Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles that will describe and evaluate the accessibility of streaming entertainment devices and associated services. For these reviews, hardware and software provided by the services was used to access several popular entertainment channels. The evaluation includes the accessibility of the services and devices themselves, as well as audio description offerings for the channels used in the tests.
The NVIDIA Shield is often seen as the cream of the crop of multimedia streaming devices. Though this is largely due to its advanced hardware suitable for high-intensity gaming, the hardware box has also gained many fans for its wealth of streaming and multimedia capabilities, and support for both local and remote media sources.
The Shield runs on a modified version of Android TV, currently based on Android 8.0. Because of this, Google's TalkBack screen reader is the driving force for speech accessibility on this device. As you will learn during this review, this is both a good and bad thing.
The NVIDIA Shield is a small, rectangular box with a couple of tapered edges on the top. It features an HDMI port, two USB ports for plugging in external storage, an Ethernet network jack, and a proprietary power jack. Like many of the other boxes in this category, the Shield connects to your television using an HDMI cable. It's worth noting that an HDMI cable is strangely not included, so you will need to purchase or locate one to set it up.
You can control the Shield using the included remote or the Gamepad controller included in the Shield Gaming Edition. I found the remote far simpler to use for basic tasks. It features a standard four-way D-pad on the top with a Select button in the middle. Below this are two rounded buttons with Back on the left and Home on the right. Below this is a larger, concave Voice Search button, which brings up the Google Assistant. Finally, below this button is a vertical slider that you can use to control the volume of whatever you are watching or of TalkBack. Slide up on the tactile control to raise the volume, or slide down to lower it. You can also double-tap on the slider to play or pause media. It's a surprisingly intuitive control once you get used to it.
Shield Setup and Configuration
For me, setup was relatively painless with speech guiding me through the major steps. This may not always be the case however, as TalkBack can only be turned on from the initial setup screen by holding down the Back button for 10 seconds. If you end up on another screen or are trying to use a device that is already set up, you will need to reset the unit to factory defaults to enable speech independently.
After being prompted to select the desired language, you will be asked if you have an Android phone. If you do, you will be able to skip several setup steps as information such as your Google account and Wi-fi password can be copied over. If you do not have another Android device, you will need to enter this information manually. For situations where it is necessary to enter text, an on-screen QWERTY keyboard is displayed. Use the Arrow keys to move around the keyboard to locate letters and then press Select to insert the letter. I found this process simple to grasp, though there was seemingly no easy way to edit my entry other than finding the Delete button to erase the last-entered character. Moving the cursor to the right side of the keyboard located the necessary button to move to the next screen, often called Next or Continue.
One setup screen that presented some confusion was the page that recommended default apps. TalkBack spoke the apps as I arrowed around the screen, but would not indicate if an app was checked or unchecked. The only way to determine if any changes were made was to move to the button labeled "Install three apps," which would change based on the number that was selected. Alternatively, one can choose to skip this screen entirely and download apps later.
A nice touch included during the setup process was a getting started tutorial which was spoken properly. The Shield also downloaded several software updates and updated its built-in apps, a process that took 10-15 minutes total.
At this point, you may want to adjust the speech rate and other TalkBack settings. To do this, load the Settings menu by holding down the Back button for about a second, and then pressing Down Arrow until you reach Accessibility settings. From this screen, you can turn TalkBack off and on and control many of its settings. You can also select the text-to-speech option to change the speech rate, pitch, or the desired voice. This is one advantage of having an Android-based product, as some third-party voices available for Android such as ETI Eloquence from Code Factory can be used on the Shield for no additional cost. Not all Android voices are available for Android TV, however.
Several other TalkBack settings are available, including audio ducking, speech volume, and verbosity options.
Aside from TalkBack, accessibility settings are included for captions, though no option for audio descriptions could be found. An experimental high-contrast text mode is also available. It's worth noting that Android's braille support has not been duplicated on the Shield, as the BrailleBack app is not available for Android TV devices, a huge oversight in my opinion.
