TCL 5 Series 4K UHD HDR LCD TV Review (43S517, 49S517, 55S517, 65S517)
Stephan Jukic – January 23, 2019
TCL’s 5-Series 4K HDR TV is the next down in price and performance from the flagship 2018 6-Series released by the brand in 2018 and for early 2019 and on the whole it offers a bit of a mixed bag of performance that balances out nicely for its price. This 4K HDR LCD TV lacks certain advanced features like local dimming and very high levels of peak brightness, which are both offered by the 6-Series, but what it does come with it mostly delivers well. This includes excellent color performance, beautifully rendered native 4K resolution, full HDR support and superbly good black levels and contrast ratios. It’s also an exceptionally good gaming TV due to its high responsiveness and support for console gameplay in 4K, 1080P, HDR and assorted other color and frame rate settings. In general terms, the 5-Series is strictly mi-range but it’s good mid-range and priced very nicely.
• Fantastic color delivery in HDR and for normal content
• Great contrast and black levels
• Excellent console gaming TV
• Nicely priced
• Great motion blur control
• Good overall performance
• Doesn’t get exceptionally bright for HDR content
• No local dimming (unlike its 6-Series cousin)
• VA display creates poor image quality at angles
The TCL 5-Series 4K HDR TV compares really well against the majority of similarly priced competitor 4K UHD TVs on the market and is priced competitively as well. In other words, we recommend it in a general sense and especially recommend it for anyone who wants to get their hands on a really good but reasonably priced 4K HDR TV for gaming with their console. This applies especially if you want to do native 4K or HDR gaming. The 5-Series doesn’t deliver exceptional HDR highlights but it will pull off excellent color and good black levels while being very responsive. Overall we definitely recommend the TCL 6-Series more because it’s a definitively better 4K TV in every way while also being very reasonably priced but if your budget is indeed tight, the S517 5-Series is one of the better choices available that’s easy to buy. (Vizio’s 4K HDR TVs and the highly similar E-Series are slightly better but for some reason absurdly difficult to buy new sometimes).
What We Liked
A number of specific features in the TCL 5-Series S517 4K HDR TV are specifically, exceptionally or at least very good and they’re what really make this TV worth buying at the price it sells for. Most of these revolve around the S517’s display performance but this TV’s fantastic smart TV platform is also a major factor in this model’s quality
The TCL 5-Series renders color fantastically good, well above average for 4K HDR TVs in its price range. Its Wide Color Gamut coverage is impressive and its 10-bit color coverage is also simply great. Both of these things surprised us in this relatively economical 4K TV. Sure, it’s an HDR model but many budget HDR TVs claim this only because they cover the most basic minimal requirements for high dynamic range. In the case of the 5-Series S517, it delivers the goods wonderfully on vibrant HDR color. This is especially useful because this model also supports Dolby Vision HDR, thus letting it actually show you a decent flow of the color range and highlights that Dolby delivers to the right kinds of 4K TVs that it’s present in.
Contrast and Black Levels
To make the superb color delivery powers of the S517 even more pronounced, we have this television’s very good (though not incredible) black level and contrast performance. In terms of contrast, despite not being an exceptionally bright 4K TV when it comes to sustained or peak screen luminosity, the 5-Series does manage very good contrast. It even beats a number of more expensive 4K UHD TVs we can think of. Its overall black level performance -meaning how well the S517 can display black uniformity and black level depth on the screen for the sake of high quality images and more vibrant looking colors- we again get a pleasant surprise in the form of excellent or at least great delivery of both sub-specs. The blacks on this model are slightly cloudy but generally they’re excellent for making the S517’s colors stand out beautifully and for letting the TV’s limited display brightness do the best within its limits. Even more impressive is the fact that the 5-Series pulls all of these things off without having any local dimming technology at all.
Support for Multiple HDR Standards
One thing that the TCL 5-Series also offers in terms of HDR performance is support for Dolby Vision HDR as well as HDR10 and Hybrid Log Gamma standards capability. This is something that not all name brand 4K HDR TVs offer (Samsung’s entire lineup of televisions being a good example), so if you want maximum possible HDR settings coverage in your own home theater system, the TCL 5-Series models won’t let you down on their support specs.
