Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter — Issue #1001

Gene Steinberg

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Gene Steinberg's Mac Radio Newsletter
Issue #1001
July 24, 2020

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ANOTHER $500 BARGAIN TV FROM VIZIO

When you look at the price of mainstream TV sets nowadays, they are remarkably cheap compared to the way things used to be. You see, when I was real young, the family TV was a major purchase.

So I’ve owned far too many TV sets over the years to remember them all. Shortly after I left home to seek my fortune at age 21, my mom bought me a Zenith 21-inch black-and-white set. Although color sets were becoming available in those days, they weren’t worth the extra price, since much TV fare hadn’t switched to color. At least not yet.

Apropos of nothing, that famous super hero show of the 1950s, ‘The Adventures of Superman,” filmed the final group of episodes in color. Evidently someone was clever enough to realize this might mean something someday.

My first color TV, a Sony Trinitron, was purchased in 1975. It had a 19-inch display, and cost me $1,000. That’s the equivalent of $4,791.77 in 2020, sufficient to buy a 77-inch LG or Sony 4K set with an OLED display with enough left over to cover the sales tax.

The Trinitron survived several moves around the country, but its power supply eventually failed. It wasn’t worth repairing. So my next color TV, a Sharp, delivered a perfectly decent 19-inch picture and cost me around $250.

My first foray into flat-screen TVs was a 50-inch Samsung DLP rear-projection set. It was affectionately known as the “Star Trek” TV because of it futuristic design. The price was a non-issue. Samsung sent one to me on extended review and, when I was prepared to pack it up and return it, their PR people send I needn’t bother.

In 2006, before the Great Recession — and my efforts to help a relative in legal trouble — conspired to wipe out my savings, I had purchased a 50-inch Panasonic plasma TV. At the time, they listed for about two grand, and delivered great pictures. Rich colors, virtually unlimited viewing angles, but they suffered from a tendency to develop burn-in if you watched shows with too many static images, as you’d find on cable news channels.

By 2014, the Panasonic was getting long in the tooth, and I had a slight windfall from some online advertising, though for a compromise replacement. So We got our very first LED TV set, a VIZIO, E500i from 2014. In a way it was a bit of a step-down from the Panasonic, since the blacks weren’t quite as black; well, they were closer to dark gray. The viewing angle was somewhat limited horizontally, a key negative for this technology. Overall, however, from our normal viewing setup in our bedroom, the picture was quite good, and we were happy to accept the tradeoffs after the set was calibrated.

At around $549 or so, it was a worthwhile replacement sinc. I was able to sell off the Panasonic to a neighbor who offered $200 for the set despite its age.

Segue to 2017, when VIZIO offered me the opportunity to review a 55-inch M-Series 4K display. In exchange for giving me the set, I had to write about it, but there were no constraints about the form and scope of the review. If I didn’t like the set, so be it.

Now in a direct comparison, the differences in picture quality weren’t altogether different. The picture was somewhat brighter, with more contrast, but color reproduction did stand out, especially with 4K HDR fare. That was where I discovered 4K’s main limitation, which is that you really don’t see so much of a difference in sharpness on a 55-inch set from a normal viewing distance, say 8-10 feet away. It does explain the popularity of 65-inch and larger sets, where the improvement is actually visible.

Since most content is still 1080p or 1080i resolution, the pictures are scaled up to simulate 4K, and when well done, it’s almost as good as the real thing. The 0nly negative with the 2017 VIZIO was the fact that they shipped without a built-in broadcast tuner, likely expecting that most people would be using cable or satellite — or a streaming service — so it wasn’t necessary. If you needed a tuner they could be had real cheap, as low as $20 or so at Amazon.

In 2020, only the very cheap sets are not 4K. VIZIO has restored the tuner, which will nonetheless be obsolete soon when ATSC 3.0 tuners (dubbed Next Gen TV) are available to receive 4K content from broadcast stations. Standalone replacements will be available, of course.

Now TVs are pretty reliable gadgets. Aside from possible power supply failures, they generally hold up pretty well. Indeed, the only time I had to repair a set over the last few decades was the power supply on that Panasonic plasma, but since it was only slightly out of the warranty period, the manufacturer gave me a break on the repair cost.

