Xiaomi 4A 55 inch TV

$1 = 6.9元

This week, I got delivery of my 55″ Xiaomi 4A TV (China only).   First impression:  It’s probably great for Chinese users, but I wouldn’t recommend it for others.

Xiaomi makes some great products–especially for the price range–and they’re building a well-interconnected “environment” with their products.  Everything works with everything else, and everything can be controlled from your Xiaomi smartphone.  One of the significant downsides, however, is that they are designed specifically for the Chinese market.  That not only means there’s language issues, but the way the average Chinese uses technology is very different from how westerners do.

Form Factor

The advertising for the 4A is a little deceptive.   They list it as being extremely thin.  That’s true for the screen.  But the “guts” of the TV area a thicker block attached to the back.  And, in a really stupid move, they positioned the ports (HDMI, RCA, USB) facing the rear.  This adds a couple centimeters to the depth of the unit (because of the plugs on the cords), and makes it practically impossible to mount on the wall.  And if you did manage to mount it, you couldn’t get to any of the ports.

So, it’s going to have to sit on a table or other piece of furniture.  At 1.25m wide, it needs a big piece of furniture to sit on.  And a stable one.  The legs aren’t very sturdy, and the entire TV wobbles a bit–not much, but enough that I’m a little nervous when the cats start running around the room.

Set Up

Wonder Box

Okay… I’m going to praise Xiaomi for something very odd:  The box.  The TV comes in the standard (almost) cardboard box with the styrofoam blocks holding it in place.  The ones that fit so snug that they form a vacuum seal when you try to slide the merchandise out of the box.  Well, not this time.   The sides of the box are velcroed together.  Slice one piece of tape, pop a plastic latch, and the box neatly unfolds, making it a piece of cake to get to the unit.  Want to save the box in case you move?  No problem, the velcro will hold it together.  Maybe this is something that’s common these days, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it.  Color me impressed.

Once the unit is out of the box, it’s still a beast to move around.  But that’s going to happen with any big TV.  Putting the feet on requires a screwdriver (not included), and they don’t seem to attach very securely.

The OS

From splash screen to functional

The first time you turn on the TV, you get to the “Chinese” aspects of the TV, and the ways in which Xiaomi approaches them.  The only controls are via the remote1note: there’s a plastic film under the battery that’s easy to miss, be sure to pull it out before yelling at the remote for not working.  Later, you’ll be able to use an app on your Xiaomi smartphone (if it’s IR equipped).

You need to connect to your WiFi.  Let me repeat that:  You must connect to your WiFi.  That’s Step One, and there doesn’t appear to be any way around it.  If you don’t connect, you can’t do anything else.  You must also connect to your Xiaomi account.  I’m assuming that this is only for sets sold in China, but can’t confirm it.  The TV (which runs on a version of Android) has Xiaomi’s “PatchWall”, which is a way to stream TV shows, movies, and other entertainment.  This is tied to your account, and costs money (the first 6 months is free with the TV).  You also get some sort of screen-casting app to share between your phone and the TV.  It’s all in Chinese, so I haven’t tried it out yet.

The first time you shutdown the TV, it will automatically download system updates.  The second time you turn it on, it will install those updates.  It took over 3 almost 4 minutes for the TV to boot the 2nd time I turned it on.  The 2nd time I turned it off, it downloaded updates again.  I’ve been busy, so I haven’t turned it on for the 3rd time to see if it takes another 3 minutes.  I certainly hope that this isn’t the case every time it powers up or down. (Edit:  Yep, looks like it does).  Because…

It doesn’t automatically turn off.  Other high-end “smart” TVs  I’ve dealt with will automatically power-down the screen if there’s no signal for a long time.  I have mine plugged into a computer (media box), and previous units have powered down when the computer goes into power-save mode.  Not this one.  The morning after the first use, I found the screen blank (no signal from the computer), but the backlight was still on.  The unit has to be physically powered down.

The Picture

Hope you like it. You’ll see it a lot.

Once you get through all the annoying setup and figure out how to get to and navigate the menu, you can start watching stuff.   Because I’m running the TV off a very old computer, the most resolution I can get is 1080p, but the 4A does have full 4K resolution.

