This has been the most difficult review I have ever had to write. And it is entirely because of the controversial topic of how should price be weighed in a product review. A lot of writers have decided that it shouldn’t be. But because I got into this whole gig out of the vector of doing buyer recommendations when people asked me questions, I have always included price in the equation of the final score. And, after much agonizing, I have decided to continue to do so. I know it is not the popular choice, but in my heart I believe that it is the right thing to do. Where the curve ball comes is here: I am not reviewing this device as a streaming box that competes first and foremost with the likes of a Roku or other Media Player, or even a FireTV. I am grading it as the device that I bought it as; a gaming console that, on price, competes in the same space with the Nintendo Wii U.
The nVidia Shield PRO is the sharpest piece of hardware that I have anywhere near an entertainment center or a PC workstation. Its highly angular design evokes thoughts of The Matrix or any other sci-fi flick. With its singular glowing green slot-light, it is both arrogantly hot while remaining unassumingly humble. It is nice that it is not the obnoxious blue spotlight if the Wii. One thing I do not like is that hitting the supposedly touch-sensitive area of the on-deck power button yielded inconsistent results on my unit.
As I mentioned in my UnBoxed video, this things packs ports equivalent with any “full-price” console. It has 2 X USB 3.0 ports, a microSD card slot, full-sized HDMI output, Ethernet, and a microUSB port. I hooked mine up initially to a 32″ 720p HDTV, and then moved it to a 27″ Viewsonic monitor, and ran it there at 1920 X 1080p.
The game controller, in my opinion, has hit the same sweet spot that the XBox One Controller has in terms of size. The ergonomics are not quite as perfect as the One, but fairly close. The area I am not so hot about is the three buttons that are just touch and do not actually depress. These are the Play/Pause/Start key, the Home button, and the Back button that are located in a cluster around the nVidia button in the center. I do love the integrated Volume control at the bottom of the controller, which will also act as a Mute on/off switch if you hit it dead center. It is also nice that out of the box there are not the XB1/PS4 shenanigans about having to connect the controller over a wire before you can connect to the base unit. It just works out of the box.
And 500GB of storage for the $299 price tag? Simply Wonderful. On to the OS and UI.
The UI is essentially the same as any of the consoles on the market today, or Steam’s Big Screen interface. It is a 10-foot UI that places all of your big-block tiles in horizontal rows from top to bottom. The only place where you encounter the infinite horizontal scroll like you get on the XB1, though, is in the top row. This is where your Recommended content shows up. The more different things you have been doing o the Shield PRO, the wider this single row becomes because the more recommendations you have. Especially if you hit YouTube.
The next row is a short row consisting of a tile for Stream Games, Download Games, and NetFlix. Then you have rows for all of your installed games, then all of your installed apps. One place the Shield Pro exceeds both the XB1 and PS4 is in the store interface, in my opinion. I frequently want to throw my TV out a window whenever I have to actually try to shop in the XBox One or the PlayStation Store from their respective consoles. I typically just go in via my PC and look around for what I want. Google’s experience in maintaining the Google Play Store pays off here. Granted, there is not nearly the same amount of content, but Google’s approach of separating out video, music, apps, and games, lends to even further separation on the Shield PRO with entirely unique store-fronts based on content type and via the dedicated apps, and hence, less clutter and confusion.
One knock is that, as is the case with any Android device, there are a bajillion settings in the System Settings menu and they go waaaaayy deep. A factor that I was unfortunately exposed to more directly than I would have liked. I’ll get to that later.
You’ll find all of the content in the store that is available on any Android device when it comes to music and video. Games are another story, as there is a severely reduced set of titles available for Android TV. The upside is that the content is curated so that you only see what you can run on the Shield PRO, and unlike the XB1, it is clear that you are seeing all of it. And if the games in the Google Play Store are not enough you also have the TegraZone and nVidia Grid. The former is just a portal of games that nVidia has had tailored for its Tegra-powered platforms by brokering deals with the developers or publisher.
nVidia Grid is a game streaming service that, at least for now, is free. I suspect that at some point it will move to a paid model, at least to gain access to certain titles. Right now, there are 50 games available for streaming. Titles include such fare as the entire Batman Arkham trilogy, most of the major Lego games that have come out in the past few years, GRiD, GRiD 2, and Race Driver GRiD, DiRT 2, 3, and one other that I forget, F1 2010, Overlord II, and others. It is a pretty healthy serving that you get for free. Your value will be driven by whether or not you have played those titles before or figure that they are worth another play-through. From my viewpoint, the Grid service is pretty flawless in its actual operation, with zero lag in controller input. Where you do see lag is when the game stream cannot keep up graphicly, in which case it appears that Grid responds in the same way that NetFlix does, by dropping the resolution of what it sends over the pipe.
