Review: Xiaomi Mi Box S

Mi Box S.JPG

Cheap Android TV +Chromecast Ultra?

When it comes to TV:s, Google, much like with mobile messaging, seems to have multiple visions that they want to realize.
The Google Chromecast was probably one of the best selling smart TV-alternatives back in the day, not only due to practicality but also pricing. With competitors offering a UI-based TV alternatives however, such as the Apple TV, Amazon with the Fire Stick, and Roku with they’re TV- boxes and sticks the company must have realized that not everyone want to use their phone as the main remote. Android TV was announced already back in June 2014 to launch on the Nexus Player in October the same year. Since then, not too much have happened in the eyes of the consumer. Mainly, Android TV runs on a few TV:s out of the box (mostly from Sony, Philips, and Sharp), or on the Nvidia Shield TV boxes. Those are all expensive alternatives however, and the idea that you eventually would need to get a new TV for the latest software updates can be haunting. The idea behind the Nvidia Shield and devices like the Roku or Amazon’s Fire TV are pretty great, as you can switch it without buying a new 4K TV. But The shield is also a pretty expensive entrance-purchase for most and as the name suggests aimed at gamers.

Enter the Mi Box by Xiaomi. The latest release, called Mi Box S, is a re-branded and re-designed version of the previous Android TV box. The Mi Box. Here you get the official Android TV package, signed by Google, with all its tricks and features. Additionally it also features a full Chromecast Ultra built-in for 4K casting. All this for a price that fluctuates between $55 to $99 in-between deals markets. Of course, going through Chinese importers such as Gearbest you can even find it for less at times, although you do risk losing out on warranty support or you will have to ship it back to China for repairs/services.

Mi-Store.se loaned me the original Xiaomi Mi Box for review-purposes, but unfortunately my review-device had some issues running Netflix and it simply refused to access my 2.4 gHz network after I set it up on my 5 gHz. I have however been assured both by the company and by individual users online that these are warrantied issues, it was simply bad luck. Mi-Store.se also affirmed that they got my unit running after I set it up without any hassle.

As a review spoiler, I liked the device so much (apart from the Netflix bug) that we decided to pick up the S-version and give it another go. It’s important to note that these are essentially the same device, with the same hardware specifications and the same UI. The Mi Box S comes with a re-designed remote with extra buttons for Netflix and IP-TV and Android TV 8.1 Oreo out of the box (the Mi Box got the update as well a few months ago). It might see newer versions of the operating system down the line compared to the older model, but that’s hard to say. The Mi Box S also features a newer version of Bluetooth (4.2 over 4.0).

Funnily enough the Mi Box S was also priced slightly lower than the original Mi Box 4K, probably due to the same internals being cheaper now than they were then.

In the Box

The box is a quite simple story of an orange color-theme and stickers telling you what the Mi Box can do.

Inside we find a manual and warranty-papers with the box itself in the first layer. Underneath we get the power adapter, the remote control along with two AAA batteries and an HDMI-cable. Now I was amused by the fact that it says “Free HDMI cable included” on the box, but this might not be as normal as I thought? We have the device set up to an Epson projector, so I didn’t get to use this short and minimalist cable. A shame really as I think it would look even better with it.

The box looks good, and is really small. It features a lot of similarities with the original Mi Box but with a more edged look (as opposed to the slimmer looking previous model with curved edges).

That’s a Playstation 4 underneath the Mi Box, just to give an actual idea of how small it really is.

This makes the box easy to position on any TV-furniture, and seeing that it uses Bluetooth instead of IR for controls you can pretty much hide it anywhere without losing control of it.

Setup

Setting up an Android TV device is as easy as asking your phone to do it. Literally open the Google app and type “set up my device” for the interface to open up. This will let you add your Google account and Wi-Fi passwords with a quick guide featuring all the Google software design we’ve come to expect.

It’s a shrug of genius letting this process be automatic instead of having to type everything with the included controller and a big on-screen keyboard. If you prefer that however, you can set it up manually. I didn’t.

 

This process took but a few minutes, and the screen you’re seeing here is simple saying “Receiving account and network-data”.

Say hi to Cendra sneaking her head into the frame.

Once the process is done you’re greeted by a quick guide of the UI-elements and then you’re free to explore Android TV.

Android TV, the User Interface

Now, why would you get an Android TV box instead of just a Chromecast. Well, for one the price on the Mi Box is pretty much the same as the Chromecast Ultra in most markets. The added benefit is that you get an actual UI, which may not mean the most to you if you’re an experienced Chromecast user, but to visitors or family it might make a world of difference. Or as Linus Tech Tips might have said, it has the benefit of being easily girlfriend-approved. In addition to being able to install your favorite apps and games, you can also use it as a Chromecast and the remote-control is voice enabled over bluetooth, letting you use the Google Assistant built in to not only access shows on for example Netflix but also control your Smart Home. The UI adapts, giving you an overview of what the Assistant thinks you’re saying and its reply. Unfortunately the Assistant still isn’t equal across all devices and for Android TV the only supported languages are English, French, German, Korean, and Spanish.
On a highly positive note, with Netflix’s new interactive content not being able to play when simply casting to a device, the remote interface allows you to watch Black Mirror Bandersnatch for as many times as you want.

