(Pocket-lint) - Every year, most of the big TV brands throw bags of time and money at trying to make their sets' smart features easier to use and/or richer in content than those of their rivals.
Given how much mileage the new Hisense TV gets out of a third-party Roku smart system, though, serious questions need to be raised over whether those in-house smart TV efforts are really worth the trouble.
Given its entry-level price point, the 50-inch Roku TV (known as the R50B7120, if you're looking for the model number) is a game-changer when it comes to budget telly usability.
- 3x HDMI inputs
- 1x USB multimedia ports
- LAN and Wi-Fi multimedia options
The Hisense Roku TV looks a bit basic by today's standards. It's fairly chunky, for instance, both around the back and in the width of the frame around the screen. Its finish looks and feels pretty lightweight, with far more plastic than metal in play. Its black feet, too, put function ahead of any attractive sort of form.
It's all far removed from the attractive, premium finish of Hisense's step-up ULED models, which tend to be super-slim and feature lots of crisp metal.
The Hisense Roku TV's remote control continues the plasticky theme. It also provides the first hint at the smart features that make this TV such a winner for its extraordinarily low price. For as well as carrying direct buttons for Freeview Play, Netflix, Google Play, Rakuten, and Spotify, it has a little purple navigation cross at its centre that immediately recalls the remote controls provided with Roku's external streaming devices.
It's a pity, perhaps, that Hisense hasn't provided direct Amazon Prime and YouTube buttons alongside the other direct streamed source buttons. But the Roku operating system doesn't exactly make it hard to track those services down if you want them.
Connectivity is perfectly respectable for a 50-inch 4K LCD TV too. There are three HDMI ports, all capable of playing 4K conent at up to 60Hz with high dynamic range (HDR) compatibility; Wi-Fi and Ethernet options to feed the Roku smart platform; and a single USB port for playing multimedia files.
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) support: HDR10, HLG
Not surprisingly given that the Hisense Roku TV is a 4K smart TV at a low price, picture features are thin on the ground. In fact, initially it seems as if there are practically no picture adjustments at all beyond a handful of image presets.
Unexpectedly though, it turns out that the Hisense Roku app (for Android or Apple devices) includes an Expert Settings section that provides access to noise reduction, colour temperature, white balance management and gamma settings. Passing such in-depth adjustments to an external smart device app is highly unusual, but makes sense. After all, it enables the main TV menus to remain simple and uncluttered, leaving the complicated stuff elsewhere for the dedicated few who might want to use it.
The picture presets mentioned earlier, though, are the least helpful thing about the generally friendly Hisense Roku TV - especially with high dynamic range (HDR) sources. The problem is that, as the picture section will show, none of the presets really deliver what feels like the best balance between brightness, contrast and colour performance.
- Smart System: Roku, with Freeview Play
As its name suggests, the Hisense Roku TV's smart features sit right at the heart of the set's appeal. While TV makers have all sorts of technical things to worry about, Roku has been focused for more than a decade now simply on refining its smart interface and building relationships with content providers. As a result, it now has the most content-rich and arguably easiest-to-use smart TV platform in the A/V world.
It makes all kinds of sense, therefore, for Hisense to have worked with Roku to get the latter's platform running smoothly inside one of its 2020 TV line-ups. Especially as Hisense's own VIDAA smart platform is fairly B-list by comparison.
While integrating Roku smarts makes sense on paper, though, can a budget 50-inch TV really run such a content-rich platform effectively? Well, yes, it can. In fact, one of the most engaging things about the Roku interface here is how stable it is. Menus load quickly, navigation runs slickly, and software crashes just don't happen. The difference in this respect between Roku TV and the Android TV smart platform used by some rival TV brands - most notably Sony and Philips - is night and day.
Making the stability of the built-in Roku platform all the more remarkable is how much content it carries. Seriously, it's got everything. The film and TV app section alone has more than 900 apps available to download. An extraordinary number which includes all the big hitters: Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Rakuten, Plex, Tidal, Spotify, Sky News, Now TV, Google Play, and Freeview Play (and all the UK broadcaster catch up services that Freeview Play covers).
