We're willing to bet that when Vizio announced the VF551XVT back in January, plenty of savvy HDTV bargain hunters marked down "June" as the time they'd buy this 55-inch LED-based LCD. Then the company pushed its release back to September. Then it announced that the "Via" VF552XVT--basically the same as this model with one of the most compelling feature packages we've ever seen, including a Bluetooth remote and Wi-Fi connectivity to complement a robust suite of interactive services--would be shipping in November for the same price. Suddenly, the much-anticipated VF551XVT seemed a bit less impressive.
For the price, however, this Vizio still delivers impressive picture quality to big-screen shoppers who can't wait for its successor or don't care about interactive doo-dads (and no, there's no way to upgrade a 551 to get Via functionality). Its black levels are among the deepest we've tested this year, and while the fluctuating backlight may give videophiles pause, it's not a deal-breaker. The VF551XVT also succeeds on most other performance fronts, although we can't say the same about its styling. Like all big-screen LCDs the Vizio's main competition comes from similar-size plasmas that cost even less, but if you have your heart set on LCD, the Vizio VF551XVT is currently the over-50-inch bargain of the year.
Vizio's big-screen LCD looks unassuming for the most part, with the standard glossy black frame surrounding the picture area. But the nondetachable speaker bar along the bottom, with its silver coloring, reflective supports, bulbous shape and see-through panel exposing the wall behind the TV, assumes a bit too much, and we predict you'll either love it or hate it. We fall into the latter camp. The only external difference between the VF551XVT and the older VF550XVT is the former's addition of an illuminated row of "tech logos" on the left-hand side. There's a menu item that promises to disable the illumination, but it didn't work on our review sample.
The 55-inch VF551XVT measures 51.5 inches wide by 36 inches tall by 13.5 inches thick and weighs a svelte 90.2 pounds with stand attached. Remove the nonswiveling stand and the panel's dimensions become 51.5 inches wide by 33.9 inches tall by 5 inches thick and its weight 78 pounds. That five-inch depth is a far cry from the inch-thin panels found on some other LED-based models, but thinness doesn't come cheap.
We liked Vizio's large remote, with its oversize chrome-colored cursor pad surrounded by well-spaced, easily differentiated, yellow-backlit keys. Highlights include a section that offers direct access to different input types, "A, B, C, and D" keys for other devices, such as cable boxes, that double as picture-in-picture controls, and the capability to command three other devices. Many of the keys double-up, but the remote handles these well--we appreciate that the oft-used key to control aspect ratio shares the bright red "record" key, for example.
The side panel is likewise packed with connections, including a fifth HDMI and a second component-video jack. The USB input gives the TV the capability to display videos, photos, and music on the big screen.
The menu system for the XVT models squeezes onto the left side of the screen, and it's hard to mistake the bare-bones graphics for a Samsung or Sony menu. We found ourselves annoyed that you can only see one parameter at a time and that too much scrolling is required to access all of the settings. On the plus side, we liked the text explanations of various menu items.
LED backlighting with local dimming highlights the Vizio's feature set. Local dimming, which Vizio calls Smart Dimming, means the array of LED zones behind the screen can be individually dimmed or brightened according to program content, which lets the TV produce deeper black levels than would otherwise be possible (more info).
Vizio's implementation of dejudder processing is similar to past 120Hz and 240Hz displays that force you to engage the smoothing effect if you want to enjoy the benefits of reduced blurring. 2009 models from Samsung and Toshiba, on the other hand, let you separate the two functions, an option we prefer to have. The VF551XVT has three strengths of dejudder and a separate "Real Cinema" function, although the latter had no effect we could discern.
The Vizio VF550XVT's picture competes well against the better LCDs and plasmas we've reviewed this year, enough to score an "8" in this category. Deep blacks are its strong suit, and while they come at the expense of some contrast and a variable backlight, the trade-offs are not too severe for most viewers. Meanwhile, the set gets most of the other picture quality categories right, aside from that constant LCD bugaboo: viewing angle. That said, it still can't beat the better Panasonic plasmas we've reviewed this year, such as the similar-size Panasonic TC-P54G10.