TCL’s first Google TVs would be a triumphant flex for the second most popular TV manufacturer in the US. TCL has long been known for its easy-to-use Roku TVs and tries to get the message across that it takes a cross-platform approach and will offer sets with software from Roku or Google. (The company has already released many Android TV models internationally.)
So with the latest update to its 6 Series – model name R646 – TCL wanted to combine its best TV hardware with the Google TV experience that debuted on the 2020 Chromecast. The 6 Series has Mini LED technology, truly impressive peak brightness levels, vibrant HDR colors and even includes built-in microphones for hands-free Google Assistant voice commands. I reviewed the $1,299 65-inch model. But at any size, the R646 improves upon the older Roku TV edition of the 6 Series by upgrading two of the four HDMI ports to support full-fledged 4K gaming at 120Hz; the Roku model was limited to 1440p at that frame rate.
TCL had all the makings of a must-see TV, but it faltered on execution – at least initially. Shortly after the R646 started shipping, buyers complained of slow software and buggy performance that often caused the TV to freeze or reset itself. Complaints grew to such an extent that Best Buy suspended sales of the 6 Series and 5 Series Google TVs for a while until TCL could smooth things out with software updates. To the credit of the company that happened quite quickly and TCL has continued to release new updates to address lingering bugs. (This review was published when the current TV firmware version was v97 and in the January security update.)
I’ve had the 6 series Google TV for over a month now. During my first weeks of testing, the software was clearly too rough and in rough shape. The Google TV home screen and content recommendations carousels worked for the most part as expected, but opening and navigating the TV’s settings menus was noticeably slow. Sometimes the TV would randomly reboot itself – or the screen wouldn’t turn on after the first few times I pressed the power button on the remote. My roommates reported frequent crashes from apps like HBO Max, and the Dolby Vision badge would occasionally pop up repeatedly while watching a single movie or show. Basically, TCL’s first Google TVs came with unfinished, undercooked software. Their release should have been delayed by a few weeks or a few months until the user experience was more stable, consistent and with fewer delays.
Fortunately, the software situation on this TV is now much better. And when watching movies and TV shows, the R646 delivers phenomenal picture quality that you might think costs hundreds of dollars more. The overall brightness of the set blows my LG CX OLED out of the water; PC Mag measured peak brightness of just under 1,200 nits. Even in the sunniest living rooms, the image of the TCL could penetrate and remain fully visible. This is supported by the panel’s semi-gloss finish, which does a commendable job of reducing reflections.
TCL supports HDR10, Dolby Vision, HDR10+ and HLG for HDR formats, which ticks all the boxes you could ask for. Watching The Matrix Resurrections on HBO Max was captivating, and it’s TVs like this that keep me committed to maintaining a 4K Blu-ray collection with recent highlights like Dune.
The speakers are just adequate, which can be said of most TVs except for high-end Sony and Samsung models that offer premium built-in audio. If you buy a TV in this price range, there is a good chance that you will connect a soundbar or speaker system to it. The TV supports Wi-Fi 6 and also has an Ethernet connection for wired connectivity. The initial setup is much easier if you have the Google Home app on your phone; you can get the TV going there instead of clicking through a bunch of prompts on the screen.
I was impressed with how little bloom I noticed (when viewing normal content and not test patterns), with the local contrast set to “high” and the Mini LED backlight working the hardest. Contrast and black levels weren’t quite up to OLED levels, but the difference is narrowing as companies continue to iterate on their Mini LED algorithms and image performance. TCL includes some “automatic” options in picture settings – automatic brightness, automatic color balance, and so on – but I always leave these turned off for a consistent experience. The same goes for the dynamic tone mapping switch, which allows HDR and games to look even brighter by constantly optimizing the picture, but I’d rather leave this off and let the content come through accurately without the TV constantly adjusting levels.
But some bugs and strange quirks remain. Every so often the R646 will reset its picture settings to “low power” mode which takes me to the options and puts everything back to how it was. TCL tells me it thinks this “previously rare” bug has been eliminated after a recent update. What’s even more annoying is that the TV shows standard Dolby Vision content in “Dolby Vision IQ” mode with a small amount of soap opera effect that cannot be turned off unless you switch the picture mode to “Dolby Vision Bright” or “Dolby Vision Dark”, which will unlock more detailed settings for motion.
Toggles for VRR and automatic low-latency mode are buried too deep in the menu structure. When TV competitors like Samsung and LG include “game bars” that put important information in a central place, TCL is definitely lagging behind a bit. Also mind-boggling: the remote lacks a button to switch inputs; this can only be done by pulling up the quick panel, which is doing have a dedicated button and then scroll to inputs. I’d much rather have an input shortcut on the remote instead of the branded button for TCL’s Home app that I’ll never, ever use.
Some R646 owners on AVS forum noticed an irregular video delay or “slow motion” effect with the TV; I to think I came across this briefly while watching Sling TV one night and Peacock another night, but it’s hard to be sure when talking about streaming services. It only happened once or twice and corrected itself after about 15 seconds. Hopefully this is something else that TCL can fix with firmware.
With a few updates under the TV’s belt, the Google TV software experience is now also where it should be. The interface does a great job with personalized recommendations — though it’s staggering that Netflix isn’t willing to participate — and the built-in microphone array picked up my “Hey Google” voice prompts effortlessly, even when the TV was playing something. You can disable the microphones with a physical switch if you’re not a fan of the concept. Google’s operating system offers pretty much any streaming app you could want, and it also comes with Google Cast built-in. On the other hand, TCL’s Roku TVs support Apple’s AirPlay 2 and HomeKit protocols, but the Google TV models don’t.
I’ve tested the R646 with both my Xbox Series X and PS5, and it’s a great gaming TV. Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves collection looks beautiful in 4K fidelity mode – same for Forza Horizon 5. Halo Infinite and not mapped both played great in their 120Hz modes. Some owners have questioned whether TCL could cut or halve the resolution of 4K games when running at 120Hz, but the company is insisting that the 6 Series Google TV retain full 4K output if that’s what it’s supposed to do. receives a game. This is a major differentiator of the Roku TV edition, which only supports 1440p at 120Hz.
VRR seemed to work as expected on the Series X, smoothing out gameplay and avoiding noticeable frame rate stutters. But as I mentioned before, the TV’s settings can be a bit confusing in game mode: the local dimming option can sometimes disappear or show as “off” when VRR is on, but it’s actually still on and stays on on the setting where you had it before. When asked about TCL spokesperson Rachelle Parks said:
TCL is constantly evaluating the usability of TVs, including how to enable advanced controls for the many powerful features available through high-end TVs such as the 6 Series. While we believe the 6 Series with Google TV strikes the right balance between simple controls and advanced customization, we are working with our game console and graphics card partners who supply VRR games to explore ways to make gaming even easier for our customers. And yes – local dimming is available with the game mode setting.
At the end of the day, TCL’s 6 Series Google TV is one of the very best 4K TVs in its price range and the kind of set that will keep owners happy for years to come. The company made an unfortunate mistake shipping the R646 with half-baked software, but managed to correct the course in a decent amount of time. The Google TV 6 series is technically superior to its older Roku sibling in a number of ways – especially with that proper support for 4K 120Hz gaming – and it’s an impressive showcase of TCL’s Mini LED improvements. If you want a bright, bold TV and can find a deal, there’s little reason to hesitate. I wasn’t sure I could say that when the software was laggy and bug prone, but I have no second thoughts now.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge