Beijing-based Xiaomi (pronounced like “shout + me”, minus the T) is hoping to break big into the lucrative western markets with their own slate of smartphones, computers, and devices, most of which are shameless riffs off popular brands like Apple and Samsung.
The Mi Box Android TV is exactly the right kind of device to do this; sure, it’s a shameless riff off of countless other media streamers, but one that packs a punch and won’t break the bank. Plus, not only is it priced favorably to low-end models from Roku and Amazon, but offers 4K/HDR content playback and much more.
In truth, iterations of this hardware have appeared on Chinese websites for awhile now, but none have offered such a tidy, consumer-friendly package. If things go well for Xiaomi it’s not impossible to think a solid foothold in an already saturated market is theirs for the taking. Hey, it worked for Taiwan-based Acer and Asus, right?
Inside The Puck: Tech Stuff
Packed into that tiny cardboard box is just about everything you’ll need to take full advantage of the Googly goodness the Mi Box provides: the hockey puck-shaped player, HDMI cable, an AC adapter, and Bluetooth controller (2-AAA batteries included). Setup is fairly simple, especially if you already have an Android device with your info nearby.
You’ve seen the Mi Box before, or something just like it. A small, ultra-thin square that’s just 3.9″ x 3.9″ and a slight 0.7″ thick that’s a real featherweight at .39lbs (176.5g). It’s small and opaque enough to disappear when nestled into a crowded media center if you’re not careful as a single indicator light is all you’ll see when it’s powered up.
On the rear is where you’ll connect the Mi Box to your existing setup: single HDMI and 3.5mm audio output jacks provide the basics. For those seeking 4K/HDR resolutions, that’s a HDMI 2.0 (HDCP 2.2) port, so make sure you’ve got the appropriate cables to take advantage.
The controller is also familiar: the circular d-pad design (which even Apple abandoned with their latest Apple TV revision) gives you 4-way control, while Back/Home/Voice buttons help get the job done, with a built-in microphone for voice-search. There’s even volume up/down buttons for easy adjusting, which is always a nice touch in media boxes. Unfortunately, nearly everything on the controller is also pitch-black (minus the red power button), meaning using it can sometimes be confusing in an equally pitch-black setting.
There’s no Ethernet port, nor are there any SD ports for easy removable media, though a single USB 2.0 input lets you side-load media and apps in case the stock Android TV experience just isn’t enough. Super-speedy WiFi should be more than enough, however, and I never had issues with big downloads or streams.
Housed inside that pitch-black box are some surprisingly good innards; a quad-core Cortex-A53 2.0GHz processor sporting a thrifty Mali 450 750MHz GPU powers the magic, while 2GB DDR3 RAM and 8GB eMMC storage space help make those apps load faster, buffer less, and (hopefully) offer all the space you’ll need for a device like this. I did experience the dreaded ‘not enough memory’ sign when games were involved, but this probably won’t be much of an issue (I’ll explain more below).
Bluetooth 4.0 support even lets you add compatible accessories like game controllers, keyboards, and more. Even better is the wide support for dual-band Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz, which is necessary for that bandwidth-hogging 4K playback.
Of course, specs are just specs, and the real test of silicon magic is how everything comes together (more on this below). It even comes with a bit of tech xenophobia: the official website’s FAQ assures (overseas) users the Mi Box doesn’t connect to Chinese servers to update the system. So no worries there!
Software: Android TV and More
The Mi Box comes with Google’s Android 6.0 pre-installed, a drastic reworking of stock Android that’s better suited for controllers and HDTV usage. I’d caution that you’ll have to keep in mind that Android TV isn’t stock Android, but the inconsistent experience does a good job doing that already.