While the overall motion handling of the TCL 5-Series for movies, TV shows and most programming inputs from streaming, external device and broadcast sources is only moderately good, the 5-Series is nonetheless good at delivering motion blur control in general because of a very good pixel response time (how quickly pixels respond by changing colors and brightness for content motion) and even more notably, is a great console gaming 4K HDR TV. For one thing it’s good at delivering strong gaming specs because it is capable of very high responsiveness with connected consoles, with low input lag almost across the board at different resolution, frame rate and HDR/SDR color settings. And secondly it’s great at delivering today’s most advanced console games with really good HDR and in native 4K if the games support these settings. The 5-Series display brightness may not be capable of intense highlights but due to the already-mentioned high color quality and strong contrast/black levels, it compensates nicely.
In basic terms, for use with consoles playing games in 4K or 1080p and with or without HDR and other color/contrast formats, the 5 Series delivers wonderfully low input lag pretty much across all settings. The one exception to this is the 5-Series performance when it comes to gaming with the TV’s game Mode disabled or trying to play console games if the motion interpolation feature we mentioned above is turned on. In both of these cases, the 5-Series switches over to a far-too-high input lag of over 100ms.
Nonetheless, the bottom line for this television is that for both handling of fast-paced action content motion from almost any content sources and for playing console games in an assortment of HDR, color, resolution and frame rate settings, the TCL 5-Series is a very strong performer.
Smart TV Platform
All of TCL’s TVs come with the Roku TV smart platform that’s pretty much identical to the version of it found in Roku’s own streaming media devices. We’ve reviewed these before and absolutely love them partly due to the sheer quantity of content options they offer and partly because of how user-friendly Roku TV is (even the most tech-clumsy sort of person will almost certainly get the hang of it in no time). Because the 5-Series offers the same exact smart TV tech, you’ll get one of today’s best smart entertainment platforms for the consumer market built right into your TV right out of the box. This includes access to over 500,000 hours of content across several thousand different apps built into Roku TV, and more native 4K UHD home entertainment than you’d have time to easily watch. We consider this a great bonus feature of the 5-Series S517.
Our Guide to today’s absolute best streaming media set-top boxes for all the 4K ultra HD content you can handle
What We Didn’t Like
The TCL S517 doesn’t come without its fair share of notable weaknesses either though. This is after all a budget 4K UHD TV and definitely a much weaker performer than its more expensive 2018 6 Series cousin. None of the unlikeable things that we found about this TV are in any way real deal-breakers in our opinion, especially with the S517’s very reasonable price tag being considered, but they are worth mentioning just in case some consumers want something that really delivers better on the following:
Screen Brightness Weaknesses
We’d say that the TCL 5 Series 4K HDR TV is below average in its overall capacity for display brightness. The TV’s screen luminosity is remarkably uniform across the board, whether displaying large bright areas or small pin-point bright highlights and on illuminating the display pixels for very large areas of screen space, the 5 Series does a very good job in comparison to some 4K TVs but overall, in both HDR and SDR settings it mostly stays below average by the standards of a majority of 2018 and early 2019 HDR 4K TVs. There’s also notably little if any difference between how bright the S517 can go when set for ordinary content vs. how bright it gets if HDR viewing is activated on the TV. This is disappointing yes. However it’s not terrible, because the TV does still get reasonably bright for the vast majority of content and its high quality deep black levels and consequently excellent capacity for high contrast both work to keep picture quality good. So does the S517’s superb color rendering capacity. What we would however suggest is watching movies or TV shows on the S517 in at least a somewhat dimly lit room.
Lack of Local Dimming
Specifically, the TCL 5 Series has no local dimming at all. This is in any case normally a premium 4K HDR TV feature but certain brands like TCL and Vizio have started offering it in their much more affordably priced 4K ultra HD TVs. Unfortunately in TCL’s case, this wasn’t extended to the S517. Unlike Vizio, which does offer local dimming even in some of its cheapest 4K UHD TVs like the 2018 E Series, TCL gave local dimming to its flagship 6 Series models. That said, the 5 Series TVs don’t suffer too much from their lack of local dimming technology. Because of the already-mentioned high contrast ratio and strong, deep black levels –both of which are possible due to this TV’s very good design for stopping light bleed through pixels- the S517 manages to keep halo effects around brightly lit objects on the screen to a surprisingly low level despite its inability to turn off sections of backlighting inside the screen based on where bright sections of content are being played back (this is what local dimming does to different degrees of precision depending on specific 4K TV).
