With all the streaming devices out there these days, getting video from the internet to your TV isn't difficult. Deciding which device makes the most sense for you, though, is a whole other story.
For years, I was a reluctant Roku kind of guy. I had a set-top box that let me play stuff from Netflix, YouTube, and other such services in my living room. Like most streaming devices I'd used, it was clunky and annoying -- but it was a lesser-of-evils sort of situation that I begrudgingly accepted, with the hopes that something better would eventually come along.
And boy, did it ever: Three years ago, Google's first Chromecast hit the market and changed everything I thought I knew (and hated) about internet-to-TV streaming. It was a "brilliantly simple solution to a problem that's been overcomplicated for far too long," as I wrote after a month of living with the gadget:
No clunky on-screen menus to navigate, no extra remotes to lose, no unnecessary hassles. To borrow a line I once heard somewhere, it just works.
What a relief. At $35, it seemed almost too good to be true. And 2015's also-$35 second-gen Chromecast only made the experience (slightly) better.
At last, I'd found my utopia; I was fully on board with the remote-free, phone-centric streaming setup and thought it was my eternal answer. But then, something changed. A feeling that had been building up in me for a while just kept growing stronger -- and it was a feeling that was very much at odds with the same core principles that had attracted me to Chromecast in the first place:
I wanted to spend less time tethered to my phone.
Crazy, I know. But much as I love mobile technology, I've reached a point where what I like the most is finding ways to make it enhance my life instead of taking it over. Sure, I enjoy scrolling through social media or checking up on the latest headlines as much as the next guy -- but there's a difference between deliberately engaging in such activities and just mindlessly swiping around while also doing something else.
When my phone's in front of me in the evening, it's like having a bottomless box of Skittles right within my reach. Sooner or later, no matter what else I'm doing, I'm gonna reach up and start poppin' those bad boys into my maw without even thinking about it. With my phone, though, what I'm getting isn't a delicious fruity treat; it's a stream of information that keeps me connected to work, takes me out of the actual moment and away from the people I'm with, and makes it difficult for my mind to unwind. Sometimes, that's okay. But increasingly often, I'd rather just set my phone across the room and be purely present in my physical environment.
And that's what led me to raise an eyebrow when I first heard about Xiaomi's new $69 Android TV Mi Box. Plain and simple, I want to reduce my dependency on my smartphone for around-the-house activities so I at least have the option to disconnect and put my phone away when I'm relaxing. My wife has the same feeling -- and looking forward to the future, we also like the idea of our daughter being able to play music or videos on the TV without needing a dedicated device in her hand.
So why Android TV -- and why, specifically, the Mi Box? It may seem like an odd series of choices, I realize, but I had some carefully thought out reasons.
The first is perhaps the most important: While I don't want to have to use my phone anytime I need to play something, I still think casting is a fantastic and frequently useful concept -- and I don't want to lose that capability. Android TV, as it turns out, essentially has Chromecast built into its core: You can cast content from a mobile device or computer to an Android TV box just like you can with a Chromecast, and the experience is practically identical. The only difference is that you also have the option to use a regular remote if/when you want. For me, this represented the best of both worlds.
(There is one asterisk: Unlike Chromecast, Android TV doesn't let you use your own Google Photos collection as a screensaver. But there's a pretty easy way to get that feature back.)
As for the Mi Box itself, it was the first Android TV box with a price and feature set that actually appealed to me. At $69, it wasn't an enormous investment; in fact, it's the same exact price as Google's new 4K-capable Chromecast Ultra. And it, too, is capable of streaming 4K-quality content. Again, best of both worlds.
The Mi Box's on-screen user interface, meanwhile, is basically just the straight-forward Android TV UI. (Xiaomi does put its own "recommendations" section onto the home screen, but that's easy enough to get rid of.) Using it doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out, which is more than I can say for most set-top box interfaces. The same goes for the small and simple Bluetooth-based remote; it gets the job done and doesn't cause me any extra headaches.
Some folks criticize Android TV for lacking in apps or games. That may well be a valid criticism, but it's just not relevant to my needs. All I'm looking for is a simple way to stream basic content from places like Netflix, YouTube, and Google Play Movies onto my TV -- and the Mi Box does that with ease. (It's worth noting that Android TV does lack an official Amazon Video app -- you can thank Amazon for that -- but I'm not too worried about it, personally. If that's important to you, there are a couple of workarounds.)
Some also point out that Google doesn't seem to be fully committed to Android TV as a platform. And it's hard to argue: Android TV often feels like a bastard stepchild in the company's lineup, and it certainly hasn't been getting much attention compared to other efforts as of late. But remember: All we're talking about here is a relatively inexpensive set-top box. It does everything I need right now, and there's honestly not much more I want from it. Speculation over the long-term fate of its underlying platform just isn't a huge concern for me in this context.
I'll leave the full and formal reviewing to the streaming tech specialists, but from my perspective, I'd say this: If you have a Chromecast and are 100% fine with using your devices as remotes all the time, there's probably no reason to get an Android TV system like the Mi Box. Similarly, if you already have some other set-top box that's meeting your needs -- Android TV or otherwise -- there's no real reason to drop 70 bucks on something new.
If you want a simple one-stop solution for both casting content and using a regular remote to control playback, though -- and/or want to bump up to a system that can handle 4K video -- the Mi Box might just fit the bill.
For me and my family, it's felt like a meaningful upgrade without any subtractions or added compromises. And that impossible-seeming ideal is exactly what we wanted.