[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I was offered the opportunity to review one of TCL’s 2018 line up of 4K Android TVs, I jumped at the chance. WIth TCL’s growing reputation for excellent panels at reasonable prices, I have been quite interested in their devices, sprinkle a little Android TV in there and you’re right in the Ausdroid wheelhouse. However, I’m used to reviewing phones and gadgets. How does one review a TV?
For this review, I’ve broken my thoughts into three sections: audio-visual performance, the Android TV platform, and finally device performance. If you’re looking for the executive summary: OMG it’s gorgeous, yep it’s still Android TV and … you’ll have to read on for the last answer!
TCL C6 Android TV Audio-Visual Performance
The TCL C6 Android TV (herein the C6), is a 4K (Ultra High Definition UHD), High Dynamic Range (HDR) Smart TV running Android TV and with an in-built Harman Kardon sound bar.
The C6 comes in 49-inch, 55-inch and 65-inch options, with the 49-inch model eschewing the “Harman Kardon” part of the sound bar. With a gorgeous 4K UHD 3,840 x 2,160, 200 Hz, 4000:1, HDR 10 panel with an amazing wide colour gamut, the image on the C6 is simply stunning. The overall TV is very thin with marginal bezels apart from the inbuilt sound bar of course; good audio NEEDS space to create rich sounds that’s just physics.
Our review unit was a 55” TCL C6 4k HDR TV, model number 55C6US. Out of the box the TV comes with a standard candy bar remote, however, TCL sells an optional smart remote with gesture navigation and more importantly microphone input for voice search. The TV comes with a cabinet stand but can we wall mounted using a standard VESA mount. Other features include:
- Chromecast Built In
- Dual Band Wi-Fi
- LAN/Ethernet Connection
- HDMI 2.0 x 2
- HDMI 1.4a x 1
- HDCP 2.2 Support
- Audio Return Channel x 1 (ARC)
- Consumer Electronics Control (CEC)
- USB 2.0 x 1, USB 3.0 x 1
- SPDIF Optical Output and
- Headphone Out
While I’ll cover the basics of Android TV and the overall performance of the C6 later it’s important to note some of the “out of the box” content on the C6. The C6 includes a HD Digital TV tuner (obviously!) and Freeview Plus – this is not part of Android TV but built into the “tuner” side of the device. Pre installed on the Android TV “side” is Netflix (with a dedicated Netflix button on the remote), STAN and YouTube.
Freeview Plus is a real bonus on this TV, while unfortunately not part of Android TV and thus not having a consistent UI aesthetic it gives you access to a program guide and catch up TV services for the Australian Networks. Again this is separate to Android TV and greatly increases the broadcast TV content usability of the device, as an old man it reminds me of teletext, but useful!
The first start up of the TV is similar to any other experience, scan for free to air frequencies and sign into your Google Account, it’s all quick, easy and not really worthy of covering in depth.
I’m no AV expert but even I can appreciate the quality of this panel, my own TV is a 1080P Sony LCD panel that’s about 10 years old so when I plugged the C6 in and compared it using 1080 content to say I was amazed by the improvement would be an understatement.
Everything was crisp, clean and the colours were amazing. I did some non 4K blu ray comparisons with Avatar and the difference that a high quality 4K HDR TV makes is just amazing. Thanks to the magic of YouTube and a quick bit of hotspotting to my mobile data I was able to stream some native 4K samples and it’s there that the image really showed through.
As 4K content becomes easier to access and if you’ve got the data speeds (and usage cap) to watch it I couldn’t imagine a better way to consume content than on a 4K HDR TV. I now live in a world where I have seen what a 4K HDR TV upgrade is like, side by side in my own house, and now I MUST upgrade, the difference is that stark, that much improved, even on older non 4K content, and the TCl C6 was just gorgeous.
I have to admit that at home I have a 5.1 Dolby Digital sound setup, it’s not ATMOS or THX certified but it’s pretty good with sound matched speakers and a decent Yamaha receiver so going into the review I had a fairly excellent Audio experience.
The best way I can express the audio performance of the C6 is to quote my wife who wasn’t aware I had not routed the Audio from the C6 to the receiver and commented along the lines of “how can you tell how good the sound is if you’re still using your speakers”. In other words, my wife didn’t notice a drop in quality switching to the C6’s built-in Harman Kardon soundbar.
Yes, in a side by side comparison with my 5.1 system with the Subwoofer jacked up a little there was a noticeable difference in the low end, and the surround sound effects were nowhere near as good. However, considering the HK speakers are basically a bonus in my book you could easily just start your home theatre set up with the C6 and get an excellent audio experience.
