It's no secret that we love Roku. The little box (or stick) manages to provide a better streaming experience than Apple, Google, and Amazon, and most people we know would rather use a Roku than the apps built into their actual TVs. That's why we're always advocating dumb TVs.
So now that Roku has also built its smarts into an actual TV, what makes it any different? First and foremost, it's every bit as good as an actual Roku box, with the same unparalleled selection of apps, an interface that puts most other smart TVs to shame, and even the same simple remote. The whole experience is well thought out, simple, and tightly integrated, a marked contrast to the often half-baked, sprawling messes that have passed for "smart TV" all these years. It's the one TV to which you won't want to connect a Roku box.
Second, and almost as important, however, is the price. As of press time, the next-cheapest smart TV we know about, Vizio's E series, is more expensive than TCL's Roku TV, and doesn't come anywhere near its app and interface prowess.
But the Vizio has a superior picture, and that's what matters most. Yes, TCL's Roku TV is excellent as a secondary set, or if you simply don't care enough about picture quality differences to spend the extra on a Vizio or a better-performing TV (to which you could always connect a Roku box). And we're looking forward to Roku's interface appearing in even better TVs.
For now, however, the TCL Roku TV provides the simplest way to access the most apps and streaming services for the least amount of money, and despite its mediocre picture, that's still a killer combination.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 48-inch TCL 48FS4610R, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series. Aside from the 32-incher, all sizes have near-identical specs and so should provide very similar picture quality.
The 32-inch model is also being included in this series despite reduced specifications compared with the other sizes. It has 720p (1,366x768) resolution, lacks backlight scanning and the so-called 120Hz refresh rate, and has a slightly lower contrast ratio. See below for more information on how those differences could affect picture quality.
There's nothing special about the exterior of TCL Roku TV. Aside from the trapezoidal glass stand, the look is utilitarian to the point of being generic. That base, plus a narrow strip of chrome running along the bottom edge, at least gives the TCL an element of class that's a step above the Vizio E series.
That advantage is more than erased, however, by the two tiny legs TCL recommends you install to help avoid tip-over. If you prioritize aesthetics over extreme safety, you can elect not to screw them on. Or just buy an anti-tip strap.
Aside from the Roku TV logo to the far right, the set looks almost identical to other TCL TVs, such as the 48FS4690 and 48FS4610. Refreshingly small, the TCL and Roku TV logos are almost exactly the same size.
Where the design of the Roku TV stands out is in its remote and onscreen menus.
The Roku TV remote is the simplest full-function TV clicker I can remember. Patterned after the pint-size remote used on Roku devices, it includes only the trademark purple cursor control, a minimum of other buttons required for menu navigation and video control, side-mounted volume/mute, and four branded app shortcuts. It's great to have one-button access to Netflix and Amazon Instant, but I'd prefer more popular apps like YouTube or Pandora to Rdio and Vudu. Or better yet, the ability to customize those buttons (aftermarket stickers, anyone?).
The tiny remote loses many of the keys found on other TV controllers, including the numeric keypad, RGBY keys, and direct-access keys for most functions, including Channel +/-, Guide, Menu, Info, Input/Source, Wide/Aspect, MTS, CC, and so on. Normally I'd bemoan the loss (I'm a direct-access kinda guy), but Roku TV's user interface was so superb, I barely missed those extra buttons.
The Roku TV has the best menu system of any TV I've ever used. It uses plain language and thorough explanations to make using the TV a piece of cake.
Thoughtful touches are everywhere, starting with initial setup. After signing on to Wi-Fi, it asks you to link the TV to your Roku account at Roku.com. There, on your PC, tablet, or phone browser screen, you're presented with a list of apps (Roku calls them "channels") installed by default, and you have the option to immediately remove them or add more. After the link succeeds, the TV updates with the apps you've chosen on the website. No other smart-TV system has as robust, useful, and simple a link to a companion website; you can search for, add, and delete apps there as well as on the TV itself.
All of that is standard for Roku boxes, but the next step is unique to Roku TV: input selection. Most entry-level TVs don't even deal with connected devices during setup, but Roku TV does, and in as satisfying and simple a way as I've seen. The routine asks you, "What is connected to HDMI 1," "HDMI 2," and so on. and it allows you to choose from a list of names, like "Cable Box" and "PlayStation."