Navigating the Menus
Once you have completed setup, you will be placed on the Home screen, which displays a selection of your installed apps, recommendations for things to watch or listen to, and several other controls. In most instances, similar items were placed in rows, which meant that pressing the Up or Down Arrow key would move between sections of the screen. For instance, one row included YouTube video recommendations based on my account, another featured Netflix suggestions, and still another pulled radio stations from Google Play Music. These will naturally depend on the apps and services that you have installed, and the recommendations will depend on how often you use these services. You can customize the Home screen and choose which apps will display this information. A Play Next row near the top of the screen will include shows or channels you have recently watched or favorited among other recommendations.
In addition to interacting using the Home screen, you can use the large Voice Search button on the remote to request content. For instance, you can say "Play 'House of Cards' on Netflix" or "Play Lukas Graham on Spotify," assuming you have the appropriate services configured. This worked well until I gave it a request where multiple services could provide the same content. I was asked which app I wanted to use, but my cursor sometimes became stuck when attempting to move between the choices. Because the Google Assistant is on board, most features of the Google Home are also available, including search, games, and measurement conversions among others.
You can also use a Google Home to control your Shield, including its volume. Alexa support is also available, though this involves some additional setup on Amazon's Alexa app and a free NVIDIA account to make it all work.
The Shield comes with a few of the most popular apps, and thousands more are available from Google Play. Not all Android apps are available for Android TV, and apps that are accessible on Android are not necessarily accessible on the Shield.
The Apps list can be accessed by long-pressing the Home button. Near the top of this screen is an option to "Get More Apps" which allows you to search Google Play for apps and games. Similar to Android, you can also search for apps from Google Play's web interface on a computer and install them wirelessly to your Shield.
Popular Services and Shield
Just as Shelly Brisbin did in the first part of this series, we will evaluate the accessibility of popular entertainment services on the device being discussed, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, and ESPN.
In a bit of a surprise, Netflix posed numerous problems when used on the Shield. The login process went through without a hitch, with accessibility hints provided for the on-screen keyboard. Hopes were quickly dashed, however, when the main screen offered absolutely no speech. The only way to play Netflix content is through the items on the Home screen or the Voice Search button. This presents several limitations, including the inability to play a show by season or episode or to browse titles effectively. Audio description is available for Netflix titles, but must be enabled on the account using another device since there is no way to get to the Netflix settings on the Shield.
Amazon Prime Video surprisingly also did not work, with a direct acknowledgement that TalkBack was not supported. I was presented with a notice that I would need to use another screen reader to use Prime Video on this device, though to my knowledge, there are no other screen readers available for the Shield. Amazon's VoiceView is not available on non-Amazon devices. The developers of this app are keenly aware of TalkBack but chose not to support it in the current iteration of the app, a disappointing decision.
YouTube provided a seamless and simple interface on the Shield, which is not surprising since the device runs on Google's Android platform. I was able to browse trending videos, search for things to watch, and navigate the playback controls using the app. YouTube does not currently include audio-described content unless the content owner has specifically uploaded a described version of their video.
ESPN was also a surprising bright spot on the Shield. To authorize ESPN, a code is displayed on the screen, which can be focused using TalkBack. This code is entered on a website where you can use your television provider to log in. Once this is all set up, the arrow keys can be used to browse content including live shows and archived games. Short of a few unlabeled buttons, the app was generally easy to use.
Put another way, the two apps that worked well on Roku, Netflix and Prime Video, were the two that presented the most difficulty on the Shield. The reverse was also true.
The Bottom Line
I really wanted to love the Shield. As an Android user, the idea of a powerful streaming box that is tied into Google's apps and services has a lot of appeal. But the lack of application support makes this a frustrating experience for TalkBack users. TalkBack on Android TV has not matured to the level of its phone brethren. There is no way to read the entire screen, navigate by word or character, or easily toggle speech. Some of these are possible by connecting a Bluetooth keyboard, but this is not a contingency that should be required for regular use.
The NVIDIA Shield TV retails at $179, with a gaming edition that includes a gamepad controller available for $20 more. Until accessibility is improved, I would recommend you shield yourself from this solution until more improvements are made.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
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