In any case, unless your set is getting real old, you probably won’t see a huge improvement in current sets. Picture enhancements over the years are subtle, except for the uber-expensive OLED models, which offers richer colors, with deeper blacks and an unlimited viewing angle. But LED sets are beginning to include technology that will take them closer.

So more and more set makers are touting the use of Quantum Dot to deliver superior color.

According to a tech note at Samsung, one of the first companies to deliver sets of this type: “Quantum Dot is a human-made nanoparticle that has semiconductor properties. They’re tiny, ranging in size from two to 10 nanometers, with the size of the particle dictating the wavelength of light it emits, and therefore the color. When Quantum Dots are hit with a light source, each dot emits a color of a specific bandwidth: Larger dots emit light that is skewed toward red, and progressively smaller dots emit light that is skewed more toward green.”

VIZIO’s reputation is very much of delivering much of the value of the more expensive gear at more affordable prices. So for 2020. VIZIO offers Quantum Dot for all but the cheapest models, the V-Series. There’s also an affordable OLED lineup due later this year.

So VIZIO sent us one of their mainstream models, a 55-inch M-Series to replace the one we had.

In addition to Quantom Dot, the new models include a ProGaming Engine, derived from the more expensive models, plus the entire lineup has been updated with version 4.0 of its SmartCast platform, which evidently will also be made available as downloadable updates for VIZIO smart sets from 2016 and later. for the new gear, the interface is snappier and more fluid to navigate. It also supports Apple’s AirPlay 2 and HomeKit; the Apple TV+ is also due later this summer.

Now there are actually two versions of the 55-inch M-Series. The $499 M8 version has 30 local dimming zones; the $549 M8 has 90 zones for somewhat better picture uniformity and a slightly brighter picture. I’m not at all sure if most of you would notice, although there wasn’t an M8 available for us to compare as of this writing.

From a design standpoint, the set is slightly smaller due to slimmer bezels. Rear connections are reversed compared to the 2017 model, and I wouldn’t presume to know why, though it didn’t make any difference otherwise. The legs are black rather than silver, thus making the set less visible when seated on its stand.

The setup process is standard for VIZIO, but the snappier interface and slightly friendlier remote made it easier to enter logins for WiFi and registration. Once set up and given a few of my personal tweaks to the “Calibrated” setting, I was able to compare picture quality with my usual fare. Nowadays that’s Cox cable, Amazon Prime Video and Acorn TV. I also cast the HBO Max app from my iPhone, which remains a little buggy and still lacks support for 4K.

TV makers are not exaggerating about the advantages of Quantum Dot. From whites to blacks, color reproduction is definitely improved. VIZIO’s 4K scaling engine also seems better; I’m having more difficulty seeing a difference with true 4K, except for HDR, which is also better on the 2020 set.

Compared to OLED, the main negative of LED remains its more limited viewing angle. Not so bad horizontally. Vertically it’s more obvious. But from where Barbara and I usually watch the set, it doesn’t make a difference.

The new model should be shipping to most big box retailers by now. You should confirm whether the set you find is a 2020 rather than 2019 model, although I suspect picture quality wouldn’t be altogether different.

Unfortunately TV sets are difficult to chose at one of those stores. The displays are generally configured in the Store mode, to make them more vivid under the bright fluorescent lights of a retail store. So when you see them side-by-side, true comparisons will be impossible. Even if you get ahold of the remote and switch the Picture setting to a Home option, the viewing environment will conspire against getting an accurate experience.

So you are probably better off checking the online reviews to see which sets are best, and even when the writers point to differences in quality, unless they are really drastic, go for the price and features. In this crowd, VIZIO has always stood out for a superior combination of quality and affordability.

At $499, minus whatever discount your retailer will grant, the 2020 VIZIO M-55 M7 is just about the perfect set for bedroom or living room use. It’s relatively light, easy to set up, and delivers the goods. VIZIO’s policy of providing software and firmware upgrades for several years also means your set won’t become obsolete for a while.

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

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