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

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."

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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.

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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.

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

TCL 40FS3800 CNET review calibration results

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