Most streaming sticks from Roku, Google, and Amazon cost less than $50 and support 4K video. But the NVIDIA Shield TV starts at $150, a price that’s only matched by Apple TV boxes. It’s an outrageous amount of money to pay for a streaming stick, but still, the NVIDIA Shield TV is worth every penny.
First, What Is NVIDIA Shield TV?
The original NVIDIA Shield TV launched back in 2015. And at that time, it wasn’t really called a “streaming stick.” Sure, it ran Android TV and was the first widely-available 4K UHD set-top box, but NVIDIA called the Shield TV a “micro-console.”
That’s because Shield TV was primarily targeted toward gamers and enthusiasts. Most people did not have 4K TVs, and few streaming services aired content at a high resolution. The main selling point for this box was its library of supported Android games and the NVIDIA Grid (now called GeForce NOW) cloud gaming service.
Tinkerers were also attracted to the “micro-console,” which could be modified for several purposes. It could double as a Plex Media Server, for example, and offered smart home functionality through Samsung SmartThings (a feature that died because of Samsung).
We now think of NVIDIA Shield TV as a streaming stick, mainly because it offers the best video and audio quality of any small streaming device (and because cloud gaming took a while to pan out). But these additional features haven’t gone anywhere, meaning that Shield TV is still the ultimate streaming device for gamers and tinkerers.
High-End Video Quality with AI Enhancements
Most people buy an NVIDIA Shield TV for the video quality. Yeah, other streaming sticks support 4K UHD and Dolby vision—that stuff isn’t too rare. But the NVIDIA Shield also uses AI to upscale video, offering the best picture quality of any streaming device.
By default, all TVs try to upscale content to fit a native resolution. But these milquetoast upscaling algorithms mainly exist to make low-res content fill the whole screen. They rarely improve image quality.
NVIDIA’s AI upscaling tech actively improves image quality, effectively making low-res content look like crystal clear 4K (or 1080p if you don’t have a 4K TV). It’s an incredibly valuable feature in the world of streaming, as most of the movies and shows on your favorite services are only available in 720p or 1080p.
I should also note that NVIDIA Shield TV is the king of audio quality. It supports 32-bit 192 kHz audio over HDMI and can run 7.1 surround sound systems.
Android TV Software and Chromecast Built-In
I hate to throw the Chromecast under the bus, but NVIDIA Shield TV is the best way to experience the Android TV software. The expensive hardware is snappy and only somewhat buggy, which is more than you can say for most streaming sticks.
The Android TV software fits in its own little niche. It works with select Android apps and games, of course, but it’s also incredibly customizable. And thanks to Google’s algorithms, it offers advanced “personalization” features that save you time when looking for shows or movies.
Some of these personalization features are very obvious. Android TV has a Discover tab that suggests shows and movies you may enjoy, freeing you from opening individual apps. But there’s also a universal search function that digs through all available services. If you press the microphone button on your remote and say “Scooby-Doo live action movie,” for example, Android TV will show every service that hosts the Scooby-Doo movie.
The Android TV software also supports Google Cast functionality, meaning that you can beam a video from your phone or computer straight to your TV (you can even use it to mirror your screen). This is especially useful when you’re watching something on a phone and want to quickly move it to the big screen.
Now, I’ll be the first to say that Android TV isn’t perfect. It doesn’t receive enough updates, smart home features are incredibly lacking, and if you just want a clean and simple interface, Roku or Apple TV are the way to go. But when it comes to personalization and tinkering, Android TV is king.
Cloud Gaming, Android Games, and Emulators on Your TV
While NVIDIA’s plan to build a “micro-console” didn’t really pan out, the NVIDIA Shield TV is still the best streaming stick for gamers. It can play a flurry of Android apps, it works with emulators (so you can play classic games), and of course, it’s one of the best options for cloud gaming with NVIDIA GeForce Now.
