TCL’s 5-Series television, powered by Google TV, is a solid device that could have been perfect for the price point with a bit more polishing.

Setup

While not too important in the grand scheme of things, the TCL 5-Series was one of the easiest televisions I’ve ever unboxed and set up. Once unstrapped, the majority of the box simply lifted away, giving easy access to the TV itself. Toss a couple screws into the legs, plug in the power & inputs, and you’ve got a TV ready to go. On that note, the TCL 5-Series is equipped with three HDMI 2.0 inputs including support for eARC audio, as well connections for Ethernet, USB, cable/antenna, AV in, headphones, and optical audio.

As you’d expect from a smart TV, the first thing you’ll need to do is set up internet access. Like Google’s own smart displays and speakers, this connection and the subsequent setup and login processes are all handled with the Google Home app. 

On the plus side, this is extremely convenient as you’re not awkwardly typing anything in with a remote, but it does take away some of the nerdy sense of magic that comes from playing with a new device as you set it up. Not to mention the number of prompts you need to go through before you can actually use your new TV is shocking. But that’s a complaint to be lodged with Google TV, not with TCL.

Various inputs on the TCL 5-Series

Worse, once you get everything set up, the TV is going to run very very slowly for about an hour (including a reboot or two) as it gets settled between apps and updates to be installed. Once it’s all finalized, you’ll want to give it another reboot, just to start from a clean slate.

Display & sound

I’m not going to spend too long talking about the image quality of the TCL 5-Series, as there are professionals who are better qualified to expertly judge television panels. RTings, for example, scores this particular TCL panel at just under an 8 out of 10.

Out of the box, the TCL 5-Series didn’t look too spectacular, with the brightness looking blown out in my opinion. After a few minutes perusing the settings and ultimately cranking up the gamma – which I recommend any new purchaser to do, first thing – among other tweaks, things started to look crisp, vibrant, and suited to my tastes. I was especially impressed by the black levels offered, despite being a QLED panel instead of OLED.

Now almost everything I do on the TV looks fantastic, whether gaming on Stadia & PS5 or watching my favorite shows. I’m not usually one to be wowed by a television set, but watching Disney’s Encanto in Dolby Vision on the TCL 5-Series was an absolute delight, especially for a mid-range panel you can often pick up for less than $500.

One thing I noted, though, is that some display settings don’t seem to apply to Google TV itself and the non-media apps you run on the platform. For example, I found that tweaking things like the color saturation had no effect on the appearance of Android TV apps (e.g. the home screen, game apps, but not streaming apps) but was plainly obvious on an input. Again, though, this is likely a complaint for Google, not TCL.

As for the sound, the default “Dynamic” option offers audio that is certainly passable. Dialog is understandable in games and movies, and music sounds okay. But overall, it’s sorely lacking in the lows and mids, especially in comparison to the excellent audio offered by some competitors. That said, you may already have a soundbar in your living room that would sound better than almost any TV speakers, in which case the point is moot.

Performance

Right off the bat, on the matter of performance, I want to recognize the things that the TCL 5-Series does well. Coming from the Chromecast with Google TV and its too-small storage, the TCL 5-Series has an impressive amount of storage space, with about 6 GB of free storage after I’ve installed all my favorite apps. If you want to install some emulators or some Android TV compatible games, you’ve got plenty of room to do so. Admittedly storage is cheap, but this is something that’s very easy to get wrong, as other companies, including Google, have proven.

Fresh after a reboot, the TCL 5-Series performs very smoothly in most apps, handling a PlayStation emulator with ease. There are some exceptions, though, like the HBO Max app, which is admittedly slow and problematic on essentially every Android TV and Google TV device.

Early on into the TV’s lifespan, things would perform remarkably slowly a few hours after a reboot, but an update in late December resolved these issues. Since then, other than a few seconds of slowdown when waking from rest, the TCL 5-Series has offered consistently stable speeds when navigating apps and menus.

Experience

One of my favorite things about the TCL 5-Series is the quick switch button on the remote, which offers your most recently used apps, access to your various inputs, and, unfortunately, an unremovable shortcut to the TCL TV app. Barring that annoying shortcut, it’s been very handy to be able to quickly move from an HDMI input to an Android TV app like Hulu and vice versa.

Similarly, your most recently viewed HDMI input will be shown on Google TV’s home screen in the apps row. This, along with a few other tweaks, help make Google TV feel better suited to being the OS for a television rather than a dongle like the Chromecast.

Conversely, though, I find that the TCL 5-Series does not actually handle the everyday tasks of being an HDMI-connected television very well. One of the benefits of HDMI-CEC is that you’re supposed to be able to turn on a device (such as a game console), have your television notice the change, and automatically switch to the right input.

