The way that we choose to entertain ourselves in the living room has changed drastically in the last couple of decades. It used to be that we were bound to the schedules of the major TV networks, but now we can record our favorite shows to the PVR, stream them on our own time through services like Netflix, and even post status updates to our Facebook accounts through smart TVs.

And the Pivos XIOS DS Media Play is a different kind of device. It’s not really a “media player” that you connect to your HDTV, watching videos you’ve stored on a USB drive. Instead, the XIOS is being marketed as the “world’s smallest embedded entertainment companion designed for your digital lifestyle.”

More Than a Media Player

You might remember when I reviewed the Pivos AIOS HD Media Center earlier this year. That was more of a conventional media player, but even that provided you with an internal hard drive dock and wireless streaming capabilities, as well as several Internet-connected apps. The XIOS is really a different beast altogether.

Measuring a little over 3-inches wide (8cm), the XIOS is a tiny box that effectively puts Google Android on your television. Yes, you can still use it to play a variety of media files by way of the variety of Android media-playing apps, but with full access to the Google Play Store (formerly Android Market), the possibilities are much wider than that. Yes, you can even play Angry Birds Space or Bad Piggies on here.

As far as specs go, you get an ARM Cortex A9 processor, OpenGL Mali-400 3D graphics, 512MB DDR2 RAM, and 2GB memory. The version I received shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread, but it immediately found an OTA update to Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich.

What’s in the Box?

The actual contents of the box are very simple. In addition to the XIOS DS Media Play itself, you get the basic remote control and an A/C power adapter. Interestingly, Pivos has also included an HDMI cable, which is rarely the case with any other home entertainment product. That was completely unexpected and I thought it was a nice touch on their part. It really means that you are ready to roll right out of the box.

Ports and Connections

On the front of the XIOS, you get your indicator lights and the RF receiver for the remote. Along the right side are a microSD storage slot and two USB 2.0 ports. Around the back is a LAN port for networking (it also has Wi-Fi), an additional USB port, HDMI output, DC power port and a power button.

Given my experience with other media players, the assumption was that you could use those USB ports for flash drives and other portable storage products to play video files and music files, as well as view picture files. That does not appear to be the case here. Those USB ports are simply for accessories and peripherals that you may want to use with the XIOS, like webcams, keyboards, mice, card readers, and so on. If you want to bring multimedia files from an external source, it seems that you have to use the microSD slot.

Sense Motion Controller

While it is offered as a separate optional accessory, some retailers may also bundle the Pivos XIOS DS Media Play with the Pivos Sense wireless motion remote. There is a very important reason for this. The regular remote works, well, like a regular remote. It has a series of buttons for navigating through the menus and such, but it lacks conventional media controls like play, rewind and fast forward. This is mostly because the XIOS is powered by Android and it really shows.

What you’ll find that is going through many of the Android menus and Android apps will be frustrating with just a five-way directional pad. The Sense wireless motion remote works in some ways like a Wii Remote, sensing your motions in the air and translating these into the location and movement of an on-screen arrow. The XIOS does not use a sensor bar like the Wii, though, so moving the arrow around is not at all like pointing a gun. Instead, you do more tilting and gesturing. And yes, you can “tap and drag” like how you would on a touchscreen.

This is absolutely necessary when playing certain games (like Angry Birds), but you have to recognize that you don’t have multitouch capabilities. As such, certain games just won’t work. You’ll also want to have that on-screen pointer for a lot of the apps, but I found the movement of the pointer arrow to be inconsistent and jerky. Even so, it’s still better than trying to use four directional arrows and an OK button.

This Is Android ICS

The Pivos XIOS runs a thinly veiled version of Android 4.0 ICS. When you’re in most of the apps, you’ll get that instantly recognizable toolbar that you find at the bottom of Android smartphones like the Galaxy S III and Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab 7.0. Strangely, though, this bottom-mounted toolbar is not omnipresent.

When you open up your app drawer, for instance, it disappears. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to bring up your list of recent apps, for example, which is something that you might want to do more often than you’d think. This is because the multitasking performance is not really up to snuff. Even when I only had 2 or 3 apps running in the background, performance would suffer significantly. The device could become unresponsive, apps could crash and freeze, and everything started to lag.

The “home” screen on the XIOS looks more like a conventional media player. However, this home launch screen doesn’t really operate the same way. Choosing “Music” simply brings up a short list of the apps you have that can be used to play music. Choose “Local Media” and you get a list apps that are compatible with playing locally stored videos. In this way, these big icon shortcuts are really just providing categories of apps, which can simply find yourself through the regular app drawer… which is accessed by tapping on “Apps” on this home screen.

Don’t see “Apps” there? The row of seven icons isn’t complete, so you do need to “tap and drag” to move it along to find the additional icons. Again, performance felt sluggish here.

As an Entertainment Device

I tried both playing local files and streaming media content online on the XIOS. The good news is that it appears the XIOS has no trouble handling 720p video. This is true when I played a video we saved on a microSD card using the MX Video Player app, and when I watched a 720p video on YouTube. There was no stutter, no lag, and video quality appeared to be quite good on the Samsung 55-inch LED HDTV I’m currently testing.

And then there’s the bad news. First, the microSD slot does not appear to be hot-swappable. What this means is that you can’t simply pop in a microSD memory card while the XIOS is on and expect it to find all the files you’ve stored on there. I tried going into the storage settings to get it to find the card, but it just wouldn’t do it. If the memory card is already inserted when you turn on the XIOS, though, it’s fine. The trouble is that the startup time is very lengthy at between two and three minutes.

Since there are no dedicated media control buttons (play/pause, rewind, fast forward) on either remote, you are left with what are supposed to be touchscreen controls. Given the jerky and inconsistent nature of the Sense motion remote, this can be very frustrating. It’s also somewhat problematic that the USB ports can’t be used for USB flash drives or external hard drives, as far as I can tell, and that’s usually how I get my media files playing on HD media players in the living room.

MEGATechie MVP or MEGATechie Bench Warmer?

I wanted to like the Pivos XIOS DS Media Play. On paper, it seemed like it held some incredible promise. Here was an Android-powered media player with multiple USB ports, full access to the Google Play Store, and a motion-sensing remote that would mirror the experience of the touchscreen on a tablet or smartphone.

Unfortunately, the real world experience isn’t quite as positive as it could have been. The actual performance through menus and apps is on the sluggish side, although HD video playback appears to be quite solid. I imagine the processor could be a little underpowered and having just 512MB of RAM isn’t exactly helping. The lack of precision with the Sense remote also left something to be desired, so using a compatible wireless keyboard and mouse might be a better solution.

All that said, you are getting a fully functional Android set top box for around $100 street price. I just wish it was more optimized for the context of the non-touchscreen living room. Sometimes the simpler media player solution is the better one.

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