Best TV under $500:
Wandering around shopping sites both online and at your local mall, you will be besieged by this season's TV bargains. How do you decide what is actually a good deal? Can you get away with buying a slightly dinged floor model? Is last year's discounted edition just as good as this year's version? Is the lowest price for the biggest size set the best bargain?
The best deal right now is a low price on a bona fide high-quality HDTV. That’s why we've chosen the Vizio E50-C1, a 50-inch full 1080p smart HDTV, as the best TV you can buy for less than $500. We found no other model at the same price with the E50-C1's combination of size, quality, technology and up-to-date features.
The E50-C1's original list price is $529.99, but we found it online for $498 on Amazon.
Why the Vizio?
Picking a Vizio as today’s highest-value set is a bit of a no-brainer. Vizio is the only TV maker to offer full-array backlighting on an HDTV in this price range.
Backlighting is the way an LCD panel is illuminated; think of putting a photographic slide into a projector and shining a light through it to see the image. An LCD display works on the same principle as LED lights shine through the LCD panel. All LCD TVs have LED lights arrayed around the outside edges of the set pointing inward to illuminate the LCD panel; this is called edge lighting.
But edge lighting is naturally inexact and often ineffective when a scene calls for a complicated mix of light and shadow. As a result, many scenes on edge-lit sets are lit unevenly. Darker scenes don't display enough contrast to let you discern details, and blacks look more grayish. Without deep blacks, colors can look faded and neither crisp nor natural.
Full-array backlighting uses a grid of lights behind the screen to make it easier to control lighting specific areas of the screen and scene — what's referred to as local dimming. Dark scenes can remain dark with higher contrast because the backlight can be more precisely manipulated.
The E50-C1’s backlighting system is designed with 16 active backlighting zones driven by an algorithm to create what Vizio calls "blacker blacks and brighter brights." In addition to full-array backlighting, the E50-C1 offers a 240 Hz refresh rate, which means the screen renews itself 240 times a second, as opposed to the usual 120 Hz or 60 Hz on cheaper sets. A faster refresh rate means a smoother image with less blur or ghosting as fast-moving objects flash across the screen, including scrolling text and sports action. This refresh rate can be artificially boosted to 480 Hz, which enhances video game play. We don't recommend it for regular TV viewing, though, because artificially refreshed video can appear to lurch unnaturally.
As a result of this full-array backlighting and higher refresh rate, nearly every review of the E50-C1 we found gave the set 4 out of 5 stars. According to CNET's David Katzmaier, arguably the most authoritative TV reviewer in the U.S., the E50-C1's image "evinces deep black levels with little blooming, accurate color and great bright-room performance, and it provides for plenty of adjustments. …If you're looking to maximize your TV dollar and don't care about 4K, it's tough to go wrong with the Vizio E series."
"Simply put," notes Reviewed.com's Michael Desjardin, "this TV produces a rich, detailed picture, and that's mostly due to its backlit panel and 16 individual LED zones. …Frankly, this type of contrast and color accuracy is hard to come by in a TV of this class."
As noted, the E50-C1 is a smart TV loaded with the expected variety of Internet channels including Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Vudu and many others. You also get a ful complement of jacks: HDMI (three jacks), component video, Ethernet for wired Internet access and USB, along with both analog and digital audio outputs for connecting a soundbar. (One complaint about this model is below-average sound.)
You might have heard that 4K is the next big thing in TV. Isn't there a sub-$500 4K ultra-high definition (UHD) model that's a higher-quality/low-price proposition?
No. Certainly not when you consider screen size for the dollar.
You can get the Vizio M43-C1 UHD for around $500, but it isn’t a good deal. First, Vizio prices this set at $599.99, now sliced to $549.99, and we couldn't find anyone selling it for less than $530. Second and more important, as the model number indicates, this 4K UHD's screen is just 43 inches. This is too small; it is simply impossible to tell a 4K UHD from a regular HDTV at this size unless you're sitting only a couple of feet from the screen.
So save the $50-plus and stick with the larger-sized E50-C1 for less money.
(Prices as of 11/09/15)