Xiaomi is well known around the world for the crazy low prices on their products, of which are always cutting edge devices with more than competitive specs. While Xiaomi has entrenched itself in the smartphone game for some time and has even expanded in the area of other technologies, one arena they have yet to fully invest themselves in is the Android TV game. Xiaomi has their own lineup of smart TVs in China, but the Xiaomi Mi Box marks the first time a major Xiaomi device is making its way to US shores. Priced at an unbelievable $69, the Mi Box puts itself in direct competition with the recently announced Chromecast Ultra from Google, yet offers considerably more functionality than that product. Is there any reason you shouldn’t immediately go out and buy one of these for your TV? Let’s take a look.
Over the years Xiaomi has really moved into their own when it comes to hardware design, and the Mi Box represents some of the most minimalist design that’s ever come from the Chinese company. It’s likely that the Mi Band series of products is easily the single most minimalist product Xiaomi makes, and the unobtrusive and unobstructive nature of the Mi Box certainly gives the Mi Band a run for its money. This fairly nondescript black plastic box features a dome-shaped design meant to be placed at the top of your entertainment unit stack, or even just below your TV for more prominent placement. The design here goes with almost anything too, so it really shouldn’t look out of place almost no matter what your decor is. Overall the unit looks something like a pebble plucked from a zen garden, with cables only protruding from the back when plugged in.
On the back you’ll find an HDMI 2.0a port, USB 2.0 port, 3.5mm SPDIF audio out and power ports, as well as the microSD card slot. 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Dual-band Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz and Bluetooth 3.0 and 4.0 are supported. In the box Xiaomi includes the needed power brick and HDMI 2.0a cables to plug the device in, as well as the Bluetooth remote needed to operate the basic functions of the unit. The Mi Box features a custom quad-core ARM Cortex-A53 CPU with a Mali-T450 GPU, 2GB of RAM and 8GB of internal storage. Thankfully storage can be expanded via any standard USB flash drive. Upon inserting a USB flash drive the Mi Box will pop up a dialog asking if you want to use it as flash storage or turn it into "internal storage" instead. This second option is part of Android's Adoptable Storage mechanism and the flash drive then works seamlessly with apps and games, requiring zero configuration or support from the app itself for external storage.
Any Bluetooth controller should be capable of pairing with the Mi Box and enables some truly excellent gaming with a familiar control set, and Xiaomi also sells its own Mi Game Controller for about $30 if you’d rather not fuss with other brands. You can also plug in any USB keyboard or mouse for a more desktop-like way to interface with the unit, which is a huge bonus for anyone that wants to click around or type faster than the simple remote will allow them. Audio output is done completely through the HDMI 2.0a port on the back, and both DTS and Dolby Digital Plus audio is supported for up to 7.1 channel surround sound.
The remote that ships with the Mi Box is very close to the reference design that Google debuted with the Nexus Player at Android TV's inception, with a few tweaks here and there. This is mostly good thing, as it’s a super simple remote with little in the way of extras to confuse users. The remote features a comfortable design that’s curved around the left and right sides to better fit the grip of a hand, and is both small and light while not bordering on cheap or tiny feeling. It’s powered by a pair of AAA batteries which are included in the box and works exactly like you would imagine. The wheel controls at the top of the face mask a 4-way directional pad that clicks left, right, up and down, with a button in the middle to perform the highlighted action on screen. Below this is a set of three buttons, a round home button in the middle, back button to the left and a microphone button to the right for quick voice search. The microphone is found on the very top of the remote for voice search.
Below this is a volume button that specifically controls media volume on the box, since you won’t need to worry about ringtone or notification volumes as you would on an Android phone. A small power button is located on the top left and is my only pet peeve with this controller, as it’s far too easy to press and there’s no confirmation that you meant to press it, just an instant sleep mode the second it’s pressed. Thankfully this is only a sleep mode and not an actual power off, so resuming only takes a few seconds longer. Most buttons on the remote feature no text labels, and sometimes it can become confusing what to press, even with so few options. First time users are likely to be confused for a while before they get the hang of it, and while simplicity certainly is beauty here, some small text labels would go a long way toward helping them make more sense. The biggest oversight is definitely the complete lack of a play/pause button, a function that's obviously integral to any media playback device and one that can become irritating to deal without. Android TV player remotes in general are overly simple, and Xiaomi doesn't do much to change that with the Mi Box.
