What the New Ads on the Nvidia Shield TV Really Mean for Consumers

Shield buyers paid a premium for an ad-free streaming media player. But with digital products, what you buy isn't always what you get to keep.

Nvidia streaming player Image: Nvidia

The Nvidia Shield TV debuted in 2015 for $199 and is the top-rated streaming media player in our ratings. It lets consumers stream content to their TV from services such as Disney+, Netflix, and Spotify; play games using apps like RetroArch, Dolphin, and Nvidia’s own GeForce Now; and watch live TV using HDHomeRun and Tablo. The device is powered by Google’s Android TV, a version of the popular smartphone operating system optimized for televisions. 

Until recently, it had another selling point, as well. The Shield TV was known for its ad-free user interface, a premium experience that attracted consumers despite the availability of other streaming devices for a fraction of the price from companies such as Amazon and Roku, whose own streaming media devices have long had ads in their user interfaces.

But then a mandatory software update got many Shield owners fuming over the intrusion of advertising onto those home screens. 

“This is a frustrating bait-and-switch, especially for consumers who bought the product expecting to have an ad-free experience,” says Maureen Mahoney, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports.

I own an Nvidia Shield TV and noticed the ads, which promote various streaming services, like Pluto TV and HBO Max, in late June, which is when they first started to appear.

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The ads appear on the Shield TV’s home screen and take up roughly the top half of the screen. (The space now occupied by ads was previously blank.) There are several ads that automatically loop. If you scroll up using your remote control to select an ad, it expands to take up almost the entire screen. 

Once the ads started appearing, I quickly went online to see what other Shield TV owners were saying about the change. Hundreds of unhappy comments were being posted on social media platforms such as Reddit, with some users showing the 1-star ratings for the Android TV software they had left on the Google Play app store, a tactic called “review bombing.”

The several Shield TV owners I spoke with expressed frustration and anger. “I feel gutted. I didn’t pay to be advertised to for things I don’t even care for,” said Nicholas Wallace, a Shield TV owner I met through Reddit. “I really don’t want to see Miley Cyrus’s head every time I turn my TV on.”

An Nvidia spokesperson says that it is monitoring feedback like Wallace’s, and encourages people to leave additional feedback on its official Shield TV forum and the official Android TV community page.

Still, the software update touches on a growing question for consumers, Mahoney says: Do you fully own the digital products you buy, or can the manufacturers change the products later, adding or deleting features without your permission? 

In one well-known example of that phenomenon, the owners of HP printers woke up one day several years ago to find that the company had disabled the third-party printer ink cartridges many of them had been using.  In another instance, Google bought the company that made the Revolv smart home platform, then bricked the devices remotely.

Nvidia is best known for its high-end graphics cards, which are used in powerful gaming PCs. To be fair, the company never marketed the Shield TV as an ad-free device—but digital rights advocates frequently point out that nondigital products don’t get altered without their owners’ permission, regardless of their marketing messages. KitchenAid doesn’t sneak into your kitchen and shorten the power cord on a food processor you’ve been using. If you buy shelves at Lowe’s, no guy shows up a year later to paint Black+Decker ads on them. It’s only with digital products like the Shield TV that manufacturers unilaterally change user interfaces and basic functionality on products that are already paid for and sitting in people’s homes.

“It’s pure Darth Vader,” says Cory Doctorow, an author and longtime digital rights activist, who has written extensively about issues such as digital rights management, the right to repair, and the abuse of monopoly power. “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

Growing Market for TV Ads

So far I have seen ads for streaming services like Discover+, Disney+, HBO Max, IMDB TV, Pluto TV, and Starz. Consumers on social media have raised concerns about the appropriateness of certain ads, including one that ran for several days featuring a scantily clad RuPaul posed seductively. (The ad is no longer being served.)

Why bring in ads now? The company is taking advantage of a growing segment of the ad business called connected TV advertising, according to Ross Benes, senior analyst of TV and video for eMarketer, a research company. In a sense, the Shield TV is merely catching up with competing devices that have long featured ads in their user interfaces.

“There’s a lot of money to be made,” Benes says, with connected TV advertising expected to be worth $13.4 billion by the end of this year and $21 billion by the end of 2023. “It sucks for consumers because they bought this device that at least at the time didn’t have ads,” he says. “But Google is the largest advertising company in the United States. You can’t really be surprised that if something is Google-enabled, they’re going to want to put ads in it.”

The Android TV operating system also appears on some televisions from brands including Hisense, Philips, Sony, and TCL, and some streaming media players like the Xiaomi Mi Box S.

According to Google, the idea is to help users discover and enjoy great content. The company began discussing the introduction of home-screen ads on Android TVs almost a year ago. “User feedback is incredibly important to us, and the experience was built following learnings from a year-and-a-half-long pilot,” a Google spokesperson tells CR. “While the updates cannot be turned off, you can improve recommendations by selecting your streaming services in the Discover tab. You can also turn off auto-play of trailers under your settings.”

The Nvidia spokesperson said the company would relay to Google the feedback it receives through its own channels “in an effort to address the concerns.” Feedback can also be left on the official Android TV community page.

Risky Workarounds

To Doctorow, this incident shows how in the digital world, power has been stripped away from what’s supposed to be the ultimate implement in the consumer toolbox, the choice of where to spend your money. “In this case people did vote with their wallet by choosing the ad-free device,” he says.

Some tech-savvy Nvidia Shield TV owners have been sharing workarounds for avoiding the ads, but there’s no way of knowing how long they’ll continue to be effective—and they also pose potential security risks. As just one example, you can swap out the default “launcher” that lets you navigate the home screen with a third-party one that doesn’t have ads. Options include the $3 ATV Launcher Pro, the $3 Sideload Channel Launcher, and the free and open-source FLauncher. However, these launchers don’t have all the functionality of the official software. And poking around YouTube comments and other social media hangouts looking for esoteric Android apps may lead consumers to accidentally download unsafe software. 

A number of people I spoke with via Reddit private messages said they were being put in an unfair position. “In a day-and-age where malware, data theft, etc. is rampant, the last thing users should be doing right now is installing APKs from unknown sources on their Android TV devices, potentially exposing their entire Google account to hackers,” one told me. “The situation we have right now is exactly the situation hackers look for to capitalize on.”

Commenters were also debating the pros and cons of trying to block the ads using a device called a Pi-hole, which consists of a tiny computer known as a Raspberry Pi running custom software that then connects to your WiFi network. The fact that there was much debate over complicated workarounds highlights both the affection some tech-minded people have for the  Nvidia Shield TV, and how betrayed they feel by the recent change.

“I thought I made this choice two years ago: I didn’t want the ads, so I paid more,” said another Shield TV user I spoke with on Reddit. “Why did I pay $200 to have the same exact ad-ridden experience as someone with a $29 device?”

Headshot image of Electronics editor Nicholas Deleon

Nicholas De Leon

I've been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I'm not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).