Viewing angle problems
VA means vertical alignment and it is the technology used in the organization of pixels on many of today’s name brand TV screens. This of course includes all of TCL’s models. What VA means is that the pixels in the screen are vertically aligned from top to bottom lengthwise in a more narrow formation that on the one hand allows for extremely good blocking of backlight bleed but which on the other hand also reduces color, contrast and overall picture quality at wide off-center viewing angles. The 5 Series suffers from this problem to a certain extent, but then again so do most LCD 4K HDR TVs since VA screen panels are the most common LCD TV technology used today. However, if you’ve got a big living room in which people might scatter around a bit to watch the TV from far off to either side, it will spoil the entertainment experience a bit. We prefer VA TVs to their IPS rivals (which have much better viewing angles but also weaker contrast and black levels) but they’re not for everyone. Good alternatives to VA TVs are Sony or LG’s OLED 4K TVs, which offer excellent viewing angles and keep their deep perfect blacks.
Crappy native audio
The TCL S517 outputs what we can describe as only mediocre native audio power. If you’re used to powerful surround-sound speaker systems, the ones in this particular 4K HDR TV will be particularly unimpressive and while you usually can’t expect much from the small and highly centered speakers of any stand-alone 4K television, this model definitely falls below the average for 4K TV speaker performance even with its cheap price tag. You can however easily fix this problem by splurging on even a modestly good external sound system.
Value for Price & Bottom Line
In general we really do recommend the TCL 5 Series S517 despite its weaknesses in certain specific specs. We say this because this 4K HDR TVs good characteristics are very good (and some like its color performance exceptionally good) while the weaknesses are all moderate to minor. At that, the TCL 5 Series is an extremely affordable 4K UHD TV that has plenty to offer. We definitely can say that it’s one of the better or even one of the best budget 4K HDR starter TV options of early 2019 and if you’re a console gaming fan who wants a large gameplay screen with some very responsive, vibrant performance on a budget, the TCL 5 Series is one of the best possible choices you could make right now.
Key TCL 5 SERIES Specs
• Screen sizes: 43 inch 43S517, 49 inch 49S517, 55 inch 55S517, 65 inch 65S517 (TV being reviewed is 55 inches)
• Smart TV: Roku TV smart platform 2018
• HEVC (H.265) Included: Yes
• VP9 Included. Yes
• HD to UHD upscaling: Yes
• HDCP 2.2 Compliance: Yes
• HDR Support: Yes, HDR10, Dolby Vision, Hybrid Log Gamma
• Refresh Rate: 60Hz native refresh
• Screen Lighting: LCD Display with edge-lit LED backlighting & no local dimming
• Resolution: 3,840 x 2,160 pixels UHD
• Wireless Connectivity: Yes, includes both built-in WiFi and Ethernet port
• Remotes: Samsung smart remote, voice control, remote app for iOS and Android
• Connectivity: 3 HDMI (all of them 2.0a and HDCP 2.2) ports, 1 USB ports, 1 Ethernet port, 1 Digital Audio Out, 1 Analog Audio Out 3.5mm, all located along the back of this 4K TV
• Contrast Ratio: 6000+:1 (native, real contrast)
• Maximum Peak Brightness: 301 nits (cd/m2)
• 3D Technology: N/A
• Processor: IPQ Engine
Display Performance Metrics
In this whole larger section on all major display metrics and specifications, we’re going to cover the most crucial indicators of quality picture performance in a 4K TV, in this case the TCL S517 5 Series model. The following all revolve around color reproduction, brightness, black levels, contrast, local dimming and motion handling. These specs may vary slightly from unit to unit so they should not be taken as absolutes. However, they should maintain a generally high level of similarity in all units on the market, making them good enough to be reliable indicators of quality.
Different sizes of TV display can change some of these metrics slightly (for example, larger edge-lit LCD 4K TVs –such as is the case with the TCL 5-Series being covered here- tend to have weaker peak brightness if they’re larger). As an edge-lit LCD TV, the 5 Series can also have some slight variations to how its backlight affects contrast and black uniformity depending on the size of screen being considered.
