Vizio and TCL are going head-to-head to deliver the best picture quality for the money. Which one wins?
Vizio had a good run over the last couple of years as CNET's favorite TV for the money, but this year its domination ends. The TCL 6 series is a better television than the 2018 Vizio M-Series.
Of course there are still reasons to like the M-Series. Its image quality is almost as good as the TCL's, and it's available in a 70-inch size, while the TCL 6 series tops out at 65 inches. If you really like using your phone, Alexa or Google Assistant to control your TV, the M-Series is more compatible with those gadgets than the TCL. And the Vizio is a better value than any TV I've tested from Samsung, Sony or LG.
Ultimately, the TCL 6 series does what the Vizio M-Series has done for the last couple of years, just a little better. Right now the two cost about the same: $600 (TCL) and $700 (Vizio) for the 55-inch size and about a grand (both companies) for the 65-incher. That's ridiculously inexpensive for this level of picture quality, anchored by full-array local dimming, a bright high dynamic range (HDR) image and Dolby Vision support. In my side-by-side comparisons however, the TCL looked a tad more punchy and, well, dynamic than the Vizio. And let's not forget its far superior Roku smart TV system.
Despite the superiority of the TCL, the Vizio M-Series remains an excellent choice if you want premium image quality for the money and don't care as much about brand style or extra features.
The 2018 M-Series is a style step-up compared to previous Vizios. The border is slimmer around the picture, and the glass of the screen extends almost to the edge for a clean look. The little legs to either side are as thin and spindly as I've seen -- although they still felt stable enough.
I'm not a huge fan of 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.
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. The tuner has real value to cord cutters and others who don't subscribe to cable or satellite TV.
Even more valuable to such folks is built-in streaming, and that's where the M-Series falls short. 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 TCL, Samsung and LG -- all of which have better Smart TV implementations than Vizio.
The on-screen 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 18 apps appear along the bottom, and while six are heavy hitters (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube 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. And even if you do, you'll need a TV provider sign-in for a lot of them.
Vizio has made a few improvements, for example adding apps for YouTube and YouTube TV and enabling HDR on Amazon, but the system is still pretty weak unless you love using your phone instead of on-screen 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.
Vizio says a new as-yet-unnamed streaming service aimed at cord cutters is coming to its TVs soon. The company said it would launch with a similar channel lineup as Pluto TV, and would add more channels in the future -- all accessible via a grid-style guide. For easy access it will be accessible as another "input," much like SmartCast itself.
Although it lacks its own built-in voice assistant, the Vizio is able to be to controlled to some extent by Google Assistant (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.
|Display technology||LED LCD|
|LED backlight||Full-array with local dimming|
|HDR compatible||HDR10 and Dolby Vision|
Bringing full-array local dimming (FALD) to lower price points is Vizio's wheelhouse. 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. Here's how Vizio and TCL compare.
While far short of TCL, Vizio's zone count is higher than that of last year's M, with the exception of the 55-inch, which stays the same. The M-Series has more zones then the cheaper E series, but fewer than the step-up P series and P-Series Quantum (details here). With the exception of the TCL 6 series, most other TVs at this price lack dimming entirely, use the edge-lit variety, or cost a lot more, like the Sony X900F and Samsung Q8 (neither Sony or Samsung lists their dimming zone numbers).
The M-Series has a 60Hz refresh rate panel -- Vizio's claim of "120Hz effective" is fake news. It lacks a setting to engage MEMC (motion estimation, motion compensation), aka the Soap Opera Effect, as found on the more-expensive P-Series. All of the sizes in the M-Series use higher-performance VA panels, not the IPS panel found on some sizes in previous years.
Like LG, TCL and (eventually) Sony, Vizio supports both major types of HDR, HDR10 and Dolby Vision, in the M-Series.
Vizio improved its connectivity from last year, enabling all of the inputs to accept all major 4K and HDR sources (with the exception of 120Hz input for gaming, which isn't available on the M series -- but it's still on the P series). Yep, there's even an antenna input. In other words, the M series matches the connectivity of most of its competition.
Having reviewed four of the top 2018 local-dimming-equipped TVs, so far, a pattern is starting to emerge: they're all capable of delivering an outstanding picture. The M-Series is no exception, with the deep black levels, ample light output and accurate color to earn it the same "8" in picture quality I gave the other three in my side-by-side comparison.
