The original Roku TVs, the non-4K ones, have been among my favorite go-to budget picks for the last few years. The new 4K ones are great too, but not as good of a value as their lower-resolution counterparts.
That’s because 4K resolution by itself, as we at CNET have spent years documenting, does almost nothing to improve image quality on its own. There’s very little difference in performance between these 4K sets and the cheaper non-4K versions, despite all those extra pixels.
Then again, if you want a 65-inch Roku TV, your only option is to go 4K, and the 65-inch TCL 65US5800 is a great value. But for the 50-, 55- and 43-inch sizes, the standard 1080p Roku TVs are better deals.
The best part about these TVs is that Roku’s superb platform is baked right into the TV’s operating system, offering the simplest interface and the most apps of any smart TV on the market. Like the Roku 4 streaming box, they have access to more 4K streaming services than any non-Roku device, including Netflix, Amazon Instant, YouTube, Vudu, FandangoNow (formerly M-Go) and more. The TVs aren’t compatible with HDR, which unlike 4K actually does improve picture quality, but that’s not a surprise at this price.
These sets’ main competition, aside from other Roku TVs, comes from the 4K sizes in Vizio’s D and E series. The pricing is comparable, but from what I’ve seen the Vizios deliver better picture quality largely thanks to their local dimming backlights. Of course the main reason to get a Roku TV is for its superior streaming and app experience, and if that’s your aim, and you want 4K, these TCLs are just the ticket.
Series information: I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 50-inch 50UP130, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the UP130 series. The testing I did also applies to the two sizes in the US5800 series, although I did not perform a hands-on review of that series. All sizes have identical specs and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. The only differences between the two series are the remote and styling; see below for details.
Simpler TV remote with optional headphone jack, voice search
I’ve always liked that Roku TVs come with Roku’s signature, ultra-simple remote. There’s just a few buttons, all easily navigable by feel, and a handful of direct-access channels that always include Netflix and a couple of other popular services. On the TCL UP130 series I reviewed, they were Amazon, HBO Now and Sling TV.
Unless you use the number keys to select channels, you’ll likely never miss the buttons Roku’s clicker omits. That’s because it has the best menu system on the market. It uses plain language and thorough explanations to make using the TV a piece of cake. I especially like that connected devices like cable boxes, game consoles and Blu-ray players are placed at the same level as apps like Netflix, and you can rename their tiles and move them around the home screen.
The main difference between these two series of 4K Roku TVs, aside from styling, is that the 5800 has a standard remote while the P130 gets the “enhanced” remote with voice search, a remote finder, and a headphone jack for private listening. Unlike the standard infrared clicker, the enhanced version uses wi-fi so you don’t have to aim it at the TV.
I tested all of these features and they worked as well as on other devices, like the Roku 4 streamer. Voice recognition was very good, lip sync was solid on the headphone jack, and the ping sound emitted by the remote was plenty loud from between my couch cushions. I did find myself fumbling behind the TV to activate the remote finder – a prominent, dedicated button would have been nice – but otherwise no complaints. You can also use the Roku app on your phone activate the remote finder.
The Roku you know and love, built into a 4K TV
A 4K Roku TV is largely the same as a regular Roku TV, and that’s a good thing. There still isn’t a whole lot of 4K TV shows and movies available, and to watch 4K streams you’ll need a relatively fast Internet connection. In many case you’ll also need to pay for the privilege; only Netflix’s highest tier, for example, offers 4K streams.
Roku’s interface does makes 4K easier to find than other systems. Its list of apps has a “4K UHD Content Available” section that only shows apps that can access 4K video. There’s also a dedicated “4K Spotlight” channel that surfaces individual TV shows and movies from many of those apps, with the notable exception of Netflix.
As of this writing these TVs don’t include the PlayStation Vue app found on Roku boxes. Roku says that app is coming in the next few weeks to Roku TVs. Otherwise every app found on Roku boxes and sticks is here. The selection runs circles around dedicated smart TV systems from Samsung and LG, and handily beats its next-closest competitor, Android TV (found on Sony sets). I also much prefer it to Vizio’s SmartCast system since you don’t need a phone to use it.
Roku TVs also get Roku’s best-in-class search, which allows you to search from multiple services simultaneously (and via voice from the remote, if you have a UP130 series). It presents results from 30 different services, more than any other platform. Click on a result, a movie or TV show title for example, and you’ll see pricing across all of the services Roku searches. The best part is that if you get the show “for free” as part of a subscription, it will be listed there too. One catch is that it doesn’t search HBO Now, Showtime, or Showtime Anytime (it does search HBO Go, however), so if the movie is available there, Roku’s search won’t find it.
Roku is also the best at presenting TV shows and movies across the different services. The My Feed feature allows you to tag shows, films and even actors and receive notifications for when they’re available to stream, and it shows the most popular TV shows and movies across all of the services Roku searches, updated four times a day. It’s a great way to find new things to watch, although I do wish there were a “Show only stuff I can watch for free” option.
The menus and apps loaded quickly on the TCL TV, which behaved every bit as speedily as the Roku Streaming Stick. For more on Roku in general, check out that review.
Features and connectivity
Aside from 4K resolution the list of options is short. The TV lacks the HDR compatibility, local dimming, video processing options and high refresh rates found on higher-end sets (these are all 60Hz displays).
One feature missing from previous Roku TVs, but available on this one, is expert picture settings. They aren’t found on Roku’s normal menu – which is just as simplistic and option-free as on other Roku TVs – but instead within the Roku app. There you can choose gamma presets, noise reduction and even adjust a color management system and 11-point white balance.
