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I tested the 'Free TV' that got the internet buzzing and it was far better than expected

Telly's promise of a free television in return for viewing targeted ads wasn't at all what I expected. And that's a good thing.
Written by Artie Beaty, Contributing Writer
Telly TV Demo at CES
June Wan/ZDNET

ZDNET's key takeaways

  • Telly promises a free TV in return for your data and some advertisements.
  • The ads weren't nearly as intrusive as I thought they would be, and the audio and video quality were excellent.
  • A built-in camera not only adds useful features but also offers some fun, new ways to interact.

When I first heard about the Telly program -- which offers a completely free 55-inch television if you're willing to view some ads -- I was decidedly uninterested. When a decent enough 55-inch smart television can be had for under $400, why bother with one that's going to drown me with ads? 

Also: Telly the free TV now has interactive fitness videos, community viewing and more

The allure of a free TV and simple curiosity got the better of me though and I applied for the program in June. I had mostly forgotten about it until mid-December when I got an email asking me to complete my order because I'd been accepted into the beta program.

And now, after more than a month with Telly, I don't regret signing up at all. 

Before we get into the technical part, I want to point out that this is the heaviest TV I've encountered in a long time. It was the only TV I've ever had delivered by two people. But, that makes sense given the addition of a second screen. The bottom screen also means it's a good bit taller than all other TVs -- almost 40 inches -- so you'll need a lower stand. 

When I first fired up my set, an ad for a credit app played on the main screen. The bottom screen showed the weather, NFL scores, a news article, a scrolling news ticker, and an advertisement for a local hospital. The advertisement took up about a fifth of the bottom screen. 

My first thought was "That's it?" 

Also: How "free" is Telly's free TV?

The ads weren't nearly as intrusive as I expected. The ad on the bottom does occasionally stretch to fill up the whole second screen, but it's not often. And Telly understands what you're watching -- say, an NFL game, and displays relevant ads.
I was quickly able to navigate to where I wanted to on the main screen, and the rotating ad on the bottom screen fit nicely beside the rest of the information… information I started to find useful.

telly-bottom
Artie Beaty/ZDNET

The bottom screen displays several widgets that you can turn on or off (I opted out of the stock prices widget). On my setup, one widget displayed the local weather, one showed NFL scores, and one offered news headlines from the sources I chose. There's also a scrolling news ticker on the bottom and then a small ad to the right.

When I fired up my first content, I found that the second screen wasn't distracting at all. In fact, I enjoyed it. Seeing NFL scores without checking my phone was convenient, and I saw several news stories that caused me to seek out more info. Telly wasn't inundating me with ads like I thought; instead, it was providing useful information tailored to my interests. 

Also: Samsung's S95D OLED is the best TV of CES 2024 and best in the world right now

A small downside is that Telly isn't a smart TV. It comes with some apps preinstalled like Zoom and Spotify, but you can't add any more. All of your streaming content is accessed through an Android dongle that plugs into the HDMI port. It's still perfectly accessible; it just requires an extra step and a second remote.

The TV has the usual inputs on the back -- a pair of USBs, three HDMI 2.1 ports (one of which is eARC for a sound bar), two audio out, and a cable/antenna in. There are also built-in LED lights on the back. The settings menu lets you change them to one of nine colors, control the brightness, or disable them entirely. I do have third-party LED backlights on my main TV, and I appreciated the option to control Telly's straight from the settings.

telly-rear-inputs
Artie Beaty/ZDNET

There is a camera on Telly, which I tried out with a Zoom call. The camera quality the other person saw wasn't amazing, but it was absolutely fine for that purpose. There is a promise of more content that uses the camera like fitness, gaming, and even watch parties where you see your friends on the second screen as you all view the same thing, but those aren't available yet. The camera is covered by a physical shutter when it's not in use. 

Also: I saw Samsung and LG's new transparent TVs at CES, and there's a clear winner

This TV also comes with a collection of games, including some that are played on the main screen and some that can be played on the lower screen while watching content on the main. The games are controlled by the TV remote and include classics like Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Crossy Road, Deal or No Deal, Trivia Crack and more. Telly promises that motion-controlled games are on the way.

So how does this TV look and sound? Better than I expected.

Telly TV Demo at CES
June Wan/ZDNET

In terms of actual specifications, Telly has kept things pretty secret when it comes to the display. It does have 4K capability with 60Hz refresh rate and HDR and HDR10+ support, but no VRR support. Picture settings include your basic brightness and contrast sliders along with an "advanced" menu that includes a color tuner plus a toggle for noise reduction and film mode. 

I found the picture quality to be right on par with most sets I see, and while this set doesn't appear to have local dimming, the contrast was good. I watch TV in a bright environment with a lot of natural light, but Telly handled it fine. The set brightness automatically adjusted to the room. 

Also: I tested LG's entry-level QNED80 TV and was not prepared for it to be this good

The audio in this set surprised me, as most value-oriented televisions have subpar sound. But not Telly. Of course, the sound isn't technically coming from the TV as there's a built-in Dolby soundbar that sits between the two screens. But the audio is plenty loud, reaching a maximum level I'd never use, and the speakers provided a fairly decent bass rumble during action scenes. Dialogue came through crisp and clear, something I find many TVs struggle with.

A small drawback is that there are zero sound settings if you'd like to fine-tune things -- not even sound profiles to choose from. But I found the standard settings fine for everything I tried. When I plugged in my PS5, I got exactly what I expected -- a decent display that handled every game I tried with no blurring or stuttering. There aren't fancy gaming options or settings like other TVs have, but I was perfectly content gaming on this set. 

ZDNET's buying advice

It's true that a portion of Telly's features -- a built-in camera, a voice assistant, and even the built-in backlights, aren't unique. The second screen is the novelty here. Given that Telly's premise is essentially "every television is selling your data, why shouldn't the customer get something in return?" I was expecting that second screen to be a barrage of blatant advertising. Instead, I got a subtle nudge to check my credit score and to buy some shoes. 

Also: The best TVs to buy in 2024

Like all televisions, I'm certain that Telly is taking data about what shows I watch and sending it to who knows where. But, if you're willing to deal with that fact (which you are if you own almost any smart TV), Telly is a pretty nice chance to scoop up not just an innovative TV, but a free one.  

This set isn't going to win any awards for its video quality and it doesn't have fancy options for gamers, but it's perfectly fine for the vast majority of users -- myself included. 

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