One of the compromises Kathleen has agreed to make is allowing a TV in the bedroom for the first time in her life. We’ve also put an additional TV in one of the guest bedrooms for visitors. This concession is intended to allow for a more comfortable household when we have bedrooms full of guests. I certainly don’t want the guests to feel like they can’t flip on the TV in the living room when they’re milling about the house, and I want to be able to retreat to some sort of media sanctuary should the need for some alone time arise.
Kathleen had but one condition: keep the purchase of both TVs below $1,000. Initially, I balked. While I certainly wanted to keep the prices reasonable1, the thought of getting two sets installed with accessories for under $1,000 seemed like it was going to be a problem. Turns out, I found an affordable solution that allowed me to purchase, mount, and accessorize two TVs for under $8002. That solution is the TCL Roku TV.
TCL is a Chinese electronics company, along together with Chinese competitor Hisense, that is making inroads into the American living room with deeply-discounted TV sets. They have sets in different sizes and resolutions3, and they have licensed Roku’s standard-bearing streaming platform to be the engine that drives the smart TV apps.
Now, there are some things I look for deep discounts on, electronics are not often among them. I tend to believe that you get what you pay for, but generally speaking, reliability gaps have closed over the years. While these TVs are still relatively new, I fully expect these sets to be functional for at least a decade4.
So, I happily bought two sets; a 50″ 1080p Roku TV for the master bedroom, and its 40″ little brother for one of the guest bedrooms. With free shipping from Amazon Prime, these two sets were delivered to my door for $667.99, which holy crap!
The Roku Platform
I recently nixed cable as a cost-saving measure, so having a streaming platform to provide the bulk of our household’s content is a must. When anybody asks me to which streaming box I prefer, I invariably point them toward one of the Roku boxes. The base-level Roku 2 costs around $605, and their high-end Roku 4–complete with 4K streaming capability– is $120.
Roku’s user interface and menu system are simple because their business is in boxes and software, not content. This means Roku is dedicated to taking care of the streaming platform itself, without forcing its customers into a specific walled content garden6. Roku knows their best bet is to provide access to as many content sources as possible. The net result: over 3,000 apps to choose from, including the important ones like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, HBONow, and Google7.
Roku’s dedication to the streaming experience is unparalleled. Apple is all well and good, but they trap you in their hellish landscape of iTunes content, and Amazon’s… well, don’t get me started on the Amazon Fire TV. Generally, smart TVs with their own built-in apps have crappy software platforms contracted by the TV manufacturers. Samsung, Sharp, Panasonic, it really doesn’t matter, their streaming platforms all suck. These systems are so bad, even if you have a Smart TV you’re going to be better off getting a Roku Box8.
So imagine my delight when I learned that TCL had licensed out the Roku Platform for their flagship line of TV sets. In terms of the TV experience, Roku has seamlessly integrated their platform into the set. A subtle, but ingenious, feature happens when you first turn the TV set on: it brings you to Roku’s main menu. This very simple, but powerful, software decision is the savior of grandparents and technophobes everywhere, because it doesn’t require you to know which “Input” you need to watch TV, Netflix, or a Blu-ray disc. Your cable box, antenna, video game system, and Blu-ray player are lined up as apps on the same screen as Netflix or Hulu.
Roku’s integration with existing TV and home video sources is what makes the entire system sing. It’s so obviously useful, it makes you wonder why nobody has bothered to do this before. This system alone almost makes this TV set worth it.
Roku’s biggest downside here is the remote control. Their stripped down, simple remote makes changing channels on the TV or cable box a chore, and entering any sort of search text makes me want to whip the remote across the room. If this set were my main set (and I still had cable) I’d probably want an affordable universal remote like the Harmony 650 to deal with all the components9. However, since most of the content I’ll be watching will be through the apps, I’m comfortable using the included remote here.
The TCL Hardware
Okay, so the TV set is definitely not for videophiles, but if you have to Google “contrast ratio” or “refresh rate” to know why these TVs aren’t the “best” then I would wager a guess that the TCL picture quality is going to be fine for your purposes.
I’m very picky when it comes to my picture quality. The set in our living room is a six-year-old plasma TV that is still among the best available pictures in the world on a 1080p set10. However, when it comes down to it, I can live without the deepest blacks and the fastest refresh rate for my supplementary TV set. Plus, the rock-bottom price also includes the best-available streaming platform. Considering I would have bought a Roku box anyway, it’s almost like I save an additional $60 on top of it all.
What’s more: the integrated Roku software means I don’t have to deal with yet another box and dangling cord. If, like I do, all you have are streaming apps and an antenna, the TCL Roku TV is about as clean an installation as you can get: one power cord and one coax cable running to the antenna.
When we were moving in together, I told Kathleen, “You can set all of my other possessions on fire. I really do not care about them. But my TV? You’ll have to pry that from my cold, dead hands.” While I expect my badass Panasonic TV11 to keep chugging for at least another 10 years, when that thing does finally crap out, I’m going to be on the hunt for something a teensy bit12 higher end than the TCLs13.
For now, though, the TCL Roku TV is basically the perfect Brent-and-Kathleen compromise set. It has all the techno bells and whistles that I expect for the best-in-class streaming content sources, and the set is almost criminally cheap14. I’ll update this review if I run into any reliability issues, but so far I’ve been very satisfied with the purchase.
- We are trying to maintain some fiscal responsibility, after all.
- $786, to be precise.
- Their 4K TVs are among the cheapest on the market.
- Fingers crossed.
- Or you could get their Streaming Stick for $50.
- Cough, cough… Apple TV… cough cough.
- Apple is the exception because Apple is jerks. But if you have access to the content sources that Roku offers, it makes Apple’s content library redundant.
- The only TV company that has even half an eye on the streaming experience is Vizio, but even then, I’d still recommend getting a Roku.
- If you’re not tech-savvy, be prepared to have your closest technogeek relative set this one up for you. Despite promises of easy online setup, Harmony’s can be a bear if you don’t know what you’re doing.
- I’m not getting into 4K TV yet for two reasons. 1) You really can’t tell the difference between HD and 4K unless your dealing with TV sets well over 60″, and even then it’s marginal until you blow the screen up to 75″ or 80″ and 2) 4K content is rare.
- Panasonic VIERA TC-P54VT for any video nerds.
- Way fucking better.
- You have a decade to steel yourself, Kathleen. Just know it’s coming.
- Back in 1998 for college, I purchased a 32″ Sony Trinitron CRT TV for $750. It weighed about a zillion pounds and required four guys to haul it up three flights of stairs because the thing wouldn’t fit in the elevator. The 40″ Roku TV costs $270, and is so light, Kathleen at 34 weeks pregnant could carry this thing up a flight of stairs by herself with no problem. Technology markets are weird.