It’s tempting to ignore Nvidia’s new Shield box if you’re not a gamer. A $200 streaming box and console, with powerful enough guts to run Crysis 3 and other serious games, certainly seems to have a very specific demo in mind. But when you consider that this Shield can also pump out 4K video and runs Android TV—the same newish smart TV platform found on the Nexus Player and upcoming TVs from Sharp and Sony—it starts to look less like a niche product, and more like the most future-proof media streamer you can buy today.
Eventually, all of the major set-top boxes—Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, you name it—will have versions that output at 4K. That could be years away, though. The Shield, meanwhile, will do so when it launches this May. Not only that, but it includes HEVC and VP9 decoders, meaning it should run 4K video from Netflix, YouTube, and the Android TV version of Google Play. It’ll also work like a Chromecast, acting as middleman to stream content from your device to your television. Amazon Instant Video isn’t part of the Android TV offerings, which cuts into the potential 4K content available, but there should still be plenty to watch.
Between the inevitable transition to 4K over the next several years, Google’s continued investment in the Android TV platform, and the Shield box’s robust guts, it’s not unreasonable to assume that this little black box could have a useful life expectancy that’s far longer than any of its competitors.
And all that’s before you even get to the gaming. The Shield was announced at the Game Developers Conference 2015 in San Francisco, and will be the first piece of hardware that runs on Nvidia’s new Maxwell-based Tegra X1 system on a chip. That insane tiny chip has a 256-core GPU, an eight-core processor, and 3GB RAM. It’s a whole lot of power packed in a relatively small space.
That mighty little chip won’t have to do all of the processing for games. According to Nvidia, the box ties into the Nvidia Grid gaming service, which streams “PC-quality games” from supercomputer servers to the device. There are no 4K game-streaming plans at the moment, though. The highest-level Grid Plus plan supports 1080p streaming at 60fps, while a cheaper Grid plan streams games at 720p. Pricing is still to be announced.
Grid also won’t be the only way to get games for the new Shield. There will be ports of major titles available through Google Play for Android TV, offered on a pay-per-download basis. While set-top boxes like Amazon Fire TV and Google’s Nexus Player also offer gaming experiences, they don’t have nearly enough horsepower to run the sort of titles Shield will offer.
Along with HDMI-out, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.1 support, the new box also has a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and a microSD slot. You’ll probably end up needing that microSD slot or USB ports for storage, because the box only has 16GB onboard.
So yes, at $200 the Shield box comes about double the price of most full-feature set-top boxes. But it’s also significantly more capable than its current competition, as it’s the first big-name offering to support 4K, and its guts and services should make gamers pretty happy. Keep in mind that you’ll actually need a 4K TV to see any 4K. And if you can afford to sit tight, non-gamers will probably want to wait it out until a 4K version of Roku is ready.