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Bonus Review: Vizio's "Value" LCD HDTV

Ever since the prices of flat-panel HDTVs started falling below the going rate for high-end desktop computers, people have been asking if the no-name or small-name brands of TVs were a safe alternative to the Sonys, Panasonics, Sharps and Samsungs of the world. So for my recent comparison of movie rentals from the iTunes Store and Xbox Live, I requested a loaner TV from one of the most successful challengers of the big-name brands, Vizio: While I tried out each store's high-def downloads, I could also see how one of the cheapest flat-panel sets available compared to other, more expensive units that I've tested before.

(I'd hoped to get this Vizio set in time to do a quick write-up of it before the Super Bowl, but the delivery took longer than expected, so I opted to spend a little more time with the set before writing a review.)

The set the company's PR department loaned, the 42-inch VW-42L, is one of cheapest LCDs at that size. Wal-Mart has it for $898, a hundred bucks cheaper than any name-brand set listed at a typical mass-market electronics retailer.

Some of Vizio's design compromises are obvious but don't affect its core functions. For example, it lacks any memory-card slot or USB port to help you display digital photos. And while it includes a full set of high-def inputs on the back--two HDMI digital audio-video connectors, two sets of component-video jacks, one VGA computer-video port--the more accessible composite and S-Video inputs on the left side only accept standard-definition analog video. The plastic bezel around the screen feels a touch flimsy, and the remote's tiny buttons aren't backlit.

But what's on the VW-42L's screen looks great overall, to judge from its performance with over-the-air HD broadcasts and high-def movies rented from the iTunes Store and Xbox Live. I could see only a little motion blurring--the Vizio set's 8-millisecond response time matches the specifications of just about any entry-level LCD--but that may be because I know to look for it. And that issue only became objectionable when viewing the credits at the end of movies, which stuttered upwards (the VW-42L lacks the "120 HZ" technology that cancels out this problem on pricier sets).

The weakest aspect of this screen's picture quality was its black levels. The Apple TV's onscreen menus should have consisted of white text on a black canvas, but those background areas looked more like dark gray--especially when viewed from the side. The Vizio set's 1,000:1 contrast ratio is, indeed, on the low end for LCDs of this size, although turning down its backlight from the default settings seemed to minimize this problem.

For what its worth, the picky users of the AVS Forum seem generally happy with this model, to judge by the comments on this thread.

As for the parts behind the screen, I was pleased with the VW-42L's over-the-air reception; it locked in as many signals as any other digital receiver I've tried lately. And I was really pleased to see that it included an onscreen program guide showing what was on and coming up next on each over-the-air channel. Many far more expensive sets have left out this useful feature.

Your power bill with this set should either be the same or slightly lower than with big-name models. It drew just under 200 watts with an over-the-air HD signal, about 140 when displaying video from an Apple TV and zero watts when off.

All that said, I wouldn't buy this particular model. The price gap between it and a set with a better contrast ratio and more digital inputs is not that big and will only shrink. Considering how long TVs stay in service, saving $100 here matters less than it would on, say, a laptop that will need to be replaced within three or four years.

Have you bought a Vizio or another little-brand HDTV? Share your experience in the comments!

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 11, 2008; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Video  
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I bought 2 Westinghouse 720p HDTVs, one 32" with a built-in DVD player, the other 26". Not the greatest pictures in the world (my 40", 305 lb. Sony cathode ray tube TV has a very nice picture) but adequate for the money and their purposes as bedroom TVs.

Posted by: WA2CHI | March 11, 2008 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I've had a 32" 720p Westinghouse for a few years and am quite pleased. My only gripe is that there are only two options to control aspect ration but I've checked at Best Buy and the newer models have fixed that. I will definitely consider a Westinghouse whenever we upgrade to a larger size. I think they have a more attractive case than the Vizio which looks cheap in my opinion.

Posted by: ShawnDC | March 11, 2008 5:00 PM | Report abuse

We have a Magnavox 26MF357B/37 in my studio (it has a DVD player.) This TV has two hdmi inputs as well as a PC in and an input for a VCR or DVD player.

Originally, we got it for my MIL who gets over the air only. It did not do well with her antenna. In fact, her Panasonic analog TV pulls in at least twice as many stations.

In our basement with a Comcast signal, it is more than adequate.

In fact, I like it somewhat better than our 46" Samsung (recommended by Consumer Reports) because the Samsung, even with a Comcast signal, doesn't pull in every station well, particularly PBS and Showtime. Odd!

