Roku’s proliferation of its operating system to around 54 million users worldwide has come in large part, at least in the case of the domestic market, from licensing its OS for relatively inexpensive smart TVs sold by China’s TCL.
Introduced to the U.S. market as recently as 2017, these Roku-powered 4K/HDR TCL sets undercut the incumbent market leaders, Korea’s Samsung and LG—so much so that by the end of 2020, more than one in three smart TVs sold in the U.S. and Canada was a Roku-powered set. Roku does business with a number of smart TV OEMs, but TCL has the biggest market share among them.
I purchased one of those early 2017 Roku-powered TCL models, the 55-inch, 4K/HDR-capable LED “5 Series” iteration, for a very affordable $349.99 back in January 2019.
As I wrote back in March, my 5 Series experience has been decisively mixed. The backlit set used an array of nifty software tricks to mimic the 4K, 120-hertz display qualities found in much more expensive TVs at the time, providing an outstanding value in terms of picture quality.
But working with the Roku interface proved maddening—I was never able to get a properly paired connection between the cheap, plasticky, bottom-of-the line Roku remote and the TV. At times, only smacking the remote on the coffee table would provide temporary relief, having already tried re-pairing the remote, an untold number of system reboots and a factory reset.
On those occasions when I was able to get the remote to work, moving through the OS often felt sluggish. Crashes of streaming apps were frequent.
It should be noted that the 4.1-out-of-5 star review rating on Amazon is solid, but hardly spectacular. Many users seem to account for the rock-bottom price, but many of those are unable to get over things like shipping defects and overall software lagginess. Fourteen percent of the 7,814 reviews are in 1-star territory.
For Roku, a Silicon Valley company with a market cap approaching $60 billion and aspirations of competing with FAANG companies, this matters. You don’t see, for example, Apple sticking iOS on cheap phones. Consumers will pay a premium—more than $1,000, in some cases—for the full-quality, premium iPhone experience.
So proliferating Roku with $350 big-screen TVs might, in the short term, boost the active user count, and help metrics for priority business goals, namely advanced advertising. But long term, if customers are banging their remotes against coffee tables, those goals will be undermined.
And it should be mentioned that with Chinese trade tariffs and other inflationary pressures, that same 2017 Series 5 is now priced on Amazon at a less-forgivable $574.99.
Which is probably OK. I’m willing to pay even a few bucks beyond that for a “premium” Roku experience.
And for a few hundred dollars more, Roku and TCL have figured out how to still undercut Samsung and LG, while delivering a far better consumer experience.
A year ago, TCL introduced its 6 Series of smart TVs, which are based on the state-of-the-art “quantum dot” LED (QLED) display tech.
Sensing our displeasure with the 5 Series, and willingness to share it in a marginally read digital trade publication, Roku reps shipped a 55-inch Series 6 QLED out to my Los Angeles duplex.
The perceived quality difference out of the box is striking—while the plastic-framed Series 5 set literally creaked and popped as I lifted the 30-pound set onto a cabinet, the metal-framed, 43.7-pound Series 6 feels steely and sturdy.
Currently priced at $788.77 on Amazon, TCL’s Series 6 delivers a comparably stunning picture quality when juxtaposed against my short trip to the local Best Buy to see Samsung’s $847.99 Q60A 55-inch QLED display model, its adjustable brightness more than powerful enough to shine through the sunlit studio/office portion of my duplex.
A true 120-hertz HDR set, I had a little trouble with the so-called “Soap Opera Effect,” a common problem with TVs equipped with “motion smoothing” software technology. This feature improves things like live sports but renders your favorite movie or TV show looking like it was shot via camcorder.
TCL’s Series 6’s advanced settings don’t just let you turn motion sensing off, you can turn merely adjust it down by levels, too.
For me, the biggest improvement is the remote control. The Series 6 supports voice standards including Alexa, but it doesn’t come with Roku’s new rechargeable voice remote. Still, it does include a much sturdier version of the classic Roku remote. And overall, the OS is much faster and far less laggier to navigate than my Series 5. Although, it should also be noted that Roku doesn’t talk too much about the silicon it uses in its players, sticks and smart TVs. Suffice it to say I believe the player guts in the TV might be more powerful.
As Roku will tell you, Amazon reviews are a deeply flawed metric. But it is worth noting that 75% of the 55-inch Series 6's reviews came in at "5-star" level, and only 6% were under water at 1 star.
Since I’ve used both smart TVs with a Vizio sound bar, I won’t get into the audio quality. It’s my belief that you should probably expect to use a sound bar with an TV you pay less than $1,000 for.
Perhaps I should have applied the same expectations management philosophy to any smart TV priced at or below $350. (Although adding a Roku’s $29.99 rechargeable Voice Remote accessory, which includes a headphone jack, probably would have solved many of my Series 5 problems.)
I can say this, though: The TCL Series 6 is a solid transom for the Roku software experience, delivering the best value for picture quality, remote control, and software interface in the smart TV market.
And $788.77 isn’t nothing. But it does seem like a reasonable price for all of this.
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