-Error-free 4K & HD video
-Bundled with coupons
-Faster than most Blu-ray player streaming apps
-Couldn't get HDR to engage
-No VUDU UHD or surround sound yet
-Slower than other 2016 set-top boxes and smart TVs I've used
-Google Cast buggy
The Mi Box is a new player in the set-top box market for 2016. Built and designed by Xiaomi, Inc., the Mi brand -- short for Mobile Internet -- consists of a variety of hardware, software, and internet services, including phones, drones, batteries, and even some air/water purifiers. Much like VIZIO's William Wang, Xiaomi founder, Lei Jun, "believes that high-quality technology doesn't need to cost a fortune."
Thus we have the Mi Box, a compact 4K Android TV streaming set-top box with HDR, voice search, Google Cast, a Bluetooth remote, and Dolby Digital + bitstreaming for less than $70 at your local Walmart.
That's a pretty fantastic deal if it works as well as it promises. The question becomes, how does the Mi Box stack up against its streaming competition -- a crowded market of physical media players, smart TVs, and other set-top boxes -- and how well does it deliver on all of these promises?
Let's find out together.
-4K/60p HDR Video:
-VVP9 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)
-Stereo & Multi-Channel Surround Sound
-DTS 2.0+ Digital Out
-Dolby Digital Plus
-Up to 7.1 passthrough
-Quad-core Cortex-A53 2.0GHz Processor
-Mali 450 750MHz GPU
-2GB DDR3 RAM
-8GB eMMC Flash
-Android TV 6.0
-Widevine L1 & PlayReady 3.0
-HDMI 2.0a x 1 port (HDCP 2.2)
-USB 2.0 x 1 port
-SPDIF Out / 3.5mm audio output x 1 port
-802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Dual-band Wi-Fi 2.4GHz/5GHz
-Bluetooth voice remote control
-2 AAA batteries
The Mi Box is a compact square with rounded edges and matte black surface. The supplied remote matches this color scheme, and is feather-light.
Set up is quick and easy, and requires only a few steps. Attach the supplied Mi Box HDMI cable to a free HDMI port on your TV or AV Receiver. I connected mine to my loaner Denon AVR-X6200W. Plug the Mi Box into a power source. And follow the on-screen prompts to connect to your Wi-Fi network (there is no Ethernet option here). Android device owners are offered a more seamless way to connect and sign in, but any laptop or smartphone will do. By logging into your Google account, you'll have full access to any of your Google videos and music as well as your YouTube video subscriptions. I believe setup, including a few app and firmware updates, took less than ten minutes. The Mi Box is off to a good start.
The Mi Box is a palm-sized box that will fit anywhere you need it to go. The remote is of the smaller variety we first saw with iMacs and AppleTVs and continue to see on products like the Samsung Ultra HD Blu-ray Player. To me, it's a little too small in hand, but it's simple and intuitive to learn. In day-to-day living, I appreciated the remote's accurate play/pause/fast-forwards/back/home controls.
For what it's worth, if you don't fancy this remote, the Mi Box works flawlessly with universal remote systems like the Logitech Harmony Elite.
How does the Mi Box perform out in the wild? Good, not great.
The headlines are these: the Mi Box's graphical user interface is easy to navigate and clean and quicker than most Blu-ray players, but slower than other 2016 set-top boxes and smart TVs. And while 4K picture quality is quite good, I was unable to get HDR to engage on my loaner LG E6 OLED even though I regularly watch HDR-encoded content via its own app as well as on a Roku Ultra.
While the Mi Box offers dozens of video & audio streaming apps (full list HERE), for the purposes of my review, I spent a majority of my time watching Netflix, YouTube, and VUDU, which are all terrific sources for 4K Ultra HD content. Or they should be. More on this in a minute.
