Xiaomi Box taps the Chinese smart TV market on the cheap, flirts with AirPlay (hands-on)

Xiaomi Box taps the Chinese smart TV market on the cheap, we go handson

The Apple TV may not be officially available in China, but there are already plenty of cheap Android TV dongles and set-top boxes over there to keep the folks occupied. That said, many of them don't offer a satisfying multimedia experience, so even for a latecomer like Xiaomi, there's still space for competition. Having just launched the much anticipated Xiaomi Phone 2, the Chinese startup recently announced that it had acquired digital content provider Duokan for some time, and the first fruit is this conveniently named Xiaomi Box. Even with the bundled one-meter HDMI cable, the pebble's priced at a competitive ¥399 (about $64) and we've been told it'll be available in mid-December. Better yet, it claims to be compatible with AirPlay right out of the box! Read on to see if that's the case with our pre-production unit.

Xiaomi Box taps the Chinese smart TV market on the cheap, flirts with AirPlay handson

We were lucky enough to have an Apple TV at the launch event for a quick size comparison, and it turned out the Xiaomi Box is basically a flatter but more rounded version of Apple's counterpart. Just a warning: we actually became rather fond of stroking the Xiaomi Box's smooth curved top. As for the hardware inside the nicely crafted polycarbonate shell, it's a pretty neat bundle for the price: a Cortex-A9 800MHz processor, 1GB RAM, HDMI output, RJ-45 socket, 802.11b/g/n WiFi and a micro-USB port for OTG host. The spec sheet lists 720p or 1080p video output (the former by default), along with playback compatibility for a range of video codecs: H.264, VC-1, WMV-HD, MPEG 1/2/4 (up to 1080p at 30 fps) and Real7/8/9 (up to 720p at 30 fps). It can also handle audio as well: MP3 (64kbps to 320kbps), WMA (64kbps to 320kbps) and APE / FLAC (no more than 1,500Kbps).

As teased earlier, the interesting thing is that in addition to DLNA and Miracast, the Xiaomi Box is also compatible with Apple's AirPlay. Xiaomi packages this trio of protocols as "MiLink." But just as expected, we could only stream non-protected content from iTunes to our Xiaomi Box during our test, but that's still rather fun and handy, nonetheless. As for our Miracast-enabled Xiaomi Phone 2 (any Xiaomi Phone with MIUI v2.9.29 and above will do), once connected to the same network as the Xiaomi Box, we could then stream our photos and supported videos to it -- it's just a matter of tapping the extra icon in the native gallery app or video player.

Xiaomi Box taps the Chinese smart TV market on the cheap, flirts with AirPlay handson

Don't worry, we haven't forgotten about the Xiaomi Box's native UI and content. As you can see, the menu's grid layout is rather elegant and easy to navigate with the slim remote control. The software was non-final at the time of our hands-on, but the general framework was already there: you can browse content under recommended highlights, categories, charts or your subscribed shows and stored favorites. There's also a dedicated page for apps, but so far it only shows various video and audio portals (such as PPTV, Sohu, Tencent and Phoenix), as well as a PopCap section with only a few games so far. Given that this device is made solely for the Chinese market (hence the lack of English interface right now), it's certain that Google's Play Store won't make a presence here; and since there was no obvious way for us to install other regular Android apps, this means Xiaomi will likely have total control over what can be loaded onto the box. But the good news is that the selection of multimedia content -- both local and foreign -- is rather decent. Even Dexter, The Big Bang Theory and Mad Men are available in 720p quality for free, courtesy of Sohu (and presumably under a legit deal behind the scenes).

Obviously, it's still too early to see what Xiaomi will get out of its little box, but being able to tie in some of China's best content providers while also offering three types of local network streaming capabilities, as well as its famed weekly software updates, the $64 Xiaomi Box easily gives the competition a run for their money. Perhaps one day we'll even see the same business model reach to other regions, but for now, we can only dream.