For years, the NVIDIA SHIELD has been the king of streaming set-top boxes, justifying its price with top-shelf hardware and fantastic support. Today NVIDIA announced its biggest hardware upgrade to the SHIELD yet, along with a new, cheaper form factor.
The new cylindrical SHIELD TV inherits the name, with the SHIELD Pro moniker going to the upgraded version of the rectangular design. Since that model gets the upgraded processor and redesigned remote, but otherwise remains more or less the same as it ever was (including the price), we’re going to keep our enthusiastic recommendation of that machine.
But what of the new SHIELD, which looks kind of like a can of spray deodorant or a hot dog? It’s an interesting proposition, stripping out a few of the features of the more conventional SHIELD for a small price cut (down 25% to $150) but getting the fast new processor, too. While it’s still a fantastic streaming machine, that $50 price cut brings it to within striking distance of other excellent streaming devices like the Roku Ultra and Fire TV Cube, suddenly making it seem like an awkward middle child, stuck between both price points and platforms.
The new SHIELD TV is a great streaming machine; I’m just not sure who it’s for. Those looking to save money have plenty of cheaper options, and those looking for the most powerful and versatile streaming device won’t have a problem upgrading to the SHIELD TV Pro (or just sticking with the SHIELD they already own).
What’s new in the new SHIELD? Here’s a brief look at the upgrades that are exclusive to this design generation, both on the smaller SHIELD and the larger SHIELD Pro.
- New Tegra X1+ processor, with 25% better performance
- Support for 4K “AI” upscaling
- Support for Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio
- A new (and much, MUCH better) remote, included in both hardware packages
Note that the new SHIELD Pro does not include a spinning hard drive, like the older, bigger $299 model. It’s a small upgrade of the flash-based SHIELD, with the same 16GB of storage.
Here’s what’s different about the $150 SHIELD TV (sans Pro):
- New cylindrical form factor
- Lowered RAM (2GB vs 3GB). This means it’s not compatible with some NVIDIA-published Android game ports, like Metal Gear Rising or Tomb Raider.
- Lowered storage (just 8GB)
- No USB ports
And there are other software enhancements, which will be coming to older SHIELD units via over-the-air update:
- Upgraded Android TV interface
- Compatibility with default Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers
- Updated TV interface, Play Store and SHIELD phone app
- Compatibility with all Google Assistant features
Alright, now that that’s out of the way, let’s check out the new design.
New Form Factor
NVIDIA says that the cylindrical SHIELD TV is “designed to disappear,” and that it does. It’s a thick tube of plastic, 6.5 inches long and 1.5 inches in diameter—it looks like one of those Maglite D-cell designs my dad used to keep in his car. On one side is the HDMI port and MicroSD card slot, with a power button you probably won’t use, and on the other is a power cord port and Ethernet port (yes, it still has an option for wired internet). Aside from one seam and an embossed NVIDIA logo, that’s it.
In use, the new SHIELD looks kind of like a laptop power supply, which for some reason, is running from a power outlet to your TV’s HDMI port. It’ll hide on or behind your entertainment center—there’s no need for line-of-sight to your couch since the remote and all accessories use Bluetooth.
It’s certainly a unique approach, especially contrasted with the SHIELD’s previous bombastic, game console-style body. I suspect that the designers were going for an unobtrusive Chromecast-style gadget, but the space, power, and weight requirements of the Tegra hardware were just too much for an HDMI dongle to handle.
Does the form factor make a difference? Not really. Those who want to use external inputs like a mouse and keyboard easily will miss the USB ports, but that’s about the only change in everyday use. (Mice and keyboards can still connect via Bluetooth.) The drop in storage space is a much more significant differentiation—more on that later.
The biggest user-facing change, for both the entry-level SHIELD and the SHIELD Pro, is the new remote. It’s a drastic departure from the skinny remote that shipped with the original SHIELD and has been paired with new models and packages ever since. Instead of a flat glossy slate, you get a triangular prism with conventional AAA batteries and more dedicated buttons with a motion-controlled backlight.
These include power (for the SHIELD, not your TV unless you have HDMI-CEC enabled), menu, play/pause, forward and back, and volume up and down (for the SHIELD or your TV or soundbar, thanks to IR), plus a dedicated Netflix button. The Android Home, Back, and voice control buttons remain, along with the D-pad and central select.
The original remote was a definite low point in the SHIELD’s design, if only because volume control was so spotty with that touch-sensitive strip. The new design is better in every way. Dedicated volume buttons can be trained to your TV’s infrared signals like a universal remote (pressing both up and down at once will send the mute signal), and the menu button can be assigned to any number of useful functions, like a dedicated mute button, toggling the AI upscaling, or opening a specific app. Even the physical design is easier to hold, and switching to AAA batteries is well worth the change. It helps that this triangular design won’t slip between the cushions on my couch!
Even so, there are a couple of ways it could be improved. The power control won’t work for your TV (again, unless you use HDMI-CEC, which can be sketchy), and there’s no way to switch inputs to a game console or Blu-Ray player (though NVIDIA says they’re looking into adding these features). That means the SHIELD remote can’t replace your TV remote, as you might have hoped when you heard about that infrared feature. It’s also a major hassle to get it back open, so the few times you need to swap out those batteries you’ll need to take care for the sake of your fingernails.
