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The trend in TVs today is bigger and bigger screen sizes, and I'm the first reviewer to tell you get a larger TV. For years my TV buying guide has included the following line: "Bigger is better: More than any other 'feature,' stepping up in TV screen size is the best use of your money."
But what if money is tight? What if you can't fit a 55-inch TV in that spot? What if a 32- or 40-inch TV -- positively puny by today's standards -- is plenty?
If that's the case for you, start with the TCL S325 series, reviewed here along with its larger brother the S425.
Let's get one thing out of the way first: Their picture quality is mediocre. They can't compete with more expensive sets for black-level performance, contrast or pop. If you want a home theater-worthy image in a budget set, start with the Vizio E-Series. Unfortunately, it's not available in sizes under 43 inches. Put another way: Don't expect great image quality in any TV under 43 inches.
On the other hand, mediocre might be good enough for you, especially if you're buying a smaller set for secondary viewing or you just want the cheapest smart TV you can get. As long as you don't expect too much, you might be perfectly satisfied with a TCL 3- or 4-Series, especially for the price. And if nothing else, I predict you'll like its built-in Roku.
There are a lot of different models in these series, so before we get into it, here's a breakdown.
|S305 (2017, HD)||32S305||40S305||43S305||49S305|
|S325 (2019, HD)||32S325||40S325||43S325||49S325|
|S405 (2017, 4K HDR)||43S405||49S405||55S405||65S405|
|S425 (2018 and 2019, 4K HDR)||43S425||49S425||50S425||55S425||65S425|
Even though the oldest TVs are from 2017, TCL told CNET that the only difference between them and the 2018/2019 models is in cosmetic design. They have the same picture quality and features. (These models are not available in the UK and Australia.)
We've reviewed the S305 and S405 in 2017 and for this review we compared them with two new 2019 review samples, the 43-inch 43S325 and the 50-inch 50S425. Yes, the cosmetics are slightly different, with the newer sets having black stand legs instead of silver, and slightly different frames around the picture. We also saw some minor differences in image quality (see below for details). But overall not much has changed in two years, and the CNET ratings are the same for all of them.
In other words, you're fine buying the 2017 (S305 and S405) versions for as long as they remain on the market. TCL's representative said they'd be slowly phased out and replaced by the newer models (S325 and S425) this year.
Here's where I mention that the S305 and S325 models have 720p in the 32-inch size, and 1080p resolution (aka full HD) in the 40- and 43-inch sizes, and they can't do high dynamic range (HDR). Meanwhile the S405 and S425 models have 4K resolution and HDR capability.
As you can see on the chart, for most sizes there's no overlap: The 32- and 40-inch sizes are HD only, while the 50-, 55- and 65-inch sizes are 4K HDR only. Most people choose a TV size first, then worry about everything else, so there's not much of a choice in those sizes.
Where sizes overlap (43- and 49-inch) there's typically a $30 to $70 difference. For most buyers in this price range, I don't think it's worth paying that difference. You're better off saving the money and getting the 1080p, HD, non-HDR versions instead of the 4K HDR versions. Yes, you could see some improvement in image quality with some 4K HDR material, but it will be minor at best. See the image quality section below for more.
The best thing about the 3- and 4-Series TVs is built-in Roku. It gives you dead-simple access to just about every streaming app available, including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Sling TV, Pluto TV and more.
Since the apps are built in, you can get to them faster and more easily than via an external streamer, which requires switching inputs and probably juggling a second remote. Of course you can connect other gear (like game consoles or Blu-ray players) to these Roku TVs too, and they have some cool features for people who use an over-the-air antenna to get free TV.
Roku TV's main competitor is Amazon's Fire TV Edition sets by Toshiba and Insignia. Amazon has its advantages, especially when it comes to voice control with Alexa. But I still like the Roku platform better overall because its menu system is more neutral -- it doesn't force-feed you Amazon Prime TV shows and movies.
As usual with Roku devices, navigating the menus was quick and responsive and apps loaded quickly. The exceptions came when I encountered a "loading" screen, which typically occurred with less frequently used apps or during first launch. At times it could take a while -- Amazon Prime video took around 10 seconds to load at first -- but after that initial load, the app would typically launch in a second or two. Overall Roku still provides one of the snappiest, easies-to-use streaming experiences around.
Roku continues to update its system and add new features, which I won't go into here (and didn't retest for this review). They include:
For more info, check out my review of my favorite 4K Roku device, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
Connectivity is solid, with everything you'll likely need. The S425 has an Ethernet port while the S325 does not. Both have dual-band (5GHz and 2.4GHz) Wi-Fi, but only the S425 has 802.11ac. Both series offer:
As I mentioned at the start, don't expect any of these TCLs to perform like champs, but do expect to feel satisfied for the price.
For this review I compared the 2019 TCL 50S425 and 43S325 side by side with two 2017 TCL 4-Series sets -- the 55S405 and the 43S305 -- as well as with the 65-inch Vizio E-Series. I didn't put them through my usual TV review process and measurements, but I did some basic measurements, and saw enough to convince me the TCLs are still "good enough." None was as good as the Vizio, however.
Comparing black levels in the dark parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Black Panther, the Vizio showed a clear advantage, with deeper, more realistic letterbox bars and shadows. The difference was also obvious in brighter scenes, where the improved contrast of the letterbox bars and richer colors paid dividends and the Vizio showed much superior pop.
Between the two larger TCLs, the newer, 50-inch version looked better, with deeper black levels and more saturated, accurate color. The difference wasn't overwhelming, however, and the Vizio still looked quite a bit better than the 50-inch TCL. There was little visible difference between the two 43-inch TCL models.
Light output on the TCLs was mediocre, as you'd expect from a cheaper TV, and in the least accurate settings the Vizio E was brighter. But in the accurate settings I'd recommend -- Movie/Brighter for the TCLs and Calibrated for the Vizio E -- the TCLs outshine the the Vizio significantly, 272 nits (on the 50S425) to 186 (on the Vizio in Medium local dimming).
Screen uniformity wasn't great, with test patterns showing brighter areas and backlight structure on all of the TCL samples at various brightness levels. The Vizio was much better in comparison.
As I've seen from many inexpensive TVs, the Rokus didn't introduce much input lag for gamers. The S325's Game mode measured a healthy 26ms (1080p), while the 50S425's measured 31ms (1080p) and 29ms (4K HDR).
These are all 60Hz TVs despite TCL's fake "120Hz CMI effective refresh rate" specification, and tests indicated as much: They delivered only 300 lines of motion resolution and there's no smoothing or soap opera effect option.
Like many HDR TVs that lack local dimming, the TCL S425 showed little advantage displaying 4K HDR content instead of standard HD SDR. I watched Altered Carbon from Netflix, which has some of the most impressive HDR effects I've seen, in both 1080p SDR and 4K HDR, swapping back and forth. On the S425 and S405 the differences were subtle enough that I would have a tough time telling them apart.
Performing the same comparison on the Vizio, the advantage of HDR was a bit more apparent, with somewhat more dimension and pop to the image (thanks mostly to better black level) and slightly better color. Overall HDR looked better on the Vizio than on the TCL, but the advantage wasn't as great as with SDR. It's no surprise that brighter sets with more local dimming zones, like Vizio's M-Series or TCL's 6-Series, do a much better job showcasing HDR than either the TCL 4 or the Vizio E.
Picture setup tips: For the most accurate picture, just use the Movie preset and toggle the Brightness setting to taste or room lighting. In a dark room you'll get the best contrast and black levels by using Darkest, while for brighter rooms or HDR use Brightest.