Nvidia's Newest Set-Top Box Uses AI To Turn Content 4K

Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

It’s not magic, but when the new Nvidia Shield works, it almost feels like it. The new tube-look revision of Nvidia’s already superb set-top box has taken away a few features, dropped the price, and packed in a new variant of the Tegra X1 chip. This chip is important because it allows the Shield to accomplish the flashiest trick up its sleeve: AI-impowered upscaling content of 720p and above to 4K.

This is the third iteration of the Nvidia Shield. The first one launched in the U.S. in 2015, and it was a pretty great Android TV-based set-top box. The second one came out in 2017, was also quite good, but didn’t change a whole lot besides its physical footprint (it was smaller). This third version comes in two flavours. There’s the $US200 ($292) Nvidia TV Shield Pro, which looks like the versions from 2015 and 2017, and the $US150 ($219) Nvidia TV Shield, which looks like a little tube. Nvidia provided us with the $US150 ($219) version to review, and I’ve been playing with it the last few days, hopping between it and the $250 Apple TV 4K.

Editor's Note: The original Shield took a while to launch in Australia, and it looks like this same wait will be replicated with the TV Shield and TV Shield Pro. They are not currently available on Nvidia's webstore, and local pricing and availability are yet to be confirmed.

Nvidia Shield TV

WHAT IS IT?

A totally redesigned Android TV box with a souped-up processor.

PRICE

$US150 ($219) for the TV; $US200 ($292) for the TV Pro

LIKE

The AI upscaling feature can be handy, and the remote is great.

NO LIKE

Android TV still lacks the app support of other OSes. AI upscaler doesn't work on all content.

The tube version of the Shield is deeply pared down from the Pro and previous versions. There are no USB ports, support for a Plex media server, or the ability to use it as a Samsung SmartThings hub. It also only comes with 2GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage (the Pro comes with 3GB of RAM and 16GB of storage). This is probably fine for you, and if you really need those additional features, the Pro is $75 more.

Nvidia’s goal with the tube-like Shield was to create something that could just be plugged in behind the TV and promptly forgotten. One end has an HDMI port and a microSD slot, while the other end has a Gigabit Ethernet port and a port for power. When it’s all plugged in, it’s sort of like one long cord with a chunky section in the middle.

OS-wise the experience is virtually identical to the previous generations. It uses the Android TV, which means support for YouTube, Google Music and Amazon Prime, but no real support for Apple TV or random apps found on other services.

There are two big upgrades over previous generations. One is the remote, which was completely redesigned. Instead of a finicky volume slider operated by touch, there are actual volume buttons! And a power button! And a play/pause button! There are even a dedicated Netflix button and a programmable button you can set to jump immediately to an app of your choosing.

Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

The controller also has a totally different shape than previous models that is much, much more pleasant to use and big enough that is less likely to get lost in the couch (I haven’t lost it yet!). Plus, it ditches the dumb and hard-to-change watch battery of yore and replaced it with two AAA batteries that Nvidia told me should last for up to six months. Also, while the Shield remote uses Bluetooth to communicate case with the set-top box, it also includes an IR blaster to control a TV or other IR-only boxes plugged into the TV.

Yet the more significant change to the Shield TV is found on the inside. The Tegra X1 processor is gone and replaced with the Tegra X1+. So now, the Nvidia Shield TV supports both Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision. Better yet is a new AI upscaling feature.

The idea of the feature is that it can upscale 720p and 1080p content up to 4K and do so better than your TV. Most set-top boxes leave the upscaling to the TV, but the abilities of a TV’s upscaler vary widely by TV brand and make. A super-cheap LG TV is not going to upscale content as well as a $15,000 OLED from LG.

TV companies made a big deal about upscaling in the early days of 4K, and back at CES 2019 they also made a lot of noise about their ability to upscale content to the new series of 8K televisions appearing on the market. However, in practice, most TV upscalers do little more than gently sharpen whatever content is on screen.

The Nvidia Shield TV’s upscaler is a little more aggressive and can frequently do a much better job. I paired it with a two-year-old LG OLED panel (not $15,000) and was super impressed with how it sharpened the lines and removed the blur on 720p and 1080p content... most of the time.

It did a great job on cartoons like Avatar, RWBY, and Carole and Tuesday, and it did a pretty solid job with some live-action movies. However, it wasn’t as good with live-action TV shows. A wide variety of 720p clips of CW and NBC shows like Batwoman and The Good Place didn’t look that much better than the original source material (I ripped them using an OTA DVR that saves to my Plex server).

There were also some hiccups with fast on-screen action. A big fight scene in the latest season of RWBY got over-sharpened to the point of being too noisy. Already noisy content, like some scenes from the reality show Many Sides of Jane, just looked even noisier. The upscaler also doesn’t work on 480p or lower definition content, and it turns off automatically for true 4K content like most Netflix originals.

What’s nice about the upscaler is, it’s extremely customisable. You can set it to be super aggressive, or barely there, and there’s a built-in demo mode that, when activated, uses that aforementioned programmable button. You can press it to toggle between the upscaled and non-upscaled content or hold it to turn on a slider that moves across the screen and gives you a side by side view of the content upscaled and not. I’ll admit that half the appeal of the upscaler was getting to see just how much it fixed (and sometimes broke) content in real-time.

Photo: Alex Cranz, Gizmodo

But I’m still not entirely sure you need the Shield TV—as much as I like it. The upscaler and support for Dolby Atmos and Vision are extremely welcome, but unless you already have a higher-end 4K set, you probably won’t enjoy those features. The older Shield TV on sale might be a better solution. Still, Nvidia is actually thinking about upscaling, and as we’re driven further and further into buying higher-resolution TV sets, a good upscaler will not only be welcome, but vital. I’ve seen what 8K upscaling looks like right now, and it isn’t pretty. An 8K version of the Shield will, in a couple of years, be a very nice thing to own.

For now, the Nvidia Shield TV feels like a very cool thing if you want a very high-quality 4K Android TV experience. It’s more expensive than Amazon’s 4K Fire TV options, but it also supports the actual Android Play store, which means more apps and a huge variety of emulators. Chromecast is built-in too, which means future Stadia users might have a solid set-top box for playing games in the cloud. And if you can’t wait for Stadia to arrive, the Shield TV supports Nvidia’s GeForce Now service right this minute (it’s even free).

If you have $219 and want the very best Android TV experience, then the Shield is a no-brainer. And if you have a very nice TV and aren’t quite satisfied with how it or your current set-top box handles content, then it might be worth giving the Nvidia Shield and its upscaler a shot. It’s not radically changing the way TVs and set-top boxes upscale content, but its a noticeable step towards a crisper and clearer future.

README

  • AI-powered upscaler handles most content very well.

  • Unfortunately, the upscaler doesn’t work with sub-720p content and can some time produce unpleasant amounts of sharpening noise.

  • It supports Dolby Vision and Atmos.

  • There’s a more souped-up $US200 ($292) Shield TV Pro. You probably don’t need it.

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