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Xiaomi Mi Box 4K review: the best media streaming device if you’re on a budget

On: June 8, 2020

India’s smart TV industry reached its highest-ever shipments of 15 million units last year, as per Counterpoint Research. The demand for smart TVs has partly been fueled by affordable broadband and mobile data rates in India, alongside the rise in popularity of OTT video content. That said, there’s still a large segment of users who have non-smart TVs at home, and would like access to OTT content and smart features without paying the cost of a brand new smart TV. For users like this, the easiest fix is a media streaming device, like the Amazon Fire TV Stick.

The Fire TV Stick has been the undisputed king of India’s streaming devices, but that’s about to change with the launch of the Xiaomi Mi Box 4K. While there are other Android TV boxes available in India, Xiaomi is attempting to undercut the competition by offering an affordably priced device with the latest version of Android TV (Android 9), 4K, HDR10, and support for most OTT platforms. To find out if the Mi TV Box 4K has what it takes to sway non-smart TV users in India, I’ve been using it over the past few weeks.

Specifications

While the Mi Box supports 4K playback, it will work just fine on a 720p screen as well. If you have a compatible TV, HDR10 is also supported. Chromecast is a given on Android TV devices, but on the Mi Box 4K you get Chromecast Ultra, which lets you stream content from your phone or computer in up to 4K resolution.

The Mi Box 4K is powered by a 64-bit 2.0GHz quad-core Cortex A-53 processor and Mali-450 GPU. There’s 2GB RAM and 8GB of eMMC storage. As for connectivity, you get dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.2, with the latter allowing you to connect devices like headphones, keyboards, gaming controllers and more. The ports on offer include a power socket, audio out (3.5mm + SPDIF), HDMI 2.0 and USB 2.0. The USB port is a useful addition, letting you hook up a pen drive or hard drive to watch locally stored content, and this is a feature you don’t get on the Fire TV Stick.

Dolby Audio and DTS 2.0+ Digital Out are also supported, so you can take advantage of this by connecting compatible external speakers or a soundbar. The Mi Box 4K is also the first Android TV Box to come with the Android TV Data Saver feature, which can automatically turn on when you’re connected to a mobile hotspot. You can also set up alerts to be notified when you’ve crossed a specified data limit, thereby controlling your data usage.

Design

Unlike the Fire TV Stick which is a dongle that stays hidden behind your TV, the Mi Box 4K features a box form factor that needs to be placed on a table. It’s quite compact – measuring just 3.75 square inches – and the matte black finish is unobtrusive too. The box features a minimalistic design with the ports arranged at the back, letting you keep all the connected cables out of sight.

As for the remote, it’s almost identical to the ones you get with Mi TVs. It’s sleek and lightweight, and powered by 2 AAA batteries (not included in the box). There’s a power button on top, followed by a Google Assistant key. Below this is the 5-way D-pad, after which you get a row of buttons for all apps, back and home. The all apps button shows you a quick access menu on top of the content you’re watching, letting you switch between apps without going to the Android TV homescreen. Below this you’ll find dedicated hotkeys for Netflix and Prime Video, followed by the volume buttons.

It’s worth noting that the remote is only Bluetooth enabled and doesn’t feature infrared. This means you can’t power the TV on or off using the remote, as you can with the Fire TV Stick. Even the volume control is limited, letting you control the volume of the Mi Box 4K itself, and not the TV. For the full range of volume control, you’ll have to switch to your TV remote.

Setting up

Setting up the box is quite easy, and takes about 10 minutes. You can either set it up manually, or on your Android phone via the Google app. Once this is done, you need to pair the remote, which involves you having to hold it 8 inches away from the Mi Box, and simultaneously press the all apps and home buttons.

The Mi Box 4K is a new product in India, but was originally launched internationally in 2018. While it runs Android TV 8.1 out of the box, you’ll be prompted to download the Android 9.0 update as soon as you finish the set up process.

Interface and performance

Unlike Mi TVs which let you choose between Android TV and Patchwall, on the Mi Box 4K you get only the former. If you’ve used an Android TV device earlier, you should feel right at home with the Mi Box 4K’s UI.

