The Holy Grail would be one box to rule them all (forgive my mix of mythological metaphors there), one device that is affordable, easy to use and has all the apps I want with the power to play all my media with high quality. At just $69, the new 4K-capable Mi Box Android TV module from Xiaomi promises to fill at least that first requirement, and maybe all of them.
Xiaomi Mi Box
- 4k UHDTV capable smart TV box
- HDR support (HDR10 & HLG)
- Android TV (Marshmallow), Google Cast, Voice Search
- Almost every streaming app available (not Amazon Prime)
- HDMI 2.0a (HDCP 2.2)
- WiFi connectivity (a/b/g/n/ac)
Android TV is a branch of Google’s open-source operating system that was the tech-giant’s foray into the media player/streamer/server over-the-top (OTT) marketplace a few years ago. The first Android TV device to hit the market was the Nexus player, released in late 2014. Other devices followed, including Nvidia’s very popular and powerful Shield TV, virtually all of Sony’s smart TV’s since 2015, as well as some HDTVs from Philips and Sharp. So while Google has announced that the Nexus player has been discontinued, Android TV is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
Length: 3.97 inches
Width: 3.97 inches
Thickness: 0.77 inches
Weight: 0.3 lb
Output Resolution: Up to 4K 60fps
Processor: Quad-core Cortex-A53 2.0GHz
GPU: Mali 450 750MHz
RAM: 2GB DDR3
Flash: 8GB eMMC
System: Android TV 6.0
Security: Widevine L1 + PlayReady 3.0
Wi-Fi: 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Dual-band Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz
Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0/3.0
VP9 Profile-2 up to 4K x 2K @ 60fps
H.265 HEVC MP-10 at L5.1, up to 4K x 2K at 60fps
H.264 AVC HPat L5.1, up to 4K x 2K at 30fps
H.264 MVC, up to 1080P at 60fps
Supports HDR10/HLG HDR processing (software upgrade required)
DTS 2.0+ Digital Out, Dolby Digital Plus
Up to 7.1 pass through
1 x HDMI 2.0a w/HDCP 2.2
1 x USB 2.0
1 x 3.5mm shared (analog, S/PDIF)
Remote: Bluetooth voice remote control, powered by 2 AAA batteries
Included accessories: Bluetooth voice remote control, HDMI cable, user guide
Power input: 100~240V 50/60Hz input, 5.2V, 2.1A output
Xiaomi, Streaming, Streaming Box
Chinese tech giant Xiaomi (shee-YAOW-mee), who has been successfully selling high-end smartphones and other tech accessories outside the US for many years, released their first product for the US market in October: the Mi Box Android TV device. So while they are relatively unknown to US consumers, they do bring considerable tech development experience to the table. Why an Android TV box and not one of their highly regarded smartphones? One could argue that the smartphone market in the US is quite saturated at the moment, while the media box market is a little sparser. Also, the US mobile phone market presents many more regulations for a new-to-the-scene manufacturer to navigate. A media player allows Xiaomi to establish a brand presence before bringing their flagship products to the challenging US market.
The current media player market is dominated by four devices – Google’s Chromecast, Roku’s various players, Amazon’s Fire TV devices and the Apple TV. There are a many other devices out there, but these four big ones make up a staggering 99% of this not-so-niche category. (reference).
While Amazon’s Fire TV runs on Android, the experience is quite different from that of a true Android TV box. The aforementioned (and discontinued) Nexus player, and even Nvidia’s amazing (but expensive) Shield TV box, falls into the other slice of the pie, comprising the remaining 1% of the market. Depending on one’s perspective, these stats pose either an insurmountable challenge or an incredible opportunity. Apparently Xiaomi sees it as the latter, and we are lucky for that.
There are dozens of other Android-based media player boxes available from various online sources besides the ones I’ve mentioned above. Most are from brands you’ve never heard of, and would likely never hear from in the event your device required service. An exception may be some of the products from Minix who has a decent following within this tiny niche. Also, most of the other devices (Minix included) don’t run Google’s Android TV operating system, but rather some vanilla version of plain Android, tweaked to work with a remote instead of by touch. The Mi Box runs the Marshmallow version of Android TV, and for the price, specs, and given that Xiaomi is actually a fairly respectable (if somewhat unknown yet in the US) brand, the Mi Box has been garnering a lot of interest since it was announced last May at Google I/O.
