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Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

TCL S-series 55-inch Roku Smart TV
Image used with permission by copyright holder

TVs are pretty good these days. That is to say, most any TV you can buy right now – bargain basement, ultra-low budget brands being the one possible exception – is going to do what it does fairly well. That wasn’t always the case, however. It wasn’t even the case a decade ago. So what has changed?

For one, manufacturers of LCD panels have refined their techniques to the point where even lower-priced screens look fairly decent, but that isn’t the main reason. Really, there’s one company we have to thank: Roku.

Introduced in 2014, the Roku TV platform saw the company teaming up with companies like TCL and Hisense to offer low-priced TVs with all the smarts and functionality of Roku’s wildly popular streaming devices built in. Since then, other companies have followed suit, including Sharp, Philips, RCA, and JVC, with Magnavox and Sanyo being among the most recent members of the Roku TV club. So, what is the advantage of the Roku platform over other budget TV interfaces?

A smart TV platform you can count on

One of the biggest pain points you’ll find on budget TVs is trying to use their smart TV features. Anyone who has used the built-in smart TV features of lower-priced TVs almost inevitably sighs in frustration when recalling the experience. It’s hard to blame the companies – after all, they’re responsible for designing the whole TV, often on a shoestring budget.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Roku has built its name on making one of the most intuitive, simple, and easy-to-use smart platforms on the market. With Roku inside, TV manufacturers simply have to worry about the actual hardware, which is the part they know well, while Roku handles the software.

Apps, apps, and more apps

Along with a smoother interface, Roku’s sheer number of apps (which ranges well over 5,000) pretty much destroys all other budget TV app libraries. While you’ll find some of the bigger players like Netflix and Hulu on most smart TV platforms, you’re less likely to find support for lesser-known services and apps, as those services don’t have the resources to create bespoke apps for every different TV manufacturer’s platform. In fact, with a lot of smart TV interfaces, you may even miss out on much more prominent apps like Amazon Prime Video and HBO Now.

The ubiquity of the Roku OS means that any streaming service that wants to be taken seriously essentially has to support that platform. Otherwise, they’re turning away a large base of potential streamers. Even pricier TVs from premium brands can’t compete with Roku, all but requiring you to get an add-on streaming device if you want a large selection of apps to choose from.

Fewer ports? No problem!

Our top TVs

Of course, the lack of a need for an outboard streaming device also saves you a precious HDMI port, and HDMI ports are often at a premium on budget-priced TVs. Take the TCL 5-Series Roku TV, for example, which currently holds the top spot on our list of the best TVs under $500. It’s a fantastic TV for the money, but only has three HDMI ports. If you had to plug in a Roku, Chromecast, or other streaming device, that would bring you down to two. Freeing up that extra HDMI port can be a big deal, especially if you’re a gamer with a few consoles to plug in.

Roku also makes switching ports easier, since the Roku home screen is the TV’s “default” state. This saves you from having to fumble around with your remote and scroll through HDMI inputs until you find the right one.

Do you really need that expensive TV?

Returning to the earlier point about the advancement in displays in recent years, most name-brand TVs look pretty good these days, and what’s more, most people don’t necessarily need the absolute best picture quality money can buy. If all you want to do is kick back and put your feet up to watch your favorite sitcom or drama, you may well be better off buying a Roku TV and saving the money you’d spend on a premium set for a soundbar or A/V receiver. After all, there’s a reason there’s always at least one Roku TV on our list of the best TVs you can buy in a given year. For a potential savings of hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you get a big screen, a fantastic OS, and picture quality that is more than good enough for most scenarios.

Buying a budget TV used to mean you were settling. That isn’t the case anymore

Of course, there are plenty of people who want everything they watch to be displayed in pristine quality, and while Roku TVs can be pretty good (especially the latest TCL 6-series), you won’t find any that approach the best OLED TVs from LG or Sony, or Samsung’s QLED TVs. Still, especially if you’re upgrading from an old HD TV, you’ll likely be just fine with one of the better Roku TV models (and you may even be happier with the interface, to boot).

A bright future

Roku isn’t the only company capitalizing on the prevalence of poor TV interfaces, either. In 2017, Amazon entered the market with its Fire TV Edition models, which puts its snappy and intuitive FireOS on affordable TVs from companies like Seiki, Westinghouse, and Element. So far, these models haven’t offered the same blend of picture quality and affordability that we’ve seen in Roku TVs – while you’ll find Fire TV Edition TVs with high dynamic range (HDR) support, we have yet to see any with Dolby Vision HDR, for example.

Element 4K Ultra HD Roku TV with HDR
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Amazon also doesn’t seem as all-in on the TV market as Roku is, so we haven’t seen the same rapid acceleration in the quality of Fire Edition TVs. That said, as it continues to push its Amazon Alexa smart system, we expect Amazon to start ramping up its efforts — and a little competition can go a long way for you, the buyer.

You may be familiar with the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and this could prove to be the case with Roku TVs. Budget TVs getting better means all TVs are getting better, and that’s a good thing for everyone, no matter what your TV budget may be.

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Kris Wouk
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kris Wouk is a tech writer, gadget reviewer, blogger, and whatever it's called when someone makes videos for the web. In his…
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