How Nvidia Built an Almost-Perfect Streaming Device for Cord Cutters

New updates add Google Assistant, Smartthings Hub

nvidia shield
Courtesy of NVIDIA

The market for media streaming devices is a crowded one. Roku, Amazon, Google and Apple are offering consumers a plethora of pucks, sticks and boxes designed to bring Netflix, Hulu and more to consumers’ TVs. However, a small but growing group of cord cutters and digital media enthusiasts is instead swearing on a device produced by an unlikely competitor: Graphics card maker Nvidia and its Shield TV set-top, which just received some major updates.

When Nvidia first introduced the Shield 2015, it was primarily viewed as a slimmed-down game console, capable of streaming video games directly from the cloud. The device, which initially sold in two configurations for $199 and $299 respectively, had little in common with inexpensive media streamers from the likes of Roku and Amazon. For one, it shipped with a full-fledged game controller in the box. And then there were the high-powered innards, which were also more closely resembling a game console than a cheap streaming box.

“We built a custom processor,” said Shield general manager Ali Kani during a recent interview with Variety. Nvidia also decided to put 3GB of RAM into the device, and shipped the higher-end version with an integrated 500 GB hard drive. And the Shield hits the top of the specs in almost any other measure as well: It streams 4K and HDR, and supports Dolby Atmos surround sound. “We over-invested,” in the hardware, admitted Kani.

But the company also had an inkling that media may be a big opportunity as well. “The TV hadn’t changed that much,” said Kani. Nvidia’s hunch was that this would quickly change if it would give developers a full-fledged app store, and the ability to run powerful apps in a multitasking environment. In other words: Make it possible to run services 24/7, and not just when a user decides to open or close a streaming app.

“There is gonna be a need for computing power,” said Kani. “You need these specs, you need this performance.”

In the case of the Shield, this “build it, and they will come” approach actually worked. Plex teamed up with Nvidia to build a special version of its software for the streamer that works both as a server and a client, doing away with the need to run a separate PC or home server to manage one’s media collection — a first for the media center app maker.

Lazy loaded image
Screenshot: Janko Roettgers / Variety

Plex has since added more functionality to its software, including support for live TV and DVR features. Now, the Shield can be turned into a full-fledged DVR with the addition of little more than a USB TV tuner. Other companies have since followed suit and also embraced the Shield as a DVR solution. This includes Tablo, a company that’s best known for its DVRs for cord cutters, which is now selling a tuner adapter to bring live and recorded over-the-air television to the Tablo as well. 

This week, Nvidia added another major update to the Shield, rolling out a software update that brings Google’s Assistant to the device. Users can now voice search across apps, start direct playback of shows with voice commands, query their calendars, ask for weather, traffic, photos from their Google Photos albums, factoids, jokes and much more. The device even works in concert with other Google Chromecast-compatible hardware, so you can ask it to start playing music in another room of the house.

Lazy loaded image
Courtesy of Nvidia

To be fair, the Assistant integration isn’t perfect yet. A brief test on a device loaned to Variety by Nvidia revealed a few shortcomings, including missing integrations with some of the apps available on the device.

Moreover, Google Assistant continues to offer different sets of features on your phone, on a Google Home and now on an Android TV device like the Nvidia Shield. Some of that is to be expected, as each of these devices comes with its own strengths and weaknesses, but it’s hard to understand why one wouldn’t be able to do something as simple as set an alarm on a TV device.

Then there’s the issue of the microphone. Nvidia chose not to integrate a far-field mic into the Shield itself, in part because more than half of its users stow it away in their TV furniture. Instead, the company integrated a mic in the remote that needs to be activated with the press off a button.

And starting this week, it also turned the Shield’s game controller into an always-on mic, capable of responding to the obligatory “Okay Google” wake word. However, the game controller’s mic is optimized for distances ranging from 3-6 feet, so you may not be able to use it from across the room.

For that Amazon Echo-like use case, Nvidia had announced its own hardware solution at CES. The Nvidia Spot, a $50 microphone and speaker combination, was supposed to bring far-field voice to the Shield, and potentially to any room in your house. However, ten months later, the Spot is still nowhere to be found.

“We are still working on it,” said Kani. He wouldn’t comment on whether the company would release the product before the end of the year or delay it to next year, but admitted that it wasn’t ready for a release: “We are not there yet.”

The company is close to shipping another previously-announced Shield feature. It is going to add support for Samsung’s Smartthings technology to the streamer, effectively turning it into a hub for the smart home. In a demo, Kani showed how this will make it possible to control a thermostat, connected light bulbs and even a Sonos speaker with simple voice commands with the Shield.

What’s more, consumers can connect multiple devices together, and change the temperature, light and music as soon as a sensor notices the garage door opening. The Shield will be able to control Wifi-connected devices at no additional cost, and the company will sell a small USB adapter to add support for additional wireless standards commonly used by internet-connected appliances for around $30.

A DVR, smart home support and advanced voice control: Much of this functionality goes far beyond what other streaming devices can do. Or, as Kani put it: “A Roku doesn’t have the specs to do these things.” And with the Google Assistant on board, the Shield may finally be ready to appeal to more mainstream audiences as well. “We clearly were the best streamer for games,” said Kani. “Now, we feel we are the best streamer.”

Nvidia hasn’t released any sales numbers for the Shield yet, but it’s clear that Roku’s and Amazon’s streamers as well as Google’s Chromecast are still a lot more popular. These devices are also significantly cheaper. Roku’s streaming hardware starts at $25, while the cheapest Shield sells for $179. Only Apple sells its Apple TV in the same price range.

Still, Kani seemed optimistic that ultimately, horsepower and versatility will win. “Streaming is changing,” he said.