When Panasonic's plasma TVs gave up the ghost last year, I immediately began wondering what 2014 TVs could possibly take their place as my go-to recommendation as the best combination of picture quality and value. In my CES preview, I wrote "Help me local-dimming Kenobi; you're my only hope," calling out Vizio and others for their embrace of that technology, the only one that, in my experience, allows LED LCD to compete against plasmas.
For 2014, Vizio, in contrast (pun intended) to just about everyone else, offers even more local dimming TVs at more affordable prices than ever. The E series is the company's cheapest line, and at 39 inches and up, most of them have that extra. And it works even better than it did last year.
Simply put, I'll be incredibly surprised if any TV released this year offers a better combination of price and picture quality than the Vizio E series. The closest contender so far this year, in fact, comes from Vizio's own camp in the form of the M series. But it costs more than the E, and doesn't offer significantly better picture quality.
Don't get me wrong: Vizio's E series doesn't hold a candle to the picture quality of a great plasma. But it kicks the pants of many LCDs that cost a lot more. Employing minimal zones and actual LEDs (to bring down costs) and much-improved dimming logic, the E series achieves truly remarkable black-level performance. The rest of its picture is also plenty good, and its price is simply phenomenal. It's been more than a year since I've awarded a "10" in the Value category, but the Vizio E series deserves it, hands down.
Editors' Note 6-10-2014: In light of the M series review, portions of this review have been modified since initial publication. The Picture Quality rating has also been raised from 7 to 8 and the overall rating from 8.1 to 8.5.
Series information: The 2014 Vizio E series is a complex beast, so bear with me. First off, this review applies only to the E series sets with local dimming, listed to the right and denoted on this chart with a number under "Active LED Zones." The rest, typically smaller sizes (and none larger than 48), are not covered by this review. Until we test one, we can't speculate on their picture quality.
I performed a hands-on evaluation of the 42-inch Vizio E420i-B0 as well as the 55-inch E550i-B2. The former was purchased by CNET on the open market and the latter supplied by Vizio.
The main specs difference between the two is in the number of zones of local dimming, video processing extras, and number of inputs (see Features below for details). Although their picture quality is similar, there are also quite a few differences I discovered. None of the differences are large enough to warrant different ratings, however, which is why they're joined together in this series review.
According to Vizio, the remarks about the 42-inch size can also be applied to the 39-, 40-, and 48-inch members of the series listed here, and the observations on the 55-inch size to the 50-, 60-, 65-, and 70-inch members (the latter two are not available yet). The one exception is that "the E390i-B0 and E400i-B2 handle motion better than the E420i-B0 you tested," according to Vizio. I've asked for details and will update this section when I hear back.
Vizio didn't reinvent the wheel when styling the E series. Both the E550i-B2 and the E420i-B0 look almost identical to their 2013 predecessors; Vizio has slimmed the bezel, but everything else is the same. The look could charitably be called "understated," or less diplomatically, "generic." Glossy black with nary an accent aside from the right-justified Vizio logo and a matte-black strip along the bottom.
The low-profile stand doesn't swivel, and its stalk is a somewhat flimsy-feeling affair in a triangular shape. The base is slightly thinner than the 2013 version, but again, otherwise identical.
After four years of complaining about Vizio's remote, I'm going to just cut-and paste my words from 2011 here. If they're not going to make the effort to change it, I won't re-describe it: It lacks illumination, the menu/exit/guide/back keys are too small, there's not enough differentiation, and
no direct button to switch aspect ratio (it was added in 2012). Its best feature is dedicated keys for Amazon Instant, Netflix and Vudu streaming services M-Go.
