Google Assistant adds TV voice control to Nvidia Shield – CNET

Now Playing: Watch this: TV that talks back: Google Assistant comes to Nvidia…

Owners of Nvidia Shield, get ready to hear it talk back to you for the first time.

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Shield is the first TV device to get Google Assistant.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Nvidia’s streaming/gaming geek dream box is the first TV device to receive Google Assistant, Google’s voice-based answer to Amazon’s Alexa. Just like on select phones and the Google Home speaker, now you can say “OK Google” or “Hey Google” into thin air and watch stuff happen on your Shield-connected TV. Or change the thermostat, call an Uber, or order Domino’s.

The free update enabling Assistant rolls out today to both the original and the new Nvidia Shield Android TV box. To use it hands-free, however, you’ll need a Shield with the 2017 game controller. That controller isn’t included on the cut-rate $180 version of Shield, but does come with the $200 version. If you don’t have that controller you can always order one ($60) to enable hands-free Assistant action.

Alternately, you can use Assistant by talking into the remote. Just kiss all that hard-bought geek cred goodbye.

That new game controller has a far-field microphone, just like a Home speaker or Amazon Echo, that you can set up to be always on and always listening for “OK Google” (in a laudable nod to privacy concerns, by default far-field listening is turned off). You heard that right: you have to leave your controller out to use “OK Google” with Shield. 

And no, a Google Home speaker can’t serve as the Assistant mic for Shield, like an Echo speaker can for Amazon Fire TV. That’s a major point in Amazon’s favor, especially since it just released a new Fire TV with 4K and HDR for $70. For its part Nvidia will sell a mic/speaker accessory called Nvidia Spot (expected to cost $50), although the company wouldn’t confirm when it will be available.

In the meantime, you’ll use the controller as a mic. It feels kluged, but the system still has pretty much all of the functionality of a Google Home speaker, with the bonus feedback of big-screen visuals from your TV.

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That little hole on the controller hides the far-field mic.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Talk to the game controller

I spent a little time over the last day talking to Google with the controller on a table, in far-field mode, and so far it’s pretty good. Most commands worked as expected, although for a lot of stuff, particularly on-screen navigation, you’ll need to have the remote in-hand anyway.

Overall the system shares a lot of similarities with Amazon’s integration of Fire TV devices and Echo Dot, which I also liked. But like any new voice command system, don’t expect miracles yet.

Here’s some specific stuff I learned.

  • Placement of the controller is key for far-field commands. It worked best on the coffee table in front of me (Nvidia says the battery lasts two weeks with ambient listening enabled), but when I got farther than about eight feet away, even in a quiet room, it didn’t work as well and I had to raise my voice. The mic just doesn’t seem as good as what’s inside a Google Home speaker.
  • The on-screen prompts work just like Assistant on a phone, suggesting stuff to say and flashing what Assistant heard after you say it. “How do I use assistant?” brought up a nice screen of suggestions.
  • Unlike Alexa, it “knows” what app you’re in and tailors results accordingly. I said “Find popular TV shows” and it gave me the list of shows within Netflix, not globally.
  • Unfortunately it only “knows” about supported apps, including Netflix and YouTube. The same command from within Amazon, for example, just did a global, cross-platform search as opposed to showing me popular Amazon shows.
  • “Watch Sling TV” just provided me a list of YouTube videos about Sling TV. I had to say “Launch Sling TV” to launch the app.
  • Spotify, Google Music and Pandora are supported. It plays songs on demand, through your TV or AV system. You can also have the TV turn off, but you’ll have to leave your receiver or soundbar on.
  • “Turn on/off the TV” uses HDMI CEC and, like with Amazon Fire TV, results varied and not every TV supports the command.
  • It works with SmartThings. I didn’t test it myself, but during a demo Nvidia gave me, the Shield was able to control lights, raise blinds and even react to a garage door opening, to trigger an “I’m home” smart-home routine. It can control Wi-Fi devices and, with the addition of a $30 SmartThings USB dongle plugged into the back of Shield, Zigby and Z-wave SmartThings devices, too.
  • It can also control any Smart Home device, like Nest Thermostats and cameras, that can natively be controlled by any other Assistant device like Google Home. Nvidia’s demonstrator said “show me the baby’s room” and the TV switched to a view of the Nest camera in there.

Check out the video above for more from Nvidia’s demo. 

I can’t really say yet which system I like better for TV control and home entertainment, Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa — both have their issues. I am stoked to see far-field voice control finally entering the living room in a serious way — we’ve come a long way, baby — but it’ll have to get better before I can completely ditch my beloved universal remote.

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