Xiaomi’s Mi Box is powered by Android TV, running atop Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow as of the product launch. Android TV is one of the more regulated extensions of Android, just like Android Auto and Android Wear, and as such manufacturers aren’t allowed to heavily modify the looks or features in any way. Rather companies tend to ship special hardware, bundle specific software and even offer service deals for extra value out of the box. Xiaomi’s hardware isn’t anything special per say, but that fact that it can output 4k at 60FPS with HDR capabilities is definitely something worth noting over some other Android TV powered boxes on the market. Xiaomi also packs in $76 worth of free content, effectively making the box “free” if you happen to redeem all of them and find them useful as a service. This includes some pretty big ones too, like a $50 towards a Sling TV subscription, $5 towards any purchase on Vudu, 1 free month of CBS All Access and 3 free months of Pandora. Xiaomi does also have a dedicated “Mi Recommends” section with commonly downloaded apps meant specifically for Android TV users, but these don’t have any special bearing or exclusivity on the Mi Box.
What’s wholly different from anything else Xiaomi makes is the fact that the Mi Box runs stock Android TV and not a highly modified version of the OS. On its phones Xiaomi is the sole company that ships with MIUI, an incredibly heavy Android skin that not only changes the look and feel of Android, it also changes much of the deep behavioral routines of how the operating system works. The Mi Box is the complete opposite of any of Xiaomi’s phones and represents a pure and true form of Android TV that’s going to be immediately familiar to anyone who’s used the OS before. The Mi Box currently runs the version of Android TV based on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but there's currently no timeline from Xiaomi as to when the Android 7.0 Nougat update will land. Even still what you’ll find here is something that works out of the box every single time, requiring no tinkering or modifying of system settings or files to get things working as they should.
In fact the setup process was so simple I thought I had forgotten to do something. Plug it in, turn it on and you're presented with a screen to pair with your phone. Find your Android-based phone on the list of Bluetooth connections and copy your accounts over using a small security code displayed on screen. Everything else just works; your apps are here, your WiFi connection points are automatically pulled in, and all your relevant Google account data and associated purchases and content are ready to go. This is Android TV as Google designed it, nothing more, nothing less, and that’s the real beauty of this product. At $69 you should expect a pretty “bare bones” experience, but with the hardware prowess under the hood coupled with the fantastic design of Android TV and it’s inherent ease of use, the Xiaomi Mi Box is easily one of the foremost devices in the media streaming market and a true force to be reckoned with.
While Google just released the Chromecast Ultra for the same $69, there’s little sense to picking that product over this one when the same casting functionality is available here, and in addition to that you get a bevy of other ways to use it as well as significantly enhanced functionality over a Chromecast. Let’s begin with media streaming features, of which the Mi Box and Android TV as a whole will give you nearly everything you need to cut the cord. That includes Pluto TV for some great Internet TV channels, Sling TV for almost every popular network and station out there, Netflix, Hulu, Vivo, YouTube and Vudu for lots of streaming movie and TV shows as well as original content, and apps like Pandora and Google Play Music for radio and music streaming too. Those looking for a more customizable media streaming interface can install the free Kodi app from the Google Play Store, which gives you access to custom streaming sources, some less legal than others might I add, but nonetheless it provides yet another compelling reason to grab this box if for nothing other than the fact that so much can be found to fit what you need.
Obvious missing apps and services are going to hurt for some folks though, and the absence of Amazon Prime Instant Video is certainly one of them. Google and Amazon have been in a feud of sorts for a while now, and unfortunately this ends up hurting the customer more than anyone. It’s also entirely likely that you’ll still need an over the air antenna for local channels like NBC, ABC and Fox, as CBS seems to be the only national broadcaster with any kind of significant investment into online streaming of its entire network with a paid subscription. Google attempts to do its best to offer you content you’re looking for, however, by providing an incredibly robust and powerful search tool accessible from anywhere. By pressing the microphone button on the remote all you need to do is ask Google what you are searching for, and it doesn’t have to be too specific either. Even something vague like “what’s the movie with the blonde lady in a yellow jumpsuit” will almost certainly return Kill Bill as one of its results, and you’ll be surprised again and again at just how good the search is at finding content you want on many different provider’s networks and apps.
