In all the years I’ve been working with and reviewing Intel NUCs and NUC products, I’ve been limited to HD (1080P) resolution (it’s still weird to say “limited” when talking about HD). All my TV’s and monitors maxed out at 1080p, so any tests I did topped out and hit that wall. Well, the wall has been knocked down, as I just purchased my very first 4K TV! Below I’ll take you through the whole experience. And I do mean the whole experience. Apologies for the length, but you know me…I can’t shut up.
Why So Long?
It took me a long time to get into the 4K game. Part of the reason for that was cost; 4K sets were prohibitively expensive for me. Not that I couldn’t afford one. On the contrary, I could’ve jumped into the worked of UHD (Ultimately Hysterical Dollars) a while ago. But the reason I have money is that I don’t easily spend money. I’ve watch as 4K sets have gone from as expensive as a used car to as cheap as a pricey bicycle.
Another reason for the hesitation is that many of the features I wanted in a new set just weren’t there, at least at the low-cost end. Things like up-scaling, smart features, and decently sized sets weren’t found in budget sets. I didn’t want a “barely” 4K TV, I wanted a good one.
And to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t convinced 4K was worth it. I compared 4K sets to 1080P sets in the store and just didn’t see much of a difference. Sure 4K looked amazing up close, but eight to ten feet away, I didn’t see anything to scream about. Salespeople would frequently point out that you had to watch native 4K content to get the true experience, but I didn’t see much native 4K content out there. I’m a cord-cutter (there’s that value thing again…I hate paying for channels I don’t watch) and most broadcast channels max out at 1080i.
After a while Netflix starting streaming some shows in 4K and it made me wonder if I was missing the boat.
Then there was the NUC thing. I’m a NUC guy, it’s kind of my thing. Most NUCs support 4K (some better than others) and when I’d review a new NUC model I’d frequently get the 4K questions: How is it at 4K? Does it do 4K at 60Hz? What does the content look like from the NUC? How is the upscaling? I couldn’t answer.
Time to Jump in
Finally, just before my last birthday my wife started our annual “what can I get you for your birthday?” talk. I’m hard to buy for because most of what I want is tech stuff, which she knows very little about. As in years before, she was frustrated with my answers; “you don’t need to get me anything” and “just get me a card.” She hates that. Then she came to me and told me she’d finally cracked it…she wanted me to buy a 4K TV for myself. At first I argued that we didn’t need one, but eventually she wore me down. Ok, it wasn’t that hard to talk me into it.
If you haven’t been able to tell from my previous posts, value is critical for me. When I decided to buy something, whether it’s a house, a car, a NUC, or a light bulb, I don’t look for the cheapest, I look for the best bang for my buck. I’m not someone who has to have the best of the best, but I do expect high quality, reliability, a good feature set, and solid customer service. If I’m going to spend my hard earned cash, I expect to get something worth while for it. What that means is research. Before I buy, I do obsessive research, pouring through specifications, online reviews, tech websites, etc. I ask friends and coworkers about their experiences, I read “best of” articles, Consumer Reports…everything. Once I’ve finally decided on the “right” product, I then begin phase 2; price watching. I know what I want, but I want it for the best possible price. I’m the first to admit I have an issue; there IS such a thing as too much research, and I blow past that point pretty quickly.My wife quickly gets to a point where she just rolls her eyes and says “just buy one already” when our dinner conversations are dominated by what I haven’t bought yet.
My criteria was simple: Sub-$500 (US), 4K (duh), 60Hz refresh or better, smart functionality, 50 inch screen or larger (My 1080P set was 47 inches), and a built-in digital tuner. That was about it. Other features I would decide on a case-by-case basis, but these were the basic things I started with to narrow the playing field.
After reading countless articles with titles like “Best sub-$500 4K TVs”, “Best of the cheapest”, and “Which TVs don’t suck, 2017” a clear front-runner came to the top: the TCL 55S405. It met or exceeded all of my criteria, and had quite a few features that made it a strong lead, especially for the price. Other TVs with comparable specs were $200-$300 more expensive.
- Sub-$500? Yep, my research showed its price had dropped to $499.
- 4K: Oh yeah.
- 60Hz refresh? For get that, this one had 120Hz. I’m told that’s a bit of a cheat, in that it’s an “effective” rate, but apparently all 4K sets with 120Hz have similar ways of getting there. That would come in handy (I assumed) when watching football…American football, not soccer.
- Smart TV? Here’s where things got interesting. Not only was it a smart TV, it had a 4K Roku built in. I already have a Roku stick, and I’m very much sold on the Roku as the smart TV-maker. You get all the benefits of a smart TV, but you get so much more with the Roku; apps galore, a regularly updated and well-supported device, and a constantly expanding catalog.
- 50 inches or better? This one was 55 inches, the largest size you can apparently get on the budget 4K sets.
- TV Tuner? You betcha.
