Reviewing Nvidia's Shield TV: The $200 gaming system you need to consider

This Android-powered set-top-box gaming platform does everything you'd want it to...almost.

Review Nvidia Shield TV gaming platform Android PlayStation 4 Xbox One Wii U

I like video games.

Games are, when it comes to my dedication to running nothing but Free and Open Source Software, my downfall. So, even though many of the games I play are not themselves Free Software, I do try to focus my gaming on platforms that are, at least, themselves open (to some degree).

What this means, in practice, is that I tend to not use platforms like the Xbox or the WiiU, and instead focus on Linux-powered desktops, SteamOS-powered consoles (which are finally starting to ship) and Android-powered handhelds. Something my Free Software-thumping mind can take a wee bit of solace in. 

See also: Review: Nvidia's Android-powered Shield tablet is actually great for gaming

Earlier this year, I got my hands on the Nvidia Shield Tablet. A truly amazing hand-held gaming system (which doubles as an 8-inch Android tablet) that quickly became my primary gaming device… and remains so to this day. Minecraft, Half-Life 2, Civilization, and a boat-load of emulators make this the best, most versatile, portable gaming system on the planet. Bar none.

But, while the Shield Tablet does have an HDMI out for connecting to a TV, it’s not really designed to be a standard set-top-box-style console. 

For that, Nvidia created the Shield TV, which I have had hooked up in my living room for the past two weeks.

And I love it. Absolutely love it. Though… not as much as I love the Shield Tablet. But, before we get into the one real shortcoming of the Shield TV, let’s talk about all the things it does great.

See also: The Gaming Paradox: There just aren't enough free and open source games

First of all, the hardware is fantastic. For $200 (far less than a WiiU, Xbox One, or PS4) you get a slender, small-footprint set-top box that looks ultra sleek. The guts of the Shield TV are even faster than the Shield Tablet, providing stellar performance. Even at full 4K resolution, according to the specs. I was not able to test this out, as I do not actually own a 4K TV, but I can confirm that it performs silky smooth at 1080p. Worth noting: The WiiU and PS4 can’t do games at 4K. But the significantly less expensive Shield TV can.

The Shield TV also supports Nvidia’s game-streaming service, GeForce Now. An $8 per month, play-all-you-want game service – think of it like a video game version of Netflix. When I reviewed this service in Beta form earlier this year (when it was called “Grid”), I found it to be astoundingly good. A lot of big-name titles available on GeForce Now look and perform quite well when streamed to the Shield TV.

As a video streaming device, the Shield TV also rocks. Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, etc., are all here and working fantastically well. Again, Netflix 4K video streaming is supposedly supported here… but I was not able to confirm that.

The controller that comes with the Shield TV is nearly identical to the one that came with the Shield Tablet. It is essentially a wireless (communicating over Wi-Fi for low latency) game controller that bears some resemblance to the Xbox controller in general layout. The notable differences being that the Shield controller also has a touchpad mouse at the bottom and a microphone at the top for voice controls. Having been playing with a version of this controller for more than half a year now, I can confidently say that I truly dig it. Feels solid. Controls are responsive. Button clicks feel right.

You can also grab apps and games from the Google Play Store that are set to be compatible with Android TV.

And there’s where the problem comes in. 

The Shield TV is an amazing device. It truly is. And I fully intend to buy a second one for my bedroom TV. But there is an astounding lack of games that have been made available for Android TV.

That’s not to say there aren’t great games here (including emulators and some seriously high-quality titles like Portal and some Grand Theft Auto games)... but there are some noteworthy titles missing.

Minecraft? Not here. Minecraft works great on the Shield tablet… which means it should play fantastically on the Shield TV. But it simply is not available via the Play Store. There are others, but, as my daughter pointed out to me, “if there’s no Minecraft… what’s the point?”

My four-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s harsh words haven’t kept us from enjoying the heck out of the Shield TV… but she does make a good point. There are a lot of titles that could be made available on the Shield TV that simply aren’t there. Which means the device isn’t as absolutely, positively amazing as it could be. This isn’t Nvidia’s fault, mind you. Just something the general Android TV ecosystem needs to improve on.

The selection of Android TV-compatible apps and games is really the one thing holding it back. On the Shield Tablet there is also, for example, an Xfinity app that allows you to live-stream (and on-demand playback) a wide selection of channels. But the Xfinity app is simply not available for Android TV. And it would be stellar if it were. The access to the game-streaming service makes this much less painful, luckily.

All that said… it’s worth mentioning again that I plan on purchasing a second one of these sometime soon. It’s an amazing gaming console (and video streamer) at a stellar price-point – cheaper than any other high-quality console on the market (including the new SteamOS-powered machines).

And while the catalogue of games is less than what I had hoped for, it seems to be improving quickly – with already enough high-quality titles to consider the Shield TV to be an excellent gaming console.

Though if Google could see fit to allow me to install non-TV approved apps/games on Android TV – games that would, often, likely work great – that would make me smile.

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