If I had to pick a loser among them, however, the Vizio would be in fourth place. Its black levels and contrast fall short of the Samsung and TCL, especially for HDR, and it lacks the video processing prowess of the Samsung and Sony, and it's dimmer and less accurate than the Samsung and the Sony. All of that said, however, its picture is still excellent, full stop, and a good deal better than TVs I've reviewed that earn a "7" overall. None of these four top-flight LCDs is significantly better than any other.
Dim lighting: As I've grown to expect from Vizio's local dimming sets, the M series put on its best performance with the lights down low, especially in dark scenes. In Chapter 5 of the La La Land Blu-ray, as Sebastian and Mia (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) walk up the darkened street, the shadows and letterbox bars looked impressively dark and impactful. They basically matched the black levels of the TCL, Q8 and the 2017 Vizio M, falling short of only the OLED and beating the Sony in this scene. The story was similar in most other dark scenes, like the inside the theater in Chapter 8.
Comparing the 2018 M and the TCL 6 series directly the two were close overall in most scenes, but the TCL pulled ahead when it got extremely dark. In Chapter 11's piano spotlit piano concert, for example, its letterbox bars out-inked the Vizio's (and indeed, all of the other LCD TVs). The TCL evinced a slightly darker cast in shadows and didn't expose quite as much shadow detail, but those differences are more the result of my calibrations than anything inherent in the TVs.
Another where the TCL showed a slight advantage was in controlling stray illumination (blooming). When the pair visits the observatory later in the chapter (54:59), the light from the tower strayed into the bottom letterbox bars more visibly on the Vizio, washing out the scene and hurting contrast. For that reason I liked the TCL's dark room image a little more than the Vizio's.
Bright lighting: The M-Series sample I reviewed significantly exceeded Vizio's 600 nit claim with both SDR and HDR content, outdoing the TCL and every other set in my lineup aside from the Sony and Samsung. In other words, it's plenty bright for just about any room lighting situation.
|TV||Mode (SDR)||10% window (SDR)||Full screen (SDR)||Mode (HDR)||10% window (HDR)|
|TCL 65R617||Brighter/Vivid||653||480||Brighter/Dark HDR||824|
|Vizio P65-E1 (2017)||Vivid||459||575||Vivid||498|
|LG OLED65C8P||Vivid||419||141||Cinema Home||792|
|Vizio M65-E0 (2017)||Vivid||288||339||Vivid||880|
As usual the brightest Vivid modes were woefully inaccurate. The most accurate SDR mode, Calibrated, topped out at 318 nits. With HDR, where light output matters even more, both of the most accurate picture modes (Calibrated and Calibrated Dark) measured 790 nits -- and I'd definitely recommend using them instead of Vivid. By way of comparison, the TCL's most accurate HDR setting hit 824 nits, so the two are close.
The M's semimatte screen finish reduced reflections as well as any TV in my lineup, with the exception of the Samsung and the LG OLED, and beat the TCL in this area. It also preserved black levels a little better than last year, albeit not particularly better than the TCL or the Sony.
Color accuracy: The M-Series is as color-accurate as any TV we tested, and in La La Land its deep black levels helped deliver the film's lush tones. According to my measurements it was quite accurate before and after calibration in both Calibrated and Calibrated Dark picture modes, but as usual didn't show any clear advantage over the others in my lineup.
Video processing: Like the TCL, the Vizio M-Series behaved like a 60Hz TV in my motion tests, meaning it didn't reduce blur of higher-end sets (including Vizio's own P-Series). I'm not particularly sensitive to motion blur, but if you are, a true 120Hz TV might be worth the extra money.
The M registered proper 1080p/24 cadence but exhibited motion resolution of just 300 lines. Vizio does offer a Clear Action control that improves that number to a respectable 900, but as usual it introduced flicker and dimmed the image, so most viewers will want to avoid it. Unlike the TCL, there's no option to engage smoothing, aka the Soap Opera Effect.
With 1080p/HD sources input lag for gaming was better than the 2017 M-Series, with an excellent result of 20ms whether or not I used the Gaming Low Latency setting. With 4K HDR sources that setting made a huge difference. I measured a lackluster 65ms with GLL turned off, and a superb 17.8ms with it engaged. Those results are almost as impressive as the TCL and Samsung Q8, and better than the other 2018 TVs I've measured this year.
