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Telly dual-screen TV first look: it’s free and may be the future

More than 250,000 people have signed up in hopes of getting Telly’s unique TV. There’s something to this concept, but plenty of unknowns remain.

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A photo of the Telly TV with its secondary screen and built-in soundbar.

You know what you’re signing up for from the word go. That’s the main gist behind Telly, a free-to-own 4K television that’s “free” because of a secondary bottom display that will constantly rotate through advertising while also, in theory, providing unique second-screen functionality. Think widgets, news tickers, sports scores, and more. You answer some surveys and let Telly share your viewing habits with advertisers, and in exchange, you pay nothing for a 55-inch 4K TV.

On Thursday, Telly revealed it has surpassed 250,000 registrations since announcing its first product last month. So the concept is drawing legitimate interest, even if some people have given it a hard nope over privacy concerns. (Telly says its data and analytics collection will be on par with and no more invasive than other TV vendors, who are often less forward about their data scraping practices.) The company is eyeing consumer homes for now, but it’s easy to see inroads to hotels, doctor’s offices, and other corporate applications.

Telly is led by Ilya Pozin, who previously co-founded Pluto TV and knows a little something about ad-subsidized businesses. I met with Pozin on Wednesday at a Manhattan WeWork to hear more about his vision for Telly — and to see the hardware up close. The company had been operating under the radar for a couple of years before Janko Roettgers scooped some details in early May.

Pozin started off by downplaying recent technological advancements in consumer TVs and making it sound like innovation is slumping. “It’s at a true commodity state,” he said of the market. “Every TV is pretty much the same. Consumers walk into Costco or Best Buy, and they see what’s on sale. From a feature perspective, there are marginal differences,” he said. “You’re seeing what’s on sale, and that’s what you buy.” If you’re at all familiar with premium TVs, it’s easy to push back on such thinking: this year, we’re seeing the brightest, most dazzling HDR TVs to date and flagship OLEDs that can genuinely stop you in your tracks.

A photo of Telly’s dual-screen TV.
The top display is a 55-inch 4K HDR panel.

But Telly isn’t trying to plant its flag there; a fairer comparison is with the budget tier, where companies like TCL, Amazon, and Roku often settle for “good enough” picture quality — and yes, where you’ll find ads aplenty sprinkled throughout the software. You can walk into Best Buy and get a low-level 4K HDR TV for under $300, from Roku itself, even. The commodity argument makes more sense in this context.

“We’re going to disrupt not only the price point, but let’s actually build the world’s smartest TV. Let’s load it with extra computing power [and] extra sensors,” Pozin said. “Let’s put awesome speakers in it. Let’s put a camera in there so you can do Zoom calls and motion-tracking fitness and gaming. Let’s put a second screen in there so you can see stats in your fantasy sports and do sports betting. And when you’re watching a movie, check out movie reviews and see actor information on the bottom screen instead of overlaying everything up top. Let’s put a microphone in there so you can run a full assistant.”

Both screens run Android, but you can BYOSD (bring your own streaming device)

Here, again, it’s important not to let the wool be pulled over your eyes; a lot of the software features that Pozin rattled off — smart camera integration, voice assistants, Zoom support, and more — can already be found across the most popular TV OS platforms. These conveniences are becoming the status quo; it’s extending them onto a second screen that’s novel.

But free is free. And for many, that’s the key hook here. “From a business model, we said, ‘There’s not going to be any margin anyway on selling the hardware.’ Let’s do a thing very similar to Pluto,” Pozin told me. “Let’s give it away, take the market, and not only come out from a disruptive end of a price point, but let’s also come out from a disruptive end of a product where it’s by far the world’s smartest TV.”

How does this thing actually work?

The Telly TV runs a custom Android-based OS across its two displays, which are both controlled by the same processor. It ships preloaded with a healthy dose of apps and games, but the core software isn’t designed to be your streaming entertainment hub. For that purpose, Telly is including a Google TV dongle in the box that can plug into one of the TV’s three HDMI ports.

You’re also free to use an Apple TV, Roku box, or other external devices. There’s also an over-the-air TV tuner built in. In these scenarios, the bottom screen will use content recognition to identify what you’re watching and populate itself with relevant information or widgets — alongside the ads, of course.

“We believe that this format of a dual-screen TV will actually be the future and the next evolution of where TVs are going,” Pozin said. Throughout our chat, he tossed out numerous examples of how there might be interplay between both screens:

  • Parents watching the news on the primary display while their children play Flappy Bird on the bottom one.
  • A video call where the current speaker takes up the main TV with other participants shown on the bottom display.
  • Listening to music from your service of choice on the secondary screen while watching something (on mute) on the primary display.
  • Co-watching movies or sports games together with your friends. The main content goes up top, and your friends would be visible on the second screen.

