Vizio E-Series 2018 review: The cheapest TV with a home-theater-worthy picture
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
LWZJWYKT = IPS 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.
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.
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.
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.
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|
|HDR compatible||HDR10 and Dolby Vision|
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).
The E-Series lacks a setting to engage MEMC (motion estimation, motion compensation), aka the Soap Opera Effect, as found on the TCL 5 series and Vizio's own P series. Like LG, TCL and Sony, Vizio supports both major types of HDR, HDR10 and Dolby Vision, in the E-Series.
- 3 or 4 HDMI inputs (All HDCP 2.2/HDMI 2.0)
- 1 component /composite video input
- 1 USB port
- RF antenna tuner input
- Ethernet port
- Optical digital audio output
- Stereo analog audio output
The 43-, 50- and 55-inch sets have three HDMI, while the larger sizes get four. Unlike last year, all are state-of-the-art, capable of accepting the highest-bandwidth 4K signals. One also supports ARC.
In my side-by-side comparisons, the E-Series exhibited the best overall image quality at its price level. Spend a couple hundred more for an M-Series or the TCL 6 series and you'll see improvements, particularly with HDR, but at this price the E-Series stands above the rest.
Compared to the similarly priced TCL 5 series, which lacks local dimming, the Vizio delivered superior black levels and a more impressive image overall with both standard and HDR sources. The 5 series is technically brighter than the Vizio in accurate picture settings, but still not that bright overall, so between the two I'd still recommend the Vizio for bright rooms, too.
Click the image at the right to see the picture settings used in the review. Note that I did not perform a full calibration on the TCL 5 series, the Vizio E-Series or the TCL S405. Instead I used their best default dark-room settings for my comparison and tweaked light output when appropriate to level the playing field and provide a better comparison with the other sets that I did calibrate.
And one more note: I did not perform a full side-by-side comparison against other brands with the 50-inch E-Series sample CNET purchased, but I did compare it directly to the original 65-inch E-Series to confirm its image quality similarity. I also added some measurements I took of the 50-incher, where appropriate, and a few other details.
Dim lighting: Thanks to local dimming, the E-Series was a very solid performer in dark areas, despite its paltry number of dimming zones. Watching the Nigeria jungle fight from Chapter 2 of Black Panther, for example, the black of its letterbox bars, shadows and other dark areas looked (and measured) a pleasingly dark shade, trouncing the washed-out look of the TCL 5 series and S405. Black levels on the E were slightly worse (lighter) than on the Sony, the Vizio M and especially the TCL 6 series, but all of those sets are also more expensive.
Shadow detail, for example in the folds of the rebels' uniforms and the depths of the underbrush, was full and realistic, especially compared to the lighter TCLs. The Vizio did show some minor blooming in some areas, for example around the logo of my Blu-ray player's screensaver, but it was rare in normal video and definitely a worthwhile tradeoff for superior black levels and contrast.
Bright lighting: With both standard and HDR sources, the light output of the E-Series falls short of most HDR TVs I've tested. Its brightest modes beat the TCL 5 series and S405, but fall way short of higher-end TVs. Makes sense: it costs money to add brightness to an LCD.
In accurate settings -- Movie/Brighter for the TCL and Calibrated for the Vizio E -- the TCL outshines the the Vizio significantly; 284 nits to just 115. Tweaking the Vizio's settings (by increasing local dimming to Medium) bumps it up to 190, but the TCL is still brighter in the accurate settings I'd recommend. The 50-inch E had similar numbers as the 65-inch, albeit slightly dimmer.
Light output in nits
|TV||Mode (SDR)||10% window (SDR)||Full screen (SDR)||Mode (HDR)||10% window (HDR)|
|TCL 65R617||Brighter/Vivid||653||480||Brighter/Dark HDR||824|
|TCL 55S405||Brighter/Vivid||301||298||Brighter/Dark HDR||212|
|TCL 55S517 (5 series)||Brighter/Movie||284||280||Brighter/Dark HDR||274|
The Vizio E's screen was better than that of the TCL 5 series at reducing reflections.
Color accuracy: I didn't calibrate my E-Series review samples, but both still measured very well in the best settings. For the 65-inch size that's Calibrated Dark in a dark room and Calibrated in a brighter room.
For the 50-inch size, Calibrated is actually the best default picture mode no matter the brightness of the room. That's because Calibrated Dark was too dark at only 51 nits compared to a healthier 113 in Calibrated (although still well short of my target of 137). Gamma in Calibrated was closer to my dark-room target, and color measured better too.
The Vizio E delivered accurate color in program material, too. Natural areas, like the mountains, rivers and plains of Wakanda, looked pleasingly realistic, with more of a sunlit, dynamic look compared to the TCL. The Vizio E also showed a slight advantage in the warm African skin tones of Black Panther's crew, which looked a bit closer to the color reference Sony than the TCL delivered. All of the sets were quite accurate and color differences would be tough to spot outside of a side-by-side comparison.
Video processing: The Vizio E-Series handled 1080p/24 content properly, preserving the cadence of film, as long as its Film Mode setting was On (turning it off introduced excessive stutter). As usual the Clear Action setting improved motion resolution at the expense of reducing brightness and causing flicker, so I left it turned off. Unless you're really sensitive to blurring, you should too.
Input lag for gaming was minimal, measuring about 20.7 milliseconds with both 1080p and 4K HDR sources. With 1080p I got that result whether or not I engaged Vizio's Gaming Low Latency mode, but with 4K HDR the GLL setting had to be turned on for minimal lag; leaving it off increased lag to 65ms.
Uniformity: The screen of the E-Series was admirably free of bands and bright spots in test patterns, a marked improvement over the TCL 5 series. Off-angle viewing was average for an LCD, with similar washout and discoloration to the 5 series, albeit significantly better than the S405.
HDR and 4K video: As usual local dimming was even more important to getting the best image out of demanding HDR video. Watching Black Panther, the Vizio E trounced the TCL 5 series and the S405. Highlights and sun spots popped, dark areas maintained their deep contrast and everything looked more vibrant and alive. Colors on the Vizio E measured worse for HDR color gamut than the 5 series, but differences in program material, for example in the costumes of the dancers in Chapter 4, were tough to spot.
Comparing Dolby Vision, the 5 series kept up a bit better but still fell well short of the E. In Altered Carbon on Netflix, streamed from an Apple TV 4K, the Vizio still delivered a more dynamic image with brighter highlights and darker black levels, but the difference wasn't as drastic. Perhaps the improvement is due to Dolby Vision itself, but I'm guessing it's more about the content.
As much as the E-Series looked better than the similarly priced TCL 5 and cheaper S405, it fell well short of the HDR picture of the other sets, including the one-step-up M-Series and TCL 6 series. Both of those sets managed brighter, punchier highlights in all of the HDR video I compared, while doing a better job of containing blooming and maintaining deep black levels. HDR on the E-Series did look noticeably better than non-HDR material, but those other sets made the difference more dramatic and, dare I say, dynamic.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.010||Good|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||445||Average|
|Default grayscale error||1.51||Good|
|Default color error||2.64||Good|
|Default color checker error||2.0||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||900||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||300||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode)||20.7||Good|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.013||Good|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||445||Poor|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||82.10||Poor|
|Avg. color checker error||8.86||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||20.70||Good|
Note: Since I did not calibrate this TV for the review, I'm including a shortened version of the standard Geek Box and reporting only the numbers for the best default setting: Calibrated Dark. See my picture settings notes above for more. The table above is for the 65-inch size. Measurements for the 50-inch size were largely similar.