Vizio E0i series review: Cheap local dimming, excellent value

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The Good The Vizio E0i series shows deep black levels, a uniform screen, and commendable bright-room performance, making it a solid midlevel LCD TV. The Smart content selection is excellent. With its thin bezel, the set has a more compact, sleeker look than many competitors.

The Bad The set's local-dimming system can cause crushing, obscuring shadow detail; the dimming effect can be very obvious on some scenes; the so-called 120Hz refresh rate does nothing to improve picture quality.

The Bottom Line The Vizio E series offers picture quality nearing the more expensive M series and is a very good choice if you value its Smarts and styling.

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7.4 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7
  • Value 8

When Vizio told us many sizes in its mainstream E series would get the benefits of local dimming, I was intrigued. That feature, designed to dim the backlight in discrete sections to enhance black levels and contrast, is rare on today's LCD TVs and positively unheard of at the E series' price level.

It didn't work as promised when we first reviewed it, but the most recent firmware has finally realized the television's potential. The Vizio E0i series is a entry-level LED-dimming TV that performs like a much more expensive model. Its picture quality now rivals the pricier M series, and while that TV does have a touch more refinement in its local-dimming system for a bit better picture, they're now close enough to earn the same picture quality rating from us.

The Vizio E0i series competes well against, or surpasses, the picture quality of other LCD TVs in its price class, while delivering plenty of Smart TV content and sleek minimalist style. Like the 60- and 70-inch E1i-A3 and the E320i-A0, the sizes of "E" reviewed here are among the least expensive Smart TVs available, making them exceedingly good values.

Editors' note: Vizio introduced a firmware update in July 2013 that alleviated some of our earlier concerns with the local dimming system, so we have retested the TVs and rerated them accordingly. Portions of this review have been updated accordingly since its original publication. See the end of the review for more details.

Series information: We performed a hands-on evaluation of the 42-inch Vizio E420i-A1 and 50-inch Vizio E500i-A1, but this review also applies to the other screen sizes in the series listed below. All sizes have identical specs (aside from number of HDMI inputs; see below) and according to the manufacturer should provide very similar picture quality. According to Vizio, there's no difference between the "A1" and "A0" models in the series. Other sizes and models in the E series not listed below have different-enough components that this review doesn't apply to them.

Models in series (details)
Vizio E390i-A1 39 inches
Vizio E420i-A1 (reviewed) 42 inches
Vizio E420i-A0 42 inches
Vizio E470i-A1 47 inches
Vizio E470i-A0 47 inches
Vizio E500i-A1 (reviewed) 50 inches
Vizio E550i-A0 55 inches

While not as attractive as the 2013 M models, the E is still nice-looking in an unassuming, minimalist way. Its black plastic frame measures just over half an inch thick on the top and sides, although black masking on the panel between the frame and the picture adds another quarter-inch. Vizio's subtle right-offset logo is a welcome change of pace from the prominent center logos on most TVs.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"Direct LED" backlighting makes this set about as thick (3.15 inches) as an old-school CCFL-backlit LCD TV, so it doesn't get the "Razor" moniker Vizio applies to its edge-lit LEDs. The generic-looking stand doesn't swivel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unlike some of Vizio's higher-end Smart TV remotes, the one that comes with the E0i series lacks a flip-side QWERTY keyboard and Wi-Fi communication. The front side is not our favorite among entry-level clickers. It lacks illumination, the Menu, Exit, Guide, and Back keys are too small and there's not enough differentiation between buttons. Its best feature is the inclusion of dedicated keys for Amazon Instant and Netflix; unfortunately, Vizio replaced the Vudu app shortcut key on previous clickers with one for M-Go (see below).

Vizio employs the same menus on this set as it has for every Smart set over the last few years. The menu system resembles an app in appearance, and we 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. We also appreciated the easy guided-setup process.

Key TV features
Display technology LCD LED backlight Direct with local dimming
Screen finish Matte Remote Standard
Smart TV Yes Internet connection Built-in Wi-Fi
3D technology No 3D glasses included N/A
Refresh rate(s) 60Hz Dejudder (smooth) processing No
DLNA-compliant No USB Video/Photo/Music
Other: Optional Skype camera (XCV100; $70)

Now that TV makers are starting to ditch CCFL-based backlights altogether, the Vizio E0i's direct LED backlight itself isn't that remarkable. As we mentioned above, it leads to a relatively thick cabinet, and as usual with LED it doesn't mean a better picture. "Direct" simply means that the LEDs are placed behind the screen, as opposed to along the edge. Fewer LEDs are required, which is one reason why direct sets are cheaper than edge-lit ones. What is remarkable, however, is that Vizio is the only purveyor of direct LED TVs we know of to employ local dimming.

Despite the TV's supposed 120Hz refresh rate, the E0i series behaves just like a 60Hz TV. Vizio is the first company we can remember to claim 120Hz on a TV but neglect to include smoothing/dejudder processing. You might not like the so-called Soap Opera Effect such smoothing induces, but with nearly all other 120Hz TVs it's an option you can turn on or off. With the E420i-A it's simply not available.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Vizio actually uses the term "120Hz effective refresh rate" on this and other TVs, including the E601i-A3. But while that set has the smoothing and motion resolution we expect from a 120Hz TV, the E0i series has neither. That's why we're sticking with the "60Hz" specification on the table above, despite what Vizio says.

Unlike the E601i-A3 we tested earlier, the E420i doesn't (yet) handle music, photo, and video streaming over a home network from a DLNA server. It will handle such files via USB, though.

Smart TV: We had no major complaints about the Smart TV feature on the E0i series, and considering the set's price, that's high praise. Its interface is mediocre in design, but content selection was excellent and responsiveness was good enough.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Vizio hasn't changed the design of its Smart TV since it debuted three years ago, so it's not as slick as most other TV makers' brainy portals. Its main interface, based on the original Yahoo Widgets, consists of a strip along the bottom of the screen. It shows just four widgets at a time, so finding the one you want is a tedious scrolling chore if you have more than 10 or so installed. Vizio doesn't make finding new apps any easier, with a Yahoo Connected TV Store that's crowded with entirely too much chaff, including way too many "apps" devoted to local TV stations.

Content selection, however, is among the best available -- 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 a $70 camera/speakerphone. With Rhapsody, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and iHeartRadio, there's plenty of musical choices, too.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Vizio (along with Samsung and LG) is ostensibly supporting M-Go, an on-demand video service with content from most major studios aside from Disney. We learned more about the service at CES 2013, including the fact that it acts as an UltraViolet locker, but there's still no official launch date more than six months later.

We paid special attention to the Wi-Fi connection on the E0i series, and it appeared to work well in my limited testing in the lab -- just as well as a nearby PlayStation 3. As usual with Wi-Fi, your mileage will vary, and if you're a heavy streamer, we'd recommend using a wired connection if possible.

Picture settings: The selection here is good enough for a basic TV, including a two-point grayscale control and plenty of picture presets -- nine in all, a few with names like "football" and "basketball" that don't really make such footage look any better. The only missing item is a selection of gamma presets, which might have helped the TV's performance a bit. We appreciated that the picture controls are available when watching streaming video. The E0i series also has a Smart Dimming option that enables and disables its local-dimming function.

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