Hands-On with the Xiaomi Mi Box

Posted on January 26, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Android, Hardware, Music + Videos with 27 Comments

Hands-On with the Xiaomi Mi Box

The Xiaomi Mi Box is a credible alternative to Apple TV and Roku, and exactly the type of thing I’d like to see Microsoft make for its own content ecosystem.

For Google and Android fans, however, the Mi Box is perhaps the best Android TV device available today, especially when you consider that Google unceremoniously killed off its also-excellent Nexus Player. But Mi Box has a few advantages over even Nexus Player, including a lower cost and, intriguingly, UHD/4K and HDR support. But it also has some major advantages over today’s competition.

If you’ve ever seen a Roku or Apple TV, you get the basics: Mi Box is a small, black puck-like device with a remote control, great wireless connectivity (dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0/3.0), and HDMI and USB ports. It’s smaller than a current Roku or Apple TV, and better looking, not that that matters very much. And it’s inexpensive: Mi lists this device at just $69, though you will pay a bit more at Amazon, which may be more convenient (and faster).

The bad news: There’s no Ethernet connectivity, which will be a problem for 4K video performance. That said, you can apparently add a USB-based Ethernet adapter (hey, it’s Android).

But there’s plenty of good news.

As noted, the Mi Box supports UHD/4K and HDR video, and at 60 fps. I had to configure video-out to support this—it was set to 1080p by default—but when I did so, Netflix started offering UHD/4K video choices as expected.

The remote is wonderful, and is now my favorite set-top box remote, with a nice in-hand feel, voice control capabilities, and obvious buttons. By comparison, current Roku remotes are also very good, but stubbier and, annoyingly, with hard-coded channel-specific buttons for services I don’t even use, like HBO NOW and Sling. The Apple TV remote is laughably bad, and the less said about that, the better. (That said, the Mi remote does not have a headphone jack, which is available on Roku.)

Like other Android TV devices, Mi Box also works as a Chromecast, so you get the best of both worlds. (And you can use the remote control, of course, which is my biggest gripe with a standalone Chromecast.)

For the most part, the app selection—what Roku would call the channel selection—is quite good, and roughly what you’d see on other devices. Most the big players are represented—Netflix, Hulu, and so on—plus Google of course, but you won’t get Apple services (naturally), or Microsoft services (which makes zero sense). Curiously, Amazon isn’t available either, probably for competitive reasons.

The interface works well for the most part, and sits roughly between that of Apple TV/Roku (which are both simple, and excellent) and Amazon Fire TV (which is terrible, and too Amazon-centric). My only concern here is a prominent “recommended” section that sits between the recently-watched area at the top and the list of installed apps. I don’t want it there, and despite an interface in settings that appears to let you remove it, I can’t get it to go away.

Amusingly, Android TV is … well, Android. It looks and works like Android, and updates like Android—and yes, it updates fairly regularly, as it’s an unlocked device—and will be familiar to anyone who already knows Android. I think this is a plus, and it is perhaps sobering that Google has done a better job with its 10-foot UI than Microsoft has with the Xbox One, despite its many more years of experience in this market.

Like other set-top boxes, the Mi Box also plays games, and you can buy an optional game controller if you want. I didn’t, and won’t. And while the Android compatibility suggests a wide range of possibilities here, I’m just not interested in this.

I am considering evaluating the NVIDIA Shield, which is another Android TV option that seems well-regarded. That device, however, is very expensive at $200 and up, and I think that speaks to the value to be had with the Mi Box. This is a device that competes nicely with Roku and Apple TV, and at the same (or lower) price point. And it does so while offering truly compelling features and modern UHD/4K/HDR video-out.

No, it’s not perfect. But this is a great little set-top box. And it’s earned a spot in my living room.

 

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