After everything is set up, the home screen appears, which should be familiar to any Roku veteran. The big app tiles are there, along with easy access to Search, the Channel Store, and Settings. The most obvious difference is the presence of extra icons along the top, one for each input device you've set up. Highlight an input and the tile activates to show a live preview of that source; for example the live TV feed from your cable box or the screensaver from your game console. You can also move inputs around on the grid, just like any other app.
Treating each input the same as a Netflix or a Pandora is a departure from most TVs, which place primacy on the TV input (such as a cable box) itself. Depending on how much you use apps as opposed to watching TV, you might either love the app-centric Roku TV home page (I do) or wish for the option to skip it and go directly to TV by default. Happily, Roku TV gives you that option. Under Settings > System > Power > Power On, you can choose to "Always power on to..." the Home screen (the default), the last-used TV input (standard for most TVs), or directly to any input, such as the cable box.
Other helpful additions include the full-screen contextual tips -- like "use the remote's [asterisk] button to see a list of options" and "use the remote's [left cursor] button to see a list of TV channels" -- to the minute-long "Roku TV Intro video" to the strong array of closed-caption options (another Roku standard that's uncommon on other TVs) to the nerdy ability to change themes from the default TCL red. As a certified nerd, I liked "Nebula."
The interface isn't flawless though. No matter which theme you install, the Roku TV can still can appear dated compared with the whiz-bang, animation-heavy, icon-rich environments of a new Samsung or LG TV. That's a minor price to pay for great utility in my book, and I'd argue that app-centric phone and tablet interfaces (see: Android and iOS) are also correct to favor the tile approach. It just works.
And while Roku doesn't push its own content nearly as much as some platforms (Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and to a lesser extent Samsung), there are three prominent menu items I don't love. Movie Store and TV Store go to M-Go's content, while the News option leads to AOL On. (Happily they can be disabled using the Home Screen menu under Parental Controls.) There's also a prominent ad to the far right of the home page that appears when you begin browsing inputs or channels.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology:||LCD||LED backlight:||Full-array (edge-lit for 40-inch)|
|Screen shape:||Flat||Resolution:||1080p (720p for 32-inch)|
|Cable box control:||No||IR blaster:||N/A|
|3D technology:||N/A||3D glasses included:||No|
|Screen finish:||Glossy, matte, semi-matte||Refresh rate:||120Hz (60Hz for 32-inch)|
|Screen mirroring:||Yes||Control via app||Yes|
To get the price down so low, non-Smart features on the TCL Roku TV are as basic as it gets. Every size in the series is a 1080p-resolution LCD except for the 32-inch, which is 720p (1,366x768). All have direct/full-array LED backlights, aside from the 40-inch model, which is edge-lit. Unlike the Hisense models, which are due late September, the TCLs do not offer local dimming.
The 32-inch TCL is also the only one in the series with a 60Hz specification, as opposed to 120Hz. The larger sizes actually have 60Hz panels as well, but TCL says they deserve the higher "Hz" rating because they employ backlight scanning. What matters is that the 120Hz TCLs lack smoothing and actually show the same motion resolution as standard 60Hz TVs. Such specsmanship is par for the course these days on models like Vizio's E series and some LG sets.
The TCL TV lacks the awesome headphone jack-on-remote feature of the Roku 2 and Roku 3 boxes, although there is a headphone output on the TV itself. The clicker is standard infrared, so it requires line of sight to the TV.
If you're a cord-cutter interested in using the built-in antenna, you'll be disappointed to hear the set lacks a grid-style channel guide, an extra found on Samsung TVs (but not on Vizios, for example). Selecting channels directly is also a bit more time-consuming because the remote lacks a number pad -- instead Roku offers a list of channels you'll have to scroll through.
The USB port is compatible with videos, photos, and music, and the TV itself has DLNA, allowing you to stream those files over a local network as well. Both of those feats are accomplished using the Roku Media Player app. In our tests it worked flawlessly, streaming a variety of files and formats over our network, and via USB, without any major problems. Hardcore file-streamers might still want to use the Plex app, but having a free option that allows native, headache-free DLNA is a big bonus for Roku.
Smart TV: In practice, the Roku TV behaved almost exactly like a Roku 3, making it better than any smart TV interface I've tested. It allowed me to get to what I want -- streaming videos and TV shows -- with the least amount of fuss. Samsung's Smart suite is very good if overwrought, LG's motion-centric WebOS interface is simple and fun, and Vizio's bare-bones approach has its merits, but Roku TV provides the best combination of ease of use, customization, and functionality.