Introduction and features
With an increase in affordability and buying options, making the upgrade to 4K (or Ultra HD) is something any serious home cinema enthusiast who hasn’t made the leap already should now be considering. While TCL’s a brand still trying to establish itself outside of its home of China, this 55-inch UHD panel ticks off a host of features sure to be on the wish list for anyone looking to embrace a world beyond HD.
4K? Check. Android Smart TV? Check. Quad-core CPU & GPU? Check. Active 3D? Er, yeah, that’s there too, although 3D’s become more of a niche function and something this reviewer can generally do without. But more on that later. The U55H8800CDS also boasts one of those divisive curved screens. A questionable choice, sure – unnecessary at best and downright annoying at worst – but with manufacturers like Samsung and LG continuing to insist on the value of the curve it seems unfair to single out TCL for following suit. There must be someone out there to whom it appeals, right?
In fact, the curved screen’s Marmite effect can be applied to this whole panel. It sets itself apart with a unique approach to styling that will not be to everyone’s taste. But there’s an assured quality to it all that leaves you feeling it should be pricier than it is, whether you like it or not. In terms of the hit to your wallet, the TCL sits between comparative 55-inch 4K options from the likes of Samsung and LG, and the more budget TVs offered by retailers like Kogan, which boast similar specs but are clearly lower in quality. This 55-inch panel costs $2,199 – its 65-inch sibling will set you back $3,299 – and it comes with a three-year warranty. Whether you like the styling or not, for a quality 55-inch 4K TV with smart insides that’s a pretty good deal.
There’s a distinct 70s flair to the U55H8800CDS, shunning the floating on air, razor-thin shard of glass approach to styling many manufacturers currently prefer. That’s not to say the panel is particularly bulky – it has a thin-ish edge of 20mm along the top and down the sides – but there’s a solidness to it; almost a masculinity. It might appeal for the same reason someone prefers a ute over a sports car. It’s not unattractive. Just different.
Part of that stems from TCL’s choice of base. While other manufacturers have in the past used a thin metal stand, or even a semi-transparent support to add to that floating appearance, the U55H8800CDS proudly boasts a large, heavy base, with an unmissable dark panel running along the bottom of the screen. This panel’s 90mm tall and features a section of wood veneer in the centre, flanked by cloth-covered speakers. This is an unusual approach, and while the benefits of a curved screen are up for debate, there’s something sculpture-like about the sweep of the panel and the angle at which it leans back from this heavy base.
Beyond the aesthetics, the U55H8800CDS is a smart TV with an LED backlit LCD screen, packing 3840 by 2160 pixels. The LED technology means that the independently-controlled diodes are only activated in the parts of the screen that require it, maximising the appearance of contrast. TCL’s technology isn’t as effective as the incredible results offered by the LG 65EG960T 4K OLED panel we reviewed earlier this year, but it’s only a fraction of the price, too. The TV has four HDMI inputs on its right side, which should come in handy as more 4K sources become readily available, as well as singular USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports. A set of RCA connections for component video and audio input are also present, as well as 3.5mm sockets for A/V input and A/V output, a 3.5mm socket for headphones, optical digital audio output, and ethernet jack.
Naturally, for anyone who doesn’t want their lounge room looking like a set leftover from The Matrix, Wi-Fi’s also on board for wireless connectivity. The smart TV portion of proceedings runs on the Android operating system, but that doesn’t mean you can just sign into the Google Play store and start downloading all your favourite apps straight to your telly. TCL has its own app store, which is functional, but laborious to navigate – the slight delay after inputting each letter during a search makes the whole process much slower than it should be.
Fortunately, TCL could provide additional functionality and make the whole app store process more fluid via updates should it so choose down the track. Out of the box, the U55H8800CDS comes packing apps like YouTube, Deezer, and a web browser, while other apps like ABC iView, SBS on Demand, Facebook, Twitter and Spotify can be added as needed. Sadly SVOD services like Netflix, Stan and Presto are yet to surface on TCL’s store, so you’ll need to use one of the TV’s HDMI inputs to connect another device like the Telstra TV or a PS4 if you want to access them.
The whole setup is powered by a quad-core CPU, while the TV packs a quad-core GPU as well. Finally, the TV’s sound comes courtesy of Harman Kardon, or at the very least was “tuned by” the iconic speaker brand, whatever that means. The mystery continues as unspecified speakers are mounted at the front of the TV in the bottom right and bottom left corners, while two 75mm upwards-firing woofers are located in the base of the panel at the back.
Usability and performance
The U55H8800CDS is one of the more straightforward TVs you’ll ever have to pull out of an over-sized cardboard box. Setting it up is an absolute breeze. With the base of the TV already attached, all you really need to do is decide where you want to position it and then plug everything in. The base has a downside though, in that the TV doesn’t really lend itself to being mounted on the wall. That’s still an option if you really must, but it would look strange and bulky, so sitting it on a piece of furniture is the best option. If you want a panel that enables you to fast forward to the watching part, the U55H8800CDS gets a big tick.
Before you can get to that, though, you can expect to do just a little picture tweaking. While the default settings’ colour, brightness and contrast are all pretty spot on, the sharpness is way too high. This is often the case with TVs out of the box and produces harsh results. Wind it back and you’ll rid yourself of a whole lot of unsightly grain, leaving you with clear, crisp images. Once you’re on the couch, it’s time to examine the TV’s remote. It’s a little on the large side – not that that’s a problem – and has an angular black and silver design. Some wood detailing matching the TV might have been welcome, but perhaps that would have been one cheesy 70s nod too far.