The following specs are basically what really decides if a 4K TV is worth buying or not. They’re its most important indicators of real performance and they disregard all the marketing and labeling fluff that manufacturers like to slather their TVs with for the sake of making them seem more exceptional than they really might be. Here we ignore fake color brilliance labels and disingenuous terminology about inflated motion handling or visual prowess. In other words, we focus on concrete, measurable relative performance qualifications.
Black Level, Local Dimming and Contrast:
Black level, black uniformity, local dimming and contrast metrics in a 4K TV are all related to each other. Thus they deserve to be covered together in the same subsection.
TCL’s 5 Series TVs deliver all of the above either really well or superbly with the exception of local dimming, which this particular 4K UHD HDR TV actually lacks. The black levels of the 5 Series S517 models are generally very good and they pull off their quality despite the absence of local dimming technology, which tends to augment black uniformity and black depth even further because it completely shuts off backlight LEDs as needed and where possible behind a 4K TV’s screen. The S517 TV doesn’t have anything close to perfect black uniformity but then again very few K4 TVs that aren’t OLED models do. What it does pull off is a very high level of black evenness across the whole screen and with only modest clouding caused by slight backlight bleed. This is barely noticeable if any bright content is also present on the TV display. Black depth is also consequently very strong in the TCL 5 Series models and like we said, it manages to work reasonably well despite the lack of a local dimming feature.
This talk of black depth above of course brings us to the contrast ratio of the S517. It’s very high and we’d even say remarkably so considering that the S517 is not at all a particularly bright ultra HD TV. What nonetheless makes its contrast ratio so very good is that the black depth of this television is really strong. Contrast is a crucial aspect of HDR performance and when it comes to how vibrant colors look on the screen simply because rich colors in bright scenes look even richer when everything isn’t washed out by weak contrast and dull blacks. The S517 S Series models thus get their contrast very right at 6000:1 and again, they pull off this very nice level despite their lack of local dimming. This 4K TV’s colors are amazingly good anyhow but this contrast ratio helps make them look even better.
Where the 6 Series falls slightly short is on local dimming. This is a real mid-range 4K TV (though certainly far from the cheapest you can find) and as a result we weren’t really expecting it to include local dimming technology. However, because it lacks this feature, it doesn’t perform as well on all of the above as it could. It nonetheless does perform well and it having no local dimming isn’t really a big deal. Most consumers should barely notice the absence unless they’re used to how well really high end 4K TVs manage to pull off their black levels.
The maximum possible spot HDR or SDR luminosity refers to how HDR and SDR are divided into measurements for peak and sustained brightness when a TV is set to view all ordinary content (SDR) and for when a 4K TV is set to view purely HDR content. The measurements are taken for a complete 4K TV display when its fully illuminated and for differently sized sections of its screen. Both peak brightness and sustained brightness get measured in units of luminosity called nits (or cd/m2, which is the same thing). Sustained brightness is the highest possible sustained HDR or SDR brightness that the TV screen can manage across its entire screen or parts of it for a prolonged period of time (a few minutes or more). In other words, Peak brightness consists of how luminous sudden bright spots can become and sustained brightness measures prolonged luminosity in content on the display.
In terms of all of these specs for brightness described above, the TCL 5 Series is not one particularly bright 4K UHD TV by any measurement Whether its set to output brightness for SDR content or for HDR video sources, its peaks and peak sustained brightness levels are all low and never go more than a nit above 300 nits. What the TV does pull off well is keeping its brightness level extremely uniform across all settings, which is quite impressive. In other words. Whether 2% of the screen is being set to display maximum possible brightness, or 10% to half of the screen is being set to output strongest possible sustained brightness, what you get is nearly identical measurements. That’s something we like because even many highly expensive premium 4K TVs such as the OLED models can output much higher peak or sustained brightness for small parts of the screen better than the S517 from TCL but they suddenly get much weaker in delivering high luminosity to larger areas of their display space. The S517 performs the same on all fronts and while this makes it weak on peak HDR or SDR brightness highlights, it also makes it quite bright for large brightly lit sequences of content. The specific measurements for these are just a bit further down.
