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TCL S3800 series (Roku TV, 2015) review: The best smart TV is among the most affordable

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.

David Katzmaier
David Katzmaier Editorial Director -- TVs and streaming
David runs CNET's home entertainment division, where he leads a team that covers TVs, streaming services, streaming devices and home audio. If he doesn't know something about the gear you use to keep yourself entertained at home, it's not worth knowing.
Expertise A 20-year CNET veteran, David has been reviewing TVs since the days of CRT, rear-projection and plasma. Prior to CNET he worked at Sound & Vision magazine and eTown.com. He is known to two people on Twitter as the Cormac McCarthy of consumer electronics. Credentials Although still awaiting his Oscar for Best Picture Reviewer, David does hold certifications from the Imaging Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on display calibration and evaluation.
15 min read

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.


TCL S3800 series (Roku TV, 2015)

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.

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.


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.


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.

The Roku platform offers the best cross-platform search anywhere. It hits Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant, HBO Go, Vudu, Crackle, M-Go, RedBox Instant, TWC and other sources. One of the big advantages of cross-platform search is that you can save money by using it: if you subscribe to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, HBO Go and so on, search for a show or movie before you purchase it and you may discover you can get it for "free."

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike TiVo's, Samsung's, or LG's search functions, however, Roku's does not hit your local TV listings -- only streaming services. As I mentioned above, you'll also need the app to use voice search, whereas some smart TVs have voice-enabled remotes.

Like a new Roku box or a Chromecast, the Roku TV also supports 'casting via the DIAL protocol, so I was able to easily use the Netflix and YouTube apps on my phone to find content and play it on the TV. It's nice but doesn't work with nearly as many apps as Google's Cast for Chromecast and Android TV.There's also a screen mirroring function marked as "beta" that worked relatively well in a quick test using my Samsung Galaxy Note 4 . Your mileage may vary.

Roku doesn't support Skype, an extra found on many smart TVs with built-in cameras (or the capability to add an external camera). It also lacks a Web browser. Personally I don't mind these omissions, since both Skype and Web browsing are way better, in my experience, via a PC, tablet or phone than on a TV.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: Roku went a little too simple here, robbing the TV of some much-needed adjustments. The set lacks any ability to fine-tune color temperature, and selectable gamma also goes missing -- two important adjustments found on many TVs, even at entry level. You do get a nice selection of five preset picture modes, four aspect ratio options (and "Auto") as well as the ability to tailor settings for each input, but that's not enough.

Roku also hides even the most basic controls, like Contrast and Brightness, in the "Advanced picture settings" menu. Meanwhile the "TV Brightness" control found on the top-level Options menu can be confusing. It offers five settings: "Darker," "Dark," "Normal," "Bright" and "Brighter." They're pretty self-explanatory, but the problem is that they override the Backlight control -- so even if you set Backlight at 80, for example, the backlight still gets brighter or darker depending on which TV Brightness setting you choose. I prefer when controls interact as little as possible.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity: The biggest negative here is the absence of a hard-line Ethernet jack, meaning you'll have to use Wi-Fi. Yes, the TV's dual-band Wi-Fi worked flawlessly with the strong signal in my test lab, but I still consider Ethernet a valuable option -- and nearly every smart TV, including Vizio's E series, offers it.

The three HDMI inputs are plenty for an entry-level TV, especially since...you don't need to connect a Roku box (rimshot). The single composite AV input, RF/Antenna, and USB ports are standard-issue, as is the optical digital audio jack. The headphone output is a nice touch as well.

I tested the optical out with a handful of apps, and it worked as expected, passing surround sound without any issues. I did have to force the audio output into surround mode since the default "Auto" evidently didn't detect my AV receiver's capabilities properly, but that's easy enough (choose "Dolby D+,DTS" under Settings > Audio).

I also tested the TV's ability to pass a full 5.1-channel signal from an HDMI device, typically a Blu-ray player or game console, via optical to an external audio device, typically a sound bar. Unlike most TVs available today, it actually passed this test.

Picture quality

Nobody is going to place the TCL at the top of any image quality lists, but it's still likely "good enough" for most viewers. It delivered accurate color (an improvement over last year), decent contrast and exactly the level of video processing I expected. Bright room and uniformity performance were par for the course, as was sound quality.

All three 2015 Roku TV brands I tested were at more or less the same level in this category -- they all deserve a score of "6." If I had to rank them nonetheless, I'd put the TCL over the Insignia, with the Sharp in last place. The Sharp did evince slightly more accurate color than the others, especially according to its charts, but the advantage was eclipsed by its somewhat poorer black levels.

The Vizio E series comfortably remains my PQ pick for entry-level TVs, however, by virtue of its stellar black-level performance and resulting excellent contrast.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Black level: The TCL was neither significantly better or worse than any of the other TVs in the lineup in this area, with the exceptions of the Vizios. Watching the "Interstellar" disc both sizes of Vizio TV dominated the pack with much deeper, more realistic blacks in dark scenes like the void of space, and in dark areas of mixed scenes like the backgrounds behind the astronauts in Chapter 6.

