Nvidia Shield Android TV vs Valve Steam Link

Streaming devices you can control from the comfort of your couch.

By Ryan Hilary

If you’re like me, you probably don’t find PC gaming particularly comfortable; you certainly wouldn’t mistake it for the couch-based pillowfest that its console equivalent offers. Spending hours hunched over a desk leaves me with a sore back and cramped hands. Thankfully, a streaming revolution is now in full effect, and it has produced at least two new devices designed to bring PC titles directly to your living-room television.

The Steam Link Is a small box resembling Google’s Chromecast. It feeds gameplay directly from your computer to any HDMI-equipped TV.

The Nvidia Shield is set up to stream games the same way, but it can also function as a dedicated console, and can download and run games from the Android store regardless of what kind of rig you have. It’s also a full-fledged multimedia center, with support for apps including Netflix and HBO Go. Chances are you won’t be disappointed with either product—but you won’t need both, either. So which one wins out?

List $200

Steam Link

by Valve
List $50

The Scorecard

Valve Steam Link

Shield Android TVSteam Link
Design
User Interface
Library
Performance
Controller
Compatibility
Accessories
Value
Verdict45

Design

I didn’t find either device particularly gorgeous. The Steam Link looks kind of like a portable hard drive, with a matte finish and a gratuitous curve on one corner (to make it sexier, I guess?). It’s not pretty, but it’s not ugly either, and I appreciate the simplicity of the design.

Nvidia’s effort is all angles, the size and shape of a small tablet from a future that loves triangle designs on its gadgets. The shield is futuristic looking and not devoid of sex appeal, but I found the molding slightly flimsy and the overall design clunky. Of course, matching it against the Link on this criterion is not really a fair fight, since the Shield packs so much more functionality under its hood.But my living-room setup is already crowded, and I have to go with the unobtrusive Steam Link.

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User Interface

The Steam Link relies on a stripped-down, TV-friendly version of the Steam OS, which I found infinitely more intuitive than Steam’s sometimes confusing PC software. I jumped straight into my favorite game with minimal fuss—with minimal effort to coordinate between PC and television. In comparison, the interface for Android TV seemed a bit cluttered. When I booted the device up, it bombarded me with too much of a good thing—apps aplenty—when all I wanted was games, games, and more games. Again, this isn’t the fairest of fights, since the Shield can do more than the Link. But for this gamer, simplicity again wins out.

Winner:Valve Steam Link

Library

The Steam Link can play anything available on the Steam store—that’s around 4000 titles—and its third-party app support (such as Netflix) is increasing with each new update.

The Shield comes with dozens of supported programs—including YouTube and Pandora (but no Amazon or iTunes)—and like the Steam Link, it can stream any compatible game through the GeForce Experience desktop app (if you have an Nvidia graphics card on your PC).

Where the Shield seems to trump the Link is in its capacity to play games downloaded directly from the Android store, regardless of the kind of PC you have. But in reality, if you rely solely on Android Store games and eschew streaming altogether, you’ll severely limit your library. As a hardcore gamer, I found this to be somewhat of a deal breaker. The second clincher is the ubiquity of Valve’s platform, which exerts major influence on how developers think about releasing titles and isn’t likely to change significantly in the conceivable feature. If you want a reliable platform that is likely to stay reliable, your best bet is to stick with Valve.

Winner:Valve Steam Link

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Performance

Both boxes’ streaming performance depends entirely on the power of the PC you connect them to. In my experience, the wireless is kind of crummy, and on both devices I experienced serious lag issues when playing The Witcher 3 (a graphically demanding game). When the bytes were flowing properly, however, the results were phenomenal with both the Shield and the Link.

Aside from streaming, the Nvidia set-top box has the distinct advantage of being a mini-console in its own right, boasting a Tegra X1 processor with 3GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Those ingredients produce a powerful gaming experience capable of handling graphically sophisticated titles, regardless of whether you have an up-to-date PC. Out of the box, the Nvidia Shield is the clear winner here; but if you have a state-of-the-art rig for your Steam Link, the scales come closer to balancing.

