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First look: Roku TVs from Hisense and TCL are refreshingly simple

Susie Ochs | Aug. 20, 2014
Yes, the new Roku TVs are just smart TVs with Roku's familiar interface and huge content library built in. It may be simple, but it's still a brilliant result.

The TCL and Hisense models of the Roku TV each come with a slightly modified Roku remote that can control the whole TV, of course. So the remote has volume buttons, a Mute button, and a back button. (The TCL remote puts the volume buttons on the side, while the Hisense remote has them on the face.) A home button at the top always takes you back to the home screen, and four shortcut buttons along the bottom let you jump to Netflix, Amazon, Rdio, and Vudu.

But mainly it's the same Roku remote you know and love, and the company didn't clutter it up with a number pad for changing the channels when you're watching live TV over the antenna tuner or your cable box. Instead, pressing the Star button brings up contextual menus for wherever you are in the interface; if you're watching live TV, that includes a scrollable list of channels. You can configure the list to remove channels you never watch, but I'm a little wary about whether scrolling through a list will be a better experience than just punching in a number. But at least I won't have to waste brain cells remembering which cable channel is Bravo HD and which is ESPN News. And if you don't like the 20-button Roku remote as your main remote control, you can control the Roku TV with the Roku app on your iOS or Android phone, or use a universal remote like the Logitech Harmony line.

Roku TV's contextual menus have other nice touches, too: If you are adjusting the brightness, the options panel shrinks down dramatically so you can see more of the screen, all the better for fine-tuning the brightness. For other controls, like tint, you even get some tips as to when or why you would adjust them. Tint, it turns out, is to fix weird-looking skin tones, not just something you'd use to make everyone look blue just for fun. When you adjust the volume with the Roku remote, the onscreen indicator is vertical instead of horizontal, because it's a bit of a disconnect to press volume up and see the volume bar on the TV go right. If you're turning it up, the indicator should go up, and on the Roku TV it does. And that sums up the Roku TV experience well: little changes that make a ton of sense.

The TCL version
TCL is a fairly new brand in the United States, but worldwide it's the third largest TV maker. Chris Larson, the vice president of sales and marketing for TCL in North America, explained to me that since the TV market has been flat lately, the most efficient companies survive. TCL makes its own screens, to better control cost and quality, and the Roku TVs are being made at a new manufacturing plant in Tijuana.


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