The good news is that this new remote design will be available as a $30 purchase, and it’s compatible with older SHIELD TV units. If the remote is what really excites you about these upgrades, you can get it easily.
New Software Options
For me, the highlight of the new upgrades is compatibility with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers. I paired both of these with the new SHIELD, and they worked flawlessly, just like the original SHIELD controller (minus the volume and Android buttons, naturally). Again, this is a feature that’s coming to older SHIELD TV units via a software update.
The things that won’t be coming to older SHIELDs are “AI” 4K upscaling and Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos support.
I was honestly prepared to dismiss this AI-based upscaling at first. It’s local, running on that juiced-up Tegra X1+ chip, making it distinctly different from NVIDIA’s DLSS seen on some recent PC games. And having seen attempts at automatic content upscaling before, I thought it would be a gimmick that made the image sharper but not necessarily “better” on 1080p content displayed on my (admittedly cheap) 4K TV.
But you know what? It works. The SHIELD includes a handy demo mode, allowing you to check out the effect side-by-side with an unaltered image. Watching Netflix content, I could see an increase in sharpness in the features of the Jessica Jones intro, or the subtle background features of Coco. But what really sold me on it was the Star Wars Episode IX trailer: in a shot of C-3PO, I could make out the subtle details of the grid-based lights in his eyes much better with the AI upscaling turned on.
It’s too bad Android TV isn’t actually capable of capturing this effect in a screenshot as it’s running in real-time, so I can’t show it to you in a direct comparison. Um, sorry.
This feature isn’t going to totally transform all that old 1080p content into something worthy of your fancy 4K TV. But if you’re wondering if the feature just makes stuff look better, the answer is “yes.” That’s probably not enough to sell you on a new SHIELD if you’ve still got the old one, but it’s undeniably impressive. I do have to report that testing the upscaler had an unfortunate tendency to crash the Netflix Android TV app, but based on the rest of my testing, that seems to be a Netflix-specific issue.
I don’t have a high-end setup available to test the new Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos features. But these tend to be digital in nature: they’re either available, or they’re not. It could certainly make a difference if you’ve invested four or five grand in your home theater setup.
Value is Lacking
Now we come to the real sour note of this update. At $150, the SHIELD TV is about double what you’d expect to pay for a stand-alone set-top box like the Roku and $50 more than you’d expect from one with 4K and other advanced media features.
And that would be fine. NVIDIA’s demonstrated a commitment to its hardware and software that justifies the premium. Except that the storage on the new SHIELD, frankly, sucks. 16GB was already a bit anemic on previous SHIELDs, but 8GB is an embarrassing lack of storage for any hardware with pretensions of “premium” status, now that even budget phones are coming with 64GB of space. Sure, you can expand it with a cheap MicroSD card (not a USB-based drive, since there aren’t any ports). But why should you have to spend the extra money and deal with the additional management?
It’s worth pointing out that, for just $200, the Nintendo Switch Lite includes a Tegra-based game console, screen, battery, control buttons, and 32GB of storage. There’s just no way to look at this without NVIDIA seeming stingy on built-in storage capacity. If you’re not planning on using the SHIELD for any local media or games, this isn’t a problem. But if you’re looking at a SHIELD at all, the odds are that you want to do more with it than your standard Roku.
The SHIELD Pro isn’t getting out of this unscathed, either. Its $200 price tag is the same as the older “Gaming Edition” bundle, which included NVIDIA’s excellent controller ($60 on its own). Sure, the SHIELD can now use an Xbox or PlayStation controller, which you probably have if you’re interested in the SHIELD for gaming. But deleting the controller and keeping the price the same is still a poor move for value.
All this combines to make the SHIELD far less competitive in terms of price, for different reasons at both levels. It’s a disappointing step down.
Still the Best Around
For four years, we’ve recommended the SHIELD as the best set-top box for serious media and gaming, and that recommendation hasn’t changed. If you want the best experience for 4K streaming, plus access to NVIDIA’s excellent software (including the somewhat less excellent NVIDIA GameStream and GeForce NOW features), it’s still a fantastic product. And it’s only enhanced by NVIDIA’s demonstrated commitment to software and feature updates.
I’m lukewarm on the new form factor for the entry-level SHIELD TV but sold on the redesigned remote. It’s more comfortable, more functional, and much more easy to use. I wish it could control my TV’s power and input in addition to volume, but that might come as a future update. And thankfully, this remote is available as a cheap upgrade to owners of the older SHIELDs, too.
Unfortunately, the new SHIELDs are a poorer value than their older counterparts, even with the lower price for the cylindrical unit. The teeny-tiny storage, MicroSD notwithstanding, is a real downer on otherwise excellent hardware. AI upscaling and new Dolby Vision and Atmos compatibility, while appreciated, don’t fully counterbalance these issues.
If you’re not concerned with comparative value, the SHIELD is still undeniably brilliant. If you are…well, it frequently goes on sale. SHIELD die-hards, pick up the new remote while you wait for one.
Here’s What We Like
- New remote is better in every way
- AI upscaling really works
- Xbox, PlayStation controller support
And What We Don't
- Lower storage on new design
- No controller on SHIELD Pro
- Value doesn't compare well