On paper, the Mi Box is impressive: It’s tiny! At less than 4 x 4 x 1 inches, this smooth little wedge of rubber and plastic will fit virtually anywhere in or around your entertainment center. To give a better sense of its size, I’ve included a couple common items in the picture.
With Android 6.0 Marshmallow out-of-the-box, it promises not only access to the vast array of media-related apps in the Android Play store, but also enough processing horsepower for 4K/60p video, HDR (High Dynamic Range), Dolby Digital Plus and DTS (notice that DTS-HD/MA and Dolby TrueHD are missing; more on that later). Filling out the specs list are 2GB of RAM, 8GB of flash storage, 802.11a/b/c/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI 2.0 and USB 2.0. The included remote is fairly small, about the size of a Roku remote, and has just 11 functions (power, four directions, select, back, home, mic/voice search and volume up/down.)
Right off the bat, the spec and feature list is missing a few key items, namely: 1) there is no hard-wire Ethernet connectivity. Sure you can plug in a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, but then you’re using up the only USB port on the device which would mean no storage expansion. Which brings me to – 2) only 8GB of onboard storage is included. Sure, with Android 6.0 and above you can plug in external USB storage and add it virtually to the system storage, which is great, but USB 2.0 for external storage? In this age of $10 32GB USB 3.0 flash sticks, not only does no one want to connect storage to USB 2.0, but why not bump the price 10% or so and include a comfortable 32GB of flash RAM in the first place? Finally, 3) audio codecs. Maybe it’s due to licensing fees or hardware restrictions, this is probably a cost-saving measure; but the absence of TrueHD and Master Audio from Dolby and DTS are probably deal-killers right off the bat for many HT/AV enthusiasts (again more on this later).
Regardless, the Xiaomi Mi Box Android TV still has a lot going for it for less than $75 out-the-door, so let’s dive in.
Initial setup was incredibly simple: install the remote batteries, connect HDMI and power, and turn on my HDTV and receiver. Xiaomi actually provided a three-image set of instructions showing these steps as part of the in-box literature. I found this to be kind of humorous and wonder if it wasn’t included to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
The Mi Box was already up and showing me how to pair the Bluetooth remote which happened very quickly. The system then asked if I had an Android tablet or phone, to which I answered yes. It then directed me to pair my phone (a Nexus 5X) with the Mi Box by entering “setup my device” into the Google search box. This put the phone into a search/pairing mode where it looked for the Mi Box (presumably connecting through Bluetooth at that time since the Mi Box was not yet on the Wi-Fi network.) Pairing the phone took a couple of tries, but on the third attempt it worked. I was then able to confirm my Google account, and all my Google settings were copied from my phone to the Mi Box, slick! Surprisingly this seemed to include the password for my Wi-Fi network, as the Mi Box connected successfully to it and never asked for a password.
Next I was prompted to install the Android TV app (remote control app) on my phone. I don’t normally like to use a touch screen device as a HDTV remote, since you have to look at the screen to see what button you’re pushing. However it does make it easier to type in account searches, credentials and settings, for example when setting up Netflix. As above, pairing was automatic, fast and easy.
After these initial steps were complete, the first thing I did was check for system updates, of which there was one. I selected it, and the system was updated and rebooted a few minutes later. During the update I was presented with a cartoon homage to the Mi Box’s Chinese heritage.
The included remote uses Bluetooth connectivity. I was a little concerned about this at first since my main universal remote, a Harmony 650, is IR-only and I didn’t want to have to use a second remote if the Mi Box was to become a standard part of my entertainment system. However, I noticed what appeared to be an IR receiver port on the front. There’s no indication in the product literature (in-box or online) that the Mi Box supports IR, but the classic dark-red window was there nonetheless.
I fired up the Harmony remote software on my laptop, and sure enough the Xiaomi appeared under the “Media Center PC” category. I typed “Mi Box” in the model category and it was added as a device to my Harmony 650. The original Mi Box remote has 11 functions and all of them were preloaded in the Harmony profile. So setup of the Harmony was very quick. I was also able to dust off and pair my two Ouya Bluetooth controllers (remember Ouya?) which might come in handy for gaming (although I’m not a big gamer). Bluetooth pairing took a while for some reason, but after about a minute of holding the Ouya controller close to the Mi Box with both in pairing mode; it was recognized and paired successfully.
