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TCL 4-Series (2021) review: Roku on the cheap, 4K screen included

The TCL S435 performs better than you'd think for the price.

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The TCL 4-Series is so inexpensive and capable you might start to question why there are any multithousand-dollar TVs at all. If you're just looking for an easy-to-use TV with decent picture, this is an excellent place to start. It's ridiculously affordable, offers 4K resolution in a wide range of sizes and has the same excellent Roku interface as that company's megapopular streaming devices.

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7.1

TCL 4-Series (2021 Roku TV)

Like

  • Hard to beat the price
  • Easy-to-use Roku interface

Don't like

  • Cheap-feeling remote
  • Only average performance
  • HDR doesn't look much better than SDR

The downside is that the picture quality is fairly average, especially if you compare it to TVs that cost more. The remote -- that is, the thing you'll interact with most -- is a bit of a letdown. And its HDR image isn't appreciably better than non-HDR, for reasons I'll cover below.

In both price and picture quality, one of its closest competitors is the Vizio V555-J. Their images looked very similar in my comparison, and while the Vizio offers more settings to help dial in the best quality and includes a voice remote, the TCL is easier to use and better for streaming.

However, despite its image quality issues you really can't overlook that price. The 55-inch I reviewed retails for just $400, and the other sizes are similarly affordable -- new for 2021, the 4-Series is available all the way up to 85 inches. It's simple, looks good and makes perfect sense if you don't need the bells and whistles found on expensive TVs.

TCL's 2021 4-Series Roku TV, in pictures

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Basic features and connections

The S435 is a basic 4K TV -- no fancy extras here like next-gen gaming perkslocal dimmingwide color gamut or tons of light. Its best feature, Roku's smart TV interface, is CNET's favorite, with large icons for both streaming services and the television's various inputs. If you're buying this TV because you've used Roku in the past, you'll be right at home here. Its marriage of television and streamer frees up the number of devices you need to plug in.

The only major difference between this and a Roku streaming device like the Roku Express 4K Plus is the remote itself. Myself, I've used a Roku media streamer for years and have found the small pill-shaped remotes work great. TCL's version looks similar, but feels far cheaper and depends on infrared signals -- so you'll need to remember to aim it at the TV. Once you get used to how easy Wi-Fi and Bluetooth remotes are (point anywhere!), IR feels like a step back. The hard plastic buttons also feel cheap and make a cheap-sounding click. It's one of the few things that reminds you that this is a budget TV. 

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

You can also use Roku's mobile app for iOS or Android, which at the very least makes putting in your various logins and passwords easier. The app also has voice search, something the TCL remote doesn't. This lets you just say something like "Tacoma FD" and it finds all the places you can stream/buy a show or movie. It's fast: Once you get used to it, you'll wonder why all streaming platforms don't work that way. 

By the way, you can purchase Roku's $30 Voice Remote Pro if you really miss that voice remote aspect, which brings the price more or less in line with the Vizio V555. 

The Vizio V555 already has a Bluetooth remote with voice control. However, its user interface isn't quite as friendly as Roku's one, and it doesn't have access to as many streaming services. Notably, the V555 doesn't have HBO Max yet, though you can stream that service from your phone.

If you send the TCL 24 frames per second content, like from a Blu-ray or movies and most shows on streaming, it will switch to 48 hertz. This eliminates the 3:2 judder so any motion in the image is smoother and more natural-looking. This isn't the soap opera effect, which is even smoother but less natural looking. The 4-Series doesn't have SOE, and like most budget TVs it has a 60-hertz refresh rate, not 120-hertz.

The 55-inch gets an Energy Star rating of $12, which is on the low (good) end compared to similar TVs. 

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Connectivity is ample for a budget TV. There are four HDMI inputs, and one of them has ARC (though not the newer eARC). If you don't have a fancy soundbar with an ARC input, you can get the audio out of the TV via a 3.5mm headphone jack or optical cable. 

