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Vizio E0i-B series review: Unbeatable picture for the money

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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.

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8.5

Vizio E0i-B series

The Good

The models of the Vizio E series equipped with local dimming deliver superb picture quality for a very affordable price. The image evinces deep black levels with little to no blooming and great bright-room performance, and it provides for plenty of adjustments. The Smart TV component combines ample content with a simple design.

The Bad

Color accuracy and video processing not quite as good as some competitors; poor sound quality; ho-hum styling; lackluster remote.

The Bottom Line

With picture quality that outdoes that of numerous more-expensive TVs, Vizio's E series likely represents the best value of 2014.

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Design

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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
Screen shape: Flat Resolution: 1080p
Smart TV: Yes Remote: Standard
Cable box control: No IR blaster: N/A
3D capable: No 3D glasses included: N/A
Screen finish: Matte Refresh rate: 120Hz
DLNA-compliant: Photo/Music/Video USB media: Photo/Music/Video
Screen mirroring: No Control via official app: No

Features

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Picture settings: For 2014, Vizio has made a lot of changes in this department. The E series gets a number of preset picture modes that don't allow any adjustment; changing a parameter like Brightness in one of these modes immediately changes the picture mode to Custom.

Normally I don't like that kind of arrangement, since it's a bit confusing and can lead to inadvertent changes of your custom settings, but Vizio has a cool solution. Not only can you lock the Custom modes, preventing any changes, but you can also create and even name entirely new modes.

Beyond modes, Vizio has added some additional controls, namely a full color-management system and an 11-point grayscale control. The 48-inch and larger sets also get a "Motion Blur Reduction" setting, the main manifestation of Vizio's "Clear Action 180" feature. It engages backlight scanning to improve motion resolution, although it also introduces some visible flicker. See Video processing for details.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Connectivity: One major difference between the 55-inch and 42-inch samples we reviewed is in number of HDMI inputs. The 42-inch E series has three HDMI, while the 55-inch has four. Among the myriad E series sizes available, that number varies from two (at 39 inches and lower) to four (in the 50- and 55-inch sizes, although the 60-incher has three) so be sure to double-check the number of HDMI if it's important to you.

The rest of the input selection seems to be identical throughout the series. It includes a combined composite/component-video port, a single USB jack, and an Ethernet port, as well as stereo analog and digital audio. The smaller sizes (sub-32-inch) also get analog PC inputs.

Picture quality

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As I mentioned in the Editors' Note at the top, the E series originally received a 7 ("very good") in this ratings category. I vacillated between that score and an 8, however, and now that I've seen the M series , I think both deserve the same 8 ("excellent") I've awarded to the best-performing LED LCDs of 2013. They're both that good.

Black levels, thanks to the E series' local dimming, are superb for any LCD, and especially great for this price. Color accuracy and video processing are more of a mixed bag, but neither are deal-killers for all but the most persnickety videophiles. Add in superb bright-room performance and great uniformity for an LED LCD, and the E series is easily good enough for everyone else.

Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review and to read more about how this TV's picture controls worked during calibration.

Black level: The E series performed extremely well in this area, coming close to matching the far more-expensive Sony W900A -- the best-performing LED LCD of last year -- and eclipsing other TVs that cost a lot more, including the 2013 Vizio M series and the other non-Vizio sets.

Watching "Gravity," a black-level torture test, both 2014 E sets achieved a deeper shade of black than any of the others, aside from the W900A, during the darkest sequences. One example came at 13:00 when Stone spins off the shuttle's arm into space; the darkness of the void looked inky and true, and the letterbox bars barely brighter than the black walls of my testing room. The 2013 E series matched its predecessors in black level in this scene, the W850B appeared a bit brighter (worse), and the other sets significantly brighter still.

Compared to any of the others, however, the E series models didn't achieve the same brightness in highlights. Ryan in her bright space suit, the white icons from my PS3, the broken arm of the shuttle; all appeared dimmer than on the other sets. So as a result in very dark scenes, both Sonys delivered better overall contrast than the 2014 E series models. Despite this issue, the 2014 E models still looked better than the rest of the lineup due to their superior black levels.

The 2014 E series was able to maintain better contrast than its 2013 predecessor, however, particularly in even darker scenes such as the second Ryan tumble through space (16:23). The 2014 E models also didn't turn their backlight off after long pauses during the darkest sections.

Blooming, or stray backlight illumination, wasn't a major issue on the E series despite a relative paucity of dimming zones. When the pair of astronauts reach the derelict shuttle, for example, the lights from their flashlights remain contained amid the otherwise shadowed interior and the letterbox bars. The 2013 M series, for what it's worth, showed much worse blooming and black-level fluctuation, especially in the bars.