The GeForce Now experience is especially compelling. NVIDIA’s cloud gaming platform allows you to play AAA titles on any device without any huge downloads or extra hardware. The GeForce Now “RTX 3080” tier offers top-of-the-line graphics that put the newest Xbox and PlayStation to shame, and of course, GeForce Now works with Fortnite (even on iOS).
You can connect just about any gamepad to the NVIDIA Shield TV, by the way. If you want to use an Xbox or PlayStation controller, that’s fine. Voice chat also works, and if you’re more of a PC gamer, you can connect a keyboard and mouse with the console.
The Pro Model Is More Than Just a Streaming Stick
Most people just want a streaming stick, which is why NVIDIA sells two versions of the Shield TV. There’s the standard model, which costs $150 and looks like a black hotdog, and there’s the more advanced $200 Shield TV Pro.
The standard NVIDIA Shield TV has a microSD slot and an Ethernet jack, which are awesome but a bit limiting. By comparison, the Shield TV Pro (a set-top box) has two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, an extra 8GB of storage (16GB total), an extra 1GB of RAM (3GB total).
These extra perks enable the following features on NVIDIA Shield TV Pro:
Improved AI Upscaling
One of the big drawbacks of the standard NVIDIA Shield TV is that it only runs AI upscaling on 30FPS video. Now, this is mainly an enthusiasts’ problem, as you’ll rarely stream 720p or 1080p content at 60FPS.
But it’s a big disappointment when you’re streaming custom content (from a PC via LAN, for example) or when using GeForce Now at a low resolution and high frame rate. If you plan to do anything beyond typical streaming with the NVIDIA Shield, you should buy the Pro model.
It Works with OTA TV!
Antenna TV is severely underrated. It’s free TV, after all, and it actually offers a better picture quality than cable. While the standard NVIDIA Shield doesn’t work with OTA TV, you can bring this feature to your NVIDIA Shield TV Pro using two accessories.
All you need are a TV antenna and a digital tuner, preferably an HD HomeRun Duo ($110) or Hauppauge WinTV-dualHD USB ($75). Hook the antenna up to the tuner, connect the tuner to your NVIDIA Shield TV Pro over USB, and you’re all set!
Well, you will need an app to run a live TV service. You can either use the LiveTV app that comes standard with Android TV, install the HDHomeRun app, or use Plex to handle everything. Notably, both the HDHomeRun and Plex apps support DVR functionality.
It’s a Plex Media Server!
Have you ever wanted to build your own streaming service? Well, it’s easy with Plex. You just load your movies, TV shows, and music into a Plex Media Server and let the software organize everything. Then, you can stream that content on any device inside or outside your home.
It just so happens that the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro is an amazing Plex Media Server. All you need are a few hard drives (or a NAS device) and the Plex Android TV app. Because the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro has a relatively powerful processor, it can handle multiple simultaneous streams and 4K content.
NVIDIA SHIELD TV Pro (2019)
The NVIDIA Shield TV Pro offers all the features of its cheaper, smaller sibling. But it also offers OTA TV functionality, can work as a Plex Media Server, and features AI upscaling at 60FPS. Plus, there’s extra RAM and USB ports.
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Should You Buy an NVIDIA Shield TV?
If you want to make the most of a 4K TV, an NVIDIA Shield TV is absolutely worth the money. It’s expensive, but it offers the best 4K streaming experience thanks to AI upscaling technology.
Enthusiasts and dorks can also get a lot out of the NVIDIA Shield TV, though they should buy the Pro model. It opens the door to building a Plex Media Server, upscaling content at a high frame rate, and streaming OTA TV with minimal hardware.
But here’s the thing; you don’t need to spend a ton of money for a good streaming experience. The average person, even if they own a 4K TV, should probably buy a cheaper streaming stick. Companies like Roku, Amazon, and Google sell 4K streaming sticks for $50 or less—they don’t have NVIDIA’s AI upscaling, but hey, that’s the tradeoff for buying something that isn’t ridiculously expensive.