Right out of the box (literally) is access to just about every major streaming app you could ever want: Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, Vevo, Pandora, HBO Go, Showtime, Spotify, Twitch, Crackle, and more. Sadly, there’s no Amazon Prime video (just like Apple TV), and Google’s proprietary video and music apps (Google Music especially) are pretty flavorless unless you’re fully committed to using them elsewhere. There’s even apps for Plex, Sling TV, Kodi, and VLC (which comes pre-installed) to expand the playback capabilities, though I’m sure dedicated Android fans will root the heck out of the device anyway.
Again, this isn’t Android; there’s no stock Google Apps (no Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome browser, etc), and many of the Android apps you have purchased may not be available (hint: they most likely aren’t). Much like Amazon’s Fire device family, Android TV is a forked edition of the operating-system that’s built specifically for your TV; which means publishers need to port their apps to the platform. Honest, this is a huge letdown from the years of promises of having true “Android” on your “TV”, but also a net gain for those who realize how shaky that promises have been. So let’s call it a draw.
The overall look and feel of Android TV is similar to the Xbox One; apps are neatly stacked into horizontal rows, with the interface giving preference to advertising itself and new apps on the top row. Recommended apps come just under these, while your own downloaded apps are located near the bottom. Everything is butter slick and fast, with nice click-sounds letting you know stuff is moving and shaking on the screen. Generally, the Mi Box offers shockingly good performance in most cases, and select media apps will even keep playing in the background, though this can affect performance in some cases.
A big feature is voice-search, which makes navigating a potentially huge amount of content much easier and works mostly the same as it does on Android devices. Simply press the voice button and a colorful dancing box asks you to speak into the controller; it’s scary accurate and a delight when it works. Finding content or navigating options (speak “Play Netflix” or “Go to Settings” and it’ll do just that, though microbial control “Go to Language settings”, etc, are a bust). Other commands like “Find Action Movies” or “What’s the weather today” work just fine, though because there’s no browser you won’t find topical answers to questions that require the actual internet.
Google Cast works great, too, broadcasting from my laptop and device (an iOS device) without a hitch. With Google’s own 4K/HDR-enabled Chromecast Ultra on the way (also priced at $69) the Mi Box could be a viable alternative as it actually does more than just offer a passthrough from your personal device.
A word about 4K/HDR media playback: I wasn’t able to test 4K/HDR in my home, and I’m not entirely sure if the available apps are entirely compatible (Netflix is 4K but Amazon Prime isn’t available in any form). The Mi Box is supposed to offer 60fps 4K decoding for those so inclined, but we saw this misleading compatibility promise with Microsoft’s Xbox One S (which showed at least one 4K app in marketing that wasn’t available at launch: again, Amazon Prime). To be fair, I won’t begrudge Xiaomi as the general state of 4K/HDR is a horrid mess, but the hardware is more than up to the task; it just needs the apps!
I’ll be blunt: gaming on the Mi Box, or any Android TV box, is like getting an enema. Some of you may enjoy it, but the vast, vast majority of us would prefer to find our jollies elsewhere. It’s not like you can’t find something to play and maybe enjoy, but it’s highly unlikely, and even those games that do manage to run without crashing or connection issues are slim pickings.
In all fairness, some of the issues the Mi Box has with gaming can be found in similar boxes; the games available were designed for phones/tablets, never intended to be stretched and ported to 50-plus inch displays. Most offer misleading info, especially about install sizes (40 megs quickly turns to 1GB and more), and – especially on Android boxes – offer questionable choices (why does an Android TV game need permission to “make and manage phone calls”?).
Interestingly, I was able to pair the only Bluetooth gaming controller I had available: the fancy new Xbox One S gamepad. It paired quickly and painlessly, though using it properly depended on the game being played.
The Mi Box isn’t a gaming powerhouse; it doesn’t have the guts for that, and the best visuals I saw looked on part with the PlayStation 2 (if we’re being generous). And that’s IF the game was available and actually played. Graphically intense games I did get running were Modern Combat 5 and Asphalt 8: Airborne (both from Gameloft), though the term “running” is more technical than practical. Both required gamepad usage, of course, that never worked correctly. I’ve seen this issue before on Android boxes and tablets with spotty Bluetooth connections, but never this badly.
