NEW YORK (
) -- I never thought I'd say this, but it's getting to the point that the "V" in TV might as well stand for
Back in 2003, if my memory serves right, display heavies like
and the rest felt the first faint winds of change in the TV business. Box store of all box stores
began carrying a new off-brand TV called Vizio. The sets were often half the price of the major names, but came with more than half the quality. Company founder William Wong believed that by keeping costs down, he could offer high-end quality at a lower price and create a whale of a business.
He was right. The Irvine, Calif.-based TV maker has grown from five employees to more than 160. With sales north of $2 billion in 2008, the operation is on track to sell more than 10 million sets in 2010. That would be impressive enough in this Great Recession. But keep in mind that during the same period there was nothing but carnage in the larger electronics market. Sony's sales were down something like 20% last quarter. Vizio is the rare success story in displays right now.
This holiday season, Vizio is making a major bet on a new riff of flat-panel TV technology that marries light-emitting diodes found in flashlights and car lamps with traditional liquid crystal display TV technology. Vizio brands these so-called LED/LCD hybrids as TruLED. And the company, which has never been media shy, has gone as far as to claim its new line of TruLED sets will not only match up to other LED LCDs, but against all TVs -- plasma, LCD or OLED, from any maker. That puts it squarely against some of the best TVs in the world, units like
Runco line of crazy-expensive luxe sets.
I see Vizio's claims as fightin' words and decided to put its boast to the test. Gamely, the company loaned me a Vizio VF551XVT ($2,100 list), its flagship TruLED set, for a month.
What you get:
To paraphrase my German father, "Zis Vizio ovvers vots ov value."
The VF551 has over-the-top, almost gaudy statistics. It is a 55-inch set with a 1080p resolution that runs at a zippy 250hz refresh rate. Imagery is fully visible from an impressive 178 degrees right to left and top to bottom. The set has an almost absurd 2-million-to-1 contrast ratio, which means blacks are
black. Media connectors are well laid out. And though I almost never recommend self installation of TVs -- life is too short to care about HDMI and S-video plugs -- rest assured that the brave and the gadget-savvy should be able to make a reasonable job of installing this unit.
The 551, at 110 pounds, is rather light for a TV of this size. The unit comes pre-mounted on a perfectly serviceable base. And Vizio does a nice job with brackets and mounting hardware. The 551 will not be a royal-installation pain as a wall mounter. And it will look fine in most decors; it is done in a nice-looking black with sliver highlights. The remote is easy to use.
And then there is the picture. True to promise, the TruLED technology is a good looker. Blacks are deep. Colors are bright. And whites are crisp -- for me, actually too bright. But explosively bright TVs are the norm these days since most sets are purchased in hideously overlit big-box stores where subtle TVs sit sadly on the shelf. Happily, the Vizio comes with enough controls to calm the image. Back light, color and image controls are well laid out and easy to use via onscreen menus. With a bit of tinkering, I was able to enjoy everything from the Yankees playoffs to a full suite of HD content. The best pick: ''High Noon'' in glorious HD black-and-white looked spectacular.
All in all, even I -- an admitted TV snob -- have to acknowledge the Vizio VF551 is a quality TV at a quality price.
What you don't get:
I am not even going to grace this nonsense that the 551 is anywhere close to a first-tier display. I mean ... honestly!
The 551 is a nice TV. It comes with great features and can be had for a great price. But to call this a truly first-rate display -- that's just nonsense. First of all, this is an early iteration of a new technology, LED/LCD. That's fine. But there will be improvements down the road. You can expect the next-gen TruLED sets to come with more powerful signal processors that groom complex multi-format environments. Channel surfing on cable TV, for example, was just too much for this TV. Standard-def imagery was a disgrace. Further iterations of the 551 will probably smooth out the gritty "LCD look" in the set as designers buff out the image, which is now all too computer-monitor cold. And I expect Vizio to work hard to develop powerful ambient light tools. As it stands now, this sucker might look fine during the day, but at night it is roman-candle bright. So you better be ready to mess with the controls. The fact is, this set requires regular tinkering to make it look its best. And I am not even going to talk about the speakers. Was that audio or static?
Watching this TV, I was all too aware that I was dealing with a mass-market display, with mass-market limitations.
What you are buying here, in wine terms, is a fabulous $22 shiraz from an Australian vineyard, not a $300 Rothschild. Nothing wrong with that. That makes the Vizio probably the highest-price impulse buy ever. If you want to get Mom or the kids a good TV, by all means, run to
, drop two large and get them this Vizio. You will be a TV-geek hero.
Just don't ask this unit to offer a true first-rate, destination viewing experience. I would not be surprised if Vizio gets to that point someday. TruLED Mach II, or whatever it will be called, will be great. But until then, if you really want a best-quality picture for that special room in your home, look elsewhere.
The Vizio 551 is simply not there yet.
-- Reported by Jonathan Blum in New York
Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.