One advance I saw from my experience of owning an nVidia Shield Portable, is that every Android game that I have played on the Shield PRO has been configured and fully supports the Shield Game Controller. No more farkling around with the nVidia Controller Configuration utility. There are more games available in the Play Store than I will ever get around to playing. Racing games are a big draw in the store, including popular titles from the Asphalt series. Big-time PC game ports have been arriving to the store over the last few months and are available on Android TV, including Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, The Bard’s Tale, Baldur’s Gate, Half-Life 2, and Portal.
The availability of apps is one area where the Shield PRO falls down. The apps available are predominantly centered around media consumption and news. I was hoping that there would be a few productivity and messaging apps. I really wanted to be able to connect a USB keyboard and mouse and be able to type out emails or messages while in front of the Shield PRO for the evening so that I would not have to go over to a PC to respond to incomings.
One of the most appealing (and disappointing) software features of the Shield PRO is the integrated Twitch streaming “app”, which co-exists in a single UI with an onboard recorder. You long-press the Home key on the controller to access the recording/streaming window-shade. The onboard recorder can be set for Auto record, a progressively rolling recording of the last 5 minutes of on-screen activity, or manual, where you start and stop it yourself.
Once you log in with your Twitch account, you can stream to your heart’s content. You can even stream via Twitch Broadcast to the internet while simultaneously recording locally. The problem is that, on my unit at least, there is no in-game audio recorded. Neither to the Twitch stream nor the local recordings. If I turn the microphone on, I can sometimes pick up the background audio from my TV/monitor, but it is buried underneath the clicks from my controller input. It is not the native game audio sent to the recording streams via the Shield PRO’s DSP, which is where the sound stream should be coming from. nVidia Tech Support has been trying to help me out for the past week, but has neither come up with a solution nor offered a remedy. At this point, I am assuming that I have a bad unit, or that this is something in the product line itself that got past quality control. I have not been able to track down any buzz on the web about other Shield Console owners having the same problem. Of course, very few people have actually bought any of these yet.
UPDATE: I am seeing some buzz now about this being a software problem that is plaguing owners of this device. Good news is that means hopefully it can be fixed in an OS update. Bad news is that this sucks for early buyers who have to live with this for the time being. Really surprised and disappointed that I see so many other reviews that went up quick and did not surface this issue.
Despite the Twitch streaming issue, after spending a week-and-a-half with the Shield PRO as my evening focal point after work, you can peep the score below that I have given. I think this device is an incredible value for what you get for $299. I think it has more capabilities, at least at face value, than the Nintendo Wii U. For Android users, it is nice to be immersed in an Android environment on your phone during the day and then be in front of an Android TV at night. It just feels seamless. There’s a ton of content here, between inexpensive Android games, the 50 free streaming titles on the Grid, and having access to your Google Play Music if you have synced your library to that service.
The caveat here is that, just because I have scored the device high, that does not mean it is not a niche product. High scores do not mean universally wide appeal for me. Die-hard Android fans will like this device. Someone who is in the market for a secondary console but is not enamored by Nintendo IP and mascots might find this interesting. Gamers who have a home office or den or a space where they do not have their XB1 or PS4 might like this as a satellite gaming system. There are a few scenarios out there where the nVidia Shield PRO might be the right fit. For me, it was. If it is for you, I think you will find a thoroughly enjoyable experience. If you are not certain that you’ll get the use out of something on the fringe, it might be wiser to wait to see just how well Android TV becomes entrenched as a platform. If you’ve got any questions, feel free to send them our way, or post your comment in the thread below.