supports the Dolby Vision standard in addition to the HDR10 already supported by previous models. Only certain apps supply Dolby Vision streams — apps like Netflix, Prime Video, and the upcoming Disney+ — and only some TVs are compatible with the standard. But if the content you want to watch is presented in Dolby Vision and your TV can display it, that's good news for you.

Dolby Atmos surround sound is here, too. Previous models supported Atmos pass-through, which more or less meant Atmos surround sound worked under certain conditions, but didn't work with some hardware setups or apps — notably, Netflix. It's a bit convoluted, but the takeaway is that the stuff you're watching will sound better on your Atmos-compatible speakers more often, especially if what you're watching is coming from Netflix.

The Shield's buzziest new feature, though, is AI upscaling. Stay with me here.

Any content below 4K resolution technically has to be upscaled to play on a 4K screen; more pixels need filled than exist in the source data. What Nvidia has done here, though, is train an AI model on real 4K content, then set it to the task of filling in missing details based on that set of data. Frankly, it sounds like bullshit, but the results are really impressive.

AI upscaling illustrated with a lizard.

There are three levels of AI upscaling you can choose from — low, medium, and high. In my experience, each is best for different types of content: Disney's properties on Netflix, for example — animation, plus Marvel and Star Wars movies — are all in 1080p, and they all look great with upscaling set to medium. Bob's Burgers on Hulu looks best on high. Older, grainier shows and films are best left to low.

Disney's Coco with upscaling off (left) and on (right). Tap or click to zoom. (Photos because system screenshots are only 1080p.)

The upscaling is more than a uniform filter; it only imposes added detail where it makes sense, so parts of the frame that are out of focus or excessively dark won't change. It really makes textures pop, and fine human features like eyes, skin, and hair look convincingly higher-resolution than they actually are. It isn't magic, though. It only works for 720p and 1080p content at 30 frames per second; content displayed 60 frames per second or in 1440p doesn't work at all. (Video in 480p technically works, but it doesn't look good.) The higher-quality the content, the better the upscaling looks.

AI upscaling sounds like bullshit, but the results are really impressive.

You can tweak the setting from the Shield's quick settings panel, or assign the remote's customizable button to bring up the upscaling menu with one press. There's also a demo mode that lets you move a slider across the screen — original content on one side, upscaled on the other. Nvidia's story for this option is that it was originally a proof-of-concept for the company's CEO, and he liked it so much they included it in retail units.

I'm a skeptic turned believer, but if after trying AI upscaling you're convinced the whole thing is woo, you can turn it off completely and never think about it again.

Plenty of games to play.

Although its fancy upscaling can't be applied to games, and despite its lower horsepower, the new Shield TV still has some respectable gaming chops. It'll run a bunch of games from the Play Store just fine, and GeForce Now — Nvidia's cloud gaming service, currently in closed beta — is kind of incredible. Playing twitchy action titles like Borderlands and Ultra Street Fighter IV with their settings cranked to the max over my mid-tier suburban Wi-Fi, I was hard pressed to discern a difference versus running the games locally. I actually won a solo Fortnite match for the first time ever while playing on GeForce Now. (Update: I've been informed this win was likely against bot players. Still, games streamed on the Shield TV feel very natural.)

GeForce Now is surprisingly low-latency.

Neither new Shield model comes with a gamepad, but the old controller is still compatible, and you can use just about any third-party wireless pad — including one made for PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. If you're looking for a gaming device that also streams video, you should probably just buy one of those consoles, but there's plenty of fun to be had here.

Should you buy it?

Nvidia Shield TV 2019
8/10

Yes. If you want the best Android TV streaming experience and don't need the extra bells and whistles the Shield TV Pro offers, this year's base Shield TV is a great pick. Support for Dolby's HDR and surround sound standards is a boon for buyers with compatible setups, and AI upscaling genuinely adds value.

It's less clear-cut for owners of older Shield TV boxes, though. Do you play Nvidia's PC ports like Doom 3? Do you use your Shield as a Plex server or a SmartThings hub? If the answer to both those questions is no, this likely would be a better device for you — but whether its new features are worth $150 depends on your priorities.

Buy it if...

You've got a 4K TV and you're looking to upgrade from a Roku, Chromecast, or — God help you — the TV's built-in apps. The Shield TV is a great improvement.

Don't buy it if...

Your entertainment setup doesn't support the new features or you have a previous Shield TV model. In the latter case, the upgrade might still be right for you, but it depends on your individual use case.