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TCL S3800 series (Roku TV, 2015) review:

The best smart TV is among the most affordable

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The Good Roku TV delivers the simplest, most comprehensive smart-TV experience on the market. A superb user interface puts its thousands of apps and streaming video on the same plane as regular TV. It's also less expensive than just about any other smart TV.

The Bad Competing entry-level TVs, namely Vizio's E series, deliver better image quality for a similar price. Sparse picture controls and no Ethernet port.

The Bottom Line Despite its "good enough" picture quality, the TCL Roku TV is one of our favorite entry-level sets, thanks to an awesome smart-TV suite and rock-bottom pricing.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 6.0
  • Value 10.0

Typical smart TV systems aren't any smarter than 5th graders, but Roku is Jeopardy Champion. Those systems offer limited app selection, complex interfaces, extra features you don't need and almost never get updates. Roku offers all apps you could want and then some, plus full customization, menus a child can use, better search and constant updates.

That's why, if you don't have a Roku TV, we recommend hooking up a streaming device -- like, you know, a Roku -- and ignoring the TV's built-in apps altogether. And that's perfectly fine for your main living-room TV, which probably has a device or ten already connected.

TVs with Roku's smarts built-in, like the TCL FS3800 series, are the only TVs to which we don't recommend hooking a separate streamer. Heck, if you cut the cord you might not even have to connect anything to this TV. Thus, it makes a great secondary or bedroom set, or a prime primary TV for people who value streaming and convenience above all else.

On the other hand this TCL, and other 2015 Roku TVs I tested from Sharp and Insignia, can't match the image quality delivered by the similarly priced Vizio E series . If picture-for-your-dollar is your main priority, then by all means go Vizio (just don't forget to buy that streamer, too). But if a "good enough" picture is good enough for you, and you're in the market for an entry-level TV with genius-level Smarts, then it's Roku all the way.

Series and alternate model information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 40-inch TCL 40FS3800, but this review also applies to the 32- and 50-inch sizes in the series. All sizes have identical specs, aside from the 720p resolution and motion specification on the 32-inch size (see below for details). According to Roku, all three should provide very similar picture quality.

In addition, TCL and Roku say the S3700 and S3850 series also offer very similar picture quality. In addition to slightly varying size choices, the main differences between the series of TCL Roku TVs amount to styling: The 3700 has a central pedestal stand and glass base, the 3800 (reviewed here and pictured below) has the quad pedestal stand (the company's name for those little legs splayed to the side), and the 3850 has a metallic gunmetal finish and an all-aluminum quad pedestal stand.

Finally, I also reviewed the Sharp LC-43LB371U and Insignia NS-55DR420NA16 Roku TVs, both available exclusively at Best Buy. They're very similar to the TCL, including their picture quality, and all three series received the same ratings.

Design

Sarah Tew/CNET. Screen image copyright 2011 MacGillivray Freeman Films. Used with permission.

The F3800 series we reviewed hands-on looks unassuming to the point of generic, with a thin, rounded, glossy black frame, silver accent and dual (dueling?) TCL and Toku TV logos. It sits on a pair of legs splayed far to the edges, necessitating a wide surface to rest on. I prefer a pedestal design, or the narrower foot-base of the Sharp and Insignia versions.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 on the market. 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, and side-mounted volume/mute. Unlike the Sharp and Insignia Roku TV remotes, the TCL version lacks dedicated buttons for game mode and the sleep timer -- you'll have to go into the menu to activate those functions.

Sarah Tew/CNET. Screen image copyright 2011 MacGillivray Freeman Films. Used with permission.

The remote also has 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.

Unless you use the number keys to select channels, you'll likely never miss the buttons Roku's clicker omits. That's because it has the best menu system on the market. It uses plain language and thorough explanations to make using the TV a piece of cake.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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. If you already have a Roku device and account, Roku also automatically installs those apps on the TV too (you'll still have to sign-in to each one separately, of course). 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Device setup is equally simple. The system first asks you to turn on all your connected devices and plug them into the TV. Beginning with HDMI Input 1, the TV shows what's playing on each and asks you to name them from a list of typical devices, such as Cable Box or PlayStation, and choose "none" for unused inputs. These inputs then appear at the top of the home page, like any other app. You can move them, rename them, or remove them entirely.

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.

Depending on how much you use apps as opposed to watching TV from a traditional source like a cable box, 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 an input 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, a helpful intro video, a strong array of closed-caption options, and the nerdy ability to change themes from the default TCL red.

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 environments of a Samsung, or Android TV from Sony or Sharp. 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 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.

Features

Key TV features

Display technology: LCD
LED backlight: Direct
Resolution: 1080p or 720p
Refresh rate: 60Hz
Screen shape: Flat
Screen finish: Matte
Smart TV: Roku TV
Remote: Standard
3D technology: None

Let's face it: this is an entry-level TV. No fancy local dimming, high refresh rates or 3D will be found here. 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.

The 32-inch TCL is also the only one in the series with a 60Hz refresh rate specification, as opposed to ""120Hz Clear Motion Index (Effective)" claimed on the larger sets. They 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.

The TV lacks the awesome headphone-jack-on-remote and voice search features of the Roku 3 boxes, although there is a headphone output on the TV itself, and you can use the Roku app for iOS and Android to search the TV via voice. 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 my tests it worked very well, 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 Plex or another similar app.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Smart TV: The TV behaves just like a Roku box, and that's a good thing. It's not quite as snappy as a Roku 2 or Roku 3, but still very quick to navigate and launch apps. Its design is simpler and more intuitive than any other smart TV, including Samsung's 2015 Tizen, LG's Web OS 2.0, Android TV and Vizio. All of those have their strong points, and most look sleeker and more high-tech than Roku, but none are as dead-simple or customizeable. Roku TV's interface allowed me to get to what I want -- streaming videos and TV shows -- with the least amount of fuss.

Other smart TV systems bring butter knives to the app coverage gunfight, while Roku shows up with a nuke. Many of its 2,000-odd app choices are either chaff or so specialized you likely don't care, but none of the big names go missing either, unless you count proprietary content sources like iTunes or Samsung's app store. HBO Now is the biggest no-show, and I expect that to arrive soon as well.

Sarah Tew/CNET

No other smart TV aside from Samsung's gets HBO Go, for example, and even Samsung -- the leader in smart TV app selection -- is missing numerous major apps that Roku has, like Sling TV, Google Play Movies and TV, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN, Comedy Central, CBS All Access, Amazon Music, Rdio and literally thousands more.

The apps themselves are usually the most up-to-date versions, although not always. Roku TVs' versions of Amazon Instant, HBO Go and Showtime Anytime are old-school, with basic thumbnails and blocky text compared to the sleeker versions found on many other systems (they work fine though, and provide access to all the same content). On the other hand, Roku TV does have the latest Netflix (complete with profiles), YouTube, Hulu Plus and Sling apps, among others. Roku also, unlike most smart-TV purveyors, has a history of updating its software regularly, even on older products.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Case in point: 2014 Roku TVs got the spring 2015 software update that added My Feeds as well as app search. The former shows when certain new releases you choose to "follow" arrive on streaming services (complete with pricing), and the latter is just a dedicated search window in Roku's channel store. Both are relatively small additions but nonetheless help improve the overall experience, and of course both are available on 2015 Roku TVs too.

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