The Android TV Experience
This isn’t an Android TV review but it is impossible to talk about the capability of NVIDIA SHIELD without diving into this new operating system and platform. As I mentioned at the beginning, Android TV is meant to integrate as much functionality for media consumption as possible, all in one easy to use software package. This includes streaming video from Google Play, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, your own personal content from sources like Plex, live video from over-the-air receivers and new services like SlingTV, and quite a bit more. Channels that have their own apps for your mobile devices will have (or will soon have) options for Android TV: ESPN, SlingTV, Vevo, etc.
The Android TV Home Screen on SHIELD
And the truth is that my first few days with Android TV on the SHIELD have been amazing. The user interface is easy to use and both my wife and I found it simple to navigate and find content that we wanted. One of the new features of Android TV is the ability to use voice search not just for Google’s own applications and Play store, but to search through other media applications that integrate with the API. So a voice search for “Avengers” will show you the options to rent or buy from Google Play, but also will show you if you have it stored locally on Plex or if it’s available on Hulu Plus, etc. There is one specific hold out for this voice search capability currently: Netflix. They chose to not integrate with Android TV in that way, at least for now, likely due to their dominant position in the market.
The Android TV Home Screen on SHIELD
There are also some apps and channels missing that I think will be critical for Android TV to really meet users’ expectations. Both HBO and Amazon Prime are missing from the Google Play Store. Amazon obviously has a competing platform to Android TV with the Kindle Fire TV and Fire Stick and Apple has tied up HBO exclusivity until sometime later this summer. I can only hope that both of these streaming options find their way to Android TV very soon. (Also note, you can watch HBO Go on your Android phone and cast it to the Android TV as a workaround for now.) UPDATE: Google did announce at the I/O conference this week that HBO would definitely be coming to Android TV this summer.
Android TV Needs HBO…
Google did surprise me by introducing support for over the air broadcasts and DVR functionality at Google I/O this year. NVIDIA told me that SHIELD will absolutely support those tuner devices when they hit the market later this summer, bringing local TV station functionality and recoding capability to the device. That was actually the reasoning behind the inclusion of a 500GB model of SHIELD: DVR capability requires a lot of capacity. UPDATE: NVIDIA updated me with more information on tuner support. SHIELD will support the SiliconDust HDHomeRun TV tuners and a new dust from the vendor will be available in June with added support for MPEG2 hardware decode.
Obviously the NVIDIA SHIELD is not alone in the functionality listed above. There will be other set-top boxes and TVs that directly integrate Android TV and all of them will be able to run the channels and apps listed above. Where the SHIELD does currently have an advantage is at 4K: as of this writing SHIELD will be the only Android TV device that is capable of streaming Netflix and YouTube at 4K resolutions. And in my testing with a 4K 60 Hz capable TV at my house, the quality and performance of this implementation is truly impressive. Netflix is currently recording all of its self-produced series in 4K and shows like House of Cards and Daredevil look amazing. YouTube content will of course vary based on the source, but the test videos I used to evaluate the capability of SHIELD were simply awesome.
4K streaming capability is here and it's gorgeous
For true 4K support though, you will need an HDMI 2.0-ready TV or monitor. If your home theater receiver is not 4K ready you’ll have to depend on the capability for your TV to output digital audio via optical cable that you can then input to your receiver. Setting that up is beyond the scope of this story, but it’s possible.
All the superheroes!
Using Android TV with the voice search capability, as well as the simplified row-based menus, was great. I could pick up either the SHIELD remote or the SHIELD controller, hit the voice button and search for music, movies, TV or applications. The accuracy and speed of the voice recognition is fantastic and anyone that uses Google Now for that on a smartphone or tablet will attest to its capability. You can search for “superhero movies” and get a list that includes The Avengers, The Dark Knight, Man of Steel and more. You can ask it to play a specific audio track like King by Years and Years and will load up on YouTube automatically, playing in the background while you search around for media or games to play.
As a user of Apple TV and Fire TV, I can say that Android TV definitely provides a better overall user experience for both technology enthusiasts as well as users coming to smart TV technology for the first time. Obviously the lack of HBO and Amazon Prime capability will turn some people off for now, but I think that issue gets fixed by the middle of this summer.