Nowhere has the evolution in TVs been more pronounced than in TVs priced at $1,000 and below. Just a few years ago, sets in this price category were poor performers -- fine for casual viewing or as a second set and little more -- and largely devoid of features. Today, you can find sets in this category that can deliver pictures that outshine those of mid-priced and even premium TVs of not very long ago. Ditto for features. In fact, some of the best smart TV platforms found in today's sets can be found in some surprisingly cheap TVs.
Some reviewers have a hard time deciding what they like more -- the value of Vizio's E-Series LCD TVs, or their performance. Like all 2015 Vizio LCD TVs, the E-Series uses a full-matrix LED back light with local dimming on most models -- albeit with fewer dimming zones than other, pricier, Vizio models, such as the M-Series (covered in our discussion of best-value TVs).
In our coverage of the Vizio M-Series, we noted that rating those sets was a challenge because there is more variation among the specifications for the different screen sizes. The same holds true for the E-Series, but in spades -- and on steroids. Some of the variations are cosmetic -- perhaps made for no other reason than to provide an "exclusive" model for one retailer, such as Walmart or Target, to sell. Others are more substantial, such as the number of local dimming zones (from none in the 32-inch and smaller models to 16 in the largest, 70-inch screen) or the refresh rate -- 60 Hz on most screen sizes, but 120 Hz on the 70 inch version and the 65-inch version, with the exception of the Walmart-exclusive 65-inch Vizio E65X-C2 (Est. $900). We did mention that there were a lot of variations, right?
Wait, there's more: Some of the variations might seem esoteric to the non-videophile, but can result in notably different image quality. For example, our Best Reviewed selection, the Vizio E50-C1 (Est. $530), along with most of the screen sizes in the series, uses a VA (vertical alignment) LCD panel. However, the 55-inch and 43-inch versions may use that or a different panel, built using IPS (in-plane switching) technology, and the only way to tell which is which is from a specific set's serial number; CNET's review of the Vizio E--Series has more information. We don't want to get too deep into the technical weeds, but the basic difference is that while an IPS panel is better for many other applications, its lower black levels and slower response times make it a poorer choice for a TV than a VA panel. "Given past experience, I recommend avoiding buying a Vizio E series equipped with an IPS panel," says CNET's David Katzmaier.
That's a lot to take in, but the bottom line is that despite all of these versions and variations, all screen sizes in Vizio's E-series -- which run from as small as 23 inches to as big as 70 inches -- draw good to great reviews among users and experts. The 50-inch Vizio E50-C1 is an Editors' Choice selection at Reviewed.com, where it's described as "simply what a good, affordable TV should strive to be." Reviewer Michael Desjardin adds: "It's not going to sweep you off your feet, but for the price, you walk away feeling like you've been given more than you should have. Elsewhere, the 48-inch Vizio E48-C2 (Est. $480) is a Best Buy recommendation in large, independent round up. CNET tests three sets in different screen sizes, and with different specifications, and finds enough similarity and enough performance across the board to include the entire series (save for the 32-inch and smaller models that lack local dimming) in its list of best TVs.
Picture quality on the Vizio E-series is better than sets in this price category typically deliver -- and not too far behind what some notably pricier sets offer. Black levels are excellent. "Compared to similarly-sized edge-lit TVs, the E50-C1 produces respectably deep black levels and bright highlights, too, says Desjardin. CNET concurs, and says that the sets it tests "delivered very impressive contrast performance, anchored by deep black levels." However, Katzmaier adds that sets with more dimming zones, such as the Vizio M Series and the 65-inch Vizio E65-C3 (Est. $1,000), are able to display still brighter highlights.
There's mostly good news on the color front. "Despite slightly under-saturating red, the E50-C1 produces accurate colors right out of the box," Reviewed.com reports. Motion performance is good, but keep in mind that it will be best on the larger screen sizes in the series with their 120-Hz true refresh rate.
The biggest negative is viewing angle -- Reviewed.com says that the "E50-C1 basically face-planted" its viewing angle tests. "We determined that its screen only provides a mere three feet of viewing flexibility from 10 feet away, which is no where near adequate for a panel of this size," Desjardin says. The built-in sound is also not very good. John R. Quain at Tom's Guide calls it "underwhelming," and some other reviewers are not as kind.
With picture quality this good, and a price this low, you'd expect features to be minimal, but they are not. True, this set is "only" 1080p HD, not 4K, and Vizio completely turned its back on 3D last year. However, though it's not elegant, Vizio does have a robust streaming platform and a good stable of content providers. "Its user-friendliness more than makes up for its lack of personality," Reviewed.com says.
While the Vizio E-Series offers great picture quality with a good enough streaming platform, the TCL family of Roku TVs offers what's undoubtedly the best built-in streaming platform available on any TV at any price, and marries that with picture quality that, while not earth shattering, is easily "good enough," according to CNET and most other experts that have looked at it. The secret? Rather than use its own, proprietary streaming platform, TCL partnered with Roku -- maker of what's universally acknowledged to be the most powerful and most user-friendly third party streaming platform -- and has built that company's technology into these sets.
TCL makes three different series of Roku TVs, but all are essentially identical save for styling. According to CNET, the TCL FS3700 has a central pedestal stand, while the FS3800 stands on four small legs (which Roku calls a quad pedestal stand). The FS3850 is similar to the FS3800, but with a slightly flashier gunmetal finish and all-aluminum quad pedestal stand.