I’ve seen different reactions to Android TV’s user interface, but to me it mostly makes sense and looks great. It’s a big screen UI, and while apps are required to support this there are numerous of them available, not only for streaming but also games, file explorers, and launcher options for launching unsupported apps. To make the most out of the latter you’d probably need to install those apps through a downloaded .apk though.

You can control what apps show up on the home feed, as well as what apps to include in the Continue Watching tab, and there are shortcuts at the top to open the apps of your choosing.

For me, the Android TV UI simply works and actually looks good while doing its thing. It’s just a shame that the Assistant’s language support isn’t equal to that of smartphones and speakers.

Experience

Now, my problems with Netflix not running on the original version aside the Mi Box S delivers what I would call a great experience so far. The Cortex A53 quad-core processor running the show is no flagship beast that you’d might find in your $600+ smartphone, but the UI still flows in a presentable fashion. Animations aren’t the smoothest in the world, but for a TV interface they’re way better than most built-in options that I’ve seen on more expensive TV’s.

It’s worth mentioning that We have fully invested in the streaming space of the 21-century and that we do not watch TV from either the cord or by IP-TV. We’ve used the Mi Box’ as streaming devices for apps like Netflix, HBO Nordic, and Viaplay as well as Plex for local content.

What’s so interesting about the streaming experience on Android TV is the inclusion of the full UI interface, the Chromecast availability, as well as the option to use voice commands either from a phone, smart speaker, or the remote itself. It’s a versatile product that lets you control it pretty much as you want, even with an Android TV remote app for Android were you kan go navigate through the UI, access the Assistant, and use your smartphone’s keyboard for easier typing as well as an added benefit if your remote batteries dies.

The Chromecast implementation allows the end-user to cast shows or music as you would on a regular Chromecast. It does however not allow for inclusion in Home Audio Groups. It’s also easy to get confused about what is supported when integrating with a Google Home speaker and voice controls. It’s for example not obvious that the Mi Box S needs to be set to a supported language for it to work at all, but since changing the Box’s language to English I can successfully cast Netflix through external voice commands. Youtube still don’t work however, as the Assistant replies that something went wrong and playing something from Viaplay simply shows me the logo but no real content. However, controlling the ongoing playback or audio is working without any flaws with commands such as Play/Pause or “Lower the Volume”. A lot of people still don’t own smart speakers, and a lot of people prefer to scroll through the UI anyway. For me this is a frustrating error, but one that I hope Google will fix and it’s important to note that this is a problem with Android TV in general, not the Mi Box. I haven’t had any issues with casting content from my phone, so the Chromecast-branding lives up to it’s expectations there at least.

What is working without any issues however is the integrated Assistant through the remote control. When the box was set to Swedish it only gave me search results, even when trying to turn on or off lights. Since we put the box to English however we were greeted by the real Assistant which can play content, control smart devices, and do pretty much everything you’d expect from the Assistant.

I currently have the device set to our 2.4 gHz network and I’ve experienced no connectivity issues what so ever. On the contrary, for 1080P content there’s really nothing stopping the device. It can however stream in 4K with HDR if you have a screen that supports it. This might take a toll on connectivity, and you’d might be better of getting an Ethernet over USB cable depending on your local Wi-Fi. While this is doable, it will however require the one available USB 2.0-port, and if you’re thinking of adding several games or movies to the Box’s storage you’ll need more than the included 8GB.
You could argue that the storage is where the Mi Box falls flat, but this is ment to be a streaming device first. And for all intents and purposes it fills these shoes without hesitation.

The funny thing is that the Nvidia Shield TV base modell that people love to compare the Mi Box S to only comes with 16GB. That’s double the storage, sure, but it’s still not enough if you want to store stuff on your Android TV box. At that, the Shield is priced at around $110 more than the Mi Box S in Sweden.

I have read numerous reports of the Mi Box S having issues with automatically setting the correct resolution/frame-rate, but for my purposes I have never had issues with either. We have yet to move to the 4K standard, as our 1080P projector does a good job in our eyes, and the Mi Box performs without any of us thinking there’s an error.

The Mi Box S was set to automatic resolution based on the display unit out of the box, and I haven’t noticed anything weird about that either.

We all have issues waking up at times, and the Mi Box S is no exception. When you push the power button on the remote the Box goes into a standby mode. Most of the time it will wake up as soon as you want it to and in the application that you last used to boot. At times however the unit seems to sleep a little bit to heavy and at these times I’ve had to approach the unit with the remote (say within 0,5 meters) for it to wake up again. If this is due to the standby mode disconnecting the controller or something else I cannot tell, and it’s important to mention that these instances have been few and far between. I’ve never had to pull out the power cord to get it up and running again.

Image and Audio

As mentioned there’s support for HDR which is handled through the HDR10 standard. So there’s no support for Dolby Vision. On the topic of HDR I get the feeling that it’s in the same phase as Blu-Ray vs. HD DVD was a little over 10 years ago. I personally wouldn’t base a purchase on which standard it supports at this moment. HDR10 is so far the most supported HDR-standard as it’s both cheap and relatively simple for manufacturers to implement in their screens. So if you have a TV with HDR support it probably supports HDR10, and if so this is yet again a great purchase. When having to cut corners, I think Xiaomi made a good decision when deciding on HDR10.

