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TCL Google TVs just put Roku and Fire TV on notice — here’s why

TCL XL Collection
(Image credit: TCL)

TCL has just announced some big news this week: A full slate of TCL Google TV models are coming in the next month or so. This includes new Google-powered versions of the highly popular TCL 6-Series and 5-Series smart TVs.

With this being only the second major launch of Google TV-based smart TVs from a bigger name manufacturer — the first was in the Sony 2021 TV lineup earlier this year — it represents a big step forward for the big-screen operating system. In terms of market share and accessibility, it puts the successor to Android TV onto a lot more affordable displays.

But there's more to it than that. By partnering with TCL to roll out several new Google TV products, Google is taking aim squarely at some of the most popular smart TV platforms on some of the most affordable smart TVs you can buy.

Put simply, Google is directly taking on Amazon's Fire TV and Roku smart TVs, and Google came to win.

Why TCL TVs matter

The TCL name has been very closely associated with Roku over the last few years. The two companies have worked closely with one another to make TCL Roku TVs some of the best affordable smart televisions you can find. While other TV manufacturers have offered Roku-powered displays, a quick glance at our picks for the best Roku TVs shows a lineup heavily slanted toward TCL products, and for good reason. 

TCL makes really good hardware, and the company owns its full manufacturing supply chain, from the panel to the finished TV. That allows for a very high level of quality. 

Innovations introduced by TCL, such as the combination of QLED and mini-LED backlight as seen in our TCL 6-Series Roku TV (R635) review, has had a significant impact on the home theater market, with mini-LED-lit quantum-dot TVs since being introduced by both Samsung and LG.

TCL released its first Android TVs last year, but relegated the platform to its less expensive and less advanced 3- and 4-Series models. These Android-powered models are largely identical to their Roku-powered counterparts, but the TCL Android lineup hasn't been as widely promoted or even as widely available through major retailers. The spotlight has always been Roku.

The result is that TCL has been able to make its inexpensive Roku TVs a major presence in televisions. So why add Google TV to the mix?

Google TV: Android smart TVs grow up

For starters, Google TV represents the latest evolution of Android TV, which has been the name of Google's smart TV interface for the last several years. Based on the same Android operating system as many phones and tablets, the TV-oriented version of Android benefits from the rich selection of apps and services in the Android ecosystem, as well as a flexibility that lets it run on all sorts of hardware. 

Also, Google's smart TV interface is not tied to any one TV manufacturer, unlike LG's webOS or Samsung's Tizen platforms. As a result, Android TV has been licensable to several TV manufacturers, making it one of the only brand agnostic options available for TV shoppers, alongside Roku.

In many ways the switch to Google TV is a branding move, since the underlying software is still Android. The change in branding is accompanied by several new features, including advanced content suggestions that combine Google's many content channels (YouTube, YouTubeTV, Google Play Video, etc) and search chops, linking TV viewer profiles to Google users and letting you save and share watchlists between phone and TV, among other things. 

The move to Google TV also offers enhanced smart home compatibility, drawing on Google's deep ties to its own Nest products and a growing ecosystem of other smart home devices as those product categories have matured. Both Sony and TCL Google TVs are outfitted with far-field microphones, essentially making the TV a big smart speaker, just like a Google Home, complete with functions that tie in to smart thermostats, video doorbells and myriad other devices.

The result is a polished version of what was already an excellent smart TV experience. It's a significant enough improvement that we gave it the Tom's Guide 2021 Award for the best smart TV platform. 

TCL's big bet on Google

The addition of Google TV to TCL's higher-quality, but still budget-friendly models in the 5 and 6 Series, represents an important shift for both TCL and Google. As the smart TV category matures, we expect this to result in some of the best smart TVs to hit the market at aggressive prices.

This move also seems like a carefully calculated step on TCL's part. TCL's 2020 TV lineup included several of the best TVs we saw last year, but for 2021, TCL opted to carry those same models forward as the flagship TVs for the new year. That's a bit of a gamble, betting that some of the best affordable TVs of last year wouldn't be replaced by models from competitors like Hisense and Vizio. (Both of these competing manufacturers have in fact delivered great TVs this year, so this was not at all a safe bet.) But the bet has so far paid off, as evidenced by the TCL 6-Series reigning still as our favorite value among the best TVs.

It seems likely now that TCL's plan all along was to launch these new Google TV-powered versions of those award-winning TVs. It effectively combines the same top-notch hardware with Google's revamped operating system to make a play in that same high-value category.

What about Roku? Given that TCL also just launched the TCL Roku TV 6-Series 8K (R648) in partnership with Roku, I doubt that the TCL/Roku pairing will go away anytime soon. But the addition of Google TV is a big step.

For the moment, it looks like TCL's Google TVs will be a little more expensive at launch than the equivalent Roku models from last year. The new sets are available for preorder, with the 5-Series starting at $599 and the 6-Series models starting at $999. What I expect, however, is that the small price increase for the new Google TV sets will soon vanish as release windows pass and sales start knocking down prices to levels closer to what the current Roku sets bring in.

What it means: Better TVs, more competition

We'll have to wait on individual reviews and hands-on time with the new TVs to make a more detailed case for TCL's new sets. But the fact remains the TCL has just put Roku and Amazon on notice. Budget TVs are about to become a hotly contested space.

As a reviewer and smart TV enthusiast, I couldn't be more thrilled. The premium smart TV category dominated by LG, Samsung and Sony has long offered the sort of expansive functionality that most people want from a smart TV, but premium TV prices keep those models out of most homes. You just aren't likely to pay $2,000 for a high-end model when all you want is a 4K display that can play Netflix and Disney Plus. As a result, most people don't get the coolest smart TV features, and that's a real shame.

If TCL can do for Google TV what it's done with Roku smart TVs — namely, deliver above average quality at surprisingly reasonable prices — then affordable TVs could be in for major improvements across the board. That includes from these new TCL Google TVs and those from Roku and Amazon as the competition heats up. It could be the best thing to happen to smart TVs in years.

Brian Westover
Brian Westover is an Editor at Tom's Guide, covering everything from TVs to the latest PCs. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he wrote for TopTenReviews and PCMag.