Back in April I wrote that "Cheap and often necessary external boxes render smart-TV suites redundant and of little value." I was thinking of devices like the $59 Roku and $99 Apple TV, as well as game consoles and Blu-ray players, that can add most of the apps anybody cares about on TVs -- services like Netflix, Amazon Instant, and Pandora -- to any television. I was also thinking of TVs that charge $100 or more extra for their smart-TV options.
I definitely was not thinking of the Vizio E320i-A0. This 32-inch LED-based LCD, which Vizio says will cost about $300 at Wal-Mart and Costco when it goes on sale in October, is the cheapest smart TV I know about (at press time the online price shows as $370 from Vizio directly). That's about $50 more than the Toshiba 32C120U, but once you add a Roku or other device that price advantage evaporates. And in a bedroom setting where a TV this size is most at home, there's usually less room for external boxes, and less budget to add the universal remotes that make using such boxes just as easy as an integrated smart TV.
Beyond its brains and price this little powerhouse follows though with a thin, attractive frame and relatively good picture quality -- better, for example, than the similar, albeit 3D, Vizio E3D320VX from last year. Add it all up and the Vizio E320i-A0 is our highest-rated 32-incher so far this year, and a great choice for buyers seeking streaming video in a small, affordable TV.
During the last few 32-inch TV reviews we've held up the Samsung EH4000 as a paragon of cheap TV design, by virtue of its thin bezel. The Vizio's frame is (fractionally) even thinner, and its overall design just as sleek. Seen from the side, both sets are chunkier than traditional LED TVs, but I doubt that matters much to buyers at this price level. Vizio's stand doesn't swivel.
Unlike Vizio's higher-end Smart TV remotes, the one that comes with the E320i-A0 lacks a flipside QWERTY keyboard (hey, you can't have everything for $300, can you?). The front side is not my favorite among entry-level clickers. It lacks illumination, the menu/exit/guide/back keys are too small, there's not enough differentiation, and there's no direct button to switch aspect ratio. Its best feature is dedicated keys for Amazon Instant and Netflix; unfortunately, Vizio replaced the Vudu app shortcut key on previous clickers with M-Go (see below).
Vizio employs the same menus on this set as on its higher-end models like the M3D0KD series, and they easily outclass those of comparably priced TVs. The menu system resembles an app in appearance, and I liked that the picture settings section is integrated into the main App taskbar (see below). Responses were fast, explanations were complete, and I had no problems finding my way around. I also appreciated the easy guided-setup process.
|Key TV features|
|Display technology||LCD||LED backlight||Full-array|
|Smart TV||Yes||Internet connection||Built-in Wi-Fi|
|3D technology||No||3D glasses included||N/A|
|Refresh rate(s)||60Hz||Dejudder (smooth) processing||No|
|Other: Optional Skype camera (XCV100; $70)|
The Vizio further differentiates itself from the 32-inch herd by using LEDs, not traditional CCFLs, to illuminate its LCD panel. Unlike edge-lit LED TVs with their skinny profiles, the Vizio is a direct-lit model with a cabinet that's thicker because the LEDs are mounted behind the screen, not along the edge.
Smart TV: I had no major complaints about the Smart TV feature on the E320i-A0, and considering the set's price that's high praise. Its interface is mediocre in design, but content selection was excellent and responsiveness was very good.
Vizio hasn't changed the design of its Smart TV since it debuted three years ago, so it's not as slick as most other TV makers' brainy portals. Its main interface, based on the original Yahoo Widgets, consists of a strip along the bottom of the screen. It shows just four widgets at a time, so finding the one you want is a tedious scrolling chore if you have more than 10 or so installed. Vizio doesn't make finding new widgets any easier, with a Yahoo Connected TV Store that's crowded with entirely too much chaff, including way too many "apps" devoted to local TV stations.
Content selection, however, is among the best available today -- and comes close to matching Roku's, trading HBO Go for YouTube. Vizio leaves no major video services off the list, although it still doesn't have sports apps like MLB.TV and NHL. Skype is now active, although to use it you'll need to purchase a camera/speakerphone that's about one-quarter the price of the TV itself. With Rhapsody, Pandora, TuneIn Radio, and iHeartRadio there's plenty of musical choice too.
As we mentioned above, Vizio (along with Samsung and Intel) is also supporting M-Go, a "multiscreen entertainment app that elegantly streamlines all of your media together in one place, including movies, music, [and] TV...and allows you to enjoy the content you want, when you want it, either at home or on the go." Sounds intriguing (PDF), but it hasn't launched yet.
I paid special attention to the Wi-Fi connection on the E320i-A0 and it appeared to work well in my limited testing in the lab. At one point a nearby PlayStation 3 did a better job streaming a wireless movie, but later they performed about the same. As usual with Wi-Fi your mileage will vary, and if you're a heavy streamer I'd recommend using a wired connection if possible.