For the most part it works as a standard IR setup, but also features mouse and microphone buttons. The mouse button activates a cursor function, which makes it easier to navigate menus and TCL’s app store, while the microphone button activates – you guessed it – the remote’s in-built microphone, which recognises a limited selection of voice commands – the cursor function is practical if you’re going to use the TV’s smart features, but the microphone is hit and miss. You’re better off just keeping the remote in its IR mode.
Once everything’s set, the U55H8800CDS produces some great results. Certainly better than we’d normally expect to see at this price point. To make the most of this TV you’ll need to access some of the admittedly limited 4K content that’s currently available. Hopefully the 4K panels currently flooding the market will cause an avalanche of content that capitalises on what these TVs can do. Pumping a Netflix 4K subscription into this particular panel delivered impressive results. Images look incredibly sharp and detailed, really adding to the overall feel that this is a premium TV. Watching Netflix’s Daredevil series in such clarity revealed details that were not apparent in regular HD, and even standard Blu-rays look crisper than you would expect.
Colours that are natural and strong – the only orange-toned skin you’ll see will be during reruns of Jersey Shore, shame on you – and the image processing is brisk, which is particularly handy if you’re planning on using the panel for gaming. At its worst, this panel produces delay of 40 milliseconds, which is quick for a 4K TV – most feature delay closer to 100 milliseconds or more. But it gets better. Brave the U55H8800CDS’s settings menu and you can toggle it into Game Mode, which will halve the already impressive image processing speed.
The TV is impressively bright, too, but don’t position it too near a window or sunny days will become the bane of your existence. This is where the curve starts to be a problem. With limited options for TV placement in this reviewer’s abode, I was forced to position it across from a window. It’s a small window, but a source of light nonetheless. On a normal flat-screen panel it can create a small reflection, but it’s nothing unbearable. On the curved TV, however, the window’s light is bent and spreads across almost half the screen. So if you’re going to set this (or any other) curved TV up near a window be prepared to invest in some curtains or blinds to go along with it.
The other common curve-related complaint – viewing angles – also rears its head. They’re not too bad here, but as with all curved TVs you’ll still want to sit as close to the centre of the panel as possible. It just feels wrong otherwise. The TCL’s audio offering is surprisingly good for in-built speakers. It’s certainly loud, and even does a decent job with music, delivering surprising clarity at higher volumes and a nice dose of upper bass – though really deep bass is lacking. Overall, the TCL does a great job here, and less fussy users may find they don’t need to invest in additional sound gear once you’ve give Harman/Kardon’s setup a try. Particularly if they’re a little short on space.
But it’s not all good news. One of the U55H8800CDS’s biggest flaws is its flat, clumsy user interface. It’s slow, ugly, and as we mentioned, lacking in apps from all the major SVOD services. You might want to make the whole experience more bearable by just plugging a Chromecast or an Apple TV into the panel and forgetting that the TCL smart functionality is even there.
As mentioned previously, the U55H8800CDS supports 3D, and the panel comes with one set of lightweight active glasses. Or at least it’s meant to. Unfortunately the review unit we were supplied had its glasses missing, so we weren’t able to put the panel’s 3D functionality through its paces. Having said that, 3D is a pretty lacklustre, secondary feature for many people these days, and while we could be wrong, we can’t see TCL being the brand that transforms it into a must-have.
The U55H8800CDS is far from perfect, but it has a unique charm that’s won us over. If this TV is an indication of where TCL’s at in terms of its value for money proposition there’s no reason its panels shouldn’t be warmly embraced by markets outside of China. While it’s an unconventional TV that has plenty of quirks, they can’t detract from the fact that in many ways it’s a premium piece of kit without the premium price tag.
This is an unconventionally handsome telly that almost doubles as a piece of modern sculpture when you turn off. The wood panel in the centre of its base seems odd at first, but after a few days of looking at it it’s become strangely appealing. The TV delivers surprisingly good sound performance, offering quality audio at higher volume levels, which may give anyone with modest living space reason to question whether or not they really need to invest in further audio gear. This TV will handle the latest Marvel adventure with aplomb, and even do a respectable job on your music.
The screen is bright, delivering natural colours and blacks that, while not exactly deep, aren’t too washed out either – they’ll get you through until OLED panels become the norm. This is one of the easiest TVs to get going out of the box – not that they’re ever that tricky, but this one is particularly pain-free – and gamers will be thrilled by the rapid image processing speed, which could make the difference between shooting your opponent or being shot yourself. And the price is a pleasant surprise. We would have expected to pay considerably more for a 55-inch 4K smart TV with this build quality, even if the smarts are underwhelming.
We can’t provide a blanket recommendation of the U55H8800CDS to everyone. It’s not a TV you’ll want to mount on your wall – that heavy base will just look odd, and frankly we’d be worried about the whole thing coming down. The user interface is just awful. It’s excruciatingly slow and cumbersome, and best avoided altogether if you have a Chromecast, Apple TV or something similar to use as a substitute. The app store also has some serious holes, not least of which is the absence of Netflix, Stan and Presto apps.
A compelling value-for-money offering, the U55H8800CDS is an unusual, but surprisingly appealing piece of home theatre kit. Whether the TV’s modest pricing will be enough to overlook its shortcomings is up to each individual buyer, but for a quality 55-inch 4K TV it’s hard to look past. With terrific 4K images, audio from Harman/Kardon, a premium build, and unique aesthetics that are sure to be a talking point, TCL has delivered a winner. At $2,199 it’s a tempting buy, and if you’re willing to do a little shopping around you could probably snap it up for even cheaper.