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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.
Responsiveness was superb, too, outdoing that of most Smart TVs, albeit not quite as lightning-fast as a Roku 3. I pitted the two directly against one another, and the TV was just a split second behind in loading most apps and browsing their various screens. Navigation was snappy, and the TV started up and was ready to stream either instantly (if it had just been turned off) or within 10 seconds (if it had been left off for 15 minutes or longer). In either case, standby wattage is minimal, as required by EnergyStar.
The Roku platform has more apps than any other, period. Many of the 1,700 app choices are 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, Google Play, and Samsung's app store.
No other smart TV aside from Samsung's gets HBO Go, for example, and even Samsung is missing stuff Roku has, including Showtime Anytime, Rdio, and NFL Now. Roku's app selection not only far outshines that of any smart TV, it's also better than that of any standalone streamer.
The apps themselves are usually the most up-to-date versions, although in this department Samsung ekes out a win. Samsung's 2014 sets get the newest version of Amazon Instant and HBO Go, for example, while Roku TVs' versions are pretty old-school. On the other hand, Roku TV does have the latest Netflix (complete with profiles) and YouTube apps. Roku also, unlike most smart-TV purveyors, has a history of updating its software regularly, even on older products.
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. As of press time, the only other app supported in this way is Plex.
Roku also has its own robust remote app for Android, iOS, and Windows. It not only replicates the remote, in case you mislay it or just prefer using your phone or tablet, it also allows the TV to play back photos, videos, and music stored on your phone. I had some trouble with a few videos, frankly, but photos and music (and both together, in slideshow form) worked great. Some other smart TVs have decent control apps, but Roku's is the best I've used.
The app also lets you use your phone's keypad to type into Roku's excellent universal search -- which (again) outperforms that of any other streaming device or smart TV. Roku's search 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, and so on, search for a show or movie before you purchase it and you may discover you can get it for "free."
Unlike TiVo's, Samsung's, or LG's search, however, Roku's does not hit your local TV listings -- only streaming services. The only other strike against Roku's search is that it doesn't support voice, but with app-based keyboard support and excellent predictive text when you just use the TV's virtual keypad, I didn't miss talking into my remote.
Speaking of missing options, 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.
Picture settings: In my opinion, 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, as well as the ability to tailor settings for each input, but that's not enough.
Roku 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 is pretty 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.
Connectivity: The TCL Roku TV's back panel is kind of a mixed bag. The biggest negative is the absence of a hard-line Ethernet jack, meaning you'll have to use Wi-Fi. Roku's response to my, "Why no Ethernet?" inquiry was, "Most people use Wi-Fi," and I don't doubt it, but I suspect the real reason was to cut costs. The Roku 3 alone among the company's boxes has Ethernet. Yes, Wi-Fi works fine for most people, and the TCL Roku 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 while it's certainly capable of passing 5.1 surround sound -- Amazon Instant worked fine, for example -- there were some app-specific hiccups. First off, the Netflix app lacks the option to output surround sound at all, an issue Roku TV shares with the Roku 3 (Vizio's Netflix app, among others, can deliver surround sound). Second, the HBO Go app didn't deliver any audio at all, via speakers or the optical output, when I engaged the TV's "Surround sound" option under "Settings > Audio." When I chose the "Stereo" option under that setting, the audio returned. I've asked Roku about both of these issues and will update this review when the situation changes.
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. Then again, so does Vizio.
The Roku TV is a mediocre performer, scoring the same "6" overall in this category as many other entry-level and midrange LCDs we've tested. That's actually pretty good considering its cut-rate price, but it's nowhere near the lofty heights achieved by Vizio's E series, or even models like the Sony W800B . The Roku TVs' main weaknesses were lighter black levels, inaccurate color, and weak picture uniformity.
As noted above, we tested only the 48-inch size in the series. The 40-inch and 32-inch sizes are slightly different from the other two, which might affect picture quality. The lower contrast of the 32-inch size might indicate its black levels are lighter than the one we tested, but I don't expect the differences in resolution and "refresh rate" specs to result in significant visible differences. Meanwhile the edge-lit LED backlight of the 40-inch size might result in worse uniformity than the other sizes.
