As streaming gets more and more popular -- from must-haves like Netflix and Amazon Prime to cord cutter live TV like Sling TV and YouTube TV to new options like Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus and HBO Max -- it makes sense for TV shoppers to prioritize a robust built-in streaming system. Smart TVs that get the latest apps and updates, and make those apps quick and easy to use, have a leg up on TVs that don't, especially at the budget level. Sure you could add a media streamer to any TV, but that means an extra device to buy and another remote to juggle.
Vizio makes some solid budget TVs, including the V-Series, but they're handicapped by the worst smart TV system in the business. I can overlook its sluggishness, busy interface and lack of apps in a more-expensive model like the M8 series, where adding a Roku Streaming Stick Plus for $50 isn't as big of a deal. But at the dirt-cheap price point where the V-Series competes, actual Roku TVs like the TCL 4-Series win.
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It doesn't help that different V-Series models in the lineup have different picture quality-related features and performance. I tested two different ones for this review and one performed better than the other. That model offers full-array local dimming but -- unlike with last year's E-Series -- most of the others don't. Many models are also saddled with inferior LCD panel technology.
Yes, the best examples of the V-Series perform better overall than the TCL 4-Series, but the difference isn't massive. If you can get the V-Series at a steep discount it might be worthwhile, but most budget TV shoppers will be happier with the TCL.
Unlike most TV makers, Vizio doles out different features to different models in the same series, and the result is pretty confusing. Here's a summary of all of the models currently on Vizio's website.
|Model||Size (inches)||Local dimming zones||Panel type|
|V656-G4||65||12||VA or IPS|
|V436-G1||43||10||VA or IPS|
|V555-G4||55||None||VA or IPS|
|V435-G0||43||None||VA or IPS|
Only 3 out of the 12 models offer full-array local dimming, my favorite picture-quality-enhancing extra for LCD-based TVs. It improves overall image quality by dimming some areas (zones) of the picture relative to others. I tested two V-Series models for this review and only one, the V556-G1, has local dimming (spoiler: it helps).
The other model I tested, the V605-G3, lacks local dimming and is representative of most of the other models in the series. It didn't perform much better than the TCL 4-Series.
And there's another wrinkle: Some of the V-Series models have IPS-based ("in-plane switching") LCD panels instead of the VA (vertical alignment) panels used on other sizes. VA generally delivers superior contrast and black levels to IPS. Both of the models I tested were VA-based models, and I expect the IPS models to perform worse.
Here's Vizio's statement:
Vizio tries to keep the panel technology consistent, but we know the volume in products like the V-Series will be too large for one panel provider, and in some screen sizes we will plan to use both VA and IPS panels to fulfill demand. V656-G4, V555-G4, V436-G1 and V435-G0 models will, at some point, use IPS panel technology. It is difficult to say when the IPS panels will cut in, but your readers can use the following serial number prefix on the box to identify models with IPS panels. If the fourth digit of the serial number is an "F"-- or in the case of the V435-G0, if it's "F" or "K"-- that sample uses an IPS panel. All other serial numbers for 2019 V-Series will be units using VA panels.
If you don't want to squint at a serial number in the store -- or can't get access to it online for the model you're buying -- your best bet is to avoid the "VA or IPS" models entirely. Unfortunately, two of those are the ones with full-array local dimming.
Most TVs these days look the same, and the V is no exception. There's a two-tone finish to the frame around the screen -- matte and glossier black -- but at least the company did away with the cheesy chrome strip along the bottom. The stand legs are edged, not rounded and angled out, but that's all I got. At least there's no light under the logo like TCL uses.
I'll start with the good news. Vizio says the latest version of its SmartCast smart TV system, version 3.5, will begin rolling out in mid-November. Its main improvements, according to the company, are speed-related: faster load times for the home page, smoother scrolling and quicker load times for major apps including Netflix, Hulu and Prime Video.
I checked the new version out at a demo Vizio provided and it did seem faster, so we'll see. The current version on the V-Series sets I tested is really slow, especially compared to the snappiness of Roku TV on a 4-Series, so any speed improvements are welcome.
Other issued with the system won't be addressed by the update. The main screen, filled with a random selection of TV shows and movies I didn't care about, is still worse than on any other current TV. App selection lags behind other smart TVs, especially Roku, but most of the major names are all there. To watch any of the hundreds of apps not part of Vizio's onscreen system, you'll use the cast function on your phone to connect to the TV. The Vizio's Chromecast built-in feature is neat for phone-centric users, but less convenient for people used to onscreen apps.