Netflix worked, looked, and sounded best overall, delivering 4K Ultra HD content with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks; the shows played effortlessly and 4K really makes streaming content look sharper and more resolved. I also found the fast forwarding, rewinding, and general navigation to work quite well. That said, unlike the LG OLED's internal Netflix app (which engages Dolby Vision) and the Roku Ultra (which engages HDR 10), the Mi Box didn't have the option to play HDR content )even after I updated the player and the app).
YouTube looked terrific as well (sadly I missed the chance to test for HDR content by one day!), with the option to watch certain content in 2160p, 1440p, 1080p, or lower resolutions. I could watch drone footage of tropical paradises and underwater documentaries all day long, it looks so good, especially on an OLED. That said, I did have to adjust the Mi Box's output resolution from "4K 2K SMPTE" to "4K60hz" or the YouTube videos were unwatchable. I also wasn't a fan of how YouTube videos would play in the background when you went to the main menu.
VUDU UHD titles, sadly, don't work at all. Video resolution is currently limited to HDX, while the only sound option is stereo. Hopefully this could be cleared up in time (I'm not sure what's involved with becoming a VUDU UHD certified device and if VUDU's rolled out HDR10 alongside Dolby Vision), but it's odd that a "4K HDR" streaming box, one that includes a VUDU service coupon code, performs about as well as VUDU's mediocre mobile app.
In terms of overall performance, I found the Mi Box to be an improvement over older generation smart TVs and most Blu-ray players. The apps work well and the interface is clean, but the experience is noticeably slower than current generation Rokus, Apple TVs or smart TV platforms like LG's WebOS 3.0. To me, that makes it a disappointing product in the Ultra HD world (displays with UHD and HDR capability will likely have a better interface than this), but could prove useful for anyone with older UHD or HDTVs. Voice Search works reasonably well, but like Ford SYNC, Cadillac CUE, or even Apple's Siri, it was far from perfect and takes multiple attempts to recognize the right words.
Lastly, I had to end my review period when I restarted the box one afternoon record the boot time (a little less than 30 seconds) and found the menu language had changed to Korean. To be fair, I have an infant who love-love-LOVES remotes so it could have been her or me or a problem with my unit. I'll never know. Still, it wasn't the best way to sail off into the Mi sunset.
By far the most fluid way to stream content, Google Cast fuses the best features of your iOS and Android devices (only the apps you want & a keyboard) with the best features of your displays (screen size & resolution). Unlike screen mirroring, Google Cast works by leaving the controls on your smartphones and tablets, and lets the displays handle the streaming, so there's no quality loss. The one huge drawback is Google's ongoing war with Amazon, so there's no Amazon Instant Video, which has an excellent selection of HDR content.
I was excited to try Google Cast on the Mi Box because I adored this feature in the VIZIO P-Series, my current benchmark in the Cast ecosystem. And there's good news: the Mi Box works well with YouTube, which is great for catching up on your subscriptions or entertaining kids with music videos and clips from their favorite shows and movies.
The bad news: Casting services like VUDU and Netflix is slower and buggier than using the Mi Box's built-in apps. In my case, VUDU remained limited to HDX and stereo sound and Netflix refused to connect to the Mi Box at all. So, for heavier streaming sessions, I would suggest sticking with the Mi Box's built-in apps. Again, HDR mode never engaged on my loaner LG OLED even though it does via its internal apps as well as via the Roku Ultra.
The Mi Box offers an easy and affordable way to turn any HD or UHD display into an Android TV with a bounty of video & audio app streaming services and the ability to Google Cast. It also boasts high-end features like HDR and voice search. Frustratingly, while it does 4K well, it's slower and buggier than competing products from Roku, VIZIO, and even the internal apps on 2016 HDR-capable displays. If your main goal is to watch 4K content in HDR in your home theater environment, the Mi Box underwhelms.
That said, the Mi Box interface is slicker n' quicker than every Blu-ray player I've ever used, including the new Ultra HD Blu-ray player from Samsung. So, if you're still streaming via a physical media player, or have an older HDTV set or a 4K display with clunky built-in apps, this little box could upgrade your streaming experience significantly. If that's your case, the Mi Box is definitely worth a look.