Obviously there's also a lot of seriously niche stuff among such a massive list of video sources. But Roku's interface is so straightforward and refined that the vast amounts of content on offer never feels like clutter. Not least because pretty much no app turns up in the Roku homescreen without being chosen to appear there.
To seal the Hisense Roku TV's sweet smart TV deal, its apps all support HDR and 4K where available. It's perhaps a pity that there's no support for the premium Dynamic HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR formats, but this is only to be expected on such a budget TV offering.
The Hisense Roku TV doesn't deliver anything particularly special on the picture quality front. This is hardly a shock for a 50-inch TV with such a price tag, though. And actually, while its pictures don't break new ground, its VA-type panel and direct LED lighting play their part in ensuring that there's nothing aggressively bad about them, either.
The HDR Dynamic setting will probably get the most use, thanks to the way it raises the average brightness level of HDR sources. This results in generally more punch, and much bolder, more vibrant colours than the HDR Day and Night modes provide.
The HDR Game mode is quite punchy too, and reduces the time the screen takes to produce pictures to an exceptionally low, game-friendly 12ms. But it also lacks refinement versus the HDR Dynamic mode.
The HDR Day and Night modes both sacrifice baseline brightness to deliver a wider light range. This means they're more accurate in their HDR presentation. Small, bright highlights of HDR images enjoy as much intensity as a screen only capable of 316 nits can deliver - flagships can hit 1,000 or 2,000 nits by comparison, so are much brighter - and the HDR Day and Night modes deliver more consistently balanced and refined colours.
The Day and Night modes also tend to lose quite a bit of subtle light detail in dark areas versus the HDR Dynamic mode. Though the Dynamic mode sometimes brings too much dark detail out, revealing image noise that was supposed to have remained hidden in the darkness! A solution of sorts to this (though it's impossible to get a perfect picture balance) is to select the Dynamic mode and tone down the colour and brightness a few notches. Tinkering with the white balance and colour management systems via the Hisense Roku app can help too - though this should only be attempted by people with a fair degree of AV knowledge.
Ideally Hisense would have provided a further preset - something like the Standard presets found on many rival TVs - that delivered a picture somewhere between the Dynamic and Day HDR options.
With some of the OTT parts of its HDR Dynamic mode toned down, the Hisense Roku TV delivers a solid balance of decent black levels, decently rich colours, decent brightness, decent contrast, and decent sharpness (except for a little motion blur). All this decentness stacks up well for a TV at this price point; the absence of any true nasties means the image feels quite balanced and, as a result, immersive.
There's an upside to the Hisense Roku TV's rather hefty design: a surprisingly good sound system.
It's much louder than most budget TVs, for starters. But this doesn't just mean it makes more noise. Its speakers have enough headroom and dynamism to avoid becoming harsh when put under pressure by an action scene. There's no drop out, phutting or buzzing either.
There's a decent amount of detail in the mix, too. And best of all, the sound actually projects away from the screen, rather than getting swallowed into it as often happens with budget TVs.
In the UK, the 50-inch Roku TV costs just £299 at launch, which makes this telly something of a game-changer. Its picture and especially sound quality are both better than could reasonably have been expected for so little money. It's the Roku smarts, however, that really make this set stand out from its peers.
The quantity of the apps Roku provides, together with its interface's no-nonsense simplicity and stability, rewrites the budget TV rulebook. In fact, the Roku engine works so well that it's easy to imagine Hisense being only the first of many brands to tie the Roku knot, as is the case in the USA and wider markets.
Alternatives to consider
This Philips LED TV offers slightly superior picture quality to the Hisense Roku TV, as well as adding support for the premium HDR10+ and Dolby Vision HDR picture systems. Its a smidgen pricier, though, and doesn't sound as good. Plus its SAPHI smarts are no rival for Roku TV.
Samsung is a rarity in today's LCD TV world for using VA-type LCD panels even on its most affordable TVs. This helps the RU7100 produce better contrast and colour than most sub-£400 4K TVs. Samsung's Eden smart platform is pretty nice too, and even includes the Apple TV app.