4K HDR, Streaming Services, and Gaming
4K HDR capability is still relatively new, and as an emerging technology there are some quirks to deal with. The NVIDIA SHIELD supports 4K HDR content, but just because you have a 4K HDR TV doesn't mean you'll automatically see an HDR picture out of the box.
Each TV will vary slightly but here are the key points. First, make sure your TV supports HDR, specifically the HDR10 standard. Many early 4K sets do not have this capability. Second, make sure you're using an HDMI 2.0 cable. Most HDMI cables sold in the past few years should support the 2.0 specification, but extra-long and extra-cheap cables may cause issues.
Third, head into the SHIELD settings to configure your output resolution (from the SHIELD home screen: Settings > Display & Sound > Resolution). Finally, you need to make sure that your TV is set to receive the 4K HDR signal. Many TVs require the user to enable the option in the TV's settings, or use a specific HDMI input. Check your TV's manual or search online if you're not seeing the appropriate settings. Some examples:
LG: Home > HDMI > Settings > Advanced > Picture > HDMI Ultra Deep Color
Sony: Home > Settings > External Inputs > HDMI Signal Format > Enhanced Format
You'll likely need to reboot the TV after making the change so if you're not prompted to do so, you probably haven't found the correct setting to enable HDR.
Now, all of the above assumes that you're connecting your SHIELD directly to your television. If you're using a home theater receiver in the HDMI chain, you'll need to either make sure your receiver supports 4K HDR or, if it doesn't, buy a splitter that passes through 4K HDR so that you can send HDR video to your TV and audio to your receiver.
This inconsistency and uncertainty regarding HDR makes it a bit of a pain to get going, but once you're up and running you'll find that the HDR experience was worth the effort. In terms of content, Amazon, Netflix, Vudu, and YouTube all support 4K HDR, as does Plex if you can find video files in that format.
Subscription Streaming Service
If OTA television and your personal Plex media library aren't enough, you can also add a subscription streaming service to your SHIELD. As we discussed in Part 1, the three primary options currently available in the U.S. are PlayStation Vue, Sling TV, and YouTube TV.
Each option offers different pricing and channel lineups, and each includes some form of DVR support. The big factor in YouTube TV's favor is that it offers all local channels in most markets where it is available, but if you've already set up a OTA tuner and antenna, this shouldn't be a huge factor.
We briefly subscribed to all three options and found that picture quality and navigation were similar, with a slight edge in quality for PlayStation Vue. All options offer some form of the familiar programming guide, on-demand content, and personalized recommendations.
The only disappointment is that, of all the subscription streaming services we've tested across all devices, our personal preference right now is DirecTV NOW, as it generally offers the best picture quality and channel lineup. But, unfortunately, DirecTV NOW is not officially available on SHIELD/Android TV, and there's no word on when or if it will arrive. Those willing to tinker can take a shot at sideloading the Android Mobile version of DirecTV NOW, but it's a hacky setup that seems to break often (i.e., not good for the spousal acceptance factor).
Many reading may wonder why someone who wants to "cut the cord" would then turn around and hand a subscription fee right back to the media companies. It's a valid question, and the reality is that many who cut the cord will be satisfied with OTA and free online streaming options. But it also ignores the fact that many types and sources of content — ESPN and some other live sports, national news, HGTV, etc. — aren't yet completely available online. Some of these sources offer their own apps with a subset of content, while others require that the user have a cable or subscription streaming service in order to access their apps.
But even if you feel it's necessary to keep a subscription streaming service around, most options can still save you money and hassle compared to traditional cable or satellite service. All of the subscription streaming services offer plans that start below the typical monthly cable fee, and none of them require contracts or special equipment. That means you can try a service out for a month, cancel, switch to another service, and repeat this as many times as desired without needing to schedule a technician visit or return cable boxes.
Gaming on the SHIELD
Gaming wasn't our primary focus in this cord-cutting project, but it's an area where the SHIELD really stands out from other set-top devices and it's a nice feature to have. So let's briefly touch on our gaming setup on the SHIELD.
NVIDIA GameStream: GameStream lets anyone with a recent GTX GPU stream PC games from their gaming PC to the SHIELD. To set it up, simply log into GeForce Experience with the same account on both the PC and SHIELD, turn on GameStream in the GeForce Experience settings, and you'll see a list of your compatible PC games appear on the SHIELD. It's streaming, so expect just a little latency, but the experience for a large number of games is quite good. We played several hours of Assassin's Creed Origins with the SHIELD controller on the big screen and it was quite immersive.
GeForce NOW: This can be confusing because there's also a "bring your own games" GeForce NOW service for Mac, but what we're talking about here is a SHIELD-exclusive subscription service that gives you access to a number of streaming PC games for $7.99 per month with the option to purchase additional titles that aren't included in the base package. This is streaming from outside your home, so expect even more latency than GameStream, but if you have decent bandwidth you'll find a number of games are still enjoyable to play. You also don't need to have a gaming PC on the network.
SHIELD-Exclusive Native Games: In addition to the streaming options, there are a number of native games that are exclusive to SHIELD, including Metal Gear Solid 2, Half-Life 2, Borderlands 2, War Thunder, Portal, and Doom 3. Thanks to the power of its Tegra X1 processor, these games run completely natively, providing the best experience without the latency of streaming.
Android Games: As an Android TV-powered device, a whole range of Android games and apps are also available. Many of them are junk, but you'll still find quite a few that are high quality with complete controller support.
Retro Games: Related to the previous category, the availability of Android apps means that you'll have dozens of emulation apps at your fingertips. Just load some ROMs up on an SD Card or USB drive and you'll transform your SHIELD into a retro gaming station.
Phew, that's a lot of stuff happening with one device. Let's take a step back and summarize our cord-cutting setup.
The Software & Services:
- Amazon Video
- NVIDIA GameStream
- Arc Browser (and assorted retro emulators)
With this setup, we can watch and record live over-the-air TV for free, watch and listen to our personal media library of movies, TV shows, and music, stream additional content from Netflix and Amazon (in 4K HDR!), stream our PC games for free to the living room, and play a huge library of retro games (who needs an SNES Classic?).
One feature that we haven't looked into much thus far is Google Assistant, which was added to the SHIELD via a recent firmware update. Thus far our testing has been confined to asking Google to play a certain show or movie for us via Plex, or skip to the next episode, but there are a ton of other functions ranging from ordering a pizza to controlling a home automation system. We'll continue to play with Google Assistant and have more to share in our Part 3 retrospective.
We're quite happy with our cord-cutting setup. The NVIDIA SHIELD has proven to be up to the task of handling all of the wants and needs we identified when embarking on this journey, and it's quite impressive to see all of the things this little box can do.
In Part 3, we'll take a look back at the whole process to identify any issues that we haven't yet discovered, determine our actual cost savings from dumping cable, and find out if our wives are actually going to be OK with this whole thing. Stay tuned!