Uniformity: Brightness across the 2018 M's screen was quite uniform, albeit similar to the others. With full-field test patterns there were no bands or bright spots, and only near the edges were there slight variations in brightness -- and those were impossible to discern with real video. So was any major difference between the sets in my lineup to exhibit "dirty screen effect," where differences in screen uniformity appear in pans and other camera movement.
From off-angle the 2018 Vizio lost black level and color fidelity about as quickly as the Sony and the 2017 Vizio. The TCL maintained black levels better, the Samsung Q8 was worse, while the OLED, as expected, trounced the LCDs from off-angle.
HDR and 4K video: The Vizio M series can belt out an excellent HDR image, but compared to the other 2018 sets in my lineup it was the least impressive overall. Contrast and color were a little behind the other TVs.
Watching the 4K Blu-ray of of La La Land in HDR10, I started with the same street scene in Chapter 5, The higher light output demands of HDR revealed the Vizio's somewhat lighter black levels and worse contrast more strongly than with the non-HDR version. The letterbox bars and shadows looked lighter and more washed-out than the TCL, while the highlights of the street lights looked (and measured) about the same between the two. The overall effect was of a punchier, more engrossing image on the TCL. The Samsung Q8 and the LG OLED had the same advantage and similar to the TCL, while the two Vizios and the Sony looked somewhat less-impressive in terms of contrast.
Shadow detail was superb on the Vizio M, but no better than the TCL, and the latter again showed better control of blooming or stray illumination, as best evinced by my Blu-ray player's white pause icon against the letterbox bars.
In this scene I also noticed the slightly duller, less saturated look to colors like Mia's yellow dress and red handbag on the 2018 Vizio M compared to the other sets. In brighter scenes, like the couple's walk along through sunny downtown in the next chapter, the color difference was even more pronounced.
From the green storefront to the red handbag to the bright colors of the movie set behind them (40:46), the 2018 M series didn't show as much depth of color. Red was the most obvious culprit, as seen in Mia's casting call in Chapter 7 (48:38) -- where her red leather jacket looked slightly duller and rustier than the others -- and the shower curtain and her roommate's red dress in Chapter 2. Overall the 2018 Vizio M lacked the saturation of the 2017 model, while the Sony and TCL came closer to the best sets for HDR color (the Q8 and the OLED).
The difference, as usual, wasn't overwhelming, but relatively obvious in my side-by-side comparison. What I saw was backed up by my measurements of test patterns. The 2018 Vizio M delivered a narrower portion of the HDR color gamut than the other TVs, including the 2017 M series.
For my streaming test this time around I watched The Dark Tower, the Dolby Vision version from iTunes played from an Apple TV 4K. I excluded the Samsung, Sony and LG from this test and concentrated on just the TCL and Vizios, in part because the Sony and LG didn't play nice with the Apple TV's DV output and my 4K HDR distribution amplifier.
Once again the TCL looked a step better. During Jake's exploration of the house (19:11) its superior black levels again improved contrast, despite the fact that highlights, for example the sunlight through the windows and across the floor, again appeared similar on both sets. The Dark Tower has a much more muted color palette than La La Land so the TCL had no clear advantage in color. It's also worth noting that I saw a sporadic artifact on the TCL -- a sort of shimmering, strobing effect, for example in the leaves of the trees outside the house (18:41) -- that was absent on the Vizio, but it was rare and not a huge deal in my book.
|Black luminance (0%)||0.003||Good|
|Peak white luminance (SDR)||1,035||Good|
|Avg. gamma (10-100%)||2.34||Good|
|Avg. grayscale error (10-100%)||0.39||Good|
|Dark gray error (30%)||0.31||Good|
|Bright gray error (80%)||0.50||Good|
|Avg. color checker error||1.80||Good|
|Avg. color error||0.74||Good|
|1080p/24 Cadence (IAL)||Pass||Good|
|Motion resolution (max)||900||Good|
|Motion resolution (dejudder off)||300||Poor|
|Input lag (Game mode)||20.13||Good|
|Black luminance (0%)||0.015||Good|
|Peak white luminance (10% win)||1,005||Good|
|Gamut % UHDA/P3 (CIE 1976)||81.65||Poor|
|Avg. color checker error||3.56||Average|
|Input lag (Game mode, 4K HDR)||17.77||Good|