It’s jammed with enough software features and second-screen promises to give you whiplash. I was left with many questions about whether any of this will be feasible without special attention from developers — and how the experience changes when you’re using external devices powered by different platforms. How is a second screen with Android brains supposed to complement an Apple TV 4K? A startup expects to pull this off?

At least some answers should start trickling out soon: Telly already has beta testers using the TV, and the first shipments will make their way to customers in June. Media outlets will need to wait until the fall for review samples, which made me raise an eyebrow. But I have no doubt that some early Telly owners will be running traffic logs to see how often (and with whom) this device shares what it learns about the people bringing it into their homes. If ever there were a gadget that will have its network activity closely scrutinized, it’s this thing.

A photo of the bottom display on Telly’s dual-screen TV.
Yes, there will be ads aplenty, but Telly wants the bottom screen to be genuinely useful. (These ads are just examples — not purchased spots.)

No, you can’t just cover the bottom screen

Some people have wondered what’s to stop them from covering up the bottom screen or mounting the TV in such a way that it would be hidden. Yes, Telly thought of that possibility, too. It turns out the TV’s software interface makes the idea impractical. TellyOS puts crucial elements down there, including HDMI inputs, volume info, other settings, and the app tray.

Operating the TV would quickly get inconvenient in any scenario where the bottom display is obscured. “If you cover it, you really can’t navigate your main screen,” Pozin explained. He likens the secondary screen to a car’s dashboard and hopes that people will come to appreciate and personalize it instead of trying to somehow hide it.

Hack it at your own risk

In our own comment section and across Reddit, I’ve already seen numerous people that are excited about cracking Telly and coming up with their own use cases for its second screen.

Not so fast.

It’s fun to imagine the possibilities, but Pozin believes only a very small subset of customers will ever fiddle with the Telly hardware. “Have at it,” he jokingly said toward that very niche group. But Dallas Lawrence, the company’s chief strategy officer, shared a more hardline stance.

“If you try to degrade the TV experience, we have the ability to deactivate the television. If you somehow manage to do something to the bottom screen, you’re not going to be able to utilize the top screen,” he said. “It’s a single processor running both screens, so if you mess with one, you mess with both,” added Pozin.

A photo of Telly’s dual-screen TV.
The bottom screen will be dimmer than this during normal use.

“This is an agreement, right? Unlike every other TV that you buy today that scrapes all your data without telling you, delivers you ads without compensating you for it, monitors your viewership habits, and sells that measurement without paying you for it... we’re changing that model,” Lawrence said. “In exchange for the change, we’re telling you what we’re doing up front, you’re answering survey questions up front to tell us what you want to share, we’re giving you a $1,000 TV, and there are ongoing rewards every month that you’ll be compensated for in some way.”

Telly mandates that its free TV must be the primary one in your household

“As part of that arrangement, there are some things you’re agreeing to. It has to be the primary TV in the home,” he said. Telly partially assumes a 55-inch TV will be the primary set owing to its size alone, but it’ll also keep an eye on hours used to verify that someone’s actually watching on a regular basis. How much is too much or too little? No one mentioned any firm requirements during our meeting.

A screenshot of a Verge comment.
Technically, this commenter’s use case could run afoul of Telly’s terms. Whether the company would take action is TBD.

“If some people try to game and fraud against our terms of service, we’ll kindly ask you to rectify the situation or return the device,” Pozin added. Telly’s service terms previously mentioned a $500 credit card charge would be enforced on anyone that violates the agreement without returning the TV hardware; Lawrence told me that this amount still hasn’t been finalized. But either way, you’ll be providing the company with a payment method before taking delivery. And if you go too off the rails, you’ll need to send it back or risk paying a substantial fee.

A photo of Telly’s dual-screen 4K TV.
The camera is covered with a physical shutter by default, and Telly says it’s never used for anything related to the company’s business.

You can keep the camera off forever if you want

The Telly has an integrated camera positioned in the soundbar between both screens. Combine that with the promise of a “free” TV subsidized by ads and viewership data, and the camera’s presence might leave you a little uneasy. Pozin insists there are no Black Mirror scenarios at play here, and Telly has numerous privacy measures in place specifically for the camera.

By default, it’s covered with a physical shutter. And that shutter only opens for video conferencing and other use cases where you give direct permission to activate the camera. There’s also an onscreen indicator that appears whenever it’s enabled.

