Xiaomi Mi Box S Review: Some Things Never Change

The Mi Box S is better than the original, but too much of the same overall

For better or worse the Xiaomi Mi Box has become a very well known Android TV-powered streaming box. In October 2018 Xiaomi announced the follow up to the original Mi Box for the US market as the Mi Box S. Arriving with a new version of Android and slight changes to the design, all while maintaining a similarly low price. In fact, counter to usual generation-over-generation devices, the Mi Box S was announced with a cheaper launch price than the original Mi Box. In the US, the Mi Box S is now exclusively available to buy from Walmart and priced at $59.99.

In the box & specs

With this being a low-cost streaming set-top box solution buyers should not expect too much from the unboxing experience. Besides the Mi Box S and power lead, the package includes a user guide, the remote control, two AAA batteries, and a HDMI cable. In our experience, the included HDMI cable unfortunately did not work - the Mi Box S (and TV) recognized the cable but failed to display anything. This was quickly remedied by using a different HDMI cable leading to the assumption the included cable was defective on arrival.

The Mi Box S supports 4K (3840 x 2160) resolution content at 60fps. Video decoder support in general comprises of VP9, H.265, H.264, MPEG (1/2/4), VC-1. The Mi Box S is also listed as supporting Dolby and DTS audio. Inside the Mi Box S features 2GB RAM, 8GB storage, and is powered by an ARM Cortex-A53 quad-core CPU along with a Mali-450 GPU. Connectivity support comes in the form of Wi-Fi (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) and Bluetooth (version 4.2) with additional options available through the included HDMI 2.0 port, USB 2.0 port, and audio out. The Mi Box S measures 3.75-inches in length, 3.75-inches in width, 0.66-inches in depth and weighs in at 5.19 ounces. The Mi Box S comes running on Android 8.1 (Oreo) and is only available to buy in one color - black.

Hardware & design

With the Mi Box S positioned as an entry-level product, its design is inevitably one of the areas that's most impacted on. This is simply a very basic and nondescript looking device with very little that can be meaningful commented on. That is, unless you draw comparisons with the original Mi Box as this is when it becomes clear the additional cost-cutting measures that have been utilized as a means to keep the cost to the consumer as low as possible. While the original Mi Box was not the most premium of devices to begin with, the build quality seems to have significantly declined generation-over generation. The new Mi Box S is far more budget in this respect and feels more like a cheaper product when compared. The actual feel is more plastic than the original Mi Box and the reduction in build quality penetrates almost every aspect of the design. In the image below the original Mi Box is on the left, the new Mi Box S on the right.

For example, the original Mi Box not only came with a more premium coating which adds to the finish and feel, but it also was more of a rounded and sculptured device. The edges, in addition to being rounded, all sloped inwards giving the unit a more curved and aerodynamic look. None of these design cues are in effect with the Mi Box S which instead is far more boxy in its appearance, sporting a squared off design which lacks in any discerning features. Resulting in more of a generic black box than ever before.

In contrast, the rear of the device is pretty much the same as the original model, albeit in reverse order. The mains power port is now the port furthest to the right, followed by the USB port, and the HDMI port in order. Overall, the Mi Box S is as limiting in physical connection options as the original was.

The remote control is where the evolution can be best seen and therefore the the most notable area of improvement in terms of the design. Although it does need to be pointed out the same ‘cheaper’ design is in effect here as well. In other words, the remote control also feels more plasticity than the previous model's remote.

Feel aside and the new remote control is designed to be far more usable than ever before and the most obvious difference is the inclusion of dedicated “Netflix” and “Live” buttons which are fairly self explanatory as they simply allow for quick access to Netflix and live TV respectively. The "Live" button proved to be a little less useful in this respect as it did not seem to work at all on the unit tested. This button is primarily linked to the "Live Channels" app that's available on Android TV and it seems the app is likely to be what's at fault here as the app also was not working on the Mi Box S tested. In fact, the app seemed to largely be a ghost app as while the system understood it to be installed, it did not appear as an app and therefore could not be launched. It also could not be uninstalled so it could be reinstalled again and neither "uninstalling updates" or a factory reset solved the issue. Making the Live channels apps totally redundant and by association the "Live" button also redundant. Although the "Netflix" button worked well, consistently and as expected.

The mic button has been moved to a more centralized and prominent place and this is due to the new emphasis on Google Assistant. In a bid for uniformity this has also resulted in the power button now being centrally located above the Google Assistant button.

Another knock-on effect of the moved mic button is the triple button located midway down the remote as this is where the mic button used to reside along with the home and back buttons. Home and Back are still located here with the third button adopting the position of an “Apps” button - this is directly tied to the new channel-theme associated with Oreo on Android TV. As the home screen no longer shows all apps like it did prior to Oreo, so this button proves to be a useful addition that acts as a quick shortcut to the app drawer for easy access to all apps. Although is position is a little annoying as most people will naturally expect the ‘back’ button to be located in this spot which inevitably means you end up hitting and launching the app drawer fairly often when you meant to go back.

Otherwise the rest of the remote remains largely the same with the directional wheel and volume buttons in identical places to their respective locations on the previous remote control.