My chief complaint with the Magnavox is that I cannot connect our roof top antenna --or rather, I don't know how to connect the roof top antenna as cable and antenna share the same connection.

Posted by: mmrudy | March 11, 2008 6:37 PM | Report abuse

I have a Vizio 42" 720p LCD from Costco. I have had it a little less than a year. HD signals look great. Interstingly, the hi-res screen really exposes the varying quality of SD broadcasts. Paid $1,100 for it which is what they are getting for 1080p sets of the same size. I am very happy with it overall

Posted by: christerman | March 11, 2008 8:05 PM | Report abuse

I picked up a Sharp Aquos 42" LCD last January. "Damaged open box" at Best Buy for about $900. Didn't need the box, and the damage was a missing remote. Bought a Harmony remote. (Rob, you really need to review those. Best. Programmable. Remote. Ever. EVAR!)

The TV has decent picture and a good tuner (but I live in McLean, and rabbit ears pick up all the OTA channels). Fairly easy to dial in as well.

Posted by: wiredog | March 12, 2008 8:19 AM | Report abuse

I bought a Vizio 42 inch LCD (I think it's a VU42LF model) from Costco a couple of weeks ago and I love it. It was hundreds less than comparable name brand TVs and to my untrained eye, the picture is fantastic. I bought it at Costco because they have great prices to begin with and they give the extended warranty for free.

Posted by: Dennis | March 12, 2008 9:11 AM | Report abuse

Last year I bought a Westinghouse LTV-40w1 HDC, which has a built-in DVD player. No cable for me, just OTA, and it performs well. I probably should purchased a model without a built-in DVD player and bought a separate Blu-Ray device instead. But who knew?

Posted by: FriendOfJake | March 12, 2008 9:13 AM | Report abuse

Rob, Enjoyed reading this as I purchased a similar model, the VX42L from Sam's which has a few more features than the VW42L from Wal-Mart and has silver under the panel instead of black.

I'm very pleased with it after purchasing it in late November. The cost/benefit ratio is a definite plus! Others to my home have remarked on its' picture and I have to agree with Dennis above regarding same.

Many would be pleased with this Vizio.

One may also tweak their HDTV with movie DVD's containing THX Certification or DVD's specifically made for this purpose.

Posted by: GeoOh | March 12, 2008 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I have a 32" Westinghouse LCD that moved into a spare room after my 50" HP Plasma arrived last year. Huge difference. The Westinghouse looks washed out and grainy by comparison. I purchased it in 2005, so it's likely that quality has improved since that time.

Posted by: M Street | March 12, 2008 2:23 PM | Report abuse

About six months ago I bought my 32" Vizio at CostCo as other here did (taking advantage of the extra one year of warranty the store offers based on some requirements), and do not regret it at all. It cost me at the time $699, which was way less than any other comparable TV.

While it may be on the lower end technologically, the image looks great, and it hasn't given me a single problem. The image and sound are great, especially on a DVD (regular one, as I don't have a BD-DVD), and I have all types of connections I could want and never had.

I'm a big fan, and may eventually get another Vizio in the future. I'm tired of paying more for just a brand name, or features that don't really make a difference for me. I have met several others VZOs (Vizio Owners), and have not seen anyone having regrets, other than "I should have gone for a bigger model." :)

Posted by: Danny P. | March 13, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I purchased a used Vizio GL 42" model with a 1500:1 contrast ration and the picture is beautiful. Both HDMI cables work and the volume comes across loud and clear. There is sometimes an issue when I turn on the the television. There is sound but no picture. I have to turn off the TV and turn it back on a second time to get a picture. This has only happened 3 times since i have had it. (That is probably why they sold it to me). I think the picture is sort of dark, but my husband says that it the way it is supposed to look. He says that is what makes it HD quality. The outside case or frame is blck plactic and it looks cheap and flimsy, but overall the picture is wonderful for the price. I only paid $450 for it, and I am very pleased. This is a great product for the price.

Posted by: Used Vizio | March 14, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I purchased a vizio vw42L about 2 months ago and absolutely love it. Grant it def not a high end Sony but for the price you can't go wrong.. Not to mention high def cable or satellite only sends out 720p signal anyway so unless your talking Blu-ray there is not that much of a difference... A good buy all around!!

Posted by: greg m | March 30, 2008 7:32 PM | Report abuse

Correction to Greg above. The Comcast signal is 1080i. I believe others are as well. If your set is small you might not appreciate the difference. Some people do, some don't.

Posted by: Sara | May 6, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

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