“We don’t utilize the camera for any business sake whatsoever,” Pozin said. “It’s only there for the consumer’s need. If they want to use motion-tracking fitness instead of going out there and buying an $800 Mirror fitness device, you’ve got it. Same if you want to play Xbox Kinect-like games.”

A verdict on picture quality will have to wait

During our conversation, I only got to see the Telly’s 55-inch 4K display idly showing the Google TV homescreen. Without any video demos, I can’t credibly speak to picture quality yet. If you want an immediate impression, it looked like any budget-tier panel you’d get from Vizio, TCL, or Hisense with vivid color and decent contrast. I’m more curious about brightness. Throwing in HDR isn’t good for much if the panel can’t crank high enough to showcase those highlights.

Telly is fond of saying this is “a $1,000 TV,” but I’m not convinced that’s all in the display; the company has been mum on specifics like whether it offers full-array local dimming, for example. The integrated soundbar between the two screens is certainly part of that claimed value. The bottom screen was noticeably less dense in pixel count and looked slightly lower in quality in general. That said, it was running in a “demo mode” during the briefing, and Telly said it won’t be anywhere near that bright during normal usage. It has different modes and automatically dims when you’re watching content so as not to be distracting. In an ideal world, this “smart screen” would be OLED, but that TV wouldn’t be a free one.

A photo of Telly’s dual-screen 4K TV.
Some advertising might be more subtle than large banners.

This TV takes up significantly more vertical space than traditional 55-inch sets, so you’ll want to factor that in when deciding whether it’s for you. The company includes color LEDs on the back so that you can set the mood while listening to music or watching content; they don’t yet automatically match the colors of what’s on the display, but that’s planned for a future update. (And if you’re wondering about all these wires, rest assured the Telly only has one plug; the others here are an extension cord and ethernet.)

You’re the product, but you know that already

Telly views its product as a gold mine for advertisers since owners will be volunteering valuable and accurate details about who they are and what they like. (Note that all the ads you see in these images are just for demo purposes.) And so far, the company claims it’s getting a lot of interest from the sought-after Gen Z and millennial demographics. “It’s not that there’s a gotcha,” said Pozin. “You’re paying for cable and you’re getting ads. When you’re buying a Samsung TV, you’re buying a Samsung TV and you’re getting ads. We’re just disrupting the business model and, at the same time, creating the smartest TV on the planet.”

The Telly’s ads will be actionable — think ordering Uber Eats right from the TV — and, in some cases, localized. “Let’s say this is a national Toyota spot running during Monday Night Football. We can show a local Toyota ad in 200 local markets, specifically in your area, with a specific offer that actually exists that you can take action on. That’s much better than seeing an ad for a Tundra. It’s a better experience for both sides.”

A presence detection sensor inside Telly can determine whether people are actually in front of the TV during ad spots. That sensor also puts Telly into low-power mode when you’ve left the room. “It’s completely anonymous, doesn’t record anything, doesn’t see your face,” said Lawrence. “It’s simply a wave sensor — almost the exact same chip actually that’s built into Nest.”

Telly promises long software support ahead

Pluto and other free ad-supported streaming television, or FAST, services are soaring in popularity. But downloading an app takes minimal effort. Telly faces a much bigger test in rallying people to sign up for a free TV bankrolled by ads and monetization of their viewing habits — all from an unknown, brand-new business. This effort could easily crash and burn. The company also has to contend with daunting, well-entrenched TV platforms from Amazon, Google, and Roku. And it’s got to make the case that you’d be better off diving into this experiment than simply buying one of those $300 commodity TVs at your local big-box store. (They’re smarter than Pozin gives them credit for.) When it comes to that last point, Telly says everything comes down to constant iteration and software upgrades.

“We’ve built this device, and now, instead of building the next model, we’re focusing on making this better,” Pozin said. “We have a massive software engineering team that constantly updates this thing. Every two to four weeks, it will become smarter and smarter. We’re not focusing on building the next model. We’re not focusing on supporting legacy models. And we’re not sitting there with 20 engineers that try to certify Netflix every time they release an update.” The company does intend to make larger-size Telly units, but the core features and tech specs will be in line with the original model.

“I’m a big Tesla fan,” Pozin said moments after we first said hello. “You get an update and you’re like ‘what’s new?!’ That’s the way we’re treating this thing.” If Telly manages to start shipping these TVs to real people in the near future as promised, I’ll be very interested to follow where this new model goes over the next six months. And I’m sure other TV makers will be paying attention, too.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge