While many television manufacturers have taken to padding their features lists (and price tags) with everything from 3D to curved screens, streaming set-top box maker Roku has just released a whole new breed of barebones smart TV. Practical, intuitive, and surprisingly affordable, the TCL Roku TV may not have the best picture on the market, but for $500 you could do much worse. Plus, it's got practically all the features of a $100 Roku 3 set-top box built right in, so it's great for frugal first-time cordcutters.
The Roku TV is Roku's first attempt to integrate its streaming offerings directly with the display hardware—not unlike what Google failed to accomplish with Google TV—by combining the streaming functionality with a TCL television. TCL isn't a very well known name in the American electronics market—you won't find any at Best Buy or Costco—but they are huge in Korea. Roku also makes another version with a Hisense panel.
The TCL display is surprisingly decent for a $500 TV. The set measures 43 x 27 x 8 inches and weighs just 32 pounds with its base, which is great because you can actually assemble and install the TV without needing a burly assistant. The 48-inch screen that we reviewed is wrapped in a half-inch, non-descript black bezel and sits upon a center-standing trapezoid base.
The panel itself is an edge-lit LED, 1080p, 120Hz affair, which is impressive on one count: similarly-priced sets from Sony, LG, and Samsung can only muster half that refresh rate.
It also includes 3 HDMI ports, various component hookups and dual-band Wi-Fi. The Roku TV also utilizes Dolby audio processing, though the TV's pair of speakers are only 8W apiece (in other words: weak) and tend to get just a bit tinny at higher volumes.
The Roku TV's remote is a very close cousin of the current Roku 3 remote, albeit without a few features. It doesn't have the gaming A/B buttons which let you use the Roku remote like an old-school NES-style controller, or the insanely helpful headphone jack which could let you plug headphones right into the remote control to tap into a wirelessly beamed audio signal from your TV. That's a shame, because it's a must have in crowded dorm rooms. Also, the useless, un-programmable shortcut buttons to the sponsor partners (Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and VUDU in this case) that I don't ever use are unfortunately still there, as is the side-mounted mute button that engages every time you pick the damned thing up.
Luckily, you can just use your phone: Roku's Remote App works wonderfully, has identical functionality, removes the bloat buttons, and is available for both iOS and Android. With your phone, you can also tap into the handy DIAL connectivity feature that bounces content from your mobile device to the TV a la Chromecast so you won't have to type in your YouTube searches with a D-pad. Just hook your phone up to Wi-Fi, press the cast button in your YouTube or Netflix app, and you're golden.
Either way, it's a super simple remote that's almost insultingly easy to use. Personally, I love big complicated remotes with thousands of buttons and QWERTY keyboards and espresso makers because that means I'm likely the only person in the room that knows how to use them and my obsessively calibrated display and audio settings are therefore safe. With this remote, any schmuck that walks in off the street is literally two button presses away from destroying my settings. Still, for your tech-phobic parents that want a basic TV that just works, the remote is more than enough.
Have you ever used a Roku before? Fantastic: you can skip on ahead because the UI is practically identical. It's the same user-customized homescreen that you've come to know and love from the set-top box days as well as new dedicated buttons for each of your inputs. You now have the ability to easily rename each input from HDMI 1 and HDMI 2 to, say, DVD or Game Console or Nerf Herder—as long as you know what that means, it's all good.
In fact, you can easily pair the TV to your existing Roku account and have it simply migrate all your current settings and channels over. (Maybe I shouldn't have told you to skip forward.) This is a particularly great feature because otherwise you're going to spend the next four hours digging through the service's stable of 1,500 channels looking for something decent to watch.
Which could be particularly annoying, because using the Roku TV doesn't feel like your conventional channel surfing—it's a lot more like scouring RSS feeds using an NES controller. I guess it's really not that much different from scrolling through your cable box's onscreen guide using their terrible controllers, but it feels suspiciously like navigating through a desktop operating system without the aid of a mouse. Don't get me wrong, setting up the Roku service is easy enough: it's just a massive, time-wasting pain in the ass. You have to hunt and peck along a virtual keyboard using the remote's directional arrows to input any sort of information.
Now, this normally wouldn't be an issue because most TVs only need you to input information once, during initial setup. Not so with the Roku TV! In the Roku ecosystem each content provider in Roku is called a "channel" and has its own miniature app, and every time you want to add a channel to your homescreen you have to repeat your personal information to many of the third party content providers—on a goddamn D-pad. Seriously, why does PBS need my email to let me watch Antiques Roadshow?
It's a $500 television that, at 48 inches, is actually large enough to be seen across a room. (If you're willing to pay $680, there's also a 55-inch model, and a 32-incher for less money.) And, when the signal is solid, the picture could even be described as decent. I mean, the color reproduction isn't all that great. Reds tended to be a bit orangey, yellows a bit mustardy, though you can clean that up with a fairly intuitive calibration menu by hitting the star button on the remote. It still won't look perfect: the colors all seem a bit flat and washed out compared to my Bravia reference set. But given that most folks in the market for $500 TVs are looking at price first, performance second, who really gives a shit? It's close enough.
You'd better have cable or a good Wi-Fi router to enjoy this TV, because a solid connection is an absolute requirement. The second the signal hiccups or the Wi-Fi fades, the picture on the Roku TV aliases quite badly. They're the sort of giant, blocky edges you'd expect on an 8-bit side scroller, not an HDTV. I can't stress this enough: the instant you get less than ideal signal strength the picture looks like it was drawn on Tetris blocks. That said, when the signal is solid, so is the picture quality.
Eh, for a budget HDTV, it's not that bad—especially when the big name brands like Sony, LG, and Samsung are all asking around $750 to $1000 more for similarly specced sets, and $500 televisions from the likes of Insignia, Vizio, and Westinghouse can't even muster the decent picture quality of this thing. I mean, I wouldn't buy one for my own living room, but if you're in the market for an entry level set for a child that is going off to college (and will likely break it before then end of the first semester) or for a tech-phobic parent that already uses the Roku service (hi Mom!), the Roku TV is at least worth a look.
Just repeat the mantra: "Yeah, but it's only $500."