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Vizio E-Series 2018 review: The cheapest TV with a home-theater-worthy picture

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MSRP: $649.99

The Good The ridiculously cheap Vizio E-Series offers the best image quality available in this price range, thanks to local dimming. It supports the latest 4K and HDR video, including Dolby Vision. Chromecast built-in works well if you like using your phone to control streaming.

The Bad The exterior design is dated. Roku TVs are much better overall for streaming.

The Bottom Line The Vizio E-Series has the best picture quality of any budget TV, period.

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7.5 Overall
  • Design 5
  • Features 8
  • Performance 7
  • Value 9

Vizio's E-Series TV is the best-performing cheap TV I've tested this year. There are a few TVs on the market that cost even less, and if you're fine with just "good enough" picture quality, go ahead and get one. But the E is still super-budget-friendly, and if you want a better picture but can't afford Vizio's M-Series or TCL's 6 series, it's a great consolation prize.

The secret is its full-array local dimming (FALD), which allows it to deliver better contrast and punch to pretty much every scene, but in particular in dark rooms. It beat the TCL 5 series Roku TV in our direct comparison, and I'm willing to bet it also outperforms other sets that lack local dimming. And that's pretty much every cheaper TV, and quite a few more expensive ones.

The E isn't perfect though. Its smart TV system can't hold a candle to Roku TV, and its styling is anything but stylish. For people who prioritize saving money first, picture quality second and everything else a distant last, however, none of those issues spoil the E-Series budget TV glory.

But first: avoid the 75-inch E75-F2

That's because some versions of that model use IPS-based ("in-plane switching") LCD panels instead of the VA (vertical alignment) panels used on every other size and model in the 2018 E series -- including the 65-inch model I tested. VA generally delivers superior contrast and black levels to IPS.

Here's Vizio's statement.

The E75-F2 is the only 2018 E-Series that is being developed with an IPS panel as well as a VA panel. End users will still be able to distinguish E75-F2 panels by the 4th digit in the serial number. A "2" represents a VA panel and a "J" represents an IPS panel, as follows:
LWZ2WYKT = VA panel

If they want to avoid getting an IPS-based TV, 75-inch E series shoppers either need to check the serial number or just get the other 75-inch model, the E75-F1.

For the record, before this review first published Vizio had told me that the 50-inch model, E50-F2, used IPS panels as well. After the review published, Vizio emailed to say that it had given me the wrong information. Vizio's representative said that the E50-F2 does use VA panels.

To confirm that claim CNET purchased an E50-F2 and I found that, yes, its image quality is very similar to that of the original 65-inch review sample I tested. It does indeed appear to have a VA panel.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Start with the bad news: Design

I'll just come out and say it: The E-Series is the ugliest TV I've reviewed this year. You might not object to its angled bezel, glossy black plastic and the strip of silver running along the bottom, but you probably won't love it either. The frame around the image is still thin enough, thankfully, but even the ultrabudget TCL S405 looks nicer in my book.

I also dislike Vizio's many-buttoned remote, and I kept having to glance down rather than operate it by feel. I prefer the simplicity of TCL's Roku TV remote or the evolved clickers of Samsung and LG.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The second strike against it: Weak streaming

Cord cutters on a budget are one potential E-Series audience, and they'll likely boo its lackluster built-in streaming options. That's hardly a deal-breaker since you can always connect an external streamer like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus or, if you want Dolby Vision, an Apple TV 4K, but it's still a strike in the negative column compared to competitors like Roku TVs, Samsung and LG -- all of which have better smart TV implementations than Vizio.

The onscreen home page takes too long to load after you press the "V" button on the remote and once it does arrive, there's not much there. Just 20 apps appear along the bottom, and while a few are heavy hitters (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, YouTube TV and Plex) the rest are minor, and it doesn't have plenty of other big apps like DirecTV Now, HBO, ESPN, CNN or Pandora. You can't remove or reorder apps, or in any way customize the Discover section, which occupies most of the screen with movies and shows you probably don't care about.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The system is great if you love using your phone instead of onscreen menus. The TV's Chromecast built-in system lets you go into any supported app on your phone and hit the Cast button to reveal the Vizio TV as an option; select it and video from the app will play back on the TV. There are thousands of supported apps, and the system works well in general, but I still prefer a real onscreen menu system -- just not Vizio's.

The WatchFree service is a new addition aimed at cord cutters who want free TV. It's a partnership with the Pluto TV free service and uses the same grid-style layout as a typical cable box. Most of the channels are from Pluto itself, with names like Failarmy and Adventure TV, or free feeds from online sources like Bloomberg and Cheddar. Even the familiar channels, like Fox Sports and something called "NBC News / MSNBC" aren't the same as those channels. There's a lot of free stuff there to watch, so it's tough to complain, but the Roku Channel does a better job in general of delivering free, ad-supported video.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Speaking of free TV, Vizio has finally addressed a glaring omission in past TVs: All of its 2018 sets include a built-in over-the-air TV tuner, just like those of competitors.

Although it lacks its own built-in voice assistant, the Vizio is able to be to controlled to some extent by Google Home (details here) and Alexa (here) smart speakers. I didn't test that functionality this time around, but Google Home worked relatively well to control the 2017 M-Series.

And now for the good: Cheap local dimming

Bringing FALD to lower price points is Vizio's wheelhouse, and for 2018 the E-Series is the cheapest Vizio with dimming. This feature is my favorite improvement for LCD picture quality because it improves all-important contrast and black levels, especially with HDR, and has better uniformity than edge-lit dimming. The number of dimmable zones is an important specification because it controls how precise the dimming can be. More zones doesn't necessarily mean better picture quality, but it usually helps.

Key TV features

Display technology LED LCD
LED backlight Full array with local dimming
Resolution 4K
HDR compatible HDR10 and Dolby Vision
Smart TV SmartCast
Remote Standard

The E-Series has 10 dimming zones on the 43-, 50- and 55-inch sizes, 12 on the 65- and 70-inch sizes, and 16 on the 75-incher. The M-Series ranges from 32 to 48 zones depending on size, which helps explain its superior image quality. Just a few zones are better than none, however.

The E-Series has a 60Hz refresh rate panel -- Vizio's claim of "120Hz effective" is fake news. So is Vizio's "Clear Action" spec, which it says is lower on the E-Series than the M series because "Thanks to the M-Series' greater panel brightness, the duty cycle can be lower, which offers greater motion clarity." Since you'll have to engage the dim, flicker-prone Clear Action setting to notice, however, that's not a big deal (see below for more).

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