TCL's Roku TVs have grown into some of CNET's high-value favorites. The 6 series is my 2018 Editors' Choice as the best TV for the money, period. The ridiculously affordable S405 series, meanwhile, is my go-to ultrabudget pick at 55 inches.
The 5 series reviewed here slots between the those TVs in price, so I figured it might represent the perfect middle ground. Now that I've tested it, however, it turns out to be the weakest of the bunch.
Yes, it still delivers that Roku TV goodness. It offers thousands of streaming apps in an interface a 5-year-old can master and puts Netflix and your cable box side by side. Roku TV is the main reason I recommend TCLs over Vizios to people who value integrated streaming and the simplicity of a single remote.
The TCL 5 series also wins on style. Its thin, minimalist metal cabinet looks way nicer than the blocky plastic of the equivalently priced Vizio E series, something that might make it an even easier sell for your family. I still like the Vizio better overall, however, because its picture quality roundly beats the TCL's.
TCL 5 series at a glance
- Available in 43-, 49-, 55- and 65-inch sizes.
- Uses Roku TV, CNET's favorite smart TV system.
- Improves on the cheaper S405 series Roku TVs by adding Dolby Vision HDR, a wider color gamut, an enhanced remote and better design.
- Lacks the full-array local dimming and overall image quality of the more expensive 6 series. See below for full image quality comparisons.
Why Roku TV rocks
I'm a fan of Roku TV, for reasons I've documented extensively in previous reviews. Here's the short version.
- Frequent updates and feature improvements, such as Google Assistant
- Simple menus with quick responses
- Full customization, including input naming
- Inputs on the same home page as TV apps
- More apps (and 4K HDR apps) than any other smart TV system
- 4K Spotlight and 4K apps category make finding 4K content easier
- Cross-platform search covers many services, allows price comparisons
- More Ways To Watch suggests streaming shows, including in the antenna program guide
- Can pause live TV from an antenna source (and a USB stick)
For more info, check out my review of my favorite 4K Roku device, the Roku Streaming Stick Plus.
Stepped-up style, midrange features
Along with the more expensive 6 series, the 5 series represents a real improvement in Roku TV design. The ribbon-thin frame around the TV is matte black metal, the same as most of the backside, and seen in profile the top two-thirds of the cabinet is ultraslim too, less than half an inch deep on my 55-inch review sample. The bottom third widens appreciably, to accommodate inputs, the power supply and other guts, but overall the look is modern and much nicer than the Vizio E.
The 5 series shares the 6's "enhanced" Roku TV remote. It keeps the standard simple design of other Roku TV clickers, adds a built-in mic for voice functions, and communicates with the TV without needing line of sight.
The 5 series has a wide color gamut (WCG) thanks to fancy-sounding Nano Band Phosphor (NBP) Photon tech, but according to our measurements it's not as wide as many competing sets. It supports both high dynamic range formats, Dolby Vision and HDR10. It also touts a "120Hz clear motion index," but as usual, that's a made-up number. The 5 series has 60Hz native panel and can't match the motion performance of true 120Hz TVs.
Around back you'll find a solid selection of inputs.
- 3x HDMI inputs (HDMI 2.0 and HDCP 2.2)
- 1x analog (composite) video input
- 1x USB port (2.0)
- Ethernet (wired internet)
- 1x headphone jack
- 1x optical digital audio output
- 1x RF (antenna) input
The HDMIs are state-of-the-art and worked fine with everything I threw at them. The headphone jack is a nice touch, and unlike cheaper Roku sets, this one has Ethernet, too.
Picture quality comparisons
In my side-by-side tests the TCL 5 series outperformed the cheaper TCL S405 series, with better color accuracy and uniformity, but fell short of the Vizio E. The Vizio delivered superior black levels and a more impressive image overall with both standard and HDR sources.
The 5 series is technically brighter than the Vizio in accurate picture settings, but still not that bright overall, so between the two I'd still recommend the Vizio for bright rooms too.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review. Note that I did not perform a full calibration on the TCL 5 series, the Vizio E series or the TCL S405. Instead I used their best default dark room settings for my comparison, and tweaked light output when appropriate to level the playing field and provide a better comparison with the other sets that I did calibrate.
Dim lighting: The 5 series was among the least impressive performers in my lineup when it came to delivering home-theater quality images in a dark room, where the Vizio E series excelled. Watching the jungle fight in Chapter 2 of Black Panther, for example, the black of the TCL's letterbox bars, shadows and other dark areas looked (and measured) markedly lighter and more washed-out compared to the Vizio E -- which in turn looked slightly worse than the other, more expensive sets.
Meanwhile the TCL 5 series didn't have any major advantage over the TCL S405 in black level performance; the two measured basically the same. The cheaper S405 did have a pronounced blue cast to its dark areas, however, so I'd prefer watching the more neutral 5 series overall.
Shadow detail, for example in the folds of the rebels' uniforms and the depths of the underbrush, was fine on the 5 series, but again less realistic than the E series. The Vizio did show some minor blooming in some areas, for example around the logo of my Blu-ray player's screensaver, but it was rare in normal video and definitely a worthwhile tradeoff for superior black levels and contrast.
Bright lighting: With both standard and HDR sources, the light output of the 5 series falls short of most HDR TVs I've tested. Its brightest modes are dimmer than those on the Vizio E series, and they're even dimmer in SDR than the cheaper TCL S405.
