TCL S425 series (2019 Roku TV) review: The smartest cheap TV delivers a good enough picture

TCL, based in China, is selling televisions with its bare hands, taking market share from Vizio and other major television brands in the United States. It has grew by 60 percent in each of the past two years, according to market research firm NPD, and its Roku TVs continue to dominate Amazon’s best seller lists.

At HDOT our favorite TCL is the 6 series, with the best picture quality for the money of any TV we’ve tested. But the cheaper models, namely the TCL 3 and 4 series reviewed here, are the ones that remain the most popular.

Let’s do one thing first: their image quality is mediocre. They can’t compete with more expensive sets for black, contrast, or pop-level performance. If you want a home theater worthy picture in a budget set, start with Vizio E. – please note that it is not available in sizes smaller than 43 inches.

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On the other hand, mediocre might be good enough for you, especially if you’re buying a smaller set for secondary viewing or if you just want the cheapest smart TV you can get. As long as you don’t expect too much, you might be perfectly happy with a TCL 3 or 4 series, especially for the price. And if nothing else, I predict you’ll like its built-in Roku.

TCL 3 and 4 series dimensions and models

There are many different models in these series, so before we talk about them, here’s how they break apart.

TCL 3 and 4 series TVs (2017-2019)

32 inches

40 inches

43 inches

49 inches

50 inches

55 inches

65 inches

S305 (2017, HD)

32S305

40S305

43S305

49S305

S325 (2019, HD)

32S325

40S325

43S325

49S325

S405 (2017, 4K HDR)

43S405

49S405

55S405

65S405

S425 (2018 and 2019, 4K HDR)

43S425

49S425

50S425

55S425

65S425

Even though the older TVs date back to 2017, TCL told HDOT that the only difference between them and the 2018/2019 models is in the cosmetic design. They have the same image quality and features. (These models are not available in the UK and Australia.)

We looked into the S305 is S405 in 2017 and for this review we compared them to two new 2019 samples, the 43-inch 43S325 and the 50-inch 50S425. Yes, the cosmetics are slightly different, with the newer sets having black instead of silver legs and slightly different frames around the image. We also noticed some small differences in image quality (see below for details). But overall, not much has changed in two years, and HDOT ratings are the same for everyone.

In other words, you are fine buying the 2017 versions (S305 and S405) as long as they remain on the market. The TCL rep said that this year they would be phased out and replaced by the newer models (S325 and S425).

04-tcl-s325-s425-series

Sarah Tew / HDOT

4K HDR in 40 and 43 inches – not worth the extra money

This is where I mention that the S305 and S325 models have 720p in the 32-inch size and 1080p resolution (also known as full HD) in the 40 and 43-inch sizes, and they can’t. high dynamic range (HDR). Meanwhile the S405 and S425 models have 4K resolution and HDR capabilities.

As you can see in the chart, there is no overlap for most sizes – the 32 and 40-inch sizes are HD only, while the 50, 55, and 65-inch sizes are 4K HDR only. Most people choose a TV size first, then worry about everything else, so there isn’t much choice in those sizes.

Where sizes overlap (43 and 49 inches), there’s typically a $ 30 to $ 70 difference. For most buyers in this price range, I don’t think it’s worth paying that difference. It is better to save the money and get the 1080p, HD, non-HDR versions instead of the 4K HDR versions. Yes, you may see some improvement in image quality with some 4K HDR material, but at best it will be minor. See the section on image quality below for more information.

11-tcl-s325-s425-series

The Roku TV remote is super simple.

Sarah Tew / HDOT

Roku reigns

The best thing about the Series 3 and 4 TVs is the built-in Roku. It gives you super easy access to almost any streaming app available, including Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Sling TV, Pluto TV, and more.

Because the apps are built in, you can access them faster and easier than via an external streamer, which requires switching inputs and probably juggling with a second remote. You can of course connect other devices (like game consoles or Blu-ray players) to these Roku TVs too, and they have some cool features for people who use an over-the-air antenna to get free TV.

Roku TV’s main competitor is Amazon Fire TV Edition set of Toshiba and Insignia. Amazon has its advantages, especially when it comes to voice control with Alexa. But I like Roku even more overall because its menu system is more neutral – it doesn’t force-feed you Amazon Prime TV shows and movies.

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