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23 July 2020

Xiaomi preps Chromecast-based dongle for global launch

Xiaomi has been quietly fleshing out its consumer electronics offerings, expanding quite competently from smartphones into wearables, then earbuds and laptops, and a range of smart home gear. Now, it is readying its Mi TV dongle for an international launch, which may well ruffle feathers in the OTT marketplace – especially given its propensity for being a white label vendor.

Xiaomi’s design team are quite evidently fans of Apple’s aesthetic, and this fondness is obvious from the remote control bundled with the dongle. However, the most prominent features are the Netflix and Amazon Prime Video buttons, which should snap users straight to their preferred choice. Of course, if this had a Disney+ button, that would be something of a first, but if any firm is going to do that, Xiaomi is a very strong candidate.

The Chinese firm has carved out something of a niche for itself. Its approach is to look at the flagship designs in a given market, work out how to make a much cheaper option, wrap it up in a sleek design, and flog it via e-commerce channels. It is most successful in its domestic market, but on an international stage, its Mi Band wearables took the wind out of the Fitbit sails.

It did look like Xiaomi was threatening to become a top-three player in the smartphone world, but that moment seems to have passed. Instead, it has settled into a groove, churning out no-nonsense devices and slowly encroaching into international markets.

Now, its attention has turned to the TV realm. At a promotional event, Xiaomi unveiled the new design, which runs the Android TV software suite. This means it supports Google Assistant voice commands, and despite the Prime Video inclusion, there is no word about an integration with Amazon’s Alexa.

As for hardware, the dongle runs using a quadcore Arm Cortex A53, with a Mali 450 providing the GPU capabilities. With 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of flash memory, its HDMI output is flanked by the Micro USB power connection. Connectivity is in the form of Bluetooth 4.2, for the remote, and 802.11ac WiFi.

Notably, this is not a 4K-capable design, with its resolution capped at Full HD (1080p), at a max frame rate of 60fps. This isn’t exactly a blackmark against it, as the penetration of 4K TVs is still low, and the SVoD services are also in no rush to cater to this emerging slice of the market. Full HD is still plenty, and many TVs are implementing upscaling features that could be applied here too.

On the codec side of things, H.265 and VP9 are mentioned, and if we’re reading the spec-sheet correctly, this will also support AV1, as ‘VP9-10’ is listed. VP10 was the successor to VP9, but was folded inside the AV1 work inside the Alliance for Open Media (AOMedia) project. Also of note is the support for Dolby Audio and DTS.

At $46, this brings the Mi TV dongle directly into competition with Google’s Chromecast and Amazon’s Fire TV Stick. Google hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic about its Chromecast family in the past year or so, and the same can mostly be said for Amazon.

Of course, both are very focused on their smart home ecosystems, with the two representing a complete duopoly on the platform side of things. Any smart home developer looking to launch a B2C product has to accommodate both, and many CSPs are being forced to do the same too – with Orange and Deutsche Telekom being perhaps the best example, with the integration of Alexa alongside their jointly developed voice assistant.

For Xiaomi, the Mi Stick is a way to sell into every TV home. It already has a range of TVs to sell, but the dongle approach lets it turn non-Xiaomi TVs into a win – and hopefully convince that home to purchase a Xiaomi unit when it comes time to refresh. They might even be tempted by one of Xiaomi’s laser projectors.

Xiaomi also has a conventional OTT set top, called the Mi Box 4K, which as the name suggests, does support 4K resolutions. Currently sold in China and India, we suspect that the box will make its way into the international markets. Costing $47 in India, the unit has integrations with Amazon Prime, Disney+ Hotstar, Netflix, and local services including Zee5. Of course, being an Android TV unit, you can always cast to it too. It is thought that Xiaomi holds around 25% of the smart TV market in India.

The persistent rumors about a 4K version of the Mi TV Stick suggest that the next version of this product is already in development. In the launch announcement, the focus seemed more on the device’s abilities to upgrade older, non-smart TVs.

Xiaomi isn’t as strong in the TV market as it would like, outside of China and India. It doesn’t have the local brand recognition to build on, and as TVs are fairly large purchases, convincing consumers to jump ship to an unrecognized brand is difficult. The lower price points of the dongles, however, are a bridge to cross that chasm – a way to tempt people into the ecosystem, and then hopefully part them from their cash when it comes time for a big purchase.

The firm is one of the best positioned firms to become a smart home partner for CSPs with such service ambitions. We have written about this topic in the past, but seen little interest from CSPs, despite the fact that smart homes would be an incredibly sticky service offering. Being able to turn triple play into quad play, or quad into quint, by selling bundles of devices as part of the monthly payment, seems like an easy way to increase ARPU, and yet the operator community has ceded the game to Google and Amazon.