Vizio E1i-A3 series: Big screen, big value (pictures)
The Vizio E1i-A3 series is the best value yet among big-screen LED TVs.
Vizio's low-price, high-value formula has a couple of new incarnations in the 60- and 70-inch E1i-A3 TVs, which are selling for $1,000 and $2,000, respectively, at press time. Those prices are bargain-basement for such massive, LED-powered screens alone, but Vizio goes one better by mixing in features like Smart TV and a remote with a real QWERTY keyboard.
To get better picture quality in a 60-inch LED TV you'd have to pay another couple hundred dollars for Sharp's LC-LE640U series, with its crucial ability to display a darker shade of black. The Vizio E1i-A3 series competes well against that TV in other areas of picture quality, however, making it undoubtedly the superior bargain. It has a tougher row to hoe against the excellent Panasonic TC-P60U50 plasma, which also costs about a grand but is "dumb TV," for better or for worse. Buyers who prize picture above all else and don't want a 70-incher should choose the Panasonic, but for everyone else in the big-screen market, the Vizio E1i-A3 is our value pick so far this year.
The frame around the big screen measures only seven-eighths of an inch wide along the top and sides of the screen, and along the bottom it's just a bit thinner. That's about the same as the bezel on Samsung's UN60ES6500 and thinner than that of Sharp's LC-60LE640U.
I liked the tactile "click" as I depressed keys, though I was annoyed at constantly having to flip to the front of the remote to enter numbers. It's also worth noting that since the remote uses infrared to signal the TV, you have to keep its front edge facing the screen, which can seem unnatural if you're used to holding the keyboard more perpendicular to your face.
To make it easier to enter searches and other information into Smart apps, the E1i-A3, uniquely among 2012 TVs, comes with a remote with a full QWERTY keyboard on its flip side. While not up to the standards of a good smartphone keyboard, it's roomy and fine for occasional use -- easily outclassing the tedious onscreen virtual keyboards required by most other smart TVs.
The front face of the remote is not my favorite. The menu/exit/guide/back keys are too small, there's not enough differentiation, and there's no direct button for switching aspect ratio. Its best feature is dedicated keys for Amazon Instant and Netflix; unfortunately, Vizio replaced the Vudu app shortcut key on previous clickers with M-Go (see below). Its worst, shared by the QWERTY side, is lack of any illumination.
Compared with most major TV makers' smart TV implementations, Vizio's VIA suite of Smart TV apps, which looks exactly the same as it did in its first generation, seems dated. Its design makes finding the app you want more difficult than it should be since you'll need to scroll through the small ticker at the bottom of the page. Yes, you can rearrange the ticker and weed out the apps you don't want, but it's still a pain for those who want to keep more than a few apps installed. Response times were decent, but not as snappy as from Samsung's or LG's app suites. That said, I do prefer Vizio's design to Sharp's.
On the other hand, content selection is among the best available today -- and comes close to matching Roku's, trading HBO Go for YouTube. Vizio leaves no major video services off the list, although it still doesn't have sports apps like MLB.TV and NHL. Skype is now active, although to use it you'll need to purchase the $70 camera/speakerphone. With Rhapsody, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and iHeartRadio there's plenty of musical choice, too. There's no Web browser, but that's no major loss since TV-based browsers are universally inferior to smartphone, tablet, and of course PC browsers.
Vizio lacks an "app store" and any paid-app choices, but the Yahoo Connected TV Store (the VIA engine is based on Yahoo widgets) has plenty of free, somewhat useful options like AOL HD, eBay, Fandango with ticket purchasing, iHeartRadio, SnagFilms, Vimeo, Wealth TV 3D, and WSJ Live.
Vizio employs the same menus on this set as on its other Smart TVs, and I'm a fan. The menu system resembles an app in appearance, and I liked that the picture settings section is integrated into the main App taskbar. Responses were fast, explanations were complete, and I had no problems finding my way around. I also appreciated the easy guided-setup process and unusually complete onscreen manual.
The Vizio E1i-A3 delivered a workmanlike picture, albeit one roughly as good as you see on many LED TVs that cost a lot more. That said, it still couldn't match the level of picture quality seen on its chief 60-inch LED competitor from Sharp, let alone on Panasonic's excellent U50 plasma. The Vizio's black levels were relatively unconvincing and it showed some uniformity and off-angle-viewing issues. On the other hand, it still warrants a score of "good" in this category, mainly by virtue of accurate color and solid performance in bright rooms.