Xiaomi Mi Box 3: Android TV at its best?

Background

My dalliance with Android TV boxes (not to be confused with Android TV… There’s a difference) has been going on for a quite some time now.

It all started over 2 years ago when someone in Hong Kong acting for Jide Technologies got in touch with me asking if they could send over a review unit of their “World’s first true Android PC”. Of course they did send the thing when I was, coincidentally, visiting Hong Kong. While I never got to write a review like I would have wanted because I did not have the tools necessary for me to give the thing a satisfying go, it did leave a lasting impression.

How good? Well, so good that I managed to convince Dickson (the other reviewer who had also received a unit from Jide Tech) to sell me his Remix mini a year later (read his review here).

To date, I still keep the Remix mini I bought last year and, until recently when the good people at Safaricom reached out and offered me their Android box for review, I would still go back to the mini on Wednesday nights to stream Champions League football.

Its silly thoughts that it could one day outpace the full PC experience we get on Windows or even the more Android-friendly Chromebooks aside, the Remix mini, for all intents and purposes is just another Android box from China. Sure Remix OS has a nice ring to it but truth be told, the mini and its types belong to an era we’ve since passed. An era where Android could be repurposed to do just about anything. While that is a plus, if all that you want is to binge on Netflix for hours on end, there’s no need to go for something like that when Google is offering a tailored experience. Like Android TV. To make matters worse, Jide Technologies has since dumped Remix OS and its focus on consumer-level hardware and software and instead gone full board on enterprise stuff.

Android TV, as I have already noted, is what runs on the Safaricom Big Box 2 (officially, the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box and, for the sake of the just-concluded World Cup, the Gigabox).

While the Safaricom Android box is nice and all, I have always had my eyes set on other media streamers that also happen to be powered by Android TV: the NVIDIA Shield and the Xiaomi Mi Box. The former is still out of reach for me but I hope to get it some day while the reason why I had not yet gotten the latter has simply been a matter of availability and nothing to do with affordability.

So, when I finally got a chance to grab it, I went for it with my eyes closed. Turns out, that’s one of the best things I have done in recent days given how Avechi botched my Android One experience before Nokia restored all the faith.

Design

The Xiaomi Mi Box 3, which is what I got, won’t have you re-arranging your TV cabinet/rack so as to be able to accommodate it. It’s designed to take up as little space as possible and its small footprint is one of the things I like the most about it. You can just slip it into a back pocket and walk over to your friend’s place to play Asphalt 8: Airborne.

However that impressive design is not without its costs. There are notable omissions. There’s no ethernet port which is a bummer for a media streamer made with streaming Ultra High Definition (UHD) video in mind.

I also wish the Mi box’s power cable was a little longer. It’s short and that will somehow mean that it gets to dictate where you will be placing it. While you can replace the short HDMI cable that comes in the box, there’s nothing you can do about this and that hurts. The Safaricom box has spoiled me with its long power cable as I am free to try out a couple of setups.

Control

The Xiaomi Mi Box comes with a Bluetooth remote control just like the Safaricom box. However, while Safaricom’s is all glossy plastic complete with a prominent placement of the company’s logo on the front, the Mi Box 3’s remote control has a matte finish all through and an easy-to-miss Mi logo at the back. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The difference between the two, however, is the Big Box 2’s biggest omission: a voice button and some microphones to accompany it. In place of the menu button that we find on the Big Box, the Mi Box 3 remote control has a voice key which when pressed activates Google Assistant. Of course you know that with Google Assistant and Android it’s bliss and this is one of the high points of the media streamer. This is on top of being able to achieve similar results by barking commands to a Google Home or Google Home-certified smart speaker or using the Android TV app on your smartphone, as I have been forced to do on Safaricom’s box.

Still on the remote control, would you believe my joy when I found out that my Samsung TV’s remote control can also be used for navigation on the Mi Box 3 and that I only needed to turn on the TV and the Mi Box 3 would follow suit? I have HDMI CEC to thank for that. If you are lost, this is how Wikipedia simplifies the meaning of HDMI CEC: Consumer Electronics Control is a feature of HDMI designed to allow users to command and control devices connected through HDMI by using only one remote control.

Experience

The Mi Box 3 is, for the most part, an Android TV device just like any other. In fact, if you have prior experience using another media streamer powered by Android TV then you will be pretty much at home. The set up experience is still the same.

