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Best Smart TVs

By: Carl Laron on November 17, 2016

These cheap TVs are real smart cookies

While virtually every TV profiled in this report (save the small-screened and inexpensive 28-inch Samsung UN28H4000 (Est. $185)) has a streaming platform, even the best falls short of the Roku streaming platform built into some TVs. Most Roku-equipped sets aren't the best performers picture-wise, but are considered more than good enough for casual viewing. Most are also terrific values.

TCL was among the first makers to introduce Roku functionality in their sets, and while the company has been busy introducing new models as well (see below), some of last year's offerings remain available, and remain top rated. A case in point is the 32-inch TCL 32S3800 (Est. $170). Rtings.com calls it the best 32-inch set available, never mind its smart features, while CNET names it to its list of best TVs overall.

Getting the bad news out of the way first, picture quality isn't going to blow you away -- in fact, fussy videophiles will have a litany of issues big and small to pick over. That said, most other 32-inch TVs either have similar or worse picture quality, or cost substantially more. Color accuracy, while technically imperfect, is still fairly good according to PCMag.com's testing, and black levels and peak brightness are "respectable" for a set in this price range. Never mind 4k, the resolution of this set is only 720p, but experts say that that is appropriate for a screen of this size. In short, CNET's Katzmaier sums up the consensus when he says: "Nobody is going to place the TCL at the top of any image quality lists, but it's still likely 'good enough' for most viewers."

The biggest complaint shared is that potential buyers may need to be prepared to like the image quality largely as it comes out of the box. "The set lacks any ability to fine-tune color temperature, and selectable gamma also goes missing -- two important adjustments found on many TVs, even at entry level," Katzmaier notes.

Of course, the real reason that buyers should opt for this TV is the built-in Roku streaming platform as it makes that much of a difference in the smart TV experience compared to the best platforms offered by the best TV makers. Usability and breadth of content are the major pluses. In his review of the Roku UP130 series (covered below), which uses the same Roku platform, Katzmaier says: "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." In addition to this 32-inch set, TCL offers a similar model in a 28-inch screen, and ones with 1080p resolutions in screen sizes to 55 inches.

TCL isn't the only maker of Roku-based smart TVs, Among other options, 40-inch Hisense 40H4C1 (Est. $245) is worth a look-see. While it doesn't win a ton of accolades, most say that, like the TCL set above, the picture is "good enough" for casual viewing. Instead, as Lee Neikirk at Reviewed.com says "The primary draw here is that the popular Roku streaming platform." Users give generally favorably feedback, too. We found the biggest accumulation at BestBuy.com, where the TV earns a 4.5 star rating after more than 540 reviews. Around 94 percent give it a thumbs up.

Neikirk says that picture quality "won't blow you away." but finds that it's good enough out of the box to satisfy around 90 percent of viewers. Black levels are "satisfactory," and color performance is fairly accurate. Uniformity -- an issue with most edge-lit LED sets -- is not very good. "During normal TV/movies this isn't a huge issue, but it's something to be aware of if you're really picky." Resolution is full HD at 1080p, and 48-inch and 50-inch versions are also available in the series.

If you want something bigger still, and with 4K resolution, TCL has you covered in its US5800 and UP130 series sets. The two sets differ a little in styling, and the UP130 has an upgraded remote with a voice search function and a headphone jack for private listening. More useful, perhaps, is that it uses a Wi-Fi link to the set rather than the typical IR, which should make operation easier (for example, you don't have to point the remote directly at the TV, Katzmaier says).

While reviewers like Katzmaier aren't sure the step up to 4K resolution is worth the price bump over plain old HD Roku-equipped sets, he and Reviewed.com's Neikirk look at the 50-inch TCL 50UP130 (Est. $500) and come away fairly impressed -- and Reviewed.com is sufficiently impressed to grant the set Editors' Choice status and note that it is better than 84 percent of the TVs it's tested.

We've covered the Roku platform sufficiently above; it's great, and the number one reason than someone should consider this set over other sets in its price range -- but what about picture quality? "Good enough" in most respects for "most people," Neikirk says, adding "You probably wouldn't want to move to this one from a very premium TV, but if your standards aren't super high, there won't be anything about the picture you take much issue with." Having 4K capability keeps the TV forward-looking, and the set handles 4K content fairly well, but some experts, notably Katzmaier, don't see all that much benefit in 4K over standard HD. Sets in the two series are available in 43-inch, 55-inch and 65-inch versions as well.

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What every best TVs has:

  • Great or at least very good performance.
  • Useful and usable features.
  • Function over form.

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