  • HDMI inputs: four (43-inch has three)
  • Composite analog inputs
  • USB port
  • Internet: Wired and 802.11ac (2.4 and 5GHz)
  • Antenna input
  • Headphone jack (3.5mm)
  • Optical digital audio output
  • Speakers: two downward-facing, 8W each

Setup

The 4-Series setup is intuitive and easy. You'll need a Roku account if you don't have one already, then you can pick a few channels based on what streaming services you subscribe to. If you already have a Roku account, much of this will be done for you.

And what a bevy of channels you have to choose from. Basically, if there's a streaming service it's probably available on Roku (well, usually, or at least eventually). So that means Netflix, of course, along with HBO Max, Disney Plus, Vudu, Amazon Prime and just about anything else you can think of.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

There are also those four HDMI inputs on the back -- so if you want to connect a game console, or multiple game consoles, plus a cable box and something else, you've got the connections. The lack of an "input" button on the remote does feel a little weird, though I do appreciate the mindset of treating inputs as if they were another streaming channel. 

There are minimal picture controls, though for such an inexpensive TV that seems fine. Out of the box the picture was quite accurate: I just put the TV in Movie mode and I was good to go. If you have a setup disc like World of Wonder you can fine-tune contrast and brightness, but even those were within a click or two of correct on my sample.

Picture quality comparisons

I compared the TCL 4-Series against two TVs: the Vizio V555-J and the Samsung QN55Q60A.The Vizio V555 is a direct competitor and roughly 10% more expensive. The Samsung QN55Q60A is its entry-level QLED model, but "entry-level" is different for Samsung, and the Q60 is more than twice the price of the S435. My intention was to give buyers an idea what they can get if they spend a bit more. I connected all three via a Monoprice 1x4 distribution amplifier and viewed them side-by-side-by-side.

As you'd probably expect, the Vizio and TCL are very close. Both have highly accurate colors and color temperature out of the box. The TCL measures about 10% brighter, but even in side-by-side comparisons you can't really tell that. The Vizio has a slightly higher contrast ratio, but again, that's hard to tell because the difference is so slight.

It's a bit of a different story with HDR content. Both the TCL and Vizio have a spot-on color gamut for non-HDR content, but neither makes much of a push beyond that. One of the things you get with the Samsung is a wider selection of colors. So with HDR content it looks far more colorful with deeper, richer tones. None of these TVs have local dimming, so they don't do much in the way of dynamic range for HDR content. 

Does lack of HDR punch matter when it comes to the TCL? I would say not really for the price, but better HDR performance is definitely one of the things you'll get if you spend more. If you do send the TCL an HDR signal, it does remap it well, so there are no blatant artifacts or serious highlight clipping (white, snow-capped peaks turning out gray, for example). It just doesn't look much better than non-HDR material.

Like nearly all LCDs, the TCL doesn't look great if you're not sitting directly in front of it. Even sliding over a few seats on my couch, the black level went up and the color saturation went down. The same was true with the comparison TVs, though, so we'll call that a wash. 

There are also some uniformity issues, where different parts of the screen have different brightness levels. This is especially noticeable on full-screen white or black images and is exacerbated if you're not directly in line with the TV. The Vizio was about the same, though the Samsung was a little better.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Roku'in

The question is, can you get a good 55-inch TV for $400? The answer is yes. But the question: Is the TCL 4-Series the one to offer it? The Vizio V555 is able to be tweaked for a potentially better picture and has a higher-quality remote, but it doesn't have as many streaming options nor is it quite as easy to use. It's hard to beat the Roku interface for simplicity and breadth of content. If someone said to me, "My parents need a new TV" or, "I just want something that looks good and works," this TCL is what I'd point them toward. You'll need to spend more to get a better image, of course, but the 4-Series looks better than you'd expect for the price.

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7.1

TCL 4-Series (2021 Roku TV)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 5Value 9