In reality, you’ve got about a 50/50 shot of a game console like the Nintendo Switch or PS5 waking the TCL out of sleep. Sometimes even when the TV is already on, it won’t acknowledge the signal from HDMI-CEC. But as soon as you open the list of inputs, the TCL will catch up and switch over immediately. Things only get more complicated when you use HDMI ARC to send audio to a soundbar or sound system, with my personal soundbar sometimes needing to be restarted to recognize the TV (an issue I haven’t had with other panels).

It’s quite possible that TCL could fix any or all of their issues on the Google TV platform in the coming months, with the 5-Series having already received quite a few noticeable and meaningful updates just in the last few months. One update even made TCL’s sets the first Android TV/Google TV devices to have the January 2022 security patch.

On that note, though, the TV has a perhaps unlucky tendency to ask to update at inconvenient times. And should you choose to update “later,” then let the TV go into rest mode, it will immediately update when you wake it next. This has led to more than one morning television routine being rudely delayed, when the update could simply have occurred in the hours the TV went unused.

On the whole, though, these minor gripes don’t usually mount up to more than a few seconds of inconvenience each, depending on your living room setup. Though I also wouldn’t advise this set for someone who isn’t at least a little bit tech savvy.

Google Assistant

One thing that sets TCL’s line of Google TVs apart from the competition is that it comes equipped with a microphone, ready and listening for the “Hey Google” hotword. While this sounds like a benefit, and it really should be one, I’ve found it to be an unwelcome addition.

I live in a household with no less than three Nest speakers listening at any time. Generally, the Google Assistant is able to puzzle out who was talking and which device’s Assistant they were talking to. Adding the TCL 5-Series into the mix – unfortunately placed in a room that connects to two other rooms with Nest speakers – has left the Assistant dumbfounded.

Even when it gets things “right,” knowing that someone is talking to a speaker and not the TV, the TV experience is still disrupted by an enormous Assistant-themed banner which sometimes won’t close until you press Back on the remote. Worse, some apps, like emulators, will close altogether whenever the Assistant is activated, even if the “Hey Google” hotword wasn’t intended for the TV.

But the absolute most frustrating part of having the TCL 5-Series listen for “Hey Google” is that if you use external speakers (such as a soundbar), the TV will respond to its own sounds. In watching our past video about humorous phrases that trigger the Google Assistant hotword, nearly every one of them activated the TV. Clearly, some echo cancellation is in order.

Microphone switch for the TCL 5-Series Google TV

Thankfully, the built-in microphone can be disabled with a flip of a switch on the back of the TV. If you want to continue to use the Google Assistant on the TV, the button and mic in the remote will still work just fine.

The remote

TCL has included a fairly traditional remote with the 5-Series: candybar-shaped, with a circular d-pad, a few buttons for managing Google TV, four service shortcuts, and volume controls on the side. The shortcuts offer quick access to Netflix, YouTube, TCL Channel, and Prime Video, but these can also be remapped by a third-party app.

The TCL remote is a bit insubstantial in the hand, feeling at first a bit too narrow. After a few days though, the design grew on me. Everything is conveniently within reach, and there’s a good bit of unused length at the bottom to offer comfortable grip and balance.

Remote for the TCL 5-Series

As a minor anecdote, I’ve found that we haven’t had any issues with buttons on the TCL remote being accidentally pressed when a person or dog sits on the couch. By comparison, Google’s Chromecast remote is incredibly prone to unwanted button presses.

The only major complaint I have about the TCL 5-Series remote is that on no less than four occasions the remote has somehow become unpaired from the TV. It’s capable of sending button presses over infrared, so it can sometimes go unnoticed until you end up at an off angle. The quickest way to get the remote paired again is to press the Assistant button, which immediately triggers the TV’s Bluetooth pairing screen.

Final thoughts

Part of the problem may be that Google TV is still a new platform, though it still is strongly rooted in Android TV, which TCL has offered for a few years now. TCL was one of the first companies to adopt Google TV after the Chromecast’s release, and certainly the first to put it in an affordable mid-range panel. It’s possible that the many quirks of the 5-Series will be outgrown in the coming months, but they make it hard to recommend in the short term.

If you’re certain you want a new television that runs Google TV out of the box, and you’re not afraid of the occasional bug, the excellent picture quality of the TCL 5-Series and its handy additions to the Google TV experience may add up to just what you’re looking for. For the average person just looking to buy a new TV, I’d suggest looking elsewhere for something a bit more consistent.

At a starting retail price of $599, the TCL 5-Series powered by Google TV is a hard sell alongside fierce competition from companies like HiSense. Thankfully, Best Buy frequently offers this set on discount for around $429, which is much easier to swallow.

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About the Author

Kyle Bradshaw

Kyle is an author and researcher for 9to5Google, with special interests in Made by Google products, Fuchsia, and Stadia.

Got a tip or want to chat? Twitter or Email. Kyle@9to5mac.com

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