Overall, the design of the Mi Box S is a mixed bag. If you have never owned a third-party streaming box, including the original Mi Box, walked into Walmart, picked this one up for $60 or less, returned home and opened the package up you wouldn’t be amazed by the design but you probably also would not think it’s piece of junk. You would probably come to the inclusion that it feels sort of like a $60 tech product - which it is.

Software & user experience

For the most part, Android TV is a fairly common experience that’s far less varied at the product level. For example, all Android TV devices largely employ the same main experience with the only notably deviations being the few, if any, additional features a company adds. NVIDIA is the prime example here as the company has tweaked its version to appeal more to gamers and so it comes with a number of gaming-specific apps and services not found on other Android TV devices. The Mi Box S, like the original Mi Box, does not particularly offer much in the way of new material and is mostly just a stock implementation of Android TV.

However, Xiaomi does employ the use of product placement which means that a number of apps and services are included from setup and given priority on the home screen. This was the case with the original model and is once again in effect here. For example, besides the typical Google suite of apps and Netflix, the Mi Box S also comes with HBO NOW, STARZ, ESPN, Sling TV, CBS All Access, VUDU and Spotify installed. In addition, and in spite of Oreo removing the ability for typical home screen prominence of manufacturer-suggested apps, the main app locker features a “Mi Box Recommends” section which on first launch only includes SHOWTIME.

For those unaware, the difference here is that unlike the first group of apps that are shown in the image above, SHOWTIME is not installed on the system but instead the app icon acts as a shortcut to the app listing on the Play Store. It is in effect an ad at the system level that you cannot really remove. You can however uninstall the included apps by Xiaomi from the settings. For those users who opt to leave the pre-installed apps as they are, they can expect the included third-party apps to impact on the home screen experience. As the Mi Box S comes running on Android 8.1 (Oreo) and this version of Android TV adopts a "channels" theme as the driving force behind the interface's design. Different to apps, this results in apps having a greater placement on the home screen with an entire row dedicated to each app -- as if it was a separate channel -- and showcasing a variety of content from that app/channel. Therefore, if you are not a current subscriber or have access to any of the apps Xiaomi has included by default, you should expect the channel interface to highlight a bunch of content that's largely irrelevant to you.

When it comes to the general Android TV workings on the Mi Box S, things are better than they were with the original model. As the original Mi Box was a very buggy unit with the depth and breadth of issues varying wildly from user to user. While it’s difficult to specifically comment on this aspect with one unit, the unit itself performed well overall although there were some teething problems at first. For example, besides the defective HDMI cable in the box, the system seemed to have an issue where it would routinely force close apps after a short period of time - at least that was presumed to be what was happening as the system would just revert to the home screen forcing the user to reopen the app each time. The issue seemed more prominent with certain apps compared to others and therefore was not an issue that always surfaced when in an app. However, the issue did seem to work itself out over time as after a couple of weeks the system stopped closing apps. It is possible this was fixed by way of a software update as one was applied during the review process - although there was no specific mention of this in the changelog at the time.

There’s also the more general issue of the Mi Box S feeling a lot like a dated device on arrival. As in spite of this being a newer version of the original Mi Box, you would not know that by looking at the spec list due to the Mi Box S featuring identical internals to the original model. Which means its performance limitations are also no different to the original model. You are not getting a better performing device here, but simply one that’s been designed to be a little more affordable at the retail level, and with some additional software functionality - although the latter is more the result of the software improvements with Android TV in general and would be as easily accessible on the original model following an update to the same Android version. Of course, the biggest change (besides the use of channels vs apps), is the inclusion of Google Assistant at the system level. This proved to work extremely well and as expected. The button on the remote responds well as does Google Assistant when asked a question, or to comply with a command. The use of the feature is not any different to how it's experienced on other Android TV devices, but was also no worse with no noticeable issues during testing.

The Mi Box S seemed to perform well overall, though there are some definite limitations with this device. For example, while this is a 4K-supported device, its consistency in handling 4K content was a little erratic with the quality better in some apps than others. Furthermore, while this is a HDR-supported device, it once again lacks in this department compared to some other options due to the absence of Dolby Vision support. In other words, included is a much more basic (read: stock) version of HDR support (HDR10) which results in a less dynamic use of the technology compared to Dolby Vision. Likewise, there are some notable app supports missing including the likes of Amazon Prime Video. Although this is partly the case with Android TV in general, there are products running on this platform that have worked out support for Prime Video and considering that’s a substantial trove of content for cord-cutters, it’s worth taking into consideration if you plan to buy this device.

Conclusion

The Mi Box S is a worthwhile buy. If you are looking for a more powerful, capable and feature-rich device then this is not the one for you. But that’s sort of its charm as the Mi Box S is more of an entry-level solution which can instantly turn a TV into a smart TV by adding support for a wealth of streaming apps and services, as well as some basic gaming capabilities and the ability to control select compatible smart home products through Google Assistant. All of this at $59 makes it hard to really say anything too negative about the Mi Box S as it is certainly worth the asking price. Though, as has been documented numerous times on social media with the previous version, individual experiences of reliability and smooth operations may vary greatly due to the overall lack of change in hardware. If you are not specifically tied to the Android TV platform then you might find more value on offer with the likes of Amazon’s Fire TV line or the Roku line for that matter. If you are specifically looking for an Android TV solution, then for better or worse this is now the most affordable and accessible option.

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