Where I found the Mi Box 3 to be keeping its end of the bargain is when it comes to pre-installed content like apps.

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Other than those listed on the Mi Box 3’s retail packaging, Google apps, Netflix and the Redbull TV app, there’s nothing else. You get to start on a clean slate. This is a stark contrast to the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box which comes with apps like Showmax, iflix and others preloaded.

This is both a plus and a minus depending on where you stand in the digital divide. For experienced or advanced users, the cleaner a device is when you first boot into it, the better. For everyone else, like I would believe the Safaricom box targets, it’s much better to have basics in place since not everyone has the technical know-how to go about getting them. Some just want to plug in their box and start watching TV or videos on YouTube so it pays to be able to guarantee a certain level of experience.

The difference is that the Safaricom box can afford the luxury of preloading as many apps as possible because it has lots of storage. The box in my possession has 32GB onboard storage which, in my case, is more than I want at this time since I still have 24GB free after installing all the apps that I use day-to-day. It’s worth noting that I have not installed any games, though. Those would take up a lot of space but what’s the use when the remote control is not really the best way to play games and I would have to take chances on either Amazon or Jumia Kenya trying to find a suitable GameSir game pad for such use unlike the Mi Box 3 which Xiaomi has a dedicated gaming pad for – available for purchase separately – though quite a rarity.

On the other hand, the Mi Box 3 has just 8GB internal storage. Even then, only 5.1GB is available for use. Sure, Android TV allows users to extend storage using external storage like memory cards (whose slots both the Safaricom box and the Mi Box lack) and flash drives but… So it makes sense for Xiaomi to avoid preloading anything.

One of the deal breakers for many that just want to do more than use their Android box as a Wi-Fi router or a decoder as the Safaricom box is set up to be, is for consuming content from the internet. From sources like YouTube and popular streaming video on demand services. The Netflixes and Showmaxes of this world.

On this front, the Mi Box 3 has provided me with the best experience, so far. I was very disappointed, at first, when I encountered the Mi Box 3’s infamous YouTube issues. It turns out that the device has been plagued by various issues when it comes to YouTube video playback, recent YouTube on Android TV issues aside. As a result, I was temporarily forced to use Tizen and WebOS’ YouTube apps that came pre-installed on the TV sets I was testing the Mi Box 3 on and which are also available on those platform’s content stores as well as using alternatives that came highly recommended in the Mi forums like the Smart YouTube TV app.

At that point, I was asking myself which ordinary users will go through all the trouble to get things to work when that is what the device they paid a handsome price for ought to do with no nudging? No one buys something like the Mi Box 3 only for them to have to spend hours on end poring through forum pages looking for solutions and engaging anyone who looks remotely knowledgeable on the matter at hand when all they wanted was to play Kwangwaru. Or having to figure out how to sideload apps just to get an alternative YouTube since Google won’t allow other YouTube apps on the Play Store, anyway.

However, things changed for the better when I received the Android Oreo update and the Mi Box 3, and not the native respective TV platform’s YouTube apps, is my favourite way of catching up on all fresh content from the channels I subscribe to. The reason is simple: other than the added perks of being able to use my smart speaker to do stuff on the YouTube app (because, Google Cast), YouTube does a much better job of streaming videos in 4K on the Mi Box than directly through the TV app. The latter had had me thinking about upgrading to a package with more bandwidth but all those thoughts and plans have been put on hold till death make me and the Mi Box 3 part.

The other piece of good news is that Netflix works very well on the Mi Box 3 as the box is Netflix-certified (and you can see this in the settings, just like you can in the settings section of your TV if it is a smart TV). Even better, you can watch Netflix in UHD. Theoretically, 4K HDR (details below) but Netflix HDR is still the preserve of select markets and, of course, there’s no way I am going to stretch and pay more for it when I already do so for the 4K content. Not happening, never mind that I don’t even have that choice at the moment.

Having access to Netflix may sound like a no-brainer for an Android box until you learn that quite a number of Android boxes out there, including the Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box, are not Netflix-certified. That means that if you have Safaricom’s Android box, forget about being able to watch whatever it is you want to watch on Netflix. The app you find on the Play Store won’t work and even sideloading won’t help matters. The situation may be saved by a future software update or be totally irredeemable given the complexity of the Netflix certification process which at times has even led to Android smartphone makers having to ask users to physically return their devices for the same to happen. Sigh.