Winner: Nvidia Shield Android TV

Controller

Designing a great controller is an art form: The top names in the business took the better part of two decades to develop their signature joypads. So it didn’t surprise me that both the Link and the Shield stumbled a little in this most delicate of departments—the Steam Link in particular. Valve’s controller comes separately and requires you to fork over another $50 for the dubious privilege of working with a clumsy design and cheap buttons. It includes a trackpad designed to replicate the movements of a mouse, but I found the feature woefully imprecise.

The Nvidia controller (included in the Shield package), though oversize, is less flimsy—and it includes an audio jack, which made it easier for me to use headphones (thus sparing my long-suffering wife the agony of overhearing yet another digital gunfight).

Neither controller is phenomenal, and you might want to turn to a third-party alternative for your finger-crunching bliss. Both offer good support in this regard (via wireless, USB, and—in the Shield’s case—Bluetooth), but the more obscure the manufacturer, the harder it will be to make the controller to work. (It took me several tries to get my generic Xbox controller up and running with the Steam Link.) Unfortunately for Nvidia, even this level of support falters if you stream using GeForce, in which case you won’t be able to use non-Shield joypads (like the ubiquitous Xbox model). Still, the Shield controller is superior, and it comes bundled with the set.

Winner: Nvidia Shield Android TV

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Compatibility

Both products operate within their own ecosystems.The Link works exclusively with the Steam Store, while the Shield requires an Nvidia graphics card and GeForce capabilities if you want to realize its full potential.

The limited compatibility that each device offers is both a strength and a weakness. It restricts your options, but it also ensures that things run smoothly across both platforms. I didn’t encounter a single compatibility problem in my time with either device. As far as hardware is concerned, each machine will work with any HDMI-equipped television; the Shield will even run with the new 4K models (if you own one, which I don’t). This is pretty much a tie.

Winner: Tie

Accessories

Neither device is flush with accessory options. You can buy USB or Bluetooth keyboards, third-party controllers, and more-sophisticated remotes, but that’s about it. What gives the Shield a slight edge on this measure is that it has more USB outlets (five in total), which means more options for growth. It also permits you to add storage via mini-SD card. As a separate console in itself, the Shield is simply more versatile, even though the available accessories haven’t yet caught up with the device’s potential.

Winner: Nvidia Shield Android TV

Value

The Steam Link’s $50 price tag seems unbeatable, but it’s slightly misleading. You’ll also need a PC to stream from—and that PC had better be powerful (read: expensive). And you’ll have to spring for the overpriced Steam controller, or go elsewhere for a third-party alternative. The Nvidia Shield, on the other hand, makes no secret of its luxury status. It costs upward of $200 but comes equipped to play games independent of your PC library. Bottom line, though, $50 is hard to beat, and $200 is hard to justify. I have to go with the Steam Link here.

Winner: Valve Steam Link

Verdict

The Shield is a miniature powerhouse and performs beautifully. But what the Steam Link lacks in processing power, it makes up for in value. And that makes the difference in this matchup. Yes, the Nvidia Shield is a more powerful gaming machine with neat stand-alone capabilities. But do I really need it? If I’m already in for $200, wouldn’t I be better off going the extra mile to buy a PS4 or an Xbox One? Even if I was intrigued by the Shield’s library of entertainment apps, buying a Link along with something like Apple TV would still be a less expensive route to take. The Nvidia Shield Android TV is not a bad device by any measure, but it’s still confused as to what it wants to be—a set-top box, a console, or a PC-TV streaming device.

The Steam Link, on the other hand, knows exactly what it’s supposed to do, and it does it simply but effectively. This contest is a close call, but in the end the Valve Steam Link ekes out the win.

Photo credits: Nvidia, Valve.