Since you probably won’t connect a Roku box or other streamer, the TV’s four inputs are plenty. They can handle sources up to 4K resolution at 30Hz, and are equipped with HDCP version 2.2, so they’ll work with most external 4K sources available today and the immediate future. Unlike Vizio’s D series none of the inputs accept sources at 4K/60Hz.
Unlike previous Roku TVs, this one also includes an Ethernet port.
- 4x HDMI inputs with HDCP 2.2, up to 4K/30Hz
- 1x USB port
- Ethernet (LAN) port
- Optical digital audio output
- 2x stereo audio output (1 minijack, 1 RCA)
- RF (antenna) input
The biggest question you might have is whether these 4K Roku TVs actually provide better picture quality than 1080p Roku TVs. The short answer is no.
I reviewed the TCL 50UP130 and the Insignia NS-50DR710NA17, two 50-inch 4K Roku TVs, together as part of the same comparison lineup. Image quality, as I saw with last year’s non-4K Roku TVs, was good but not great, and as I’ve seen with so many reviews in the past, there’s no real benefit to having 4K resolution, whether via streaming or Blu-ray. Unless you plan to use these TVs as large computer monitors, you won’t see much, if any benefit compared to 1080p models, even on the larger screen sizes.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV’s picture controls worked during calibration.
Dim lighting: Compared against the Vizios, the TCL and Insignia had a difficult time reproducing the same convincing depth of black. In Samsara, for example, the screen behind the titles, the shadows around the erupting volcano and the recesses of the carvings all appeared relatively light. Compared against the Samsung and LG in this test, however, the Rokus weren’t significantly worse, the the Roku’s detail in shadows was fine.
Bright lighting: With the lights turned up the Roku sets fared well, and their matte screens worked to help remove glare and reflections. Their brightest picture settings weren’t quite as bright as the Vizios, and significantly darker than the Samsung and LG, but still plenty bright for most rooms.
Color accuracy: The Roku sets both measured quite well, and delivered colors that competed strongly against the other sets while watching Samsara. From the skin tones of the tattooed father to the faces of the female prisoner, the Roku TVs looked just as accurate as the others. Natural colors, like grass the the angry red of the volcano, also looked correct. The Rokus did show a bluer tinge to black areas than the others, however, and their lighter black levels made some colors appear slightly less saturated. But overall I had few complaints.
Video processing: As I expected from 60Hz TVs the Roku sets delivered minimal motion resolution, so sensitive viewers might notice a bit more blurring than on other TVs, but I found it difficult to see any loss of detail with normal program material. They delivered 1080p/24 cadence well, and both were solid combatants of input lag (see the Geek Box below for more)-although the Insignia was slightly better at 28ms, compared to 45ms for the TCL.
I also kept an eye out for upconversion issues, where the TV converts HD signals to 4K, and I didn’t notice any issues compared to the other 4K sets, or the 1080p Vizio. Detail was very similar between all of the sets. In other words, don’t expect an improvement in sharpness with normal HD video.
Uniformity: Both Roku TVs were a bit worse than the others in this category, with more brightness variations visible across the screen in test patterns. With most content the variations weren’t visible, however, and when I watched a bit of hockey-with fast camera movement and a mostly-white screen that can expose such variations-the Roku sets didn’t look any worse than the others. They also lacked any of the egregious bright spots and “flashlights” that can plague other LCDs.
4K video: Don’t expect much, if any, improvement when you feed this TV 4K.
I watched the “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” 4K Blu-ray disc on the Roku TVs and compared it to the standard 1080p disc version on the other TVs. Differences were impossible to discern. Fine details looked identical, and all of the other picture characteristics were basically the same too. The main difference was in color, where the 4K image appeared a bit less saturated and punchy than the 1080p version-an issue I attribute to the process of HDR to SDR conversion.
Of course, most viewers will experience 4K not via expensive discs and players, but via comparatively cheap streaming video. Same story there. I alternated between 4K streams from the Roku sets and 1080p provided by a Roku 3 player, and again it was extremely difficult to see any difference with Marco Polo on Netflix and Man in the High Castle on Amazon.
The Roku TVs were also able to pass the full resolution of 4K from YouTube, and played through a suite of 4K test patterns from Florian Friedrich with no issues. That suite includes a great pattern that allows a viewer to see how close to the TV your eyes need to be to the screen to get the full benefit of 4K resolution. With my 20/20 eyesight on the 50-inch sets it was 30 inches, or 2.5 feet, with a 55-inch TV it was 38 inches, and with a 65-inch TV it was 50 inches. That’s much closer than most viewers are comfortable sitting, which explains why 4K itself doesn’t provide any picture quality benefit.
There’s also a mode labeled “enhanced” that’s said to be optimized for 4K sources, but don’t confuse it with the specialized modes found on HDR-capable 4K sets like “HDMI Enhanced” on Sony TVs or “HDMI UHD Color” on Samsungs. On the 4K Roku TVs it’s just another picture preset, and a bad one to boot, adding edge enhancement via the sharpness control, a cool/blue color temperature, and maximum backlight setting. It’s much closer to a Vivid mode than anything else, and seems designed to punch up 4K content so it looks different (but I certainly wouldn’t say “better”) compared to standard high-def. If you’re interested in preserving a good picture, stick with the Movie preset instead.
How we test TVs