Moving on to the the S517’s brightness specs themselves, the display brightness numbers below as measured in nits for different areas of display space, under both HDR and SDR settings and under both peak and sustained conditions demonstrate the 5 Series overall capacity for screen luminosity:
TCL 5 SERIES SDR Brightness
- Overall SDR peak brightness for normal content: 278 nits
- Peak 2% display area display SDR brightness: 301 nits
- Peak 10% display area SDR brightness: 299 nits
- Peak 25% display area SDR brightness: 294 nits
- Peak 100% display area SDR brightness: 299 nits
- Sustained 10% SDR brightness: 299 nits
- Sustained 100% SDR brightness: 291 nits
TCL 5 SERIES HDR Brightness
- Overall HDR peak brightness for normal content: 289 nits
- Peak 2% display area display HDR brightness: 299 nits
- Peak 10% display area HDR brightness: 302 nits
- Peak 25% display area SDR brightness: 299 nits
- Peak 100% display area HDR brightness: 298 nits
- Sustained 10% HDR brightness: 299 nits
- Sustained 100% HDR brightness: 292 nits
The TCL 5 Series 4K HDR TVs are actually quite remarkable for their sheer color performance. They don’t quite match the best we’ve seen from Samsung with its overwhelmingly vibrant QLED color performance in their flagship 4K TVs but compared to almost anything else they come remarkably close. Wide color gamut coverage is covered to 94.7% of the HDR-oriented DCI-P3 color space and 10-bit color looks amazingly good. Both of these are the essential color performance specs necessary for quality high dynamic range content. The 5-Series truly excels at them and this is arguably its greatest strength. In fact, we were downright surprised by just how well such a mid-range HDR TV could deliver color. Sure, almost all 2018 and 2019 4K TVs come with the HDR logo plastered to them and all of them at least support high dynamic range playback of content but for many budget models, their actual ability to render HDR color or contrast performance and bright highlights is extremely limited. The TCL 5 Series suffers a bit from this in how bright it can go but it definitely lives up to HDR color expectations. It is in fact BETTER at delivering wide color gamut than its pricier and in other ways better cousin the TCL 6-Series, which is odd indeed.
Color volume maintenance is decent in this TV model, which is also something of an achievement because maintaining color volume during bright or dark content is not easy or common even in many premium 4K TVs. In this the TCL 5 Series again shows some truly strong mettle on color delivery, and it’s definitely superior to what we saw in most similarly priced name brand HDR ultra HD TVs. In both shadowy scenes and very bright content sequences, decent color volume is maintained across the entire color gamut and that’s very impressive in such a low priced 4K HDR TV.
In basic terms, users who are used to watching their movies and such only on TVs without 4K resolution, expended color capacity or HDR color support (and obviously without being able to view HDR content with the dynamic range activated) will probably be very impressed with the TCL 5 Series models despite their being strictly mid-range 4K TVs and in many ways only moderately good at what they do.
Moving on to more technical but also crucial specs for color and content accuracy measurement in the TCL 5 Series: White balance delta E, color delta E and Gamma in the 5 Series sit at decent levels of 4.16, 2.63 and 2.19 respectively right out of the box. After some moderate picture settings calibration, on the other hand these same levels are extremely good, sitting at 0.17, 0.4 and 2.24 respectively for the model we reviewed. These details can be calibrated quite easily and quickly for the much better settings we described for post-calibration. To get these post-calibration settings, you can calibrate the TV only through its mobile app, which is very easy to use and allows for modification of the above and other points for color, contrast and general picture performance through a sequence of 11 different settings.
Motion Handling & Upscaling:
The 5 Series offers excellent response time, which is exceptionally good at 6.2 milliseconds. On the other hand, the motion interpolation capacity in this TV is only modestly good for its native 60Hz display. It works and will smooth out the reproduction of lower frame rate content but this can also produce a slight soap opera effect when used for movies that play at different frame rates. It’s usually better to turn it down a few notches by setting Action Smoothing’ to “Low” or “Medium” in the TV’s Advanced picture settings. Overall in terms of motion handling we can best describe the 5 Series as being decent and with flaws that are so minor you wouldn’t really notice them unless you’re particularly sensitive to motion disturbances in video, or comparing this TV directly with a much better ultra-premium model. One major additional benefit of the 5 Series is that it perfectly support judder-free playback of all disc, streaming and broadcast media sources of 24p movie content.