A Quick Comment on Vizio
The last couple of TVs I’ve bought have been Vizios. I’ve been very happy with them, so when I started my search I naturally started with Vizio. What I found was disappointing. Vizio has decided to drop the built-in tuner from their newer smart TVs. I was surprised by this because it seems a tuner is a relatively cheap component. But after asking around it seems the choice has something to do with how the TVs are classified. Apparently, if it doesn’t have a tuner, it’s classified as a monitor, not a TV. I guess that makes a difference for importing.
What really surprised me about it was that it seems to be used as a selling point. At my local Sam’s Club, the Vizio TVs were advertised as “Tuner Free!”, as though that was a bonus of some kind; “no more messing around with that annoying tuner!” I really don’t get that. It seems to me there are two types of people buying TVs these days; those who want a built-in tuner, and those who don’t care. Neither group is going to see “tuner free” and get excited. So, sorry Vizio, but I can’t give you my business. It’s a shame, too. They’ve got some nice sets out there. Anyway, back to the review.
So the TCL blew through my requirements with ease. It also had HDR (high dynamic range). No idea what that was, but I may find out sooner or later.
Features are important, sure, but reliability and support are critical too. The best TV in the world isn’t any good if it stops working and you can’t get it fixed. So I read reviews…A LOT of them. On a side note, what is the deal with people giving something a one star review because it arrived damaged? Do they not understand the point of reviews? I had to dig through so many “This TV is terrible! It was delivered with a broken screen!”, I started to get a little disappointed in my fellow shoppers. The point of reviewing a product is to review THE PRODUCT. Not the company you bought it from, not the carrier who delivered it. There are places to review those too, and it just skews the review results when they’re filled with non-reviews like that. Fortunately, even with those one star for no reason “reviews” the rating for this TV was still ridiculously high on Amazon. 4.5 stars with hundreds of reviews is a good indication of quality. Folks that did have trouble with the TV found TCL was responsive and helpful too.
So clearly I’d picked a winner on paper. Now came the price watch. I had my model number and searched and googled and searched some more. I checked retailers high and low. I found most had it for $499 or higher, but there were three sellers who had it for less:
- Amazon had it for $449
- Target had it for $449
- An Ebay seller had it for $449 with no tax and free shipping.
My first thought was to just buy it from Amazon. They’re a trusted seller and I’ve always had good experiences with them. Unfortunately, while their price was great, there was a little note under it: Usually ships in 6 to 8 weeks. Weeks? I didn’t want to wait up to 2 months to get my shiny new thing, low price or not.
Then I looked at the Ebay seller. Great price, free shipping, and no tax. Unfortunately, if I had a problem, I would have to pay to ship it back to them. So they were out.
That left Target. They had a great price, were local to me, and actually had it in stock. Good ol’ Target!
Bringing it Home
My wife and I headed over to our local Target. I asked her to come since, due to a recent surgery, I wasn’t supposed to lift heavy things. We got to the store and headed to the electronics section. A friendly employee checked the back, confirmed they had one, and rung us up for it. He then went to the back and came out with it on a cart. Another employee walked it out to our SUV and helped me load it. It was surprisingly light. In fact, when I picked up the box my first thought was that the TV wasn’t in there.
Extra points to Target for the easy process and helpful employees!
Unboxing was simple, as was attaching the feet. Putting the TV on the stand, my wife and I both commented on how light it was, especially compared to the old Proscan TV we’d just taken down. Lighter and much, much thinner.
The TV is loaded with inputs:
- Composite Video
- Audio In
- Tuner In
- 1 USB 2.0 port
- 3 HDMI 2.0 w/HDCP 2.2 (1 ARC)
- SPDIF Digital Audio Optical
- Headphone Output
It doesn’t have a VGA connector, but let’s be honest, that’s another connector that’s rarely used on TVs anymore.
I like the fact that the TV comes with dual band 802.11ac wireless. I ended up using the ethernet connection since my router sits behind my TV. But it’s nice to have the wireless in case I need to move the TV, and having the faster AC standard is a bit of short-term future-proofing.
When you first turn the TV on, you’re presented with a Roku-style setup screen. It walks you through every aspect of the TVs setup, from connecting and naming devices, to scanning for over-the-air channels, to connecting your Roku account. I’ve always liked the simplicity of the Roku interface, and for this TV, that’s the only interface you need.
Going through setup I came across a very cool feature I didn’t know the TV had, or that was even an option for cord-cutters: live TV pausing. Anyone with cable or satellite TV has enjoyed the ability to pause and rewind what they’re watching. Well TCL has brought this to their TV tuner. You simply plug a USB stick into the TV’s USB port and the TV formats it. Once it’s done, you have up to 90 minutes of storage. That’s going to come in handy during football season.
Setting HDMI devices is fast and simple. The TV asks what you want to call them, and which icon to use. I even found an icon that kind of looks like a NUC.
