TCL with Roku: A big, bright, cheap smart TV with a nearly perfect UI

If Apple were ever to sell an actual TV set, it could take some real lessons from the user experience on this inexpensive big box store TV.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Inexpensive smart Roku TV
(Image: ZDNet)

I just moved into a new house. Until the movers arrive sometime next month, I don't have most of my helpful work gear.

I traveled with my MacBook Pro. The day after we got the keys to the house, I ordered the all-important La-Z-Boy couch. I also bought a smart TV from Costco. To do my presentations, I need more than one screen. Ideally, I need one screen with a lot of real estate, and a couple of side screens for data and open web pages.

Since all that is coming on the moving truck, I decided to make do with an inexpensive Costco TV that could do double duty as my main monitor and allow me to watch Star Trek: Discovery from the comfort of the couch.

TV at the store
(Image: ZDNet)

First, the specs. This is a 49-inch TCL 49S403 TV. It's UHD and 4K and costs $349 at the local Costco. Here's the kicker: the UI is provided by Roku.

TCL isn't exactly a well-known brand, but the Chinese manufacturer is actually the third largest TV producer in the world. Some of you may know it by one brand name it sells under in the US: RCA. Yep, if you buy an RCA TV (and remember, RCA pioneered television), you're probably buying it from TCL.

We gently placed the large box in the back of the Ford and drove it home from the store. Setup was easy. Simply attach the legs to the surprisingly lightweight body. I cut the cord a few years ago, so all I had to do was connect the TCL's Wi-Fi to my router and authenticate. That was fast and painless.

Once you've turned on the TV, you're completely in the Roku interface. There isn't any other TV-like interface. This was like a breath of fresh air. All the TV-specific settings were merely extensions of the regular Roku interface.

What really stands out to me, though, is how you switch inputs. As you can see in the image at the top of this article, Roku is showing the normal streaming channels you might subscribe to. You can also see channel icons for Apple TV and Computer.

To assign an input, you just plug a given device into one of the three HDMI ports. The Roku software recognizes it and asks you to configure it. You can also give the port a name, so I named my two inputs after the devices I connected.

The idea of inputs as channels is astonishingly intuitive. If I want to go from Hulu to Netflix, I hit the Home button on the Roku remote and select a channel. Likewise, if I want to go from Hulu to my Mac desktop, I hit the Home button on the Roku remote and just select Computer. That's it.

Also, as icing on the cake, look closely at the Computer channel. The TV actually shows a screenshot of what's live on my desktop in the channel icon. How cool is that? It's the most intuitive, least clunky smart TV interface I've seen so far.

Image quality, sound quality, and video quality are very nice on this TV, especially for one so large and inexpensive. I know, large is relative. My on-the-moving-truck living room TV is a nice, healthy 70-inch. Even so, the 49-inch size of the TCL is quite workable, especially for the price. Ultra HD video from YouTube and Amazon display beautifully on the screen.

There was one disappointment. While I can get crisp 1920x1080 video from the MacBook Pro onto the TCL screen, I could not get higher resolutions to work without seeing blurriness. I tried a bunch of different tricks, including tweaking refresh rates, but nothing worked.

It's fine at 1080p and it's doing the job, but that was a bit of a disappointment. Other than that, I have to say I'm surprised at just how well done, functional, and crisp this inexpensive TV is. It's a definite buy recommendation.

I have known some pretty smart people who have been utterly baffled by the input selections on some of the relatively convoluted modern smart TV interfaces. For years, Apple has been rumored to be developing a consumer television device, but it's never come to market. Instead, Roku, partnering with TCL, has moved the television UI forward in a way we would have expected from Apple, had it ever delivered in this space.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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