Price (RRP): $2199
TCL is one of the world’s bigger makers of TVs, but as a brand it isn’t all that familiar in Australia. That’s because its largest markets are its home one of China, plus the OEM market.
But you’re likely to become a lot more familiar with the brand because the company is following the path of many successful predecessors: adding style to its offerings and assuring quality while retaining a high value for money.
Exhibit A: The TCL U55H8800CDS LCD TV. The quality is assured by the three year warranty. The style you can see for yourself. And at $2,199 for an ultra high definition, curved, 55 inch TV, there’s value for money.
Lately TV styling has tended towards spidery metallic stands and narrow bezels, seemingly designed to make a bench-mounted TV appear as though it’s floating in air.
TCL’s 55 inch curved 4K TV is a complete rejection of that. To be sure it has a reasonably thin edge of 20mm at the top and sides, but the whole thing presents a look of solidity thanks to the dark coloured base. Rather than being hidden, this 90mm tall section is faced by a darkish wood-veneered portion in the middle, with wide black cloth speaker grilles on either side.
Adding to the effect is the way the TV screen leans back just a touch from the vertical, and enjoys a gentle curve.
I’m not really one for curved screens, in particular the claims for them with regard to picture quality, but sometimes as a piece of furniture they can look damned nice. And this TV is one of those.
It’s more than just looks, though.
It’s a smart TV with an ultra high definition, 3840 by 2160 pixel display. The LCD panel is backlit with an array of LEDs, rather than using the more usual edge lighting. The LEDs are independently controlled to light only the portions of the picture that need it, enhancing the subjective appearance of contrast.
Those speaker grilles aren’t all just show. Hiding behind them is part of what TCL calls a Harman-Kardon tuned sound system. There are also a couple of 70 to 80mm speakers at the back, built into the stand and kind of shooting upwards, providing bass support to the sound.
There are four HDMI inputs with support for the (hopefully!) coming UHD sources.
In other words, they accept UHD signals at up to 60 frames per second, even if they’re protected by HDCP 2.2. HDCP is ‘High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection’, an encryption system that’s supposed to somehow limit digital piracy. As with all the other connections, these are on the right side of the TV (most TVs have their connections on the left side.)
Also provided is a set of RCA connections for component video and audio input, 3.5mm sockets for use with the included breakout cables to deliver A/V input and A/V output, another 3.5mm socket for headphones, optical digital audio output, Ethernet and a couple of USB sockets, one of them USB 3.0 rated.
Of course there’s wireless connectivity too: dual band WiFi, just in case you don’t have a network port handy.
The TV is capable of recording to USB, but the smart features sit on a very well hidden Android operating system. Being hidden, you can’t go visit the Play Store and load up the TV with your favourite digital toys. On the other hand, TCL should be able to provide additional functions via app relatively easily through its own app store.
The smart features are powered by a four core CPU, while a four core GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) is also included. It’s unclear if this is used for standard picture processing or for the smart features only.
The remote control can help you navigate the smart features because it can control an on-screen arrow, LG-style. You point and click at things. It also has a microphone, with the TV supporting a limited range of voice commands. But mostly the remote is a standard infrared model, with a useful collection of keys.
One nice thing about this TV: there isn’t the usual delay in which one pulls the various bits of the stand out of the box, assembles them and then attaches the result to the TV. The TV is already fully assembled, so physical installation was simply a matter of putting the TV in place and plugging things in.
Final installation was largely performed by the TV itself up via a wizard, with only occasional choices to be made by the user. It only took a few minutes to have all my local digital TV stations loaded into the TV ready for selection.
The picture needed some tweaking from the outset, particularly since as always I started with a Blu-ray calibration disc so I’m adjusting a known image.
What was pretty much right from the start were the colour, brightness and contrast settings. What was not so good were the sharpness and motion smoothing settings.
TCL seems to be following the other brands in providing TVs with their default sharpness settings up way too high. Dragging this control down to zero got rid of a lot of nasty grain, and a kind of fussy distortion to what should have been detailed, clean images.
The motion smoothing system was called Motion Enhancement. This did indeed deliver smooth motion, eliminating every trace of picture judder, but at the cost of a particularly glossy image from which all real film grain had been scrubbed, and the occasional appearance of subtle and not-so-subtle distortion artefacts. These appeared in normal video material, and significantly more so with animated menus and the like. I was unable to find a setting that was able to reduce judder without this distortion.
In the end I did my viewing with Motion Enhancement switched off.
The results were very pleasing. The colours were natural, strong and even, and the panel was clearly at least adequate in switching times, allowing fast moving on-screen items to be easily tracked. Feeding the TV free to air HDTV and SDTV, both externally from a PVR and from its own tuner, also delivered smooth, clean results. The scaling up of the images to the full resolution of the screen resulted in a quite crisp image without undue noise.
The only negative aspect of live TV viewing was that the EPG was slow and difficult to operate.
In a darkened room the LED array backlight proved useful, coming to full brightness in only the parts of the screen showing actual content. However unlike some recent implementations, in the dark parts of the screen the backlight elements weren’t completely turned off, so they tended to be somewhat less deep in their blacks than the current state of the art.
I fed the TV my carefully hoarded collection of ultra high definition test material and was again astonished by how totally wrong are all arguments to the effect that UHD is overkill on a 55 inch TV.
In fact it offers a noticeable improvement which seems to work at two levels. First if you want to see more detail, it’s there in abundance. But perhaps more importantly, the clarity seems to impart a kind of magical realism beyond the level provided by full HD.
When it came to 3D, though, forget about it.
The separation between the left and right eyes was very weak so there was virtually no 3D effect, but lots of eye-watering confusion in the picture.
On the plus side, the TV is unusually fast in processing the image and getting it up on the screen. 4K TVs typically take 100 to 150 milliseconds, so you have to make sure lip sync is adjusted appropriately if you’re using an external amplifier. And if you’re a gamer, your reaction time is slowed by up to 50%. That makes a big difference in shooting and racing games. This TV’s delay was just under 40ms at worst, and less than half that when switched to ‘Game’ mode.
Incidentally, that Harman-Kardon tuning stuff is more than just marketing fluff. This TV sounded far better than the average TV. Indeed, significantly better than most TVs costing quite a lot more. Even music sounded reasonable.
While the smart features are built on a fairly modern operating system, their layout harks back to the TVs of a couple of years ago. No overlaid ribbons here. Nonetheless it worked effectively.
There are hundreds of streaming video channels on offer, many from Asia. Plus YouTube and the SBS and ABC catch-up services. Games can be downloaded from the TCL store.
For media playback, including playing back recordings made by the TV to a hard disk, there’s a ‘Media Center’ which worked well despite being organised in that slightly unintuitive Android way. This could play back photos, music and videos either from USB media or served up via DLNA from the network.
The media support was remarkably wide and included FLAC music in addition to AAC and MP3.
Every video clip of every format I had worked, except for some high bitrate 4K stuff. This apparently exceeded the network interface’s speed limit, but worked perfectly well from USB. Photos were rendered in full eight megapixel resolution and look absolutely glorious.
When you take into account the price, the three year warranty and the various features, the TCL U55H8800CDS TV is quite the bargain. And it looks so good, styling-wise, that it looks like it costs a great deal more than $2,199.