In the wake, in more than one sense of the word, of Panasonic's decision to stop making plasma TVs, there's now a hole in the TV market. It's right at the intersection of picture quality and value, a massive axle-rending divot left by the uncaring snowplow of market forces.
Absent as-yet-unannounced new plasmas from Samsung, this year it's up to LED LCD to pave the pothole. I'm pessimistic that any can reach the levels of bang/buck that the Panasonic S60 and ST60 achieved, but products like the Vizio E-Series -- with its affordable, effective local dimming -- are the most promising contenders I know of so far.
Today Vizio announced the availability of its 2014 series of E TVs. Judging from what we last year, namely the 50-inch E500i-A1 and the 42-inch E420i-A1 post-firmware-update, they'll be among our most recommended TVs of 2014.
A chartful of Es, decoded
The new models range from 23 up to 70 inches. Most of the 55 inches and smaller TVs on the chart below are currently available (the two numbers after E in the model name column indicate the size, so for example the "E500i" is a 50-inch TV). The 60-, 65-, and 70-inchers aren't available yet, and Vizio's rep couldn't tell me when they would be.
Vizio's model names from the chart above are worth some additional decoding. The "B" behind the hyphen. "-B0," "-B2," etc, serves to differentiate the 2014 TVs above from their 2013 predecessors, which included "-A0," "-A1," and so on. So the E550i-A0, still available for sale at Best Buy, is a 2013 TV, while the E550i-B2, on sale at Amazon and elsewhere since the beginning of February, is a 2014 model.
In case you're wondering what the difference is between a "-B0" and a "-B2," Vizio tells me that, just like last year, the number after "B" dosen't signify anything important. Hence the groups of multiple 32- and 39-inch sets sharing the same line.
The rest of the columns are easier to decipher. The "Internet Apps Plus" denotes the same Smart TV suite featured on 2013 M-Series sets like the Vizio M601D-A3R (TVs without Smart TV don't get the "Y" in this column). You can find out more about edge-lit vs. full-array backlights and local dimming zones by clicking those links (short version: more zones = better; Vizio TVs with no zones listed in this column don't have local dimming). Sticklers, like yours truly, will note that Vizio has now ditched the "direct" nomenclature for its non-edge-lit TVs and is now calling everything "full-array." Finally, "Clear Action 180" should mean improved motion resolution compared with Vizio's standard 120Hz feature, which was basically fake in 2013. I say "should" because we won't know until we can test them.
You may also notice the absence of a column related to 3D. Many of Vizio's previous TVs, including in 2013 the M series and a few "E" series models, offered passive 3D compatibility. This year Vizio has dropped the feature entirely, announcing no 3D-compatible televisions so far in its 2014 E, M, or P or even the high-end R series. See my comment reply to ilovenola2 below for the company's official statement.
I've been told a 2014 E550i-B2 will be on its way to our lab within the week, which should make it the first 2014 TV review we'll publish at CNET. We got a gander at a preproduction version back in November and its local dimming looked even better than the 2013 E-Series TVs we reviewed. I expect the final version to set a high bar for value.
Updated with a clarification on 3D and a new chart that includes full model names.