Shadow detail wasn't a major issue for either set, although due to differences in calibration the 42-incher performed slightly better than the 55-incher in this area. The Sony W900A was the best of the bunch, but the E models kept pace with the W850A and the Sharp, and also beat the 2013 M series, again.

Color accuracy: This category was a sort of mixed bag for both Vizios. As my measurements indicate, the 55-inch set suffered from a less-accurate grayscale (that pesky calibration again) while the 42-incher showed a desaturated red. The 55-incher tended toward blue at the extreme dark and bright ends of the scale, an issue visible as the astronauts' space suits swung alternately into shadow and bright sunlight.

The 42-inch set, on the other hand, showed a bit less impact in some red areas like the flames around the debris during re-entry (1:17:31). Skin tones were slightly paler than on the reference Sony at times, for example Ryan's face in the capsule (58:09), but more often, for example when Ryan emerges from the lake at the end, they looked relatively accurate. That said, the differences were subtle -- the red/orange stripes on the big parachute (30:33) looked very similar there compared to the other sets.

The depth of black on both E series TVs also helped them avoid the kind of bluer-looking letterbox bars I saw on sets like the Samsung and the Sharp.

Video processing: Although neither of my review samples was particularly stellar, especially for a "120Hz" TV, the 55-incher showed better performance in two areas of processing. Most importantly, it handled 1080p/24 sources properly, delivering true film cadence compared to the slight halting stutter seen on the 42-inch set.

Less important but still worth mentioning, the 55-incher evinced slightly better motion resolution. When I engaged the Motion Blur Reduction (MBR), toggle blur did decrease slightly, improving motion resolution to around 400 lines compared to the 300 I tested on the 42-inch set.

That slight difference was visible in the demanding motion footage from the FPD Benchmark disc. On the 55-incher, the lines of the hammock and the stripes on the shirt of the swinging girl, as well as the numbers in passing license plates, all appeared somewhat clearer on the 55-inch set. On the other hand none of these tests looked as clear as I saw on the Samsung or the Sharp, both of which have true 120Hz refresh rates.

Despite the slight increase in motion resolution, I ended up turning off MBR because it tended to introduce flicker in some areas, particularly white fields. I was happy to note that the 55-incher handled 1080p/24 properly regardless of its MBR setting.

There was some instability in the test pattern I use for 1080i de-interlacing, but the Vizios did technically pass the test.

Uniformity: Neither E series review sample evinced any major issues in this area, thanks in part to their full-array LED schemes. Both showed better uniformity than the 2013 E series set, with its slightly splotchy white fields, and outdid the edge-lit models, in particular the Samsung and the Vizio M series, at maintaining even lighting in dark areas. From off-angle, the 55-inch set maintained fidelity a bit better than the 42, but neither was significantly better than the others in this regard.

Bright lighting: Both sizes have the same matte finish, which results in excellent reflection reduction in bright rooms. They also maintained black levels very well when the lights were up, albeit not as well as the glossier Sony W900A.

Sound quality: Neither Vizio sounded good, even for a TV. All of the other sets in our lineup delivered superior audio to some extent, and the H6350 and W850B in particular trounced the Vizios. On my music test, "Red Right Hand" by Nick Cave, the 55-incher produced wavering, somewhat unclear vocals, impact-free percussion, and an overall distorted sound when I put the volume to low-medium (40 or higher). The 42-incher sounded even worse; thinner with less bass and more distortion. With "Mission: Impossible 3" it was more of the same; the effects and explosions from the bridge scene lacking impact and causing the sound to break apart at times.

Geek Box (E550i-B2)

Test ResultScore
Black luminance (0%) 0.001Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.21Average
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 2.566Good
Dark gray error (20%) 1.187Good
Bright gray error (70%) 3.042Average
Avg. color error 1.102Good
Red error 0.579Good
Green error 1.651Good
Blue error 2.048Good
Cyan error 0.564Good
Magenta error 0.467Good
Yellow error 1.302Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) PassGood
1080i De-interlacing (film) PassGood
Motion resolution (max) 400Poor
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 400Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 27.47Good

Geek Box (E420i-B0)

Test ResultScore
Black luminance (0%) 0.001Good
Avg. gamma (10-100%) 2.36Good
Avg. grayscale error (10-100%) 0.829Good
Dark gray error (20%) 0.69Good
Bright gray error (70%) 1.126Good
Avg. color error 2.155Good
Red error 5.006Poor
Green error 1.879Good
Blue error 2.444Good
Cyan error 0.71Good
Magenta error 1.767Good
Yellow error 1.123Good
1080p/24 Cadence (IAL) FailPoor
1080i De-interlacing (film) PassGood
Motion resolution (max) 300Poor
Motion resolution (dejudder off) 300Poor
Input lag (Game mode) 43.43Average

Vizio E550i-B2 CNET Review Calibration Results

How We Test TVs

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8.5

Vizio E0i-B series

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 8Value 10