Nvidia’s Shield a cool media player dressed as a game device

Nvidia is getting into the digital set-top box game. But you may not realize it when you see the company’s new product: the Shield.

That’s because the graphics chip maker is essentially marketing the new box as a game machine. But unlike other game machines, this one runs on the Android TV platform, includes Google’s powerful voice search technology and has access to a wide variety of Android apps, both games and not.

Unveiled in March, Shield goes on sale Thursday. The base package, which will cost $200, will include a game controller, not a remote control, a nod toward Nvidia’s marketing strategy.

But even with the game controller, the device works well as a streaming media player. You can access videos from Google Play, CinemaNow, Hulu Plus, YouTube and other online media providers. You also can tune into Sling TV, which provides a low-cost Internet-delivered pay TV service. You can watch videos streamed from your home computer via the Plex app. And with an external antenna and a new app from Google, you can tune in live local broadcasts.

Shield also supports Google’s Cast technology. So you can beam to it videos you’re watching on your Android phone or in the Chrome browser on your computer.

Shield will do other things that you can do with rival streaming devices. You can listen to music on it from Pandora or Google Music. And you can view your pictures on it that you beam from your phone.

But Shield will also do a lot more. Thanks to the Google Now technology, you can use Shield as an intelligent voice assistant. Just by talking into a microphone on the game controller or on the optional remote control, you can ask what the weather will be like today or what the score was in last night’s game. You can also ask Google Now to launch an app, instead of having to find it in the interface.

That’s good, because the interface isn’t great, a shortcoming Nvidia attributes to Google. All the apps you download are arrayed in a single row that you have to scroll through from left to right. The only apparent order of the apps is when you actually downloaded them. If you have a particularly large number of apps, it can be a pain to have to scroll through to find the one you want.

To be sure, the interface does show at the top the content you’ve recently interacted with. That’s a great shortcut, because it allows you to go directly to a game you were recently playing or a song you were listening to. Unfortunately, that list is arrayed similarly, as a single row that you have to scroll through from left to right.

In theory, the Shield and Android TV on which it is based includes a universal search feature that allows you to search for content across multiple apps. I say, “in theory,” because it can only comb the listings of certain apps, not all of them. One big one that’s missing is Netflix. The search feature will tell you that you can buy episodes of “House of Cards” on Google Play, but won’t tell you that you can watch them for free on Netflix if you have a subscription.

But, again, the Shield is trying to be much more than a simple Streamer. Nvidia wants you to know that it’s a game machine.

Other manufacturers have tried to go this route before. Although Apple TV doesn’t play games natively, you can beam games from an iPhone or iPad to it and use those devices as game controllers. Roku offers a high-end version of its media players that comes with a motion sensing remote control that can be used to play “Angry Birds” and other games. And Amazon touts the games you can play on its Fire TV and ships a version of the device with a game controller.

But none of those have been particularly satisfying. Games on Apple TV often suffer from a lot of lag, and many gamers prefer to use real game controllers. Beyond “Angry Birds,” you’ll find few games on Roku devices other than some very simple card and trivia games. And the types of games you’ll find on the Fire TV are typically repurposed smartphone games that don’t include many of the popular ones.

Nvidia is trying to offer a lot better experience. The Shield has one of the company’s Tegra processors that Nvidia says is more than 30 times faster than the chips found in Apple TV or Roku. The idea behind giving it that much power is to enable it to play console-quality games natively.

The company is also touting links to many of the games you can find for Android. And it’s providing — at least for now — free access to the Shield to Grid, its service that streams console quality games to users from the Internet.

I found the game offerings and capabilities to be pretty impressive, at least for a digital streaming device. There was no lag in the game controller, even when I played “Lego Batman 2” streamed via Grid. Nvidia is only offering 57 games through Grid right now, most of them older console and PC games. But they are more impressive than what you’ll find available for Fire TV.

The Shield is not a replacement for a traditional console, at least not yet. It lacks the full array of console-quality games and Nvidia doesn’t have any popular proprietary titles or characters like Nintendo does with Mario or Microsoft has with its Halo series.

The biggest downside for me about the Shield is its price. Nvidia is charging $200 for the base model, which is $100 more than Roku is asking for its most expensive player and $130 more than the current Apple TV. Those devices don’t have Google Now or the game capabilities of the Shield, but the Roku offers a lot more channels and Apple TV is easier to use if you have an iPhone or iPad.

For the enhanced version, which includes a 500-gigabyte drive on which you can store games, Nvidia is charging $300. That’s about what Nintendo’s charging for the Wii U and just $50 less than an Xbox One. And, again, the selection of top-quality games for the Shield is nowhere near as good.

So, I like the Shield and I think it’s got a lot of potential. But I’m unsure of its ideal customer. It’s likely too expensive for the folks that are buying Rokus and Apple TVs. Its game selection likely isn’t good enough to entice game enthusiasts. And I’m not sure how many folks lie in between.

Photo courtesy of Nvidia.

 

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  • For those of us who already have PC gaming rigs, this also brings that rig onto any TV in the house.. This also is the first major 4k streaming device (Not covered in this review?!?).. So all those people, like my 70+ year old parents, who purchased 4k tv’s last Christmas will have something to watch that makes use of their TV now.

 
 
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