I think unless you already have a sound system or you’re are buying one at the same time the C6 with the built-in sound bar was a great experience and more than adequate for anyone not anal about “sound quality” or demanding true surround sound. It would have been interesting to compare the TCL C6 audio experience with something like their P6 which is similar panel experience (although not quite as good in a few areas according to the specs) without a sound bar. I’m sure the difference would be noticeable.
Overall I was very happy with the sound experience on the C6. I used it for weeks without ever feeling I should plug in the single cable required to get it going through my 5.1 setup. I think that shows that for every day watching in 99% of use cases, it provides great audio.
TCL C6 Android TV Android TV
What to say about Android TV that hasn’t already been said? It’s clear that the platform needs to be optimised for the chipset/ RAM combination most of the hardware OEMs are using. It’s clear that Google NEEDS to get more content providers onto the platform and it’s clear that apart from Google Assistant coming, Google just hasn’t done much with Android TV lately.
For services like Netflix, STAN, YouTube (normal not YouTube TV which joins the long list of Google products not in Australia), KODI, Plex etc the Android TV apps are generally consistent and work well. I have to admit I’m a fan of the so-called “lean back” experience with interacting with my TV. I’m not a fan of casting from my phone or tablet to me that’s a second-rate experience and something I loathe to do, especially with some of the terrible Australian Catch-Up TV apps on Android phones, assuming that it even has cast support, looking at you ABC iView!
So it kind of makes sense that what is there works well enough. Of course what Android discussion would be complete without a discussion of fragmentation. However, with Google’s more strict control of Android TV distributions (thankfully), the fragmentation comes into the actual apps and what features they support.
With such a limited selection of apps it’s jarring when they don’t all support features like voice search or interaction. That, unfortunately, feels like it will always be the story for android apps on anything other than a phone. The volume of devices just doesn’t seem to drive companies to invest in updates on Tablets and Android TV – if they invest in development at all.
To make a list of what I consider is missing from Android TV would be long, and some of these things would likely push up against some treacherous copyright issues, but I think Google has the scale to address those issues if they really took the Android TV platform seriously, here’s my top three highlights from that list.
1) Apps, it’s missing basic TV apps especially in Australia but from reading reviews from other countries we are not alone in having a less than full catalogue of catch up TV apps from our traditional terrestrial broadcast networks. I’ll pick on ABC but the same goes for several major Australian broadcasters.
ABC has an Android App, in fact, they have an Android TV app (they exclusively bundle with Sony TV’s from memory) however it’s not distributed via the Play Store and when sideloaded it understandably acts a little wonky. Google just needs to fix this, build the apps themselves if necessary but if they want Australian’s to take Android TV seriously then they need to take our market seriously, and when compared to Apple TV this is a massive red mark against Android TV.
2) PVR functionality, again I’m sure this isn’t as simple as building an app, there would be both copyright and hardware considerations but considering there is still a vibrant PVR market out there it’s crazy that Android TV isn’t grasping the opportunity to build at least the option of a PVR into the platform – rant over.
3) Walled gardens. This is actually not something Google can do much about, although they do participate in it themselves, looking at you Amazon Fire devices vs YouTube. If you want to watch Foxtel Now because they have brought up the exclusive Australian rights for 26 decades of great content. Tough.
You just can’t and likely never will get the app natively on an Android TV device. Why? Because they sell their own underpowered half-baked Android TV set-top box that they want you to buy, end of story. This isn’t exclusive to Foxtel (although they are one of the worst down under), just like messaging and some many other parts of modern digital life walled gardens and content exclusives seem to have permanently and irrevocably ruined the TV experience.
I should be clear that this is the experience on ANY Android TV device, I love that Google has more strictly controlled the Android TV product, as such TCL is powerless to affect any of these things. Unfortunately, Google seems to have strictly controlled Android TV, and then mostly forgotten it.
Why do I use it then? As someone who is all in on the Google/ Android thing I’m forever hoping that their products will get better, and in the meantime, I have adapted MY watching habits to fit the limitations of the platform. Lucky that was easy to do with the content I want to watch, I watch 0.00000% broadcast TV. For my wife who almost exclusively watches TV or catch up TV, she hates Android TV, or as she calls it “this bloody thing” (again that’s Android TV in general, not the C6 specifically).
To give Android TV its due, when it works it’s great. With voice search integrated into Netflix, KODI’s alpha, and other content “channels” it’s so easy to ask to watch content and have it just surface, one click and you’re watching. If only all VOD services were available to install and all services use those APIs/ features.
TCL C6 Android TV Performance
Ok the audio-visual acumen of the C6 is fantastic, Android TV is what it is so how does this excellent sound and light package run Android TV? From my experience in the Android TV space there are 2 categories; NVIDIA Shield and everything else.
