TCL Roku TV is now on sale and proves to be a natural fit for the No. 1 Chinese television manufacturer's expansion into the Western marketplace. It joins the company, unfamiliar to many consumers outside of China, with the well-established Roku streaming platform.
Channel surfing on TCL and Roku's app-filled offspring is a familiar experience that mirrors the super-intuitive user interface of the Roku 3 and Roku Streaming Stick. Just about every name-brand and niche app you can think of can be pinned to a customizable home screen right alongside with the usual HDMI TV and Blu-ray connections.
Fluid menus contrast with the often stodgy, ham-handed layouts devised internally by other TV makers. It's a welcome change by the set-top box experts at Roku. They also brought along hundreds of more apps than their closest competitors too.
No, TCL Roku TV can't compete with Samsung and LG's top-of-the-line TV specs. But both the 40-inch set at $329 and 48-inch step up model at $449 that we tested offer a solid 1080p full HD picture at an affordable price.
Bookending those deals is the cheaper 32-inch flat-screen at $188 with a downgraded 720p resolution and specs, and a larger, full-featured 55-inch TV model at $599.
Is this the budget-friendly smart TV holdover while you wait for 4K TVs to drop in price over the next few years? Let's peer closer into the television that's coupled with a set-top box to find out.
Quite the app-etite
What makes the TCL Roku TV a deal isn't just its price. It's that the built-in Roku ecosystem deviates from the from smart TV app-streaming quality vs quantity dilemma. It's not one or the other thanks to a slick interface that brings hundreds of more apps than its competitors.
This includes must-have apps like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, HBO Go and Crackle, all of which are integrated into its personalized main menu. Even better, nearly every special interest streaming app is here too.
From the more known food channel Chow and the anime channel Crunchyroll to the almost certainly unknown Vietnamese American Real Estate and esoteric sciences channel Occult TV, there's no shortage of content for niche audiences.
In fact, there are over 1,000 streaming apps here, giving Roku the ability to claim that its platform has "more streaming channels than other Smart TVs combined." Those bragging rights were previously confined to set-top boxes like the Roku 3 or its HDMI streaming stick.
It also streams Vudu, TED Talks, Epix and, most recently, Google Play Movies & TV. Google Music hasn't joined the list, but Pandora, Spotify and Rdio are part of the Roku app playlist.
More apps doesn't mean every app, of course. TCL Roku TV is missing FX Now and Twitch apps, and while Time Warner is here with strict log-in requirements, the Verizon FiOS TV app is still exclusive to the Xbox One.
Like the Roku 3, you won't find Apple Inc's best friends ABC, ABC Family, ABC News. The CW Network app is also absent for the Smallville amount of you that care.
Unlike the Roku 3, I couldn't find the Watch ESPN trio of Watch ESPN apps among the thousands of TCL Roku TV channels. Turns out The Walt Disney Company isn't making deals with smart TVs yet - just set-top boxes.
Grab a cheap Chromecast if you're mad at Mickey Mouse for the ESPN, Disney or ABC app no-shows.
Interestingly, cable box, game console and Blu-ray player connections appear at the top of the grid-like interface and are on the same footing as apps.
Are you a cord-cutter who doesn't pay for cable? Shift or hide that pre-installed selection from the menu so that it's out of the way.
TCL eliminates the archaic and older-dad-confusing TV/Video button in favor of treating everything as an app tile, and it works. After all, we're living in a Netflix era of content streaming. If Netflix shows deserve Emmys, the app deserves equal placement next to network TV content.
With so much focus on the TCL Roku TV software, it's easy to forget about the comparatively subtle hardware design. Luckily, it pulls off a premium enough look given its price.
This 40-inch flat-screen has narrow bezels for dimension of 36.5 in. x 21.4 in. x 2 in and it sits on a glass base, eschewing the plastic makeup of cheaper displays. Two small legs can be installed on the television to keep it from tipping over. That's important in earthquake country, but less important on the 40-inch model.
Around back, there are three HDMI 1.4 ports, 1 USB port, an optical audio S/PDIF port and a headphone jack. Older yellow, red and white composite cable input connections are there too.
The TCL reaches as far back as supporting a coaxial connection in the back. Over-the-air HD antenna, cable or satellite coaxial cables can also be hooked up directly to the TV thanks to this feature that is sometimes sidelined on cheaper displays.
One of the more exciting new features outside of the main app menu is the fading sleep time. It's an idea that was possible when Roku was strictly an outside-of-the-box solution.
Yet my forum post research proves sleep timers have been a highly requested feature from sleepy TV watchers. They've been looking for a way to turn off their TVs after a set period of time. It's a feature some TV manufacturers have sidelined over the years and it remains absent from most monitors that may be doubling as a Roku set-top box display for some people.
The TCL Roku TV takes the old-fashioned sleep timer one step further. Instead of just turning off the television in a flash, it counts backwards from 10 and fades both the visual and audio content in an oh-so-gentle fashion.
That ensures the tired-out TV goer doesn't get woken by by the abrupt change in the darkened room. It can always be canceled within the 10 seconds in case your TV-watching cure for insomnia didn't work in the set period of time.