TCL Roku 55-Inch TV Review: Smart TV Done Right

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At about $650 for a 55-inch screen, the TCL 55FS4610R Roku TV is a cheap thrill — in a good way. Image quality is not videophile-grade, but it looks fine if you don't overanalyze it. Best of all, Roku's basic but intuitive smart TV OS is a breeze to master. Its fairly slim bezel and profile are far from boxy.

TCL is a household name in China and may become one here as the company makes a push into the U.S. market. TCL has been more about value than top-notch performance, and the 55FS4610R doesn't break new ground in terms of technologies. However, set-top-box maker Roku played a big role in creating this TV — not just in the interface, but also in pushing for quality components throughout the set. 

Design: What You See Is What You Get 

The 55FS4610R's roughly 0.6-inch black bezel doesn't get in the way. Ranging from about 2.2 to 3.4 inches thick, the panel is on the chubbier side, but you're unlikely to notice if you have it on a table pushed against the wall. The wide, tempered glass base is a refreshing change from the black-plastic stand under so many other budget TVs. The glass plate is solid, but the TV does sway atop it quite a bit after a bump — enough to make parents with small kids nervous.

That said, the 55FS4610R never showed a sign of tipping over, no matter how (reasonably) hard I bumped it. The 55FS4610R has no buttons on the front; but should you misplace Roku's petite, minimalist remote control, you can navigate the menu using a tiny joystick accessible of you reach behind the bottom-right corner of the TV. 

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The back panel features easy access to all of the TV's ports. Most run down a line facing out sideways on the left side (if you're looking at the set from the back). At the top are three HDMI ports — plenty, considering the TV has a great set-top box built in.

Below them is a USB port that can power a streaming stick such as Chromecast. Then comes the standard coaxial antenna input for an HDTV antenna (see our reviews).

Analog and optical digital audio outputs are available for boosting the audio quality with a soundbar — a good idea, given this TV's weak built-in speakers. Pointing straight out the back of the set are analog composite video and stereo audio inputs, in case you can't part with those VHS tapes.

Smart TV: Roku Simplicity

Roku is one of the few tech companies, like Apple, that inspires near-romantic feelings among fans. On Roku set-top boxes, every source, such as Netflix or Crackle, is an app you click on from a home screen. Sounds like other smart TVs, but Roku's surprisingly simple interface makes getting to apps, and rearranging their order, insanely simple. You won't find the multiple-screen interface confusion that has plagued other "smart" TVs.

Roku TV's innovation is to make all other sources — cable, antenna, Xbox, etc. — into apps. Will you watch cable or Netflix? Will you game on your PlayStation or listen to Pandora? There's no awkward, sluggish switching from "real TV" to smart TV. Instead, you just pick among the different sources you want to watch, regardless of their source. 

Remote: (Perhaps Too) Simple 

Minimalist design carries over to the tiny (5.4 x 1.7 x 0.9 inch) remote with its comfy, rounded back. It features just the basics, mainly: a four-way rocker with an OK button in the middle; back and home buttons for navigating the screen; and play/pause, fast-forward and reverse buttons.  A "*" button brings up context-sensitive mini menus, such as image or audio settings for that input (very handy). Volume up and down and mute buttons hug the right side where a thumb would fall (unless you're a southpaw).

What you don't get, however, is a number pad for choosing channels. This hews to Roku's minimalist aesthetic, but breaks with Roku TV's all-in-one interface design. In spite of Roku's elegant little controller, you still have to wield your big honkin' cable/satellite box remote.

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The remote is shamefully inadequate for watching free over-the-air TV. Instead of typing in your channel, you have to scroll up and down. If you live in an urban area rich with major channels and niche-oriented subchannels, you're in for a lot of up-and-down-button presses. 

Alternatively, you can download Roku's remote app for Android and iOS, which provides much better controls. You'll get a full keyboard, which not only makes channel selection easier, but also saves you from the agony of scrolling through on-screen keyboards when typing in a search for content.

Image Quality: Overabundance of Color

When testing TVs, we first measure screen performance for aspects such as color accuracy and contrast in order to find the best preset mode. Even without instruments and with one eye closed, you could tell that Movie is the only respectable picture mode for the 55FS4610R. The other modes — including Vivid, and the misnamed Normal — produce garishly oversaturated colors that can turn even good-looking actors into pink or orange monsters. Ecosave, the default mode, is a distant second best to Movie; it's not as horribly oversaturated as the others, but still noticeably so.

Movie mode gets things more or less right. It still oversaturated colors a bit — which cinephiles will probably notice much more than most people will. In the Blu-ray of Skyfall, for instance, fair-skinned Dame Judi Dench (M) appeared rather rosy, and light-cocoa-toned Naomie Harris (Moneypenny) had an overly coppery skin tone. I saw the exact same pattern in skin tones from the first episode of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black. 