As a whole Android TV’s interface is a thing of beauty, and it works incredibly well to boot. Things are logically laid out on screen in well marked sections, with horizontally scrolling rows of 16:9 icons that represent your TV’s dimensions. One of the most aesthetically pleasing parts of Android TV is its consistency, both in the animations found on every screen and in every action, to the bright, vivid and clean icons and thumbnail previews that apps have. Adjusting the location of content on the screen is as easy as pressing and holding the center button, where a drag and drop style interface comes up and allows you to both easily move and uninstall apps and games. The Google Play Store is specifically curated for Android TV compatible content, and apps that haven’t been made specifically for Android TV set-top boxes and TVs simply won’t be able to be installed on the player, and that’s a very good thing for consumers who just want things to work without having to worry about fussing with settings or compatibility changes.
One of the biggest standalone features of the Mi Box are its abilities to not only output 4K video, but also to output HDR video and 60FPS content. These are some seriously cutting edge checkboxes to tick for modern TVs and streaming boxes, and it’s all done at a fraction of the price of most other options on the market. 4K, HDR and 60FPS content depends completely on the content you’re trying to view though of course, and you’ll find that HDR content in particularly is still pretty difficult to find, especially since there’s no Amazon Instant Video app to run, eliminating one of the bigger HDR content providers on the web right now. Regardless though there’s seemingly no end to the content that’s coming out for Android TV, and this platform has been considerably more successful than the failed Google TV platform from years ago. Here and there you'll find the UI getting bogged down though, stuttering and pausing while background tasks are completing. Depending on how much you have going on behind the scenes this may not present itself often, but when it does it's painfully obvious and serves as a reminder that this is budget hardware.
Gaming performance is decent, but it’s certainly not going to replace your favorite console, or even a 10 year old PS3, Xbox 360 or even a Wii in the graphics department any time soon. Most intensive 3D titles are sluggish on the system and generally run acceptably, although not great by any regular standard. What's notable is that, like a smartphone, these games will run generally at native resolution to your TV, so the actual performance may vary depending on what resolution your TV displays as well as what a developer has denoted as the maximum resolution the game will be rendered at. There are a good amount of games that can be played with the remote that ships with the Mi Box too, however given the size and shape of the directional pad on the controller it’s not likely that you’ll actually be enjoying many games with this control setup. Thankfully pairing any Bluetooth controller with the unit makes the clunky nature of gaming on this unit better, although it doesn’t help the frame rate of intense 3D titles too much.
Android TV ecosystem
Great, simple hardware design
Easy setup and integration
Excellent video playback performance
Adoptable storage support
Full Chromecast/Google Cast integration
Amazing voice search capabilities
Remote might be a bit too simple (an Android TV problem as a whole)
Gaming performance can leave a bit to be desired
UI can get sluggish at times
Buy The Xiaomi Mi Box
On average you’ll likely find your phone runs games better than the Mi Box, and while that’s an opportunity missed for Xiaomi, there’s a reason the far more gaming capable Nvidia SHIELD TV retails for more than twice the price. The Mi Box works perfectly for what it’s designed to do, however, and that’s streaming music and 1080p/4K video without lag, hitching, stuttering or any kind of problems whatsoever. Is this the perfect 4K/HDR/60FPS streaming video box on the market? You’d better believe it is, and it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to even begin to try to recommend any other solution over this one simply because it does what it’s designed to do so well, and there’s no way you can argue with the price. As the first big name product Xiaomi has decided to launch in the US, they’ve made an incredibly solid decision to give consumers a positive view of the Xiaomi name, and it’s likely future Xiaomi products that make their way to the US will be viewed in a more favorable light because of this product. Grab one for yourself at the Amazon link below, or stop in your local Walmart and pick one up today!