As for the 6 Series’s upscaling, it works well at sharpening almost any reasonably well formatted source of content but is particularly good at improving the visual quality of 1080p HD video and 720p programming of any kind.
Input Performance for Gaming and PC:
The TCL 5 Series is one very good 4K TV for HDR, 4K and 1080p gaming through consoles like the Xbox or the PS 4. It’s only major flaw is that because of its native 60Hz display panel, the 5 Series unfortunately doesn’t offer native 120Hz refresh rate for gaming at over 60 frames per second, but for most users this won’t be a problem for the absolute majority of game content. Gamers might want their support for 1080P gaming at 120Hz but even if the 5 Series lacks this, it makes up for the deficiency by being one generally excellent TV for gaming display due to its exceptionally low input lag. The 5 Series 2018 television thus delivers some really outstanding game handling capacity across the board when used with popular game consoles.
The following are the specific specs for its gaming performance in different console setups:
- 4k @ 60Hz: 17.4 ms
- 1080p @ 60Hz: 17.9 ms
- 1080p @ 120Hz: NA
- 4k @ 60Hz + HDR: 15.9 ms
- 1080p @ 60Hz + HDR: 17.9 ms
- 4k @ 60Hz Outside Game Mode : 124.6 ms
- 4k @ 60Hz @ 4:4:4: 20.2 ms
- 4K @ 60Hz @ 4:4:4 + 8 bit HDR: 19.4 ms
- 4K with interpolation activated: 151 ms
The TCL 5 Series television is also great for use as a PC monitor if you want to do most gaming on it. It’s compatible with multiple resolution and color formats and offers smooth frame rate handling between PC GPUs and what the screen delivers. However, due to a lack of support for native 120Hz refresh on the TV’s display, gaming in 1080P or any other resolution isn’t possible at more than 60Hz. This model supports the following for PC use:
• 1080p @ 60Hz @ 4:4:4
• 1440p @ 60Hz
• 4k @ 30Hz @ 4:4:4
• 4k @ 60Hz
• 4k @ 60Hz @ 4:4:4
The 6 Series comes with all of its connectivity ports built right into the TV body inside a recessed panel on the back left side (right side if you’re facing the TV display. Like virtually all newer 4K HDR TVs, this particular TCL 4K ultra HD TV comes with today’s now standard and essential advanced connectivity specs. No user should have connectivity problems with this model for hooking it up to pretty much any external media device or hard drive as long as all hardware is in working order. On the other hand, what we don’t like about the 5 Series S517 models is that they offer only 3 HDMI ports and 1 single USB 2.0 port. Most 4K TVs deliver 4 HDMI ports and 3 USB ports. That said, TCL did give the 5 Series full HDMI 2.0 HDR supported bandwidth in all three of its HDMI ports. This is a nice touch considering that similarly priced rival TVs from Sony only offer this through one or two of their HDMI ports.
The following are the 5 Series ports and their specifications:
- HDMI : 3 (all with HDCP 2.2 and full HDMI 2.0a capacity)
- USB : 1 (USB 2.0)
- Digital Optical Audio Out : 1
- Analog Audio Out 3.5 mm : 1
- Tuner (Cable/Ant) : 1
- Ethernet : 1
- HDR10 support: Yes
- Hybrid Log Gamma HDR support: Yes
- Dolby Vision HDR: Yes
The TCL 5 Series TV models also offer audio connectivity in the following types.
- 1 Passthrough ARC Dolby Digital
- 1 Passthrough Optical Dolby Digital
TCL has released the S517 5 Series television models in several different sizes. Thus, You have the choice of a 43 inch model, a 49 inch model, a 55 inch edition and a large 65 inch version that would be just awesome for gamers. These four editions are otherwise identical in pretty much all regards except for very minor screen performance specs variations as we described in our visual specs intro section above. The models all sell for the following prices, found in the links below at the time of this writing. Bear in mind that these are subject to sometimes frequent downward change and it’s a good idea to click the following Amazon links for real-time pricing and all available discounts on this model.