All photos: Adam Clark Estes

The TCL P-Series sounds too good to be true. At almost half the price of similarly outfitted sets, these Roku-powered 4K TVs feature high-end features like full-array local dimming, high dynamic range (HDR), and Dolby Vision. All that, and a 55-inch model will only set you back $650. So is it really too good to be true? A little bit. But only a little bit.

We’ve written a lot about this exciting new era of 4K TVs, when these impossibly sharp displays finally cost less than a used Mercedes. And lately, some models cost less than a decent bicycle. TCL is one of the brands that’s led the way in bringing high quality displays to the masses for magically low prices. The new P-Series opens up a whole new chance to buy beautiful picture quality in the $500 to $700 range. How these new TVs do it is, mostly, pretty impressive. Because dammit, the TCL P-Series looks good.

Does it look great? That depends on your point-of-view.

Here’s me: I just finished reviewing the new Element: Amazon Fire TV Edition. As the name implies, those 4K TVs run on a new Amazon Fire TV operating system that’s fun to use, and they feature an eminently satisfactory display. They also cost about the same as the new TCL P-Series TVs. But, in very relevant fashion, the Amazon TVs don’t have full-array local dimming, HDR, or Dolby Vision.

The Roku is hardly the best thing about this TV.

The difference a TV that has those three features and one that doesn’t is more than some writing on the box. The TCL P-Series display really does produce noticeably richer contrasts and more vivid colors, two of the main things you’d expect from a much more expensive TV. This is surely thanks to the 72-zone HDR contrast control. For non-TV nerds, this means that the backlight adjusts itself in 72 separate areas to highlight brighter colors or tone down darker ones. With support for the HDR-10 format, the display can also handle a wider color gamut which helps make those reds, greens, and blues really pop. And they really do pop.

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On top of all this, the TCL P-Series features a 120-MHz refresh rate which means you won’t have to fuss with that nauseating soap opera effect. (Soap opera effect is that weird too-smooth look produced by software that prevents displays with a lower refresh rate from looking too jerky.) When viewed side-by-side with the new Amazon TV—along with its lack of HDR and 60 MHz refresh rate—the TCL P-Series offered much more natural movement and wonderfully rich colors.

Behold: the colors.

But, as I learned through increasingly specific testing, the display is not perfect. The contrast is almost too dramatic, especially in darker scenes where the borders between grays and blacks starts to disappear. Bright, outdoor scenes from a movie like Deadpool, looked awesome and exciting with comic book-level clarity. Dark, indoor scenes from a film like Goodfellas, left my squinting to see where the mobsters’ jackets ended and the nightclub began.

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There’s a chance that this could be corrected by adjusting the gamma settings. (Gamma determines the balance between the light and the dark areas on the display.) While they are reasonably comprehensive, however, the advanced settings on the TCL P-Series don’t offer a way to adjust gamma. So understanding that this grey-to-black issue was a real issue, I decided to run some more meticulous tests. Update: You can actually access more advanced settings through the Roku smartphone app.

The TCL P-Series settings offer much more control than the Amazon TV, but there are still a few things missing.

Can you think of a better way to test how a display deals with contrast and darkness than a trio of war movies, featuring Brad Pitt killing Nazis? I can’t, which is why that’s exactly what I did. By watching Inglorious Basterds, Fury, and Allied on the TCL P-Series, I realized how well the TCL P-Series could handle the color red and how much it struggled with dark grey.

The opening sequence of Inglorious Basterds serves as a perfect example of that jacket-fading-into-the-background effect. The creepy, campy Christoph Waltz and his dark grey Nazi uniform almost become one with the background of the French farmhouse, where he’s hunting Jews. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt as a Canadian officer in a dark blue jacket practically disappears during the air raid scenes of Allied. Don’t even get me started on the dark tank scenes in Fury.

Look at how the dark grays blend into the blacks on the TCL P-Series (left) while they stand out on the Amazon TV (right).

This is not an impossible problem. Again, the advanced settings on the TCL P-Series aren’t as comprehensive as they could be, but they’re granular enough. (In this respect, the Amazon TV, and its dearth of specific settings, really suffers.) You can turn down the contrast and boost the brightness to get more defined lines in these dark scenes. However, you’ll also wash out some of those vivid HDR-fueled highlights. Through some tinkering, I finally landed on a modified version of the TCL’s “Brighter” preset that looked pretty terrific for any movie or TV show.

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So that’s the display, and it’s honestly the best part about this TV. Unfortunately, the overall Roku experience basically sucks. Although I’m a longtime Roku user and fan, there’s no reason I would buy the TCL P-Series for the Roku-based operating system. Because, honestly, the Roku experience is painfully dated at this point. The software feels the same as it did three years ago, and while I appreciate Roku’s idea of an open platform, the interface is slow and clunky. The enhanced Roku remote, which serves as the main remote for the TV, is poorly designed. (My main complaint: the volume buttons are on the side, so you’ll end up hit mute by accident, a lot.) And damnit, the whole system is buggy and annoying to use.

That volume control on the side is annoying.

This is easy for me to say after using the Amazon TV, because the enhanced Fire TV interface in that set is frankly awesome. Alexa has become one of the best platforms for voice control, and the Amazon TV holds up to the smart TV’s promise of convenience and versatility. The Roku-powered TCL P-Series does not. That said, you can obviously plug a Fire TV, an Apple TV, or Nvidia Shield into the P-Series and enjoy your preferred set-top box experience. And when a 55-inch 4K HDR TV only costs $650, you’d have some extra money to work with.

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Bottom line is, the TCL P-Series is an exceptionally great value for a TV with some serious chops. The Roku operating system will leave you wanting, but that doesn’t really matter since you won’t be forced to use it.

Colors!

Does the whole package amount to a better buy than the similarly priced Amazon TV? Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. If you value simplicity and convenience—and don’t know what the phrase “color gamut” means—the Amazon TV is enough for you. If you want the best display for the money and don’t care about the silly smart TV software, the TCL P-Series is for you.

README

  • At $650 for a 55-inch model, the TCL P-Series is the cheapest 4K TV with full-array dimming, HDR, and Dolby Vision we’ve ever seen.
  • The display struggles with dark grays and blacks under the default settings, but some tinkering can solve that problem.
  • Don’t bother with the Roku software. It’s slow, clunky, and dated.
  • Did we mention the display is beautiful? And cheap? Because it’s beautiful and cheap and frankly worth your consideration based on those two facts.