I think that needs to be acknowledged up front. At ⅓ of the price of a full TV the overall experience on the NVIDIA Shield is excellent. The only thing it’s missing is a coaxial input for broadcast TV and reliable Bluetooth – which is itself an oxymoron. So I tend to remove the NVIDIA shield from my mind when playing with other Android TV devices.
Before we get too much further on let’s take a quick look at the basic specs on the “Android side” of things. The C6 is running Android 7.0 out of the box with an upgrade possibly to Android 8.0 Oreo expected in the near future. Hardware wise it’s packing a Quad Core 64bit 1.1Ghz processor with a Mali T860 GPU and 2.5 GB of DDR 3 RAM and 16 GB of internal storage.
When I compare the C6 to other Android TV’s and set-top boxes I’ve used it’s on par with those experiences. As I’ve said Google needs to optimise Android for the performance configuration mainly being used in such devices – or like the original Android One program set specific hardware requirements to ensure consistent performance.
That’s not to say that the experience on the C6 is bad, it’s definitely not. You can, however, tell around the edges where the platform is struggling to keep up. For daily use of turning it on and watching TV, Netflix or YouTube it was perfectly adequate and on par with its contemporaries both in the Android TV space and the wider non-Android smart TV market.
I did find, as I was advised in advance, that the TV did benefit from an occasional “restart”. The C6 has an optional standby mode. This leaves the Android TV component always listening even when the screen is off. This means faster start-ups and quick casting when the screen is off.
However, when using this mode it’s good to give the TV a quick reboot every few days. My solution was a smart power plug that turned the TV off for a minute in the middle of the night a couple of times a week.
I did encounter an incompatible game when using the candy bar remote. Crossy Roads is a family favourite and with the standard remote it didn’t work, however with a paired Bluetooth controller or the smart remote it would work. TCL also noticed this and may well find what the cause is and patch it in an upcoming release.
The crowning glory of my gaming experience was when I installed Steam link and played a PC game on this epic display. If you’re a PC gaming nerd that should have you foaming at the mouth. It’s things like steam link that demonstrate the promise of Android TV, when platforms play together you get something exceptional.
TCL C6 Android TV Conclusion
A review conclusion normally comes down to one thing should you buy a TCL C6 4K HDR TV, for many people my answer will be an unequivocally yes. At the SRRP of just $1699 for the 55” model (the same unit we reviewed), the TCL offers excellent value for money compared to the competition, especially considering TV’s seem to always be on sale these days, yay capitalistic competition?
If you are “just looking for a good display” then the TCL C6 has you covered. I’m sure if you got some AV expert to do a side by side pixel for pixel comparison of different TVs using a scanning electron microscope you may be able to quantify a difference between vendors. For me it’s about what it’s like to watch, how is the colour, contrast ratio and crispness (especially in moving images).
With its 200Hz HDR 10 display with a contrast ratio of 4000:1 it more than met the needs of my 41 year old bespectacled eyes. Without fail everyone I showed the TV to, which was any person who was unlucky enough to enter my house, they all echoed my sentiments about the display, it was great.
When I subjected friends to the Avatar and Dark Knight side by side tests they all agreed the image was superb. That’s enough for me. As far as I’m concerned I need not look any further for a “better” panel this one is good enough for me.
Add to this excellent panel my minimum TV specs of; an Audio Return Channel (ARC) for one cable connection to my sound system, Consumer Electronic Control (CEC) for cross-device remote synchronization and the added bonus of Chromecast Built in the C6 meets all of my requirements.
Now add on to that a truly great sound bar, one good enough that I would (and did) happily use this as a primary or secondary TV for 99% of my TV watching. In fact if I didn’t already have a 5.1 system I’m not sure I’d feel compelled to upgrade with the C6. I’m not saying it’s surround grade I’m just saying I think it’s good enough most of the time, especially considering I rarely get to watch the TV up loud, have kids they said……
Add on top of that Android TV and the advantages that brings, ie Google Play content access, YouTube, Netflix and voice search with perhaps the promise of full assistant integration on the Android TV horizon the reasons to buy the TCL C6 just keep mounting up.
My traditional TV advice has often been don’t buy a smart TV buy 3 devices, a display, a content box and a sound system. That way if one becomes obsolete you can simply update that bit. However, having everything in one package has actually been a benefit, especially as there are no excellent combined set-top box/ broadcast TV devices on the market.
Yes the sound in this can be upgraded, and adding in a dedicated sound system would be easy thanks to ARC. In all likelihood the Android TV component of the C6 will become superseded before the TV dies, however, that’s the same for ALL smart TVs. When that happens you can seamlessly add on a new set top box and still be running a beautiful display.
If you are looking for a one device solution for your home AV needs, or something to let you enter the “home theatre” space and grow in time then the versatility of the C6 combined with its value proposition makes this a TV that should be on your list for TVs for serious consideration.