Roku. Amazon. Google. NVIDIA. Xiaomi. Wait ... who? That last name may not be familiar to most of our readers. However, if you've shopped for a streaming media player in recent months, there's a good chance that you've at least heard mention of Xiaomi's MiBox, a 4K-friendly player that's built on the Android TV 6.0 OS.
To be honest, I had never heard of Xiaomi or the MiBox until last December, when we posted a news story about Google's introduction of UHD movies to the Google Play Store. Alongside Sony's Android TVs and Google's Chromecast Ultra media bridge, the MiBox was one of the first to support playback of these UHD films.
I still didn't give the product much thought until I encountered it the other day on the shelf at my local Walmart, nestled between the most recent offerings from Roku. What exactly caught my eye? Simple: the promise of HDR playback in a player that costs just $69. That was too tempting to ignore, so I bought one to see for myself how it compares to the big names in streaming.
The MiBox has a petite form factor. It's a four-inch square with a sloped design that sits only about 0.75 inches high at its tallest, with a matte black finish. Connection options include an HDMI 2.0a output with HDCP 2.2, a USB 2.0 port, and 3.5mm audio output that can be used for coaxial digital audio or analog audio. The one notable omission on the connection panel is a dedicated Ethernet port for a wired network connection--although you could use a USB-to-Ethernet adapter if you strongly prefer the wired approach over using the player's built-in dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi.
The supplied remote is a Bluetooth-based model made of plastic, with the same matte black finish as the box itself. The button layout is simple and intuitive: At the top is a power button. Below that is a navigation wheel with an enter button inside. Next is a row of three buttons: Back, Home, and Microphone. And last but not least are the volume buttons. Naturally, the remote reminded me a little bit of the one that I use with the original NVIDIA SHIELD player, which is another Android TV-based device. The button options are similar, but the SHIELD remote is a sturdier, rechargeable model that adds a headphone output for private listening. The Mi remote uses two AAA batteries and doesn't have the headphone output.
When you first power up the MiBox, an onscreen graphic shows you how to pair the remote with the player. Then you are asked to select your language of choice and are given the option to complete setup using an Android phone or tablet. I didn't have either of those on hand, so I proceeded with the basic setup. I added the MiBox to my wireless network without any difficulty. The final step was to sign in to Google via a phone or computer. Like all Android TV devices, you do need a Google account to use the MiBox. After sign-in, I was all set to go.
During my tests, I connected the MiBox primarily to the LG 65EF9500 HDR-capable 4K OLED TV, but I also tested the box with Samsung's non-HDR UN65HU8550 4K LED/LCD TV, JVC's DLA-X970 e-shift projector, and Samsung's LN-T4681 1080p TV. One interesting quirk I encountered was that the MiBox, which is set by default to automatically choose the best resolution for your TV, opted for a 1080p output resolution with the LG 4K TV. With the Samsung 4K TV, the box automatically chose a 1080p output during one session and a 720p output during another. With the JVC projector, it chose 1080i. And with the 1080p Samsung TV, it chose 1080p. On its own, this discrepancy isn't a huge deal. It's easy enough to go into the MiBox's Display Settings and switch to a 4K resolution: you can choose 4k2k-24hz, 4k2k-25hz, 4k2k-30hz, 4k2k-60hz, or 4k2k-smpte (which I believe means 4096x2160/24p--too bad I couldn't find a real owner's manual, in the box or online, to confirm). However, this problem with the box's inability to correctly detect a TV's resolution might be the cause of bigger problems I would soon encounter (keep reading).
For audio output, the player is set by default to output PCM, but it can also be set for auto detection, HDMI, or SPDIF. I went with HDMI output and tested audio pass-through by connecting the box to an an Onkyo TX-RZ900 AV receiver. The MiBox supports the passage of 7.1-channel Dolby Digital Plus via bitstream over HDMI (but only DTS 2.0); I had no issues passing DD+ through services like Netflix, FandangoNOW, and Google Play.
Some players, including the Amazon Fire TV, omit the digital audio output entirely, so it's nice that the MiBox includes it--although optical digital audio is more common than coaxial on many soundbars and powered speakers. To further improve compatibility, the MiBox supports the connection of Bluetooth 4.0 audio devices. I connected the box to my daughter's Puro Sound Lab BT2200 Bluetooth headphones, as well as the Polk Boom Bit speaker, and the Bluetooth worked great. Via Bluetooth, you can also add a dedicated gaming controller (MiBox sells its own for $19) for more advanced gameplay.
Like all Android TV devices, the MiBox also has Chromecast built in, so you can stream content directly from Cast-compatible apps on your mobile devices or through the Chrome Web browser. I had no issues casting video from YouTube and music from Pandora and Spotify; however, I was never able to successfully cast from Netflix. The Netflix app on my iPhone 6 would see the MiBox in my list of Cast-friendly devices, but it would never connect to it. I was able to cast Netflix and Amazon Video via the Chrome Web browser, though.
Click over to Page Two for Performance, The Downside, Comparison & Competition, and Conclusion...
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