The output of sound is available for up to 5.1 surround sound and Dolby- and DTS-HD audio. We have the Box connected to a Philips HTL6140S/12 Soundbar. The audio is routed through HDMI to the projector and then through a 3,5mm cable back to the soundbar. For audiophiles this might not be optimal, but for all intents and purposes the sound it produces is great for our usage. Simply put, I see no reason to complain about neither the image or audio quality. It’s worth mentioning that the 3,5 mm port also doubles as a mini-toslink port for optical audio output, same as the Chromecast Audio for example.

I guess that the lack of the more premium features, Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos, might be a deal-breaker for a few users but I also think that’s about it when it comes to real “limitations”.

Remote

One of the biggest changes on the S-modell is the remote control’s new layout. This is a narrow and long unit with a navigation D-pad that looks like a wheel with an OK button in the middle. Above it we get the Google Assistant button as well as a Power button which puts the device to sleep.

For the UI we also get an app-drawer button, a back button and a home button next to each other respectively. And last but not least there’s the Netflix-button, IP-TV button, and the volume rocker.
What I have noticed however, is that the navigation buttons feel more plasticy and clicky on the new model. That’s not something to write it off for, but it surprised me all the same.

The remote is light, and comfortable, and it doesn’t leave a lot to be desired if you ask me.

For all you Logitech Harmony users out there it is also possible to pair the remote/hub via Bluetooth to have it all in one controller. The process is a little bit funny, whereas I had to pair it as an Nvidia Shield, and you do lose a few buttons such as for Home and the app-drawer along with the Google Assistant functionality. But it does work for scrolling through the UI.

Gaming

With the processor and 2GB of RAM the Mi Box S is able to play games for Android such as the Asphalt racing games. It’s not as powerful as the Nvidia Shield, but it’s not ment to be a gaming console either. What’s far more interesting to me is the availability of the Steam Link app as well as Emulators to run old-school Nintendo/Playstation games.
Steam Link in particular as this should enable you to stream PC games to the big-screen with just a controller connected.

Now, I had some bad luck when aiming to review the gaming-aspect of the device. We have a Playstation 4 laying around with two controllers that I was hoping to make use of. Putting these in pairing mode is as easy as holding down the Playstation button and the share button simultaneously. The Dualshock 4 controllers do utilize Bluetooth and should be compatible. After the fact however I did find out that Sony has limited the use of Bluetooth-connectivity and apparently I cannot get them to connect without rooting the device.

This does however mean that a new review for gaming with the Mi Box S is planned for the future, when I get my hands on a Bluetooth controller.

Conclusion

I find it hard not to recommend the Mi Box S.
If you’re looking to buy a Chromecast Ultra, or want to expand your TV’s smart capabilities without paying for a new TV altogether this is an excellent buy.

With a fully certified version of Android TV and support for 4K HDR at 60 FPS this device is a steal at $59 (US)-$99(Sweden). If you want a more gaming capable device, this might not be it. But most people have a “real” console for those purposes and what the Mi Box S gives you compared to a Chromecast is hard not to value. It’s a fully interfaced streaming box with voice control, it’s a retro-gaming emulator, it’s a Steam Link box, and it’s a Chromecast. The term all in one comes to mind.

There are even cheaper Android TV boxes out there, but most of them don’t feature the Google Certification or even proper DRM-support for full-resolution streaming services. You also need to be ware that a lot of low-cost Android boxes for TVs run a customized version of Android that isn’t Android TV which will offer a less streamlined TV-experience.

This is in my eyes the Smart TV box to get for people who want something that works, or are invested (looking to invest-) in the Google ecosystem. It’s an affordable option that most people will enjoy thoroughly.
For more performance there’s always the Nvidia Shield TV box running Android TV with a higher spec-sheet, but the question you need to ask yourself is if you’ll utilize its power for gaming or Dolby Atmos. The shield is after all priced at more than the double. If you ask me the Mi Box S is also the better looking unit with a sleek and minimalistic casing that will fit in most homes.

I fully recommend the Xiaomi Mi Box S.

Thanks for checking out my review of the Mi Box S! I’ll post an updated review once I get my hands on a compatible controller for everyone curious about the gaming aspects of the device. Sign up for the newsletter to get a notification when the review is out!

This is Andreas @ The Mobile Swede.
Have a good one!

Xiaomi Mi Box S Rating:

Check out the Mi Box S at you local retailer or online stores such as Gearbest. As a personal preference I’d recommend a local retailer if available for after-purchase communication and warranty issues. Amazon reaches a lot of the world these days and usually have great costumer policies.

Pros:

  • Price

  • App-support

  • User Interface

  • Resolution options

  • Google Certified

  • Remote control

  • Built-in Chromecast

  • Voice Control

  • Design

  • Unit Size

Cons:

  • Internal Storage

  • Only one USB-port

  • No built-in Ethernet port