One aspect of the TV's design did change, however. The menu system has been updated to the same arrangement found on the step-up M series from 2013. It's cleaner-looking than the old E series menus, easy to navigate, and I appreciate the helpful onscreen touches, including descriptions of various menu items and access to the full user manual.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology:||LCD||LED backlight:||Full-array with local dimming|
|Cable box control:||No||IR blaster:||N/A|
|3D capable:||No||3D glasses included:||N/A|
|Screen finish:||Matte||Refresh rate:||120Hz|
|Screen mirroring:||No||Control via official app:||No|
In marketing its local dimming, Vizio is using the term "full-array" this year instead of the term "direct" it employed last year. But make no mistake: the E series lacks the same level of local dimming found on the full-array TVs of yore, such as the Sharp Elite and Sony XBR-HX950, let alone today's examples like the Sony XBR-X950B or Vizio's own 2014 M, P and Reference series. All of those sets have more LEDs behind their screens and more zones of dimming, which should result in more-precise control over dimming, and ultimately, better picture quality. They also cost more (in some cases much, much more) than the E.
Vizio is the only maker of full-array sets that will divulge the number of dimming zones it uses. And yes, I nonetheless almost always ask, only to watch the engineer in question nod sadly as he tells me he can't tell me. The 55-inch E-series I'm reviewing here has 12 zones, but Vizio assures me there's almost no visible difference between it and the 16-zone sets in the lineup.
The majority of 39-inch and larger members of the E series, including all of the ones with local dimming, have what Vizio calls a "120Hz effective refresh rate." Like many such ostensible improvements it doesn't indicate the same kind of picture quality found on traditional 120Hz TVs.
Most obviously, all of the E series lack any kind of smoothing/dejudder processing. You might not like the so-called Soap Opera Effect such smoothing induces, but with most other 120Hz TVs it's an option you can turn on or off. With the E series, it's simply not available.
In addition, none of the E series can match the motion resolution of traditional 120Hz TVs. The 42-inch version I tested is no better than 60Hz sets in this department. The 48-inch and larger models have a "Clear Action 180," which improves motion resolution slightly (if you turn it on), although still not to the the level I expect. See "Video processing" below for details.
You may also notice the absence of 3D in the chart above. Many of Vizio's previous TVs, including in 2013 the M series and a few "E" series models, offered passive 3D compatibility. This year Vizio has dropped the feature entirely, announcing no 3D-compatible televisions so far in its 2014 E, M, or P or even the high-end R series.
On the off chance you care, the E series lacks the screen mirroring functionality found on many TVs, and there's no official app to allow remote control from a phone and other sundries.
Smart TV: As I mentioned in a recent Samsung review, that company, along with LG, has now adopted a quick-access band of icons overlaid atop the bottom of the screen as the primary gateway to its Smart TV interface. Vizio's engineers must be snickering into their sleeves, because the company has been using the same design -- and we've been lauding its simplicity -- since 2009.
Just like the menu system, the 2014 E series now gets the improved Smart TV interface found on the 2013 M series, dubbed "VIA Plus" in Viz-speak. That means there are seven app icons visible at a time in the band instead of four, minimizing the scrolling necessary to locate the app you want. Like many systems, you also get some multitasking -- while watching Netflix I was able to call up my Twitter or Facebook feed to overlay the video, for example.
If you prefer a full-screen interface, a second tap on the "V" button brings it up, along with the ability to add, remove, and reorder apps within the band. I appreciated the excellent categorization, especially the ability to disregard the numerous "local TV" apps.
Vizio's content selection is very good. HBO Go isn't available (it's still a Samsung exclusive among TVs), and there are no major sports apps like MLB TV, NHL GameCenter, or NBA League Pass, but most of the other heavy-hitters for video are here. The meta-app "Web video" itself contains numerous sub-apps of specialized videos. Audio support is average: you get iHeartRadio, TuneIn, Pandora, and Rhapsody, but other subscription services (like Spotify, which is available on the M series) go missing.
Unlike most other major TV names, Vizio still doesn't offer a Web browser in its Smart TV system. In our experience, that's no major loss since it's usually easier and better to use a laptop, tablet, or phone anyway. Still, it's worth noting that some TV browsers -- namely Samsung and LG -- have improved a lot recently. Vizio's system also lacks the many extras found on some others, including cable-box control, universal search, voice command, and more.