After completing initial setup, I set about the task of installing and configuring my preferred personal media apps. These include things like HBO-Go, Netflix, Vudu, Watch ESPN and Amazon Prime (more on Amazon shortly), as well as some third party apps which I got from the Play store. My media player software of choice is Kodi (formerly XBMC). I also occasionally use Plex, mostly when I’m not at home, but installed it anyway to test and compare to Kodi. I also use an HDHomeRun networked TV tuner which serves as a DVR. The HDHomeRun has its own DVR & Live TV app for Android, but it also integrates well with Live TV for Kodi, and Android TV’s Live Channels function, which gives you a schedule grid and Live TV functionality straight from the main screen. Setting up Netflix, ESPN and Vudu was similar to setting them up on any other device, and fairly straightforward: enter credentials, then log in from a PC or tablet and enter a confirmation code to add the new device to your account. Plex client setup is similar. Kodi installed very quickly and without issue, and likewise for the HDHomeRun View/DVR client. (Note: the DVR part requires a backend running on a separate machine with ample storage.) All went smoothly and was similar to the installation and setup of similar device like Roku, smart TVs, game consoles, etc. I had never set up Live Channels in Android TV before (given this is my first Android TV experience) and it also went very smoothly. The OS saw the HDHomeRun Prime device on my network and offered it up as a content source. I selected it, and within seconds it had loaded the channel list, guide data and I was browsing my Comcast channels. Yes! This is how it should be! We’ve come a long way since the days of xml file editing for channel and guide setup.
Speaking of Comcast, setting up HBO-Go was a big No-Go. Apparently Comcast had a falling out with either Google, HBO or both, as Comcast HBO subscribers cannot install HBO-Go on Android TV. Ironically, HBO-Go is available for, and works fine with the Comcast login on my Nexus 5X phone. But on the Mi Box (and apparently other Android TV boxes too) neither Comcast nor Xfinity come up as a provider option to prove that you are a paying HBO subscriber. This was news to me, and definitely made me feel like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth for an HBO subscription, compared to other customers who pay the same to other providers. At least I have HBO-Go on my XBox One, and can always cancel and go month-to-month with HBO-Now (which costs more). The other major letdown on the app-side of things was the fact that Amazon Prime Video is not available on Android TV. This is a huge disappointment, as we use Amazon Prime a lot in our household. I found this a bit ironic since Amazon’s Fire OS is basically Android with an Amazonian skin, but Amazon has blocked its app from devices which compete with their Fire brand, apparently. Fortunately, I still have it as a smart app on my Panasonic plasma, and as an app on the XBox One. But now we’re down two heavily-used apps for the Mi Box.
So it’s not looking good for its chances to be “one box to rule them all.” Various Internet searches indicate that there may be ways to work around some of these limitations by side-loading various apps onto the device. While this may be fairly easy for some, it’s not a bulletproof solution (usually), so I am not going to consider these kinds of workarounds for this review.
The other option for unsupported apps is Google Cast, which is built-in to the Android TV software, and is therefore ready to go on the Mi Box. This is like Chromecast, or Miracast, except it can be done from any Android phone and does not require a Chromecast (or Miracast) device to be plugged into the TV. To start “casting” from my phone, there was nothing to do on the Mi Box; all I had to do was swipe down on my phone and tap the “cast” icon in the settings tray. This opened a list of local devices that were cast-compatible (the Mi Box was the only one in my house). I tapped the Mi Box, and my TV then became a copy of my phone’s screen. Anything I played on my phone (including both Amazon Prime and HBO-Go videos) was displayed on the big TV too, and the sound came through my A/V system. This was very easy to use, but of course requires you to use your phone to find and manage playback of whatever it is you want to watch. Again, for my preference, this is not ideal. However, for people comfortable with the idea of casting content to their HT system, this may be perfectly acceptable.
Navigation of the Android TV OS on the Xiaomi Mi Box was very smooth and quick. Apps start quickly while menus pop up and go away smoothly. The overall experience so far is excellent and lag-free. Even within apps, navigation seems smoother and faster than my other media-player options (smart TV, Xbox One, and 2011-vintage NanoPC running Kodi). Kodi is a great example of this difference. Of course my comparison Kodi box is 5 years old now, but it still runs fine and plays every Full HD Blu-ray rip I throw at it with aplomb, not to mention the HDHomeRun DVR software. In fact, until trying out Kodi on the Mi Box, I wasn’t aware I was missing anything on my old NanoPC. But compared to the Mi Box, navigation and use of Kodi on my Kodi box is a little slow and laggy.
