Vizio Plasma TV Review

 

 

Model: Vizio 42" HDTV Plasma
Description: 42" Plasma Television, 16:9 Widescreen Format
Resolution: 1,024 x 768
Includes: remote control, integrated NTSC/ATSC Tuner,
detachable, side-mounted speakers, tabletop stand
Color: Black

Reviewer: Charles La Rosa

INTRODUCTION

Update, October 2006: Given recent interest in "discount" plasma TV products, we've revisited the Vizio Plasma TV, this time looking at a 50" HDTV model available at Costco, along with a similar product manufactured by Maxent. We think you'll be surprised by what we found. Click here to read our Discount Plasma TV Roundup.

V, Inc. is a third-tier manufacturer bolting together components to build high-spec, low-cost TVs. V, Inc. sells its products under the Vizio name through big box retailers like Costco and Target. Low cost is a key component of the company's business strategy. A spokesperson for Vizio said the company was relying on high-volume sales achieved though retail giants like Costco and Sam's Club to give it buying leverage with suppliers, keeping prices of flat-panel TVs at previously unseen lows. The company manufactures the product in Thailand.

Many new brands manufacturing plasma and LCD TVs are purely virtual enterprises with no manufacturing capacity and no support. Some of the new players don't even staff corporate offices. While Vizio doesn't release specifics on who manufactures its products, it does seem to have a support program. Out-of-warranty service is available at Vizio's national offices in California or in-home, which we suspect consumers will opt for. A Vizio spokesperson said that while in-home service is national, customers in very remote locations are sometimes outside of service areas. If you're that far out, you will probably have to drive at least as far to get the TV serviced as you did to buy it. I wonder what would happen to a Vizio TV which went defective after the manufacturer's warranty—getting it serviced might be tough.

The Vizio P42HD 42-inch plasma TV that we review here is among the cheapest 42-inch HDTV plasma TVs on the market. Like most third-tier TVs, the Vizio P42HD's impressive specifications belie its mediocre performance. Aside from price, little impressed us about this TV.

The P42HD's design is typical of third-tier consumer products: it consists of a simple black frame, screw-on speakers, and a color-matching, fixed table stand. The shiny, beveled, black plastic frame reflects light from in-room sources and distracts the viewer from the picture. The manufacturer would have better served by making a flat, matte frame to prevent light reflection. Up close, the TV is dark graphite, as it is shown in Vizio's promotional material, but from more than a foot away, the TV looks black.

PICTURE QUALITY: 80/100

Picture quality on the Vizio 42" HDTV plasma was passable for low-cost a plasma TV under casual observation. Unfortunately for consumers, during challenging scenes and during advanced testing we noted serious flaws with the low-cost TV's picture. During testing with Joe Kane Production's Video Essentials we observed significantly more nuance in the center portion of the grayscale image test than at the image's edges. The test's indication that darks would fall straight to black and light matter would jump to white was confirmed when we tested the TV watching After the Sunset with our DVD player. During a beach scene we noted that Pierce Brosnan's hair was excessively dark and lacking in detail; the white crests of crashing waves and tropical sand appeared uniformly white and also lacked detail.

We also noted problems on the Vizio P42HD during the PLUGE test. The TV failed to keep dark portions of a picture black as other parts of the picture became lighter. Vizio lists a 5,000:1 typical contrast ratio. The contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest black (sometimes measured by manufacturers with the TV turned off in a dark room) and the brightest white. Since viewers don't appreciate contrast unless they are watching a scene with both bright and dark sections simultaneously, consumers should ignore manufacturers' bogus contrast ratio specifications. The contrast ratio specification listed has little to do any bright or dark scene you'd ever see in a movie or broadcast. Based on PLUGE test performance and our observations we say the P42HD isn't a standout when it comes to dark matter detailing.

The only change we felt necessary to improve the P42HD's out-of-the-box color handing was turning the color setting down to 37, which eliminated slightly reddish skin tones.

After adjusting the color setting we found that white balance was accurate and didn't see any need to adjust the color temperature from its default setting. Presets for warm, cool, and normal, which are standard on most TVs, aren't included on this model. The red, green, and blue color channels are individually adjusted. Unfortunately, like many low-cost plasma TVs, the P42HD exhibited problems with false contouring: instead of subtle shading in skin tones and low-light scenes we saw colors banding together. False contouring is a serious picture problem with lower-quality plasmas that draws criticism from viewers with the most untrained of eyes.

Our biggest disappointment with this TV was the built-in reverse 3:2 pulldown filter.

The de-interlacer was slow to pick up switches from motion scenes to still scenes. When watching transitions from moving content to an onscreen graphic we were treated to a few seconds of the jaggies after each switch as the 3:2 pulldown incorrectly shifted frames. While 480i motion scenes were generally de-interlaced to a passable level, certain challenging scenes, like flags waving in the wind were simply unacceptable. Full-screen pans across tropical islands during After the Sunset were also filled with noise.

Vertical lines posed further problems for the P42HD's de-interlacer. The multiburst pattern on the Video Essentials DVD, which is designed to test NTSC phase processing, fluctuated wildly and was painful on the eye. Noise during this test means distracting artifacts will crop up when viewing outdoor architecture. Again, regular viewing confirmed the problems indicated by the test-patterns: we cringed as skyscraper edges and suspension bridge cables pulsated across our screen in what should've been peaceful outdoor cityscapes.