As I said, I love the simplicity of the menus, the ease of switching between connected devices, and the overall look. Something else I love; the speed. Everything that happens, happens fast. Starting Netflix, switching to another device, changing TV channels…everything. There’s no waiting for things to load, or for the TV to figure something out. Whatever you do, it happens quickly, and I love that.
As expected, in terms of performance, the TV’s built-in Roku runs circles around my Roku Stick. The Stick is a great little device, but fast isn’t a word that applies.
The interface for this TV really shines because it’s Roku. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the Roku begins and the TV ends. All of the attached devices show up at the top of the list for easy access:
It really couldn’t be simpler, especially if you’ve ever used a Roku before.
Watching live TV is a pleasure. The TV pulls OTA channel information, so you immediately get a full description of what you’re watching. I do miss the full guide my old Proscan had…I could look several days ahead to see what was coming on…but it seems that feature just isn’t available on newer TVs. And honestly it’s not a huge loss, since I rarely plan to watch something on live TV, other than football. Usually, I just turn it on and see what’s available.
And speaking of what’s available, I have a half dozen more channels than I did on the old TV. There were some channels that the Proscan picked up but showed the dreaded “No Signal” screen on. The TCL displays them just fine. I know a lot depends on the antenna, and I’ve got a good one, but in this case, the same antenna yields more channels on the new TV.
I haven’t tested the pause feature yet…not much need to pause an old episode of Star Trek…but I’m looking forward to the first football game to give it a try.
The TV comes with a Roku style remote. It’s more or less what you’d get with a separate Roku. It’s simple, efficient, and easy to figure out. My only complaint? The volume controls are on the right side of the remote…I’m a lefty. I am sick of being hassled by all you elitist right-handers! Other than that, no complaints.
The picture above is TCL’s stock image. The real remote has the buttons labeled for Netflix, Amazon, HBONow, and Sling.
I’m a little under-informed when it comes to 4K picture quality. I’ve only ever seen it in stores until now, so I don’t really have anything to compare it to. Having said that, this screen is amazing to my eyes. Everything I’ve tried on it looks fantastic. 4K content is like looking through a window. Upscaling does seem to improve the image on 1080P content. I expected low-def content, like old shows on broadcast TV, to look terrible. But they actually look pretty good too. Viewing angles are pretty good too; better than the Proscan.
Connecting the NUC to it was a snap. I was able to name the input ‘NUC’ for the sake of simplicity, and set the image to something sort of resembling a NUC. The first thing I noticed was that the annoying issue I’d had with the Proscan was gone. With my old TV, I had to turn on the TV, change to the correct input, then turn on the NUC. Otherwise I’d get no picture on the NUC until I restarted it. With the TCL TV, that’s no longer an issue.
The 4K resolution showed up on my Kodi menu, and I was able to switch to it at 29Hz, but 60Hz wasn’t listed. That’s a NUC thing though, as I’ve read in the forums it can be tricky to get the full 60Hz. I’ll have to do a bit of googling to see if I can get that to 60Hz. Not that it matters for watching content, but I’d still like to see it. Also, while it did give me 4K, there was a noticeable lag in the picture. Just moving around the Kodi menus it was easy to tell 4K wasn’t the best idea for this NUC. At 1080P, it’s awesome. At 4K, it feels asthmatic. I’m currently using the NUC6CAYS in my living room, and it’s clearly struggling at 4K. I may test 4K out on one of the i5 NUCs to see how much of a difference there is.
This TV has presented me with a conundrum; I’m needing my NUC less and less. When I had the NUC connected to my 10+ year old Proscan TV, I used it as my main source for content streaming. But with everything the Roku TV can do, I’m down to only a couple of addons I actually need (not going to name them here), while everything else I can get through the Roku apps.
Looks like I’ll have to get back to my retro gaming project for the NUC. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ready to give up my NUCs. There’s still some fun things to do with them. But with everything available on Roku, I’m using the NUC less for streaming. But the Kodi addons I do use are pretty important ones for me, so the NUC stays. One thing I can do is set up live TV in Kodi again so I can get my TV guide back.
Here is the only feature that has let me down so far. I haven’t been able to get the TV remote to control my NUC or CEC-enabled bluray player. Both show up as CEC devices on the system settings for the TV. It may be that the CEC in the TV is like the version Intel includes in their NUCs; a very limited feature set that doesn’t include remote functions. My Vizio smart TV lets me use the TV remote for the NUC, though, so I may just be missing a configuration step here. I noticed when I switch to the NUC’s input on the TV, it powers up the NUC for me, so my guess is it’s working and just doesn’t have the remote control feature. I’ll continue to look into this. If I’m able to get it to work, I’ll update the post.
What else can I say? I love this TV. Other than the CEC limitations I can’t think of anything in the design, the interface, or the feature set, that isn’t well thought out and right on target. Plus, with everything Roku has to offer, I’m not sure how much I’ll need my old bluray player’s streaming capabilities. For this price point I doubt you’re going to find a better set! I won’t go so far as to say I’m in love with it, because that would be creepy. But this TV and I are on our way to a great relationship.