The ability to use your iPhone or iPad with Apple AirPlay on Vizio TVs is a welcome perk, and in my testing it worked well. Roku TVs lack AirPlay and Google Cast, but they do get Apple's TV app (which is also coming "in the future" to Vizio TVs). Like the TCL 4-Series, Vizio doesn't have any voice capability built into its remote, but the TV will work with Amazon Alexa and Google Home speakers.
Other features are par for the budget TV course, including 4K resolution with HDR support, but the V-Series does support Dolby Vision HDR while the TCL 4-Series does not. Connectivity is solid, although one model in the V-Series (the 75-inch V755-G4) has only two HDMI instead of three and unlike Roku there's no headphone jack.
For this review I compared the 55-inch V556-G1 and the 60-inch V605-G3 to the TCL 50S425, the Vizio M8 and the TCL 6-Series. I didn't put The Vizio V-series TVs through my usual TV review process and measurements, but I did some basic measurements, and saw enough to convince me that the FALD-equipped Vizio is a bit better than the TCL, while the non-FALD 60-incher is very similar, with image quality that's "good enough."
Comparing standard Blu-ray playback black levels in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Blade Runner: 2049, the more-expensive 6-Series and M8 were as expected clearly superior, with more pop thanks to deeper, more realistic black levels. Among the other three the closest was the V556-G1 with deeper black levels than the other two in the darkest scenes.
That's not much of a surprise since the V556-G1 is the only one equipped with full-array local dimming, but its advantage wasn't overwhelming. In brighter scenes the TCL matched the V556-G1's black levels and delivered slightly more definition and depth, perhaps pointing to superior gamma for dark-room viewing. Meanwhile, the V605-G3 was consistently a bit behind those two in most scenes, although again the difference wasn't major.
Light output on the Vizios was mediocre, as you'd expect from a cheaper TV. In the accurate settings I'd recommend -- Movie/Brighter for the TCL and Calibrated for the Vizios E -- the TCL outshined both the Vizios significantly, 281 nits (on the 50S425) to 148 (on the Vizio V556-G1) and 178 (on the Vizio V605-G3). Vizio claims a 400-nit peak light output on the V556-G1 (and not the V605-G3), and when I engaged the Vivid mode it did hit 428 nits -- but that mode is terribly inaccurate with an overly-blue color cast as well as other issues.
With HDR sources the accurate Calibrated modes maxed out at 246 (on the Vizio V556-G1) and 193 (on the Vizio V605-G3). I needed to engage Vivid to get to 427 and 225 nits, respectively.
Screen uniformity wasn't great either, with test patterns showing brighter areas and backlight structure on both V-Series sets, as well as the TCL 50S425, at various brightness levels. The TCL 6-Series and Vizio M8 were both much better in comparison.
As I've seen from many inexpensive TVs, the Vizios didn't introduce much input lag for gamers. Both measured between 23 and 25ms for both 1080p and 4K HDR sources, whether or not Game Mode (which Vizio calls Gaming Low Latency) was engaged. That is slightly better than the TCL 50S425's 31ms (1080p) and 29ms (4K HDR).
These are all 60Hz TVs despite Vizio's fake "120Hz effective refresh rate" specification, and tests indicated as much: They delivered only 300 lines of motion resolution in default settings. The V556-G1 (and not the V605-G3) offers a Clear Action setting that enables black frame insertion for and ups the motion resolution to 800 lines. The trade-off, as usual for such options, is a dimmer image and some visible flicker.
As I've seen with most inexpensive TVs, the Vizios didn't look much better with HDR than they did with standard dynamic range video. I streamed a little of The King from Netflix in HDR10 and neither V-series model distinguished itself, although again the local-dimming-equipped V556-G1 looked better. On both sets black levels were washed out and too bright, which I was able to improve slightly on the V556-G1 by turning dimming to Low, but the image was still mediocre. The TCL actually showed slightly more punch in some scenes, but it crushed black levels and looked generally too blue and too dim -- the V556-G1 was better by a hair.
Unlike the TCL the Vizios are capable of Dolby Vision streaming, but it didn't help much. I compared the DV version of The King (streamed vis the Vizio's built-in Netflix app) to the HDR10 version and saw similar issues: a flat, relatively washed-out image. Of course both the TCL 6-series and the Vizio M8 looked significantly better than any of those less-expensive sets, with superior contrast, saturation and realism.
Picture setup tips: For the most accurate picture choose either Calibrated (for brighter rooms) or Calibrated Dark (for darker rooms). HDR looked a bit better on the V556-G1 when I reduced the Active Full Array (local dimming) setting from the default Medium to Low.