You get a row on top for your favourite apps, and you can customize the remaining rows. For example, you can choose to see featured and recommended content from Google Play Movies and TV, Google Play Music, Netflix, Prime Video, YouTube and more. The interface is clean and ad-free, except for a feature called ‘Mi Box Recommends’, which appears only if you click on the all apps button, showing you a couple of app recommendations. There’s also an Apps Spotlight row by the Play Store on the homescreen, but this can be disabled via the aforementioned customization options.

Personally, I prefer the interface of the Fire TV Stick, which is more content focused. However, while the Fire TV Stick is biased towards Prime Video, the Mi Box 4K lets you control the content you want to see on your homescreen. That said, scrolling through and navigating the interface wasn’t as snappy as the Fire TV Stick.

From the settings menu, you can enable HDMI CEC which will allow you to use your TV remote to control various aspects of the UI. This is useful, given the Mi Box 4K’s remote functionality is limited when it comes to volume and power. You can navigate to various apps and control playback from your TV remote directly.

The display settings lets you specify the screen resolution or automatically switch it to what your TV recommends. On the Fire TV Stick 4K, my TV’s resolution is set to 4K at 60Hz, but on the Mi Box 4K, this setting resulted in the colours becoming weirdly oversaturated. When I changed it to auto mode, it picked 4K at 30hz, which solved the problem. In display settings, you can also choose whether to change content from HDR to SDR, or vice-versa. 4K and HDR playback works on the Mi Box 4K without any issues.

Google Assistant works as expected, answering general queries, giving you calendar updates (if you allow personal results to be displayed) and controlling compatible Assistant-powered devices, like smart bulbs or air purifiers. You can also use Assistant to find content within your apps. For example, you can ask Assistant to find videos for kids on YouTube, and browse the results. You can also give specific instructions, like “Play Dead To Me” on Netflix, and Assistant will open the show. These instructions work inside compatible apps only, which include Netflix and YouTube, but not Prime Video or Hotstar.

As for Chromecast, you can stream content from compatible apps like Netflix, Prime Video, Hotstar and more, but I don’t see the point given that these apps are already available on the Mi Box 4K. You can also cast your phone’s screen to the TV to view locally stored content, like photos and videos.

The only glaring issue I had with the Mi Box 4K is that content buffered when my internet connection was unstable. With the lockdown in place and most people stuck at home, there’s been a heavy load on broadband providers which has resulted in slower speeds than usual. I found the Mi Box struggling to stream content when the speed dropped or fluctuated, but when I played the same content on the Fire TV Stick, there were no problems.

For example, the Mi Box 4K kept buffering Upload on Prime Video, with the resolution stuck at HD. When I switched to the Fire TV Stick 4K however, it easily streamed the same content in Ultra HD. I also tried this with Netflix and YouTube, and found that the Fire TV Stick was able to effectively stream at lower speeds, while the Mi Box 4K struggled. This is surprising considering that Xiaomi is highlighting the Data Saver feature on the Mi Box 4K, which is meant to run on mobile data speeds.

The competition

At Rs 3,499, the Mi Box 4K is affordably priced. This becomes even more apparent when you consider its closest competitor, the Fire TV Stick 4K, which costs Rs 5,999. Personally, I prefer the Fire TV Stick’s interface, which is snappier and more responsive than Android TV. It also supports Dolby Vision, which is a feature you’ll want if you have a compatible TV. Plus, the Fire TV Stick 4K remote can control your TV’s power and volume, which is something I sorely missed on the Mi Box 4K.

Bottomline

The Mi Box 4K has price in its favour, and that’s where it comes out ahead of the Fire TV Stick 4K. For Rs 2,500 less, you still get 4K and HDR playback and support for almost all the same apps (except Apple TV), with added benefits like Chromecast Ultra and Google Assistant baked in. At the end of the day, it all boils down to your budget, and if your budget is tight, the Mi Box 4K is your best bet.

Pricebaba’s rating: 8 / 10

What works:

  • Support for major OTT apps
  • Chromecast Ultra
  • Simple interface
  • Affordable

What doesn’t:

  • No Dolby Vision support
  • Remote doesn’t have infrared
  • Struggles while streaming on lower data speeds
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Ketaki Bhojnagarwala

Ketaki has over 10 years experience writing on tech, having worked at the Hindu Business Line and 91mobiles earlier. When she's not editing copies or reviewing the latest gadgets, she spends her time binge-watching Netflix and reading fantasy fiction.