Aspect ratio settings on the Vizio are tricky to figure out. I accidentally discovered that the guide button on the remote control is used to switch between the TV's 3 aspect ratio settings. 1:1 performs no scaling, aspect enlarges a 4:3 image and stretches it vertically, and wide performs both horizontal and vertical stretches. In either of the aspect or wide modes pressing the zoom button stretches letterbox images vertically to fill the screen. For widescreen DVD viewing we preferred the wide setting with zoom turned off. The built in scalar at this setting conveys an image with minimal distortion and doesn't distract from viewing.

With an external 1080i source delivering HD via the component input jacks we did enjoy a crisp, precise picture on the 1024x768 screen. It does, however, call into question the benefit of the included tuner since we needed external equipment to get a good HD picture.

Watching X-Men in HD we could see the clean edge of Wolverine's metal claws rested against a human neck with disturbing clarity. Make sure you have an external HD tuner because this TV's built-in tuner is the worst we've seen on a HDTV yet. Broadcast material, when it could be received at all on the internal tuner, displayed fuzzy. Displaying a computer signal via the built-in VGA jack was equally disappointing. All supported resolutions either skew or blur the computer image and the plasma's low-refresh rate makes for painful text reading.

We saw slightly more glare watching the Vizio P42HD on center than we've seen on other recent plasma displays, however the picture quality maintained its integrity more consistently throughout the viewing area than the competition. Glare barely worsened as viewing angles increased. Off-axis horizontal viewing though Vizio's 160-degree specification was good, as we'd expect from any plasma panel. The TV also maintained color and brightness information in the picture at extreme vertical viewing angles.

OTHER FEATURES: 78/100

When the Vizio's picture quality left us hurting, its other features didn't ease the pain. The remote, inputs, and manual were horrible for a 42-inch plasma TV. Decent sound and a good menu system couldn't make up for this TV's shortcomings. Sound is delivered via two 15-watt, side-mounted, detachable speakers. These detachable speakers were far easier to attach than many we've screwed on before. Each speaker required only two screws for installation (some TVs require 16). We preferred Vizio's use of black plastic for the bezel to other manufacturer's revival of polyester for the task. The speakers' sound is decent. Weak bass performance and no channel-wide or input-wide volume normalization are oversights.

There just aren't enough ways to get HD and progressive-scan inputs into this TV. The only inputs to connect HDTV sources to the P42HD are its DVI jack or its first set of component inputs, which are also the only inputs that support a 480p signal. All other input jacks are 480i-only. Given the TV's horrible built-in 3:2 reverse pulldown capabilities you'll need to get a tuner or DVD player with a digital output if you want to enjoy HDTV and DVDs. Lower quality inputs are available via two composite RCA/S-video jacks, a second set of component jacks, and antennae/cable coaxial jack. There are no front-mounted inputs.

The cumbersome configuration and limited functionality of the picture-in-picture system make it the worst we've seen. Extensive trial and error and searching though online discussion boards revealed that the PIP input source must be selected in the source menu. Using PIP or split screen is only possible when the input combination is between a 480i input and a source connected to one of the DVI, VGA, or 1080i-capable component jacks. For example, you can't watch TV and your VCR simultaneously. Don't look for help in Vizio's manual trying to figure these quirks out—its content is brief and poorly organized.

The remote control looks like it was designed to be used with a VCR. Play, record, and pause buttons dominate space, relegating TV-specific functionality like aspect ratio settings and input controls to smaller, poorly labeled buttons. The remote is not illuminated, making it difficult to see in the dark, and thick, making it a challenge to hold.

The menu system has no major flaws and is straightforward. Vizio made separate picture controls for each input, avoiding a common budget-manufacturer mistake of having a single, TV-wide picture setting.

Heat, which is never abundant, vents off the top of the TV. The Vizio P42HD's power consumption averages 440 watts. It probably peaks well over 600 watts, which is halfway to microwave-level power consumption. Noise from the electronics is audible during bright scenes with the volume muted. The fluorescent bulb gets louder as the picture brightens. The TV weights 85 lbs. with its stand and speakers attached. It is 27 1/4 inches tall, 10 3/4 inches deep, and 48 1/2 inches wide with the speakers and stand attached. Without the speakers it shrinks to 41 inches wide. The Vizio P42HD is made in Thailand.

VALUE: 90/100

Update, October 2006: Prices have dropped everywhere in the flat panel TV market, even among top-tier manufacturers like Panasonic, Sharp and Sony. Vizio's 42" HDTV pricing was revolutionary in 2003, but at today's going rates it just doesn't stack up as well. While Costco offers a 50" Vizio HDTV plasma for around $2,000, top-notch sets from Panasonic are selling for as low as $2,400 at authorized internet dealers—that factors out to a difference of only $40 a year if you consider the 10-year lifespan of the Panasonic Plasma TV. From what we've seen of the build quality in the "bargain-basement" models by Vizio, Maxent, and Envision, you'll be lucky if your discount 50" plasma lasts half that long.

With their new 50" HDTV model, Vizio says you get a 50-inch HDTV, a universal remote control, PIP, and excellent contrast for a modest $2,000. I say you get a TV with poor dark matter detailing, distracting false-contouring, a remote designed to operate a VCR, and a dysfunctional PIP system for only about $400 less than a first-tier product. If you like watching a superb picture, be sure to factor in the price of your disappointment. True, Vizio offers a 50" plasma TV for less than $2,000—but without any desirable added features, and with its mediocre picture quality, we don't think it's money especially well spent. Read more about our Discount Plasma TV Search.

OVERALL SCORE 82/100 (PICTURE DOUBLE WEIGHTED)





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