Roku TVs have typically been the perfect choice for an inexpensive second TV, or a good option if you prioritize ease-of-use over picture quality. But the new TCL P-Series moves Roku TVs up several rungs into premium 4K territory — and for a terrific price. It pairs a superb 4K picture (made better by Dolby Vision HDR) with Roku’s excellent software. The viewing experience you get from this $599 TV is on par with sets that cost two or three times as much. There’s no glaring weakness to be found in the P-Series. After a couple weeks and many hours spent reviewing the 55-inch model, I’ve failed to uncover any deal-breakers or issues that would hold back a gleaming recommendation.
TCL’s P-Series is a remarkable win for budget-conscious consumers. You’re not “settling” or sacrificing much of anything in terms of specs or features with this TV. It’s got local-area dimming (a feature often reserved for pricier sets), 4K resolution, HDR, and intuitive, familiar software with easy access to all the popular streaming apps you’d need.
Pulling TCL’s P-Series out of the box, your first impression of the exterior will probably be that it looks every bit like a $600 Roku TV. The bezels are glossy black plastic that can quickly pick up fingerprints and fine scratches. But they’re thin and should all but disappear to your eye when something’s on the screen. I tested the 55-inch model, as the smaller (50-inch) and larger (65-inch) versions don’t ship until later this year, and TCL hasn’t even announced pricing for them.
Included with the TV is a remote similar to the one that comes with Roku’s standalone boxes. It’s got a headphone jack and mic for voice search, plus shortcut buttons for Netflix, Sling, Hulu, and Starz. I really wish Roku would just stop with the paid-placement favorites and let users customize these buttons already, or at least change either Sling or Starz to Amazon — a more popular service. But hey, at least you also get a pair of earbuds in the box.
Attaching the two, silver plastic feet to the TV takes less than five minutes. Power the P-Series on and you’ll run through the Roku OS setup process nearly as fast. If you’ve used a Roku streaming box before, you know what to expect: create an account, start downloading apps like Netflix and Amazon Video, and you’re off. Since Roku’s software is also the TV’s operating system, you’ll choose which inputs you plan to use (HDMI, antenna, etc.) and can rename your HDMI ports to “cable” or “Xbox” and things other people in your house will understand. Speaking of which, the P-Series has 3 HDMI 2.0 ports, and all of them are fully HDCP 2.2-compliant to ensure compatibility with 4K and HDR content. The generous mix of other ports you get are coax (for cable or an antenna), Ethernet, optical audio out, USB 2.0, AV in, and 3.5-mm audio out. There are no component inputs on the TV itself, but an included splitter cable can be used for those connections. I never needed to plug in over Ethernet, as the 802.11ac Wi-Fi consistently proved fast enough for reliable 4K streaming on my home network.
I really love Roku as the underlying software for a smart TV. It’s extremely fast and responsive, and is more than capable of helping you find something to watch — and see what your best option is for streaming it. There are a bunch of nice little touches, too, like the live preview that appears when you hover over an HDMI input on the home screen. That’s helpful for a quick check of whether your gaming console is powered on for no reason. Cord cutters with an antenna will appreciate the option to pause live TV if they have a USB storage device plugged in. I didn’t test it that way, however; I focused on using the TCL P-Series as a living room showcase for 4K streaming. And what an impressive display it is.
The screen itself has 72 “contrast control zones,” which is TCL’s name for full-array local dimming (or FALD). FALD allows the TV to dim or brighten the backlight behind individual areas (or “zones”) of the display based on the current scene, resulting in deeper blacks and better contrast. Vizio also offers full-array local dimming in some of its inexpensive TVs, but many other televisions in this price range lack it. It’s a huge part of what makes the P-Series look so good, but it’s just one piece. Sometimes the dimming can be a little aggressive, however, so hopefully TCL will fine-tune the FALD performance through firmware updates.
TCL is also supporting HDR with this TV; both Dolby Vision and HDR10 can be streamed from apps such as Netflix or Amazon Video (or 4K Blu-ray players) that offer the enhanced picture. For a $600 TV, the P-Series can get astoundingly bright with HDR mode enabled, and it offers an expanded color range as well. It’s not quite the full DCI-P3 gamut that pricier sets support, but you’ll definitely notice the wider palette. That means you’re not just getting an HDR TV in name or marketing lingo only; TCL’s performance delivers above any expectations I had for this TV going in. Is it on par with an $2,000 OLED or the very best LCDs? No, but a lot of people will still find the picture to be tremendous for the cost.
Once you’ve finished with the Dolby Vision movies available from Vudu and have gone through shows like Sneaky Pete or The Man in the High Castle, you’ll probably find yourself looking for other HDR content anywhere you can find it. (I recommend Chef’s Table on Netflix as just one piece of demo material.) A logo briefly appears in the top right to confirm whenever HDR content is being played.
Gamers will also be satisfied, because the P-Series offers some of the lowest input lag around on a 4K TV when you toggle on the game mode setting. Doing so disables full-array local dimming, and Roku plainly admits that picture quality takes a slight hit, but I never really saw any obvious dip in my experience playing Xbox One S and PS4. Battlefield 1 was a joy, and I never noticed any delay whatsoever when pulling on the trigger.
Picture settings can be customized for each individual input, and the Roku remote doesn’t feel as restrictive as you might expect: you can pull up the TV’s settings with the asterisk button for all the common adjustments (brightness, picture mode, etc.) and switch over to the Roku smartphone app if you want deeper calibration options. The mobile app can also be used just like the physical remote. It’s got the same simple layout and even the option to listen privately by syncing audio from streaming apps to your phone — just like if you had headphones plugged into the actual remote.
There are areas where the P-Series budget price introduces some compromises. For one, the TV’s viewing angles are very unforgiving, with blacks and colors getting washed out as you move away from a center, straight-on position. They never degrade to the point of being unwatchable, but it’s clearly noticeable. If you’re planted on a couch in front of the TV, you won’t see it. If you’re in the corner of a small room, you will. The built-in speakers are just okay, as is the status quo these days. And then there’s the matter of quality assurance. Disappointed buyers over at AVSforum are already reporting that they’ve received units with backlight bleed, uniformity issues, blooming, and other annoyances.
Not everyone is seeing such problems, and some say they’re basically unnoticeable when content is on the screen. My review TV exhibited no irregularities — though it’s always possible that TCL cherry-picked impeccable units for press reviews. It’s unclear whether these issues are due to mishandling during shipment or the so-called “panel lottery,” which is the simple reality that some TVs will come off the assembly line with better displays than others. This is common with inexpensive TVs, so it’s always worth inspecting a TV after purchase if any abnormalities would grate on you. TCL would do well to ramp up its customer service operations and have someone communicating with TV nerds on the forums like Vizio does.
Right now, Amazon is the exclusive seller of the 55-inch TCL P-Series — other sizes don’t ship until late 2017 — so I’d probably advise waiting until Best Buy also starts carrying it before you buy. The thing’s already out of stock on Amazon anyway. Go to a store and decide in person whether the viewing angles are a trade-off you can make. And if you get one with a flawed display, making an exchange is much easier. Should you end up with a good P-Series, though, you’ll get something that outperforms basically everything else at this price range and other TVs that cost hundreds more. It packages together all the modern features you’d want from a primary TV — 4K, HDR, great software, and apps — for a price that’s attainable for a whole lot of people. It’s maybe the first Roku TV that’s a great choice for just about everyone.