Rival Chinese TV maker Hisense also sells Roku TVs, and out of curiosity, I compared the 55FS4610R to the 40-inch Hisense H4 Roku TV (see review). It's tricky to show a photo of a screen, but this comparison between the 40-inch Hisense H4 Roku TV (at left) and 55-inch TCL 55FS4610R at least shows how they differ. Next to the TCL, the Hisense images may appear a bit greenish. But on its own or against another set, such as the Sony KDL-50W800B, the Hisense H4's colors looked truer.

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I wasn't surprised to see the results from our color tests of the 55FS4610R, in which yellows and reds drifted toward orange, and deep red was so oversaturated that it was outside the Rec. 709 color gamut that HDTVs use. (There are no extra points for going beyond.) Bright-white shirts turned pink in several videos and photos I viewed.

The 55FS4610R also overdoes blue. This popped up in the Blu-ray of the opening scene from Game of Thrones (Season 1, Episode 1). As the rangers rode slowly through the dim tunnel in The Wall, the dark cloaks, walls and ceiling looked a tad bluish or purplish instead of a clean black or dark gray. When they emerge into the open, blue tinted both their dark clothes and horses as well as the white snow around them.

In a 720p recorded football game featuring the Philadelphia Eagles, the green of the team's helmets and jerseys tended toward blue.

Our lab tests explain the blues. In Movie mode, the TCL had a color temperature (shade of white) of 6772 Kelvin, well above the 6610 K measurement of the Hisense. (Also in Movie mode: The two TVs' menus are identical.) The higher the temperature, the bluer the image. The Hisense is almost dead-on the 6500 K standard for TVs.

The TCL 55FS4610R's contrast ratio of 385:1 (in Movie mode) is one of the lowest we've measured, tied with the best-mode result for the 50-inch Panasonic TC-50AS530U (see review), and ahead of the 362:1 for the 40-inch Hisense H4. I also compared the TCL 55FS4610R to Sony's 50-inch KDL-50W800B (see review), which posted 466:1.

The Sony KDL-50W800B does show those deep "blacks" that cinephiles salivate over. The TCL's screen looked sadly gray against the Sony's far-darker display in overwhelmingly black screens, such as the desolate star field in the Blu-ray of Gravity after Sandra Bullock tumbles away from the space shuttle. However, the price for that black on the Sony KDL-50W800B was far fewer stars; the TCL 55FS4610R showed about two to four times more stars in the background of Gravity's scenes. 

I got slightly better blacks from the TCL by turning the backlight brightness down from 80 to 65 percent and switching from the default Brightness setting of Normal to either Dark or Darker. (If you are in a dim room, try both settings to see which one you like better.) Brightness was inconsistent on the TCL screen, with several lighter "hot spots" obvious on black screens. When watching dynamic content, though, you probably won't see them. 

Audio: Best You Can Expect

Let's face it: A thin-panel TV just doesn't have enough room for good built-in speakers. The TCL 55FS4610R validates that axiom, with generally shallow-sounding audio, especially in voices. This wasn't as noticeable in scenes that were mostly dialogue, like the cafeteria chats in Orange Is the New Black. Nor was it a problem in segments that were all music and explosions, like the chase scenes in Skyfall.

When voice and music mixed, however, voices lost out. This was the disappointing result in Shine a Light, in which Mick Jagger was drowned out by his bandmates. Switching from the default Normal audio mode to Theater mode made the audio sound more expansive, creating a better sense of a live environment. But voices — and, really, all audio elements — still sounded weak and mashed together.

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None of this is surprising for built-in audio, however. (The rival Panasonic TC-50AS530U sounds far worse.) Like it or not, you generally have to buy a home theater or soundbar system to get big audio commensurate with a giant picture. 

Bottom Line

If you use the word "TV" for not only cable but also Netflix, Hulu, YouTube and the like, you'll find that Roku TV "gets" you. If you are also the kind of person who thinks about color quality as soon as you see a TV screen, you'll face a dilemma, as you will notice irksome deficiencies on the TCL 55FS4610R. Hisense's H40 Roku TV splits the difference nicely, with far-better color fidelity, but Hisense currently sells only a 40-inch model.

If you want to go bigger, decide what matters more to you. For videophile quality, you'll have to spend more on a model like the $900 Sony KDL-50W800B (which does have a fairly friendly smart TV interface). But if you're looking for a very good combination of ease of use, size, price and respectable video quality, you can't beat the $650 TCL 55FS4610R. 

Senior editor Sean Captain is a mild video snob. Follow him @seancaptain. Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.