The TV streaming box industry is heating up. As cord-cutters increasingly ditch their cable subscriptions and turn to streaming, many are looking for a full-featured, smart-home compatible streaming box that they can use to access content like Netflix, YouTube, and others.
Xiaomi is the latest to enter this streaming market with the new Xiaomi Mi Box S. But Xiaomi has some tough competition to go up against.
For starters, there’s Apple, which arguably dominates the space with the Apple TV and the newer Apple TV 4K. But there are dominant Android-based devices in the space, too: The Nvidia Shield TV is probably the most-loved and most powerful Android TV streaming box as it not only can play 4K content and serve as a PLEX server, but can also stream games from a networked PC.
Knowing what the competition is like, is it worth saving some cash and going for the Xiaomi Mi Box S, or should you save up a little more and go for Nvidia’s option instead? We put the Xiaomi Mi Box S to the test to find out.
Design and setup
The Xiaomi Mi Box S isn't bad-looking, though it is a little boring. The box is square, and comes in at around 3.5 x 3.5 inches, or 10 x 10 cm. On the top of the device, you’ll find the Xiaomi logo, while on the back there’s a basic HDMI port, a USB port, a 3.5mm audio port, and a power port. The device in general is decidedly minimalistic, though, of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Physically setting up the Xiaomi Mi Box is very easy, as you might expect: Simply connect the HDMI port to your TV or a receiver, the power port to an outlet, and you should be good to go. Then, put the batteries in the remote, turn on your TV and the device, and follow the on-screen prompts.
Like any other Android device, you’ll be prompted to sign in to your Google account and asked for privacy preferences. If you’ve got other Android-based devices, Google will also look at apps in your account, and recommend some that you can download to the Mi Box S, helping speed up the process of getting the device personalized for your needs.
Interestingly enough, when we first set up the Xiaomi Mi Box S, it was set to output video at 720p - which made it not look so great on a 4K TV. Of course, the device does support 4K output, and it’s easy to switch to 4K in the settings, but it’s still a little weird that in 2018 the box is preset to play at 720p.
The remote is pretty basic too, which we see as a good thing.
At the top, you’ll find a power button, directly under which can be found the voice search button. That’s helpful for triggering Google Assistant, which you can use to trigger smart home devices and control your TV. Under that, there’s a direction pad and selection button, then an apps button, back button, and home button. It’s all relatively easy to get used to, and anyone who’s familiar with Android devices and how they’re set up should have no trouble.
In general, the Xiaomi Mi Box S may look a little boring, but setup is easy enough for those that have set up an Android device before - though you may want to head to the Settings section and make sure that the box is outputting video at the highest resolution that your TV can handle.
The Xiaomi Mi Box S may be cheap, but that doesn’t mean it's lacking in features: this $60 (around £50, AU$80) streaming box supports 4K, and HDR.
Apart from supporting high-resolution video, the Mi Box S also has Android TV 8.1 built right into it. What that means is that you’ll be able to take advantage of the huge Android TV ecosystem of apps, plus services like Google Cast, the ability to mirror your Android phone, Google Assistant, and more.
Android TV also gives you access to a huge range of apps. There’s the obvious ones, like Netflix and YouTube, but there’s also a range of games and lesser-known services that might be helpful, like Google Assistant.
Assistant has become one of, if not the, most powerful digital assistants out there, and it’s nice to be able to use it to control your TV too. With HDMI CEC setup, you could use Google Assistant to control your entire home theater setup - including turning on and off your TV and receiver.
So how does the whole system work in daily use? Well, not bad, but it’s certainly not as zippy as the likes of the Nvidia Shield TV.
In fact, comparing the Xiaomi Mi Box S to the Shield TV highlights perhaps its biggest weakness - this is a streaming box, and that’s about it. While you could easily use the Nvidia Shield TV, and arguably the Apple TV too, to game on, the processing power needed for any gaming on the Mi Box S just isn’t there.
While it's not going to appease any gamers in the audience, it's still a decent streamer: for apps like Netflix and YouTube, we actually found that it was more than good enough. Sure, more performance-intensive tasks may cause the Mi Box S to struggle, but that's what you'd expect to happen at this price point.
On top of a few niggling issues with performance, we had a few problems with the remote too. Sometimes, the remote wouldn’t turn the Mi Box S on, and when we first set it up it couldn’t trigger Google Assistant either. Resetting it fixed that issue, but it still shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place.
The Xiaomi Mi Box S has a lot going for it, but it’s not perfect. If you’re looking for an Android-based streaming box and don’t want to spend much, this is a decent device to go for ... but you have to be willing to put up with a few bugs, a remote that doesn’t always work properly, and you won’t be able to use it for too many high-performance tasks.
Our recommendation? If all you’re looking for is a great Android-based streaming box and money isn’t much of an issue, then go with the Nvidia Shield TV. It’s a far more capable device that doesn’t suffer from the same bugs the Mi Box S has. Adversely, if cost is your biggest concern and you still want an alternative to the Mi Box S, consider a Chromecast instead.
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