Valve and NVIDIA are giants in the PC gaming industry and both offer systems to let you play your PC games from the comfort of your couch without the need to move your rig. The Steam Link and the NVIDIA Shield TV both have streaming systems integrated that use your gaming PC to do the hard work and your local network to stream the result to another display.
But in the battle of the game streamers, which is better and importantly, which is right for you. Let's break it down.
What is the NVIDIA Shield TV?
Shield is NVIDIA's lineup of gaming-focused products that run Android, and the Shield TV is, unsurprisingly, the one that sits beneath your television. Running Android TV, it's a combination of set-top box and console and using GameStream can put your PC games where you put your feet up.
NVIDIA has its own controller for the Shield TV, and naturally, using GameStream requires you have an NVIDIA GPU in your PC as well as the Geforce Experience app. It costs $199 for the cheapest model, which currently includes a controller and remote in the box.
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What is the Steam Link?
Simply put, it's a little black box you plug into your TV that allows you to play your PC games away from your rig. You can play with a controller or a keyboard and mouse, and its small size is matched with a suitably small price.
What the Steam Link isn't, is a set-top box. There's no Netflix app, or any others for that matter. All it does is let you play your games. You'll also need to provide your own controller or keyboard and mouse, neither are included. Steam does sell its own controller, but that's an extra purchase.
The Steam link costs around $40 at the time of writing, though there are often discounts to be had.
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Similarities and differences
Aside from the obvious, that they both let you stream PC games over your network, there are some other similarities between these two products. The first is that the Shield, like the Steam Link, lets you stream your Steam Library. Which is awesome. Where they differ is that the Steam Link only really streams your Steam games, NVIDIA GameStream is much broader, even supporting UWP games from the Windows Store like Forza Horizon 3. Steam Link can minimize to desktop and there are ways to use non-Steam games, but it's a bit messy.
The Shield TV also gives you access to cloud streaming of PC games that you don't own, albeit for extra fees, with GeForce Now. And while you get a controller with the Shield in the box, you don't have to use it. It supports a bunch of others, including the Xbox One controller. Likewise, you don't have to get a Steam Controller for the Link.
Then there's your GPU to consider. If you use an AMD Radeon graphics card in your PC, forget about the Shield TV right now. Comparison over. Without a supported NVIDIA card, you can't use GameStream. The Steam Link is a little more forgiving to members of the red team.
Outside of this, the two biggest differences were touched on above. The Shield TV is a full set-top box capable of running apps, showing Live TV, even running as a Plex Media Server. The Steam Link is nothing more than remote play for your game library.
The other is the price. The Shield starts at $199, the Steam Link at just $40
Ease of use
In this regard, it's mostly a wash. Neither device is difficult to set up, nor use every day.
The Shield benefits from the TV-specific interface offered by Android TV, and NVIDIA has built its own app to silo off gaming from everything else. You just have to open up the NVIDIA Games app and you'll be able to access your PC library alongside anything you have in GeForce Now or natively installed on the Shield.
The Steam Link makes use of Big Picture mode, Valve's controller friendly interface. You've got big boxes, easy to read text, clear images.
It's tough to say one is better than the other when it comes to the specifics of PC game streaming, just know that they're both easily accessible.
Both perform admirably when actually streaming, though for best effects you'll want to use either a 5GHz wireless band or, the best solution, an Ethernet connection.
Where the two divide is in how much detail you can stream. If you have the PC for 4K HDR gaming and a killer local network connection, the Shield will let you stream your games in 4K. The Steam Link is limited to 1080p at 60fps, which is still very respectable given you're not actually in front of your PC.
It's what current generation consoles like the Xbox One top out at, after all.
Steam Link or NVIDIA Shield TV: Which is better?
This depends on which angle you come at it from. If you only care about streaming your PC games and you only have games you care about streaming in Steam, then the Steam Link is the one to get. It's cheap, effective and not at all intrusive to your home entertainment setup. It's easy to setup and with Big Picture mode, a simple thing to use, too.
The NVIDIA Shield TV is a little more serious a product, mostly because it's not just a game streaming box. It's an everything streaming box. When you're done streaming games it's just a couple of clicks and you're in Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The downside to the extra functionality is the price. It's the better box all around, but the Steam Link is a quarter of the price. The choice, therefore, comes down to whether you want Steam gaming or gaming plus everything else.