The picture is quite good.  I’ve been watching old TV shows that are in standard HD, and they still look good even on 55 inches.  The blacks are very black, and the colors are vivid (but not overly so).  The one quibble I would have is that the whites are a bit on the blue side, which is something of a personal annoyance.  If they have to err to one side of the spectrum, I’d rather that they be a bit warm.  Again, that’s just a personal preference2I also hate fluorescent lights and “daylight white” LED lights; I much prefer low-watt incandescent lamps.

The Final Word

As with most Chinese “smart” products, there’s a mess of (to me) useless crap built into the system and an insistence on an “Internet of Things” approach.  If you can get past that (or actually like that approach), the actual TV seems to work fairly well.   I’ve only had it for a couple days, so all of this is truly a “first impression”.

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References   [ + ]

1. note: there’s a plastic film under the battery that’s easy to miss, be sure to pull it out before yelling at the remote for not working
2. I also hate fluorescent lights and “daylight white” LED lights; I much prefer low-watt incandescent lamps

The Google Problem

Google Transparency Report

Anyone who works on websites knows how ubiquitous Google’s products are.   While casual web-users are familiar with the search engine, YouTube, Google+, and such, those who build and maintain websites are aware of so much more that.

The World of Google

Google is famous in the web-development world for its APIs and Libraries.  These are features that allow website creators to collect statistics, utilize fonts and emojis maintained by Google, and have access to a plethora of tools that make their work easier and more manageable.

These tools from Google have become so common, that they are built into to many of the other tools that web developers use.  From the Content Management Systems (CMS) that run the websites to the pre-built themes that give the the site its look–almost anything could be “calling” to Google.

As an example.  I set up the website for Huaye Tent & Pavilion.  They’re a manufacturer of temporary clearspan structures that operates out of Kunshan, China (near Shanghai).  The site is built using WordPress CMS, and the Customizr (free) theme.  Customizr has some very nice features–one of which is pre-selected font pairings.  The designers working on the theme have chosen pairs of fonts that visually work well together, and work with the overall look of the theme.  That’s great!  Except…

The Great Firewall

Google is blocked in China via the Great Firewall (GFW)–a massive and powerful tool of censorship set up (ostensibly) to “protect the people of China from harmful influences and disruption of their culture”1I’ll leave the actual reasons as an exercise for the reader. The GFW doesn’t just prevent you from watching cute kittens on YouTube, it blocks virtually all access to anything Google–like, for example, those pretty fonts I mentioned above.  This doesn’t just cause the fonts to display incorrectly, it stops the entire site from loading.

During some initial tests–before I knew what was causing the problem–there were frequent instances where, after up to 2 minutes, the website still hadn’t loaded.  It was a blank, white screen.  When you’re dealing with a corporate website, that’s utterly unacceptable.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

It took a lot of Googling (ironically) to find the answer:  the aforementioned fonts.  There were a few other hidden Google tools to root out, as well.  In my case, I managed to find a tool that took care of it: the “Useso take over Google” plugin by Bruno Xu.  It automatically takes any “call” to Google and redirects it to a copy of that library, which is on a server that can be accessed from inside China.

That solves the issue for this particular instance.  But that plug-in may not work for those in other countries.  Or they might not be using WordPress.  Or… any number of other things.

And the situation isn’t unique to Google.  A lot of websites, apps, and other web-based gizmos are relying on tools provided by some of the big names of the internet.  Mobile phone apps may, for instance, use statistical tools from Facebook, cloud servers from Amazon, or APIs from Twitter.  If those are blocked by a government or an employer2lots of companies block Facebook and Twitter on company networks so workers don’t spend all day on those sites, it may make the app useless.  Whatsapp, for instance, is used as a valuable business-communication tool.  It’s owned by Facebook, and may fall behind a Facebook block.

What’s the solution?  I don’t have one.  Partly because there isn’t one.   It’s not one issue, so there’s not “one” solution.  What we can do, however, is–as developers, maintainers, and users–to pay more attention to the tools that we’re using and think about how they will interact with the world at large.

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References   [ + ]

1. I’ll leave the actual reasons as an exercise for the reader
2. lots of companies block Facebook and Twitter on company networks so workers don’t spend all day on those sites