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See, due to the need to protect the integrity of content (i.e. avoid piracy), Netflix requires devices accessing the content it provides on its platform meet certain security demands. Netflix uses Google-owned Widevine, a digital rights management (DRM) solution, to achieve this.

4K HDR

The primary reason for getting the Xiaomi Mi Box 3 at this time while I already have enough options is one: 4K HDR.

4K and HDR are two terms you are going to be hearing a lot about going forward if you haven’t been hearing about them a lot more recently already. That’s because of the direction that content consumption, be it on our tiny smartphone displays or life-size TV display panels, has taken.

4K simply refers to Ultra High Definition (UHD).

I know that the purists reading this will raise issue with that and lynch me since while we often use the two interchangeably, there’s some difference (has something to do with the television industry hijacking the cinema industry’s agenda) that is not always acknowledged in daily tech parlance that is more driven by marketing people than tech folks but you get the drift.

Media streamers like the Mi Box 3 will let you stream video at very high resolutions resulting in clearer pictures. Pictures that are more sharp and clearer than you would ordinarily get when using something like the Safaricom box which tops out at Full HD (1080p).

The last time I talked about HDR here on Android Kenya was when I was highlighting that it’s part of the feature updates built into Android in the next version, P. And this is what I had to say:

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Basically, HDR is the expansion of the range of brightness and colour that is displayed, something that older (like the ones we’ve known for most of our lives) video formats are not able to achieve due to limitations (like, for instance, how much blacker can black get?). In short, better contrast, greater brightness levels and a wider colour palette so that content looks “so real” like in real life.

You get all that on that small box and that, at least for me, is a big deal since 2160p content speaks for itself and is totally worth it. Now, if only that did not mean that I need to upgrade my home fibre subscription package since I have already stretched whatever I have to the maximum…

The lowdown

The Mi Box 3’s main undoing, at least from a Kenyan context, is its availability. Sure, you may read this and then the next thing you will ask me is where you can get a unit.

Let’s get that out of the way: I have no straight answer. I bought the last remaining unit at the shop where I got my Mi Box 3 – maybe they will bring more in the future, I have no idea. The sole reason I went with them was that the pricing did make sense as the Mi Box 3 should cost USD 75 or thereabout. While you may be lucky to find it somewhere else in Nairobi, the price may be inflated to the point where it’s no longer justifiable to go for it. Your best bet is global e-commerce platforms that stock it. That’s a whole sea I don’t want to wade in right now.

Besides availability issues, I also have bones to chew with the device’s overall performance. It often feels slow and while this can be filed under “Chenze’s petty nitpickings”, it’s something that can’t be ignored. To be fair, the Mi Box 3 has been out for a while and it’s not surprising that its age, given the type of internals in place (a quad-core Amlogic processor backed by a Mali 450 GPU clocked at 750MHz and 2GB RAM), shows. While the minimal storage available already makes sure that you will think twice about doing dangerous experiments like trying to fry its internals with an intensive game, the stuttering and chopping will dissuade you from going any step further.

That aside, the Mi Box 3 has almost everything going for it. At least that’s what you are likely to conclude when you look at its main competitors in the Android space worth their names in gold.

For a start, Mi Box 3’s noteworthy competitors cost more than it.

The Chromecast Ultra costs a few hundred shillings more at Kshs 9,000 where I bought my Mi Box 3 and if you opt for it, you’re limited to just sharing content on your smartphone since it has to live up to its name, “cast”.

The Safaricom Digital TV and Internet Box is even pricey at Kshs 10,000 (that discount during the World Cup ended with the tournament, sadly) with extras that I appreciate like DVB-T2, built-in SIM for cellular network connections and streaming but it lacks a feature that is increasingly becoming important for some of us (I acknowledge that this is not everyone’s concern, yet): support for 4K streaming.

There’s also the fact that apps like Netflix and Spotify just work. I had a hard time getting Spotify to work on the Safaricom box.

Depending on what you are in the market for, the Mi Box 3 is a very solid option. If you just want something to make your TV “smart” or to just experience Android TV and not much else then the Mi Box 3 is a no-brainer. However, if you want to avoid parting with more cash for a home internet router or a digital TV decoder or both, then Safaricom’s offering is a more promising proposition.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com