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Vizio’s new M-series 4K TVs are its real 2017 highlight

Last year, Vizio wowed us with its P-series 4K TVs, which delivered premium picture quality at a price much lower than other companies. But Vizio’s mid-range M-series sets also gained a reputation for being more affordable while still looking pretty good. This year, things are a bit different. Surprisingly, the 2017 P-series TVs are exactly the same as last year’s model. But the newer M-series "XLED" sets received some useful upgrades that will make them even more compelling to shoppers looking for a good deal.

The 2017 M-series TVs, which start at $800 for the 50-inch model and go up to $3,000 for the 75-inch, still pack in 32 local dimming zones. That helps them deliver even backlighting and solid black levels. But this time around, they also have a wider color gamut and a higher peak brightness, reaching up to 600 nits. Both are features that previously required upgrading to the P-series line. The higher peak brightness means that light sources in some scenes pop a bit more, and the increased color range make images a bit more dynamic. Altogether, they make the M-series far better suited for showing off HDR (high-dynamic range) content, like the BBC’s luscious Planet Earth 2 4K Blu-ray. That’s ultimately a good thing, as HDR is a much more obvious visual upgrade than 4K alone.

Vizio brought all of its new sets to NYC for a brief demo, and the M-series was clearly the most intriguing option. When compared to Samsung’s Q7 QLED TV, one of its flagship models for this year, black levels on the 65-inch Vizio set were significantly better. You can thank the local dimming backlight for that. Samsung’s TV, on the other hand, features an edge-lit backlight that disrupts black levels with light gray streaks. It was particularly apparent in a clip from Batman vs. Superman, where very bright on-screen elements caused the backlight to wash out everything around them. Beyond the black levels, colors and brightness on Vizio’s set looked about as good as the Q7. That’s impressive, given that the M-series 65-inch model goes for $1,500, while the Samsung set costs $4,000.

If you’re looking for the best balance of value and picture quality, the M-series’ upgrades make the line significantly more compelling. It’s also an even better option if you’re in the market for an extra large TV. The 70-inch M-series will run you $2,000, while the 75-inch model goes for $3,000. The P-series, in comparison, costs $2,000 for the 65-inch and $3,500 for the 75-inch set. Technophiles will likely be fine shelling out the extra cash for the better picture quality of the P-series, but I also wouldn’t blame you for bumping up your screen size while saving a bit.

Vizio’s budget E-series line also received an upgrade this year with the addition of HDR 10 support. It has fewer local dimming backlight zones than the M and P series, but it still looked a lot better than a comparable entry-level TV from Samsung. In a clip from The Revenant, the E-series’ overall picture depth and black levels looked significantly better than the Samsung set. And at $899 for the 65-inch model, it remains an incredible bargain.

While Vizio is trying hard to push its "XLED" branding this year, it’s pretty meaningless. Basically, it’s just a way to describe all of its TV technology from 2016 that’s been upgraded with software updates. That’s a good thing if you bought a P-series set in 2016, since it means your TV got better over time. But it’s a bit confusing to general consumers, who might think "XLED" means a significant upgrade over last year’s technology. While Samsung has its own "QLED" branding, that at least describes some changes to its backlight and Quantum Dot tech. Both companies are chasing the hype behind OLED TVs, but their branding just feels clunky and confusing.

In some ways, Vizio’s new TV lineup is a step back. The P- and M-series sets used to come with a free Android tablet, which you’d use instead of a traditional remote. But, unfortunately, the company is no longer bundling them with the TV this year. Reps tell us that most customers were using their own phones to control their TV. Other customers, they noted, also wanted a more familiar remote experience.

Instead of the tiny barebones clicker from last year, the new TVs will come with a more complex remote that does everything you’d expect. The company will also release a software update this summer that will let you access streaming content directly from the TV, instead of being forced to do it from another device. That feels like a philosophical reversal for Vizio, but it will likely make the TVs easier to use for some consumers.

The upcoming built-in apps look similar to what you see on other TVs, but they’re actually casting content directly to the Vizio sets. It’s tough to wrap your head around, but basically it means the Vizio TVs are both the casting source and the casting receiver. You’ll still be able to control things from your phone, if you want, but you can also use the remote to browse content from Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services just like a regular smart TV.

When I asked about Amazon Video support, Vizio strongly hinted that we’ll be hearing more about that later this year. Given that NVIDIA managed to bring an Amazon app to its Android-powered Shield TV, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vizio finally convinced Amazon to support Google Cast.

When it comes to new audio gear, Vizio’s $199 Crave Go speaker sounds good, and it sports a solid metal case. But, unfortunately, it’s not waterproof and dust proof like Logitech’s latest UE Bluetooth speakers, which have been my go-to portable choice for years. Vizio’s $250 soundbar system, which includes Google Cast support and wireless surround sound capabilities, also impressed me. It’s clear you’re listening to small speakers, but it’s a serious upgrade over your TV’s built in sound. The system’s small footprint and wireless capability also make it a good choice if you’re in a small apartment, or you don’t want the clutter of a bigger surround sound setup.

Overall, it looks like Vizio has a strong year ahead. And despite LeEco’s acquisition offer falling apart, Vizio isn’t slowing down on the innovation front either. Sure, I’d like to see some P-series upgrades too, but the lack of updates is also a reminder of just how good that line was last year. It’d be nice to see some price drops eventually, though, especially since the company isn’t packing in Android slates anymore.