There’s a race to the bottom in the home entertainment world, created by the lower pricing for set-top boxes, the near ubiquity of built-in “smart” features for new televisions, and not least, Google’s own low-priced efforts with the Chromecast. Compared to the rock-bottom pricing of gadgets like the Chromecast, the Amazon Fire TV Stick, and the market-dominating Roku boxes, Android TV is in a pickle. Stand-alone ATV units start at around $65, which is more expensive than the Roku you might buy (or the apps that come free with your TV), and less expensive than the home game console you might already have.
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You can think of the Mi Box as a slightly newer version of the Nexus Player. Its tiny rounded body is less than four inches wide and deep and only about three-quarters of an inch tall, making it an easy fit in just about any entertainment center. Thanks to the Bluetooth remote it doesn’t even need line-of-sight – you can stick it behind your television and it’ll work just fine.
Inside is a “Quadcore Cortex-A53 2.0GHz” processor according to the spec sheet, and the vendor name is probably omitted because Amlogic isn’t exactly a household name in the US. But that’s more than enough to handle HD video when paired with a Mali 450 GPU, and might even be enough to handle 4K resolution. RAM is just 2GB, and storage is even more laughable at 8GB – what is it with making set-top boxes that are positively crippled for local file playback?
The Mi Box’s remote is exactly what a set-top box controller should be: easy, simple, small. My only previous experience with Android TV is on the NVIDIA SHIELD TV, and as excellent as that device is, the $50 add-on remote is pretty awful thanks to touchy volume controls and short battery life. The Mi Box uses conventional plastic buttons for everything, and not many of them: a directional pad with center select button, home and back buttons, a voice command button, volume up and down, and power.
Google, having realized the error of its ways with allowing manufacturers the leeway of practically unlimited customization in standard Android, keeps a pretty tight leash on Android TV. And that’s a definite plus for end users: it means that anyone who’s used one Android TV device can quickly get a handle on another. Such is the case for the Mi Box – the grid-based homescreen is blessedly free of fluff, and all of the familiar apps from my SHIELD are present and accounted for.
The Mi Box handles the basic Android TV interface and any streaming video apps with ease. I regret that I don’t have a 4K display to test it out on, but given the immense work that’s gone into preparing modern streaming for the luxury, I’m fairly sure it would handle such applications well. But there’s no denying that the Mi Box is operating at a performance level well below some of its competitors.
While games are fresh on our minds, let’s address them. As I said above, the Mi Box is fine for less complicated titles and handles 2D textures and light 3D well enough. But the moment you switch to something more intense, you’ll notice choppy framerates and intermittent slowdown. Renegade GP, Asphalt 8, Goat Simulator, and even lighter fare like Hungry Shark Evolution all displayed this middling performance. Even my go-to fighting game, Soul Calibur, experienced some slowdown problems – and that’s a game for a nearly twenty-year-old system.
As a relatively cheap way to check out Android TV the Mi Box is an easy recommendation, much more so than the discontinued Nexus Player or the expensive SHIELD TV. “You get what you pay for” is a cliché, but it applies in this case: don’t expect anything much past solid video app performance and a good user interface. 4K compatibility is impressive, and might be the one thing that puts the Mi Box ahead of similarly-priced offerings from competitors.