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 4096×2160/24p–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.
If you’ve auditioned any Android TV device–be it the NVIDIA SHIELD player or a Sony TV like the XBR-65Z9D I recently reviewed–then you’ve already got a pretty good idea what the MiBox interface looks like. Just as the Roku OS looks similar no matter whether you’re using a Roku set-top box, a Roku TV, or a Roku Stick, the Android TV interface carries the same core design premise across devices.
In the center of the Home menu is the Recommendations toolbar–a horizontal row of large, colorful thumbnails that contain suggested content, trending YouTube clips, and recently viewed items. Naturally the suggested content heavily favors Google services, in much the same way the Apple TV favors Apple content and the Amazon Fire TV favors Amazon content. The more apps you use, the more varied that suggested content will become. The inclusion of recently viewed items makes it easy to return to a movie, TV show, or music service that you previously accessed without having to navigate deeper into the menu structure.
Scroll down the screen to find a list of recommended apps, which includes many of biggest names in streaming: Netflix, VUDU, Sling TV, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify, Watch ESPN, CBS All Access, CBS Sports, HBO GO/Now, and Showtime.
Next up are rows for Games and Apps. This is where Google’s own services are located, including Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music, and Google Play Games, as well as the Google Play Store to browse and add other streaming services and games. The most notable omission from the MiBox’s available lineup of entertainment apps is Amazon Video, which is odd because Amazon Video is available on every other major Android TV device I’ve tested. That means it’ll probably arrive on this box eventually, but it’s not there now. Media server apps like PLEX, VLC, and KODI are available.
Aside from the lack of Amazon Video, the MiBox does provide a solid assortment of 4K-friendly apps, including Netflix, Google Play, YouTube, VUDU, and UltraFlix. FandangoNOW is also onboard, but you don’t get the UHD version. At first glance, VUDU doesn’t appear to be the 4K-friendly version either, in that the “UHD Collection” is missing from the Showcase section. However, when browsing specific movies, I found that some–like Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Office Christmas Party, Collateral Beauty, and Arrival –were available for rent or purchase in UHD. Not every title that VUDU offers in UHD was presented here, but many were. So perhaps it is a work in progress.
In the top left corner of the Home page are search icons using either voice or text. Of course, you can initiate a voice search anytime you want by just hitting the microphone button on the remote. In general, the voice search works well. Name a movie, TV show, actor, director, song, or artist, and you’ll get a list of applicable options. Again, the results heavily favor YouTube and the Google Play suite of services, but Netflix, VUDU, and Hulu are also represented.
Through the basic MiBox voice search, you can also get local weather info, but requests for stock info or sports schedules/results just took me to YouTube clips. Google has announced plans to integrate the more advanced Google Assistant voice platform into the MiBox, but it was not yet available at the time of this review.
In terms of speed and reliability, the MiBox was a good performer overall. The Android platform was stable and didn’t freeze or crash on me, and the box responded quickly to remote commands. In the area of picture quality, content from Netflix, Google Play, FandangoNOW, ABC, and HBO GO was well detailed and generally smooth, although the occasional stutter was present. When I set the box for 4k2k-24hz, I noticed that Netflix playback exhibited more consistent stutter; when I switched to 1080p-60hz or 4k2k-60hz output, the stutter went away. As always, the overall quality of streamed content will be dictated by the speed and reliability of your broadband network.
I got the best, most consistent performance results when I mated the MiBox with a 1080p TV (or at least set the box’s resolution to 1080p). With the 4K displays I used, I ran into a couple major issues. As I mentioned in the opener, the thing that caught my eye about this box was the promise of HDR for $69. The MiBox’s website says that the box supports both HDR10 and HLG, but not Dolby Vision. That rules out VUDU’s HDR content (which is only offered in Dolby Vision), and the lack of Amazon Video means no HDR there, either. At least I should’ve been able to get HDR10 content through Netflix. In the Settings menu, there is an HDR control, set to auto by default (with options for on and off). I opened Netflix and tried to play two different titles that I know are offered in HDR: Marco Polo and Daredevil. Neither one played back in HDR mode through this box. So, I went into Settings and changed HDR from auto to on … still no HDR playback. Then I went back into Settings and turned on the Deep Color function under “Screen Resolution” … still no HDR playback. Then I performed a firmware update … still no HDR playback.
I never got HDR to play through the MiBox. Just in case the problem might’ve been with my LG TV, I disconnected the MiBox, plugged in my NVIDIA SHIELD box using the same HDMI cable fed to the same input on the same TV, and launched the same Netflix content. HDR playback started up immediately. The problem was clearly with the MiBox, and I know of at least one other reviewer, Michael Palmer at High-Def Digest, who had similar problems with HDR playback.
A (presumably) related problem was the fact that, many times, the Ultra HD menu disappeared entirely from the Netflix app when the box was connected to the 4K TVs I used. This happens when the box incorrectly determines that it’s not connected to a UHD TV. If you connect any 4K-capable streaming media player to a 1080p TV, Netflix will launch in non-UHD mode, and that seemed to be what was happening here. I often had to restart the player to get the UHD content back, and sometimes even that didn’t work. When connected to the JVC projector, the MiBox never showed the Ultra HD menu, whereas the NVIDIA box always did. Again, in browsing the forums, I found that I was not the only one to have this problem with the MiBox.
Although the general voice search works well, the voice search function within specific apps like YouTube, Google Play Store, and Google Play Movies & TV is a bit more finicky. You have to be sure the voice icon is red and pulsating before you speak your request.
Comparison & Competition
The $69 Chromecast Ultra also supports the playback of 4K and HDR content. However, the Ultra is not a dedicated player; rather, it’s a media bridge that requires another source–be it a tablet, phone, or computer–from which the content originates. So, it’s a different animal from the MiBox (one which I plan to review soon).
In the realm of dedicated streaming media players, Roku’s $69 Premiere box supports 4K playback but not HDR. To get HDR, you must move up to the $99 Premiere+, which includes a remote with a headphone output for private listening, an Ethernet port, and Roku’s universal voice search.
The Amazon Fire TV ($89) does not support HDR playback but is a 4K box. You can read my full review here.
Finally there’s the NVIDIA SHIELD TV player, which is admittedly a more expensive piece at $199 for the entry-level 16GB model. The SHIELD player is also an Android TV device, so it has much of the same DNA as the MiBox; however, it’s built on Android TV 7.0. The higher price gets a more robust gaming machine, a dedicated Ethernet port, and an extra USB port; plus, the SHIELD already supports Google Assistant for more advanced voice search and wholehome control. It also has more advanced AV setup tools, with Dolby Atmos and DTS:X pass-through.
If you’re just looking for an affordable streaming media player built on Android TV to mate with a 1080p (or lower-resolution) TV, the $69 Xiaomi MiBox is a solid option. It’s a generally reliable, stable device that has most of the major apps people want, as well as some nice features–including Chromecast support, Bluetooth audio output, and effective voice search.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an HDR-capable 4K streaming media player, the MiBox isn’t a sure bet. Maybe it will work just fine with your particular 4K display, but it didn’t work reliably with any of mine. I can’t even evaluate it as an HDR player because I could never get HDR out of it, and that’s the main reason it earned such a low performance rating–that and the Netflix Ultra HD issue.
Since the MiBox is sold primarily through Walmart, which will take back anything, you could always pick one up, try it out with your particular 4K display, and see what happens. If it works, great. Let us know in the Comments section below.