March 4, 2024

I tried the ‘free TV’ that made the internet rock and it was much better than expected

June Wan/ZDNET

ZDNET Key Takeaways

  • TV promises a free television in exchange for your data and some ads.
  • The ads weren’t as intrusive as I thought and the audio and video quality was excellent.
  • A built-in camera not only adds useful features but also offers fun new ways to interact.

When I first heard about the Telly program, which offers a 55-inch TV completely free if you’re willing to watch some ads, I was decidedly not interested. When you can get a pretty decent 55-inch smart TV for under $400, why bother with one that’s going to drown me with ads?

Also: I tried LG’s entry-level QNED80 TV and wasn’t prepared for it to be this good

However, the lure of free TV and simple curiosity got the better of me and I applied for the program in June. I had almost forgotten about it until mid-December, when I received an email asking me to complete my order because I had been accepted into the beta program.

And now, after more than a month with Telly, I don’t regret signing up at all.

Before we get into the technical part, I want to point out that this is the heaviest TV I have come across in a long time. It was the only television that two people gave me. But that makes sense given the addition of a second screen. The lower screen also means it’s a little taller than all the other TVs (almost 40 inches), so you’ll need a lower stand.

When I turned on my device for the first time, an ad for a credit app appeared on the home screen. The bottom screen showed the weather, NFL scores, a news article, a news ticker, and an advertisement for a local hospital. The ad took up about a fifth of the bottom screen.

My first thought was “That’s it?”

Plus: How “free” is Telly’s free TV?

The ads were not as intrusive as I expected. The ad at the bottom occasionally stretches to fill the entire second screen, but it’s not frequent. And Telly understands what you’re watching (for example, an NFL game) and shows relevant ads.
I was quickly able to navigate to where I wanted on the main screen, and the rotating banner on the bottom screen fit nicely alongside the rest of the information… information that I was beginning to find useful.

Artie Beaty/ZDNET

The bottom screen shows several widgets that you can turn on or off (I opted out of the stock price widget). In my setup, one widget showed local weather, another showed NFL scores, and another offered news headlines from sources I chose. There’s also a scrolling news ticker at the bottom and then a small ad on the right.

When I turned on my first content, I found that the second screen wasn’t distracting at all. In fact, I enjoyed it. Watching the NFL scores without checking my phone was convenient and I saw several news stories that had me searching for more information. Telly wasn’t flooding me with ads like I thought; instead, he was providing useful information tailored to my interests.

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One small downside is that the Telly is not a smart TV. It comes with a few pre-installed apps like Zoom and Spotify, but you can’t add any more. All of your streaming content is accessed through an Android dongle that plugs into the HDMI port. It remains perfectly accessible; It only requires one extra step and a second remote control.

The TV has the usual inputs on the back: a pair of USBs, three HDMI 2.1 ports (one of which is eARC for a sound bar), two audio outputs and a cable/antenna input. There are also built-in LEDs. lights in the rear. The settings menu lets you change them to one of nine colors, control the brightness, or turn them off entirely. I have third-party LED backlighting on my main TV and appreciated the option to control the Telly directly from the settings.

Artie Beaty/ZDNET

There is a camera on the Telly, which I tested with a Zoom call. The quality of the camera the other person saw wasn’t amazing, but it was absolutely fine for that purpose. There’s the promise of more content that uses the camera, like fitness, gaming, and even watch parties where you watch your friends on the second screen while everyone watches the same thing, but they’re not available yet. The camera is covered by a physical shutter when not in use.

Also: I saw Samsung and LG’s new transparent TVs at CES and there’s a clear winner

This TV also comes with a collection of games, including some that are played on the main screen and others that can be played on the bottom screen while watching content on the main screen. Games are controlled with the TV remote and include classics like Asteroids, Breakout, Centipede, Crossy Road, Deal or No Deal, Trivia Crack and more. Telly promises that motion-controlled games are on the way.

So what does this TV look and sound like? Better than I expected.

June Wan/ZDNET

In terms of actual specifications, Telly has kept things pretty under wraps when it comes to the display. It has 4K capability with 60Hz refresh rate and HDR and HDR10+ support, but no VRR support. Picture settings include basic brightness and contrast sliders along with an “advanced” menu that includes a color tuner plus a switch for noise reduction and movie mode.

I found the picture quality to be on par with most TVs I watch, and although this TV doesn’t appear to have local dimming, the contrast was good. I watch TV in a bright environment with lots of natural light, but the Telly handled it well. The set brightness automatically adjusts to the room.

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The audio on this set surprised me, as most value-oriented TVs have poor sound. But not Telly. Of course, the sound isn’t technically coming from the TV, as there’s a built-in Dolby sound bar that sits between the two screens. But the audio is pretty loud, reaching a peak level I’d never use, and the speakers provided pretty decent bass sound during the action scenes. Dialogue came through crisp and clear, something I find many TVs struggle with.

One small drawback is that there are no sound settings if you want to adjust things, not even sound profiles to choose from. But I found the standard configuration to be fine for everything I tried. When I plugged in my PS5, I got exactly what I expected: a decent screen that handled every game I tried without blurring or stuttering. There are no fancy gaming options or settings like other TVs have, but I was perfectly happy gaming on this TV.

ZDNET Buying Tips

Admittedly, some of the Telly’s features—a built-in camera, a voice assistant, and even built-in backlighting—aren’t unique. The second screen is the novelty here. Since Telly’s premise is essentially “every TV sells its data, why shouldn’t the customer get something in return?” He expected that second screen to be a barrage of blatant advertising. Instead, I received a subtle nudge to check my credit score and buy some shoes.

Also: The best televisions to buy in 2024

Like all TVs, I’m sure Telly takes data about the shows I watch and sends it to who knows where. But, if you are willing to face that fact (which are If you own almost any smart TV), Telly is a good opportunity to purchase not only an innovative TV, but also one free.

This set won’t win any awards for video quality and doesn’t have fancy options for gamers, but it’s perfectly fine for the vast majority of users, myself included.

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