Between most of the the non-Vizios it was a wash (no pun intended), with every set but the Sharp Roku TV displaying more or less equally washed-out, grayish black areas and letterbox bars in the darkest scenes. According to my light meter with a near-black test pattern, they all measured between 0.012 and 0.009 fL on black itself (close enough that I couldn't distinguish by eye). Meanwhile the Sharp measured a visibly brighter 0.016, while the Vizios measured an inky 0.002.

Another slight difference between the various Roku TVs was in gamma and shadow detail. None of them obscured shadows; the shadows on the instrumentation or other spaceship interiors from Chapter 6 were all visible, for example. But those areas Insignia and Sharp appeared a bit too bright for our dark room, while the TCL was more pleasingly darker in shadows, making them seem slightly more realistic by comparison (albeit not as good as the Vizios).

Color accuracy: I don't have any major complaints with the Roku TVs on this front. The TCL's charts reveal a plus-red grayscale, but it's relatively mild and didn't ruin program material by any means. In "Interstellar," the face of Anne Hathaway's Brand appeared a bit more flush, and the white and gray gear in the background a bit more red, but the difference would be tough to spot outside a side-by-side comparison. Bright colors, like the green of the corn fields and the deep blue of the lake in Chapter 1, were nicely balanced and saturated too.

Overall I'd give the nod to the more-accurate Vizios in this category, but it's pretty close. Compared to the other Roku TVs, the TCL measured (and looked) slightly less accurate than the Sharp and similar to the Insgnia, but was redder than both in terms of grayscale. Their primary and secondary color accuracy was all superb, however.

Video processing: There was basically no difference between any of the Roku TVs in this department, and all behaved like the 60Hz models claimed in their specification sheets, rather than the "120Hz Clear Motion Index (Effective)" claimed on their specifications.

All of them were capable of delivering correct 1080p/24 film cadence according to our tests, which is a good thing. Motion resolution was the same as other 60Hz TVs we've tested, at 300 lines for all three as well.

Input lag was great, as I've seen on most entry-level LED LCDs, scoring around 30ms for all three Roku TVs regardless of whether I engaged Game mode or left it turned off.

If you're comparing at home, the Vizios can hit much higher motion resolution numbers, but only at the expense of flicker, while the only the 55-inch Vizio I tested could match the Roku TVs' lag scores.

Here's where I mention that I don't expect the 32-inch versions of the TCL, which have 720p resolution, to perform any better or worse than the 1080p, 40-inch version I tested. At these small screen sizes, that disparity in resolution makes almost no visible difference in sharpness or other aspects of image quality.

Uniformity: For entry-level LCD TVs there were no major issues on my Roku TV review samples. If I had to nitpick, I'd say the lower-left corner of the TCL was slightly brighter than the rest of the screen in dark test patterns, the Sharp was very slightly brighter in the upper-right corner, and the bottom edge of the Insignia was likewise slightly brighter. None of these bright areas were distracting "flashlights" by any means, and not nearly as noticeable as the brighter clouds on the Samsung and the uneven bottom edge of the 2014 TCL. Variations in brightness were also evident in brighter patterns, but as with dark patterns none of the issues were bothersome (or even visible, for the most part) during program material.

From off-angle, the Roku TVs were all about the same, losing contrast and color fidelity as expected. The Insignia seemed to hold up better than the other two. Meanwhile the Vizio looked best from off-angle due to its better black levels to begin with, while the Samsung seemed to lose fidelity faster than the others.

Bright lighting: All of the sets in the comparison lineup have matte screens, but with the lights up I did observe some differences. The TCL deadened bright reflections a bit better than the Sharp Roku TV, but not quite as well as the Vizios. There wasn't much difference between any of them in their ability to maintain contrast under the lights.

Sound quality: You won't be surprised to learn that none of these entry-level TVs sounded "good." Listening to Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" there were some differences however, primarily related to size. The bigger (55-inch) TVs sounded better, thanks to their fuller bass, and among them the relatively balanced Vizio sounded slightly better than the more anemic, muddier Sharp LE653U (the non-Roku TV) and significantly more pleasant than the very harsh Insignia.

Meanwhile, among the 40-something-inch sets the Sharp 43-incher (the Roku TV) was best among the worst, with better dialogue and not-too-terrible rendition of treble. By comparison the 40-inch TCL was painfully abrasive and basically bass-free, but it still sounded better than the scratchy-warbly-distorted-muddy Vizio.

Discerning among these TVs' sound was akin to choosing which flavor of dirt I wanted to eat for lunch. If you care about audio quality, even cheap TVs like this are worth mating with a (cheap) soundbar.

Geek box

Test ResultScore
Black luminance (0%) 0.015Average
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.22Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 6163Poor
Dark gray error (20%) 5649Poor
Bright gray error (70%) 6260Poor
Avg. color error 2.097Good
Red error 2.466Good
Green error 1.608Good
Blue error 4.131Average
Cyan error 1.287Good
Magenta error 1.804Good
Yellow error 1.283Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) PassGood
Motion resolution (max) 300Poor
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 30.2Good

How We Test TVs


TCL S3800 series (Roku TV, 2015)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 6Value 10
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