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 Roku TV occupied the middle of the pack in this area, which isn't too shabby considering its price. As expected, the Vizio was easily the best, delivering the deepest rendition of black in the letterbox bars and shadowy areas, for example Gollum's cave in Chapter 24 of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Its depth of black matched the other TCL and the Samsung F5000, and beat the Samsung H6350 and fell short of the Sony.
Details in shadows were a weak point, however, with areas like Gollum's face and chest as he peeked out from the rock (2:01:35), and the rocks in the background a bit later, seeming more obscured than on the other sets. The Sony and Samsung looked best by this measure, while the Vizio and the other TCL veered slightly toward too-bright shadows -- albeit still more accurate than the Roku TV. Yes, I could have reclaimed those details by bumping the Brightness control (not to be confused with "TV Brightness"!) back up to its default setting of 52, but that would have killed black levels.
Color accuracy: As you can see from the chart below, the Roku TV had some problems in this area, but at least it wasn't as bad as the other TCL. Color temperature was too red, which gave a slightly ruddier cast to skin tones like the face of Balin as he takes Bilbo's contract (41:19). The green grass of the Shire also appeared significantly more lush than on the other sets, and the significant cyan error was clearly visible in bluish areas, like the nighttime sky above the campsite. (44:14). Like many LCDs with mediocre black levels, the Roku TV also took on a too-blue cast in dark areas.
Video processing: First and most important for a TV that lacks smoothing, the Roku TV passed our 1080p/24 test, delivering true film cadence compared with the slight halting stutter seen on some TVs, such as the 42-inch Vizio.
Less important but still worth mentioning is the Roku TV's poor motion resolution. Like the Vizio and many other entry-level LCD TVs, the TCL Roku TV managed just 300 lines of resolution in our motion test. That's performance reminiscent of 60Hz LCDs, and it falls far short of true 120Hz sets like the Samsung H6350 and the Sony.
I was pleased to note an excellent input lag score of just 28.9ms, putting the Roku TV among the best TVs we've tested in that area. The TV's lag didn't increase significantly when we turned off Game mode.
Uniformity: Among the least uniform of the group, the screen of my Roku TV review sample suffered from a brighter patch in the lower-right corner, and the entire bottom edge was brighter as well. A faint cloudy patch was also present in the upper middle right. There was also some faint banding and backlight structure visible in white fields. The two Samsungs showed equally unimpressive uniformity, while the others, including the TCL but especially the Sony and Vizio, were much better.
That said, I only rarely noticed the Roku's uniformity issues in program material, for example on mostly black screens like the credits, or mostly white ones with movement, like hockey.
From off-angle, the Roku TV lost black-level fidelity at an average rate, and unlike the Samsungs didn't become overly discolored. The Vizio and Sony held up better from off-angle, and the other TCL was once again a match.
Bright lighting: Under the lights, the matte screen of the Roku TV helped it control ambient lighting very well. All of the other sets in the lineup also had matte finishes so they were more or less equal in this area, although the Vizio and Samsung dimmed reflections, thus performing better than the others by a hair.
Sound quality: The Roku TV sounds like a cheap TV, which is to say, terrible. It competed valiantly with the Vizio for worst-sounding in the lineup, and both were surprisingly worse than the other TCL. The Sony and Samsung H6350 were easily the best, particularly with music, although of course neither sounded "good" compared with any sound bar. Listening to Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand," the Roku delivered scratchy, thin high-end and its bass was pretty much nonexistent. Our movie test, the explosive bridge scene from "Mission: Impossible 2," likewise lacked punch and naturalness, instead exhibiting similarly scratchy dialogue and an overall harsh sound.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.008||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.11||Poor|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||4.790||Average|
|Dark gray error (20%)||5.018||Poor|
|Bright gray error (70%)||5.38||Poor|
|Avg. color error||4.673||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|1080i De-interlacing (film)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||300||Poor|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||300||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode)||28.87||Good|