In accurate settings, however -- Movie/Brighter for the TCL and Calibrated for the Vizio E -- the TCL outshines the the Vizio significantly; 284 nits to just 115. Tweaking the Vizio's settings (by increasing local dimming to Medium) bumps it up to 190, but the TCL is still brighter in the accurate settings I'd recommend.
It's worth noting that the difference in screen sizes (I tested a 65-inch Vizio E versus a 55-inch TCL 5 series) could play a factor too; bigger inexpensive TVs are generally dimmer than smaller ones.
Light output in nits
|TV||Mode (SDR)||10% window (SDR)||Full screen (SDR)||Mode (HDR)||10% window (HDR)|
|TCL 65R617||Brighter/Vivid||653||480||Brighter/Dark HDR||824|
|TCL 55S405||Brighter/Vivid||301||298||Brighter/Dark HDR||212|
|TCL 55S517 (5 series)||Brighter/Movie||284||280||Brighter/Dark HDR||274|
The 5 series is still plenty bright for most room lighting situations -- this doesn't seem like a particularly dim TV in person. It just doesn't match the searing light output found on many TVs today, even inexpensive ones.
The TCL's matte screen was fine at reducing reflections, albeit not as effective as that of the Vizio E.
Color accuracy: I didn't calibrate my 5 series review sample, but it still delivered excellent measurements in the best settings for my dark room -- TV brightness in the Darker position and the Movie picture mode. For bright rooms, people who want accuracy should stick with Movie and simply increase the TV brightness setting to taste.
The 5 series looked pleasingly accurate in Movie mode, lacked the S405's bluish tinge to black areas. Natural areas, like the mountains, rivers and plains of Wakanda, looked pleasingly realistic, if less dynamic than on the sets with local dimming. The Vizio E showed a slight advantage in the warm African skin tones of Black Panther's crew, which looked closer to the color reference Sony than the TCL delivered. Again I saw no major advantage of the 5 series over the S405, however. All of the sets were quite accurate and color differences would be tough to spot outside of a side-by-side comparison.
Video processing: The TCL 5 series handled 1080p/24 content properly, preserving the cadence of film. There's a setting called Natural Cinema that's said to improve the look of film (24p) content, but in my standard test using the aircraft carrier flyover from I Am Legend, I couldn't see any difference whether the setting was turned on or off.
The Action Smoothing setting introduces the soap opera effect in various strengths, but unlike such settings on most other TVs it doesn't improve motion resolution, which remained at the 300 lines typical of 60Hz TVs no matter how much Action Smoothing I applied. The 5 series lacks the LED Motion Clarity feature, which combats blurring at the expense of reducing brightness and causing flicker, found on the 6 series.
As with the 6 series, input lag for gaming was minimal with Game mode engaged -- just 14.8 milliseconds with 1080p sources, and 17.3 ms with 4K HDR sources. With Game mode turned off, lag increased quite a bit to 60.6 and 121 ms, respectively.
Uniformity: The 5 series' uniformity was below average. It showed faint horizontal and vertical bands in dim full-raster patterns as well as brighter lower corners. It wasn't as bad as the S405, but none of the other sets in my lineup, including the Vizio E, showed banding or bright corners. Off-angle viewing was average for an LCD, with similar washout and discoloration to the Vizio E, albeit significantly better than the S405.
HDR and 4K video: As I've seen on other LCDs that lack local dimming, HDR on the TCL 5 series looked no better than standard video. Flipping back and forth between the 4K HDR (in HDR10) and standard 1080p Blu-rays of Black Panther I had to look hard to see any differences. In the HDR version the clouds above Wakanda had more definition, and the colors of the grass, the trees and the red uniforms of the guards looked slightly more saturated. But the biggest impact of HDR, its bright highlights and the dynamism they lend to all images, was completely missing. The "high dynamic range" pictures looked no more dynamic than the standard ones.
On the Vizio E and the other local dimming sets, however, HDR looked much better. Highlights and sun spots popped, dark areas maintained their deep contrast and everything looked more vibrant and alive. The 5 series did outperform the terrible HDR of the S405, with its crushed shadow detail and pumped-up colors, but compared to the other sets it was duller, and worse in pretty much every way. I paid particular attention to colors compared to the Vizio E (which measured worse for HDR color gamut than the 5 series), but differences, for example in the costumes of the dancers in Chapter 4, were tough to spot.
Comparing Dolby Vision between the Vizios, the TCL 6 and the TCL 5 series I saw similar differences, although the 5 series kept up better. In Altered Carbon on Netflix, streamed from an Apple TV 4K, the other sets still delivered a more dynamic image with brighter highlights and darker black levels, but the difference wasn't as drastic. Perhaps the improvement is due to Dolby Vision itself, but I'm guessing it's more about the content. In any case the E series still looked better overall, regardless of HDR format and content, but if you have a choice with the 5 series, I recommend going with Dolby Vision.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.030||Average|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||257||Poor|
|Default grayscale error||2.19||Good|
|Default color error||1.84||Good|
|Default color checker error||2.0||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||300||Poor|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||300||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode)||14.80||Good|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.062||Average|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||274||Poor|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||93.60||Average|
|Avg. color checker error||7.0||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||17.30||Good|
Note: Since I did not calibrate this TV for the review, I'm including a shortened version of the standard Geek Box and reporting only the numbers for the best default settings. Those are TV Brightness: Darker, and Picture mode: Movie for everything except Peak White Luminance, which I measured in Brighter/Vivid. See my picture settings notes above for more.