Most other apps that I tried out were also very pleasurable to use and navigate: Netflix, Vudu and WatchESPN all worked perfectly. I enjoyed a full episode each of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones on Netflix with no issues whatsoever. In fact, as with Kodi, the experience using Netflix on the Mi Box is actually better than on my 2013 Panasonic smart TV, or on my Xbox One. Picture and sound quality was comparable between the three Netflix platforms.
One app that did not seem to work well despite my best efforts was Plex. For the uninitiated, Plex is a two-part system: it requires the server half to be running somewhere on your network (mine runs on my Synology NAS) with client apps installed on various devices (tablets, phones, PCs, TVs, game consoles, media players, etc.), which then stream the media from the server to the client. When it works, it’s a lot like having your own personal Netflix, and it’s very cool. When it doesn’t, you go back to Kodi. The Plex client on the Mi Box just isn’t quite working right. I was unable to pass-through any audio tracks from my various MKV rips of Blu-ray movies. When pass-through was implemented, the video would skip and audio would lag by as much as ten seconds. With pass-through turned off, the video skipping was still present, but the audio kept pace with the video. Either way, playback of my movie collection was not acceptable. The Plex “channels” (streaming content from online video sources like PBS, Comedy Central, etc.) seemed to work OK, but Plex channels are largely redundant on most platforms since individual apps for such sources are available from the Android Play, iOS or Windows stores. The fact that Plex is problematic (and it’s not just my particular Mi Box – I’ve seen many similar complaints across various online discussion forums) is concerning, because the same Plex app works well on other Android TV devices (e.g. the Nexus Player, Nvidia Shield and Sony HDTVs.) So this would seem to indicate some problem with the Mi Box itself. That said, it’s about the only app that has proven troublesome for me so far. Plex’s tech and user-based support is usually pretty good, so if I keep the Mi Box, I’ll be working with them to try to resolve this.
For apps that weren’t available (Amazon, HBO-Go) or didn’t work (Plex), I was able to successfully use the Google Cast feature. I’d just start up a cast session from my phone and then play whatever content I wanted while watching and listening to it on my main system. Granted, the image quality was limited to the phone’s resolution, and the sound was decoded to Pro Logic 2.0; but I was able to watch an episode of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and overall A/V quality was acceptable. I also tested HBO-Go and Plex and both worked. But workarounds like this really just aren’t ideal. It’s part of the reason Google’s Chromecast never appealed to me. I don’t want to use two devices just to watch content on my main home entertainment system. I do like casting to the big screen when I want to share what’s on my phone with the whole family (or guests) simultaneously.
The voice search feature is only available if you use the included Bluetooth remote. Since I prefer to use a Harmony, which lacks the necessary microphone, I don’t actually use the voice search much. I did try it out though, and it works quite well, as anyone familiar with Android phones and “OK Google” would agree. The voice search is essentially (as far as I can tell) the same as is included in Android Marshmallow on mobile devices which is quite good. It gets even better with Android Nougat and word is there’s a Nougat build of Android TV forthcoming.
One big problem with the Mi Box that I briefly mentioned above is audio codec compatibility, or lack thereof. The Mi Box is not able to pass any lossless audio formats like Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD Master Audio. The best it can do is Dolby Digital Plus (EAC-3, which is lossy like AC3 but with more bandwidth and channels) and traditional DTS 5.1. This is true even when playing files via Kodi which is capable of passing these audio formats. It’s hard to know if this is a software or a hardware limitation; meaning – could it be fixed with an update of the firmware and/or OS? I have sent a query to Xiaomi regarding this, but as of publication have not heard back from them. I’ll update this issue in the comments below if and when I learn anything new. Regardless, without at least Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio (let alone Dolby Atmos or DTS:X), the Xiaomi Mi Box is unlikely to feature prominently in any home theater enthusiast’s main system.
I have one final gripe about usability: there are no standard transport controls (play, stop, pause, fwd, rwd, skip) on the remote, nor in the Harmony profile. So, every time you want to execute a standard transport function it’s a two (or three) button process: first push the select/enter button which brings up an on-screen display of the video’s timeline along with the standard transport function icons. Then navigate to the function you want and select it. This is annoying and cumbersome. Roku works the same way and I don’t like it. Media players should have direct transport function buttons, period.