Rayark’s Implosion: Never Lose Hope worked great, and so did Frogmind’s BADLAND, as I’m sure many games do. But it’s total Russian Roulette when it comes to compatibility and performance, so be ready for disappointment.
Apart from this, the selection of actual games available in the Google Play Store was spotty at best. There’s no Angry Birds (though a search for it brings up…King of Fighters ‘98) but those gamers who absolutely, positively need something to play should find something to keep them busy.
Not So Good
Unfortunately, the Mi Box experience isn’t perfect (what is?), and in certain ways disappointing. Most frustrating is how often the Bluetooth controller loses its connection with the box, needing a hard reset to get back into the action. Forgetting the occasional audio/video hiccups (audio will fade in/out quickly, video streams will be blackened out), there’s a general sense that the entire experience isn’t quite ready for prime time.
Also, and most perverse, are frequent software crashes – of Google’s own software. Apart from the instances of playback apps outright failing (hello, YouTube), the voice-search itself is a prime offender. When voice-search works, it’s wonderful and incredibly useful. But then it’ll crash, with error messages blaming Google itself. Other devices regulate voice-search to mere overlays on top of existing apps, but Google monopolizes valuable real estate on top of them; I wonder if taxing the hardware is what’s causing the crashes.
Using voice-search I asked it to “Open Bluetooth Settings” and it mistakenly led me to the Google Play Store to download an exterior Bluetooth Settings app(!), which disabled my controller. Once again, a hard reset was required to fix the issue. Why is such an app even available?
There’s also no quick-access to running apps, or to close/uninstall them: nearly everything has to be handled via the Settings app, which isn’t intuitive at all. Having to reset a malfunctioning app (for tech issues) requires a LOT more clicking than it should; Android has this feature, so it’s a shame its Android TV cousin doesn’t.
This isn’t 2008 anymore; there are literally scads of options out there, most of them decent, more than willing to upgrade or transform your television experience into a “smart” television experience. Heck, you probably have one already, or maybe several and didn’t even know it. Just about every game console, modern HDTV, cable/satellite box, or device has some ability to stream apps and channels to your media-hungry display (even fridges – no joke). So the idea of adding this capability isn’t quite as thrilling or revolutionary as it once was.
Xiaomi is really touting its 4K/HDR capabilities, and for some 4K adopters looking to update an older Roku/Apple TV device, this will suffice. Functionality like this makes the Mi Box on par with similarly specced options like Amazon’s latest Fire TV and Roku’s Premiere+ boxes, each with their own strengths/weaknesses. Of course, the Mi Box costs far less than either and gives a damn fine straightforward experience right out of its orange-tinged box. As long as expectations are kept in check, this could be enough for some people.
Here’s the reality: Google simply hasn’t done enough with the Android TV platform to distinguish itself from the pack, and the Android TV platform feels like yet another fragment chipped off from the Android Mothership. The Alphabet company has longed to be a player in this market, only to suffer embarrassing losses from nearly every effort (Google TV, anyone?) thus far. Despite what seemed like a renewed effort to compete against the likes of Roku, Google has largely failed to convince marquee HDTV manufacturers to adopt its Android TV software over Roku, and given their history of abandoning projects it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon.
When it works, and everything is purring like it should, Xiaomi’s relatively inexpensive Mi Box Android TV is a fine alternative to more expensive options, and perhaps the cheapest way to get 4K/HDR playback onto your compatible display. The hardware feels nice and performance is generally fast and fluid, and there’s a good chance most (but not all) of your favorite streaming apps, and even a few games, will be readily available. Whether it’ll make a good/great replacement or choice over the likes of Roku, Amazon, or Apple will depend largely on your love and tolerance of its Android TV OS; I imagine much rooting in its future. As a welcome Ni Hao! to Westerners, Xiaomi could’ve done worse.