Regardless of the form, all of these TVs have been well reviewed. The 40-inch TCL 40FS3800 (Est. $300) gets a 4-star rating and a place on the list of best TVs at CNET, the 40-inch TCL 40FS3850 (Est. $350) is an Editors' Choice at Reviewed.com, while the 55-inch TCL 55FS3700 (Est. $550) is an Editors' Choice winner at PCMag.com. User reviews are plentiful and indicate that most owners that give these sets a whirl come away pleased with performance and value. The FS3700 series is also available in 32 and 48 inch screen sizes, while the FS3800 and FS3850 series also come with 32, 50 or 55 inch screens.
The picture quality is the least impressive part of the package in these TCL Roku TVs, but it's actually not half bad. Yes, serious videophiles might want to shield their eyes, and, yes, the Vizio E-Series is a better performer still on that score, but image quality is better than you typically see on sets in this price range. Color accuracy, while technically imperfect, is still fairly good according to PCMag.com's testing. Ditto for black levels: "It's no OLED, but it's plenty bright, and produces great black levels and shadow tones," says Reviewed.com's Lee Neikirk. In short, CNET's Katzmaier sums up the consensus when he says: "Nobody is going to place the TCL at the top of any image quality lists, but it's still likely 'good enough' for most viewers."
The biggest complaint shared is that viewers may need to be prepared to like the image quality largely as it comes out of the box. "TCL's Roku TV may pack one of the better baked-in smart platforms you'll find this year, but it's otherwise bereft of the usual software for adjusting or aiding the TV's performance," Neikirk says.
Of course, the real reason that buyers should opt for this TV is the built-in Roku streaming platform as it makes that much of a difference in the smart TV experience compared to the best platforms offered by the best TV makers. Usability is the first of its major pluses. "Its design is simpler and more intuitive than any other smart TV, including Samsung's 2015 Tizen, LG's Web OS 2.0, Android TV and Vizio," says CNET's Katzmaier. Then there's the unmatched breadth of the available content. "Other smart TV systems bring butter knives to the app coverage gunfight, while Roku shows up with a nuke," Katzmaier says. Yes, not every content channel is something that someone will ever use, or want to use for that matter, but with over 2,500 channels of content, there's also virtually nothing missing. Even some former holes, such as HBO Go, have now been plugged.
The Roku platform is also available on two other, similarly cheap TVs. CNET has tested the Sharp LC-43LB371U (Est. $350) and Insignia NS-55DR420NA16 (Est. $550) Roku TVs, both BestBuy exclusives, and found virtually noting separating them from the TCL Roku sets, including picture quality. PCMag.com finds more of a difference, giving a slight nod to the Insignia-branded version, but adds that "it's a close race among all the Roku TVs we've seen so far."
Not everyone wants or needs a wall-filling TV. But finding a good performing set that measures less than 32-inches can be a challenge. Very few reviewers test sets that small, and some manufacturers have abandoned making them altogether. The 28-inch Samsung UN28H4000 (Est. $185) is a happy exception. This one gets good expert feedback, including an Editors' Choice award from Reviewed.com and a Recommended tag from another expert reviewer. This set was originally introduced in 2014, and has amassed a large and largely positive catalog of user reviews -- including a 4.5-star rating at Amazon.com following more than 1,000 reviews. All that adds up to us making it easily the Best Reviewed small TV. And if 28-inches is still too large, the set also comes in a still-smaller size as the 24-inch Samsung UN24H4000 (Est. $160).
It's unfair to expect a TV in this size and price class to be a world-beater picture-wise, and that holds true for this Samsung. Still, picture quality is quite good compared to available alternatives. Black levels are low, but uniformity is surprisingly good. Colors measure accurate according to one review, and easily pass an eyeball test, even right out of the box, according to another.
The spec sheet isn't especially impressive-- on paper -- but perfectly reasonable and acceptable in a TV with this screen size and price. Its resolution is only 720p, but that's fine in a 28-inch set. One reviewer notes that motion performance is not terrific, but that the visible effects are usually not noticeable on typical program material. Reviewed.com, on the other hand, calls motion performance "good."
Features are non-existent, for the most part. There's the typical USB port for displaying your own files -- something now found on virtually every TV, smart or dumb, cheap or expensive. Reviewed.com praises the Samsung remote for being back lit. A small thing, but useful for using your clicker in the dark, and something often missing from remotes on cheap, small TVs.
If you want a small, cheap TV with a smart TV platform, the smaller screen sizes in the Vizio E-Series, profiled above, are worth considering. The 28-inch Vizio E28h-C1 (Est. $190) has the same streaming features as the rest of the TV's in that line -- functional and usable, with a content roster that covers all the bases. High-def picture quality is very good according to one expert reviewer, who recommends the set. However, it will be a step or two lower than the larger screen sizes (above 32 inches) in the series as while a full array backlight is used, local dimming is not part of the package. Still, if you want a capable but small streaming TV for a bedroom or counter top, the Vizio E28h-C1 looks to be a good option. The company also makes the smaller still 24-inch Vizio E24-C1 (Est. $170), but that's an edge-lit set with very different picture quality; it's not been professionally reviewed, and available user reviews are mixed.