I do not have an Ultra HD television or monitor, let alone one with HDR. My reference display is a Panasonic TC-P60VT60 1080p plasma. So while I could not directly observe the UHD and HDR capabilities of the Mi Box, I was actually able to confirm its ability to easily play back UHD video material using a download of the Elysium movie trailer. Using Kodi as the playback software, the UHD signal was down-converted by my TV to 1080p and played smoothly and looked fantastic. When I repeated this test on my old NanoPC Kodi box, the video played, but dropped many frames and stuttered and skipped all over the place. The old NanoPC’s hardware was not able to process the UHD video material and maintain the proper frame rate. Incidentally, UHD material down-converted to 1080p can look fabulous if done well. The 4:2:0 chroma sampling results in full 4:4:4 chroma space in the 1080p down-conversion. So for those of you with an eagle eye for color fidelity (and a high quality monitor to display it) you should give this a try some time. Most people won’t be able to see the difference but some will.
THE XIAOMI MI BOX Android TV is the Best Bang-for-the-buck in Ott Media Streamer Boxes This Year.
- Android TV system – there are only two such products on the market plus two that are discontinued; the market needs more OTT boxes running Android TV – it is an excellent media OS.
- Affordable – at $69 the Mi Box really hits above its weight.
- 4K + HDR – proof that there’s no reason new video devices shouldn’t have 4K & HDR these days, and that it needn’t come with a premium price
- Fast – Navigation is a breeze. Apps open and close quickly.
- Easy set-up
- Built-in IR receiver – Universal remotes welcome.
- 1000’s of apps and games to download from Google Play store.
- Amazon Prime Video – This is really Amazon’s fault but other Android TV devices (e.g. Sony HDTVs) have been able to negotiate the inclusion of Amazon Prime Video so it is possible.
- High-res lossless audio codecs – this is the biggest lacking feature for HT aficionados.
- Transport keys for the remote (and Harmony codes) – Play/Pause/rew/fwd/etc. are all missing this seems like an easy fix, at least allow it via software for universal remotes like the Harmony.
It may seem like I had more negative things to say than positive, but actually I really enjoyed using the Xiaomi Mi Box Android TV. In fact, given the price I’d say that The Xiaomi Mi Box Android TV provides the most bang-for-the-buck in an OTT media streamer box this year. The user interface was smooth and fast, and most apps worked well. Setup was easy, and since it has a built-in IR receiver, the Mi Box integrated into my Harmony-driven entertainment system quite nicely right from the start. Its small size was nice, but not really an important factor to me. My entertainment system is mostly hidden from view, and really the wires are the worst part. So the question for me comes down to whether the Mi Box can replace one or more of my devices. It’s a close call – I prefer the general usability of the Mi Box to all my other media player devices right now. The Live Channels feature is really nice for “just watching TV”. I actually prefer the Mi Box when using Kodi over my dedicated (and aging) Foxconn net-top Kodi box. The Mi Box’s user experience is just snappier and smoother, even compared to the behemoth that is the Xbox One (although that’s probably more due to the overwhelmingly busy UI of the Xbox One).
At this point though, the answer is probably “no” – it will not replace one of my current boxes – mainly for its lack of HD audio support, and because it doesn’t support HBO-Go, or Amazon Prime Video. The Plex problem is an issue too, although I’m giving it and Xiaomi the benefit of the doubt that a fix is coming. The Mi Box could serve as a good media player box for a secondary TV (bedroom, exercise room), but I don’t have a secondary TV in my household. My OpenELEC/Kodi NanoPC supports the main HD audio formats, so I’ll be sticking with it for when I want lossless audio (e.g. critical movie watching or music listening). So while it won’t replace my old Kodi box, I’ve actually decided to keep the Mi Box anyway. At only $69, it’s not too big a hit on the wallet. I enjoy using it and it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of tweaks or updates it might receive down the road. I’m sure someone will be rooting it and publishing methods to make it do whatever you want. Those kind of advanced tweaks are not what I like to include in reviews though. But if you’re game, the Mi Box is a powerful bargain for an Android TV box and it’s on Walmart shelves now.