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!
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