Vizio’s 2016 lineup of 4K HDR TVs aren’t actually TVs at all. Well, they are, but since they don’t have tuners built in, the company can’t market them as television sets. Instead, I’ve spent the last few weeks testing out the new P-Series “Home Theater Display.” The name is only the first piece of the refreshing, brand new, and potentially risky strategy that Vizio is taking with its TVs this year.
There are no built-in apps for your favorite streaming apps like Netflix or YouTube. There are no menus on the display itself, and it barely has a user interface at all. It’s a far cry from the horrible flavor of TV software you’ve been putting up with for years. And instead of a traditional, button-filled remote, Vizio gives you a 6-inch Android tablet in the box. That’s how you control and stream content to this Google Cast-powered screen. But is Vizio’s drastic reinvention of the TV experience a push into what’s next, or does the gamble ultimately make too many big changes at once?
I’ve been reviewing the $2,000 65-inch P-Series, but the lineup starts out significantly lower at $999 for a 50-inch display, which still includes the same quad-core, 1080p Android tablet as all the others. There are some differences between sizes, however: the 55-inch variant uses an IPS panel versus the VA display that’s inside the rest. To keep it short, the black levels on the 55-inch screen aren’t quite as deep and inky as on the 50, 65, and 75-inch models, nor is the contrast as punchy. The 65-inch display is comically huge for the Brooklyn living room I’ve had it sitting in, but it’s been awesome to look at. Around the sides is an aluminum bezel that both looks and feels really premium. But it’s silver, which is an odd choice that some people might find distracting. I didn’t, probably because they’re very small and barely noticeable when content is playing on the screen.
Vizio has gotten rid of built-in apps and bad TV software
Now the 4K display itself looks terrific, and HDR ratchets up the viewing experience in a way that 3D never quite could. So I'll dig into that a little later on. But for now, let's focus on exactly how you stream Netflix and other apps on the P-Series when Vizio has completely thrown out its "normal" TV software from previous years. That’s where the Android tablet remote comes in. And get this: it’s actually a decent tablet! It’s got a 1080p display that’s perfectly usable for email, checking Facebook, and other things you might want to do when the TV is shut off. It’s more than fine as a toss-in, but don’t expect it to be faster or better than your smartphone. Vizio and Google have partnered to make Google Cast the brains of this TV, not unlike the $35 Chromecast that might already be plugged into the TV you’ve got now.
The main difference is that the P-Series can stream 4K and HDR, which is something the Chromecast can’t do. But it works fundamentally the same way; you open an app, pick something to stream, tap the Cast icon, and that content switches over to the big screen. The TV shows up in the list just like any other cast device. Vizio’s SmartCast app comes preloaded on the tablet, and this is what you’ll use for everything from switching HDMI inputs to adjusting the picture modes or even changing the volume.
Let me be even more clear: the P-Series doesn’t work the way you’re accustomed to. There’s no on-screen menu system anywhere — all of that stuff lives in the SmartCast app. With SmartCast, you can also search for on-demand movies or see what’s currently on TV. But Vizio can’t actually control your cable box — at least not yet — so you’ll still need to have that remote nearby. You can download SmartCast for Android and iOS, giving you the flexibility of using whatever device you prefer for controlling the P-Series. Half the time, I left the bundled tablet sitting on its wireless charging dock. I think that's what Vizio intended. Regardless, I'm a big fan of the convenience factor.
But I also found myself turning to the slim physical remote that Vizio includes in the box — with actual buttons — a lot. Maybe more than the tablet or my iPhone. It's got buttons for the essentials like changing channels, volume, inputs, and picture modes. You’ve still got to open SmartCast to adjust those settings, but once you’re satisfied, the tiny plastic remote just feels more natural when you quickly need to mute the TV or bump the volume a bit. The buttons are more reassuring and definitely simpler. Old habits die hard, it seems. That leads to another question: what's the point of all this Google Cast stuff if you can plug in a Roku and use the physical remote? I don't have a great answer, but I'm never one to argue against choice. You can either cast away from all the mobile devices in your home, or stream stuff the old way. Vizio's not forcing you down a particular road.
This whole Google Cast approach generally works as you’d expect if you’ve used a Chromecast before or are reasonably tech savvy. But for anyone that isn’t, there’s a really significant learning curve. Some customers are going to miss the simplicity of a built-in Netflix app, period — even if TV software deservedly gets a bad rap for being slow and terrible. Vizio’s line of thinking certainly makes sense; smartphone apps will be updated long into the future after many "Smart TV" apps have rotted in development, so the display you’re buying is essentially future proofed. The company can deliver quicker firmware updates through the SmartCast app, so adding new features and fixing any bugs on the P-Series is easier from that perspective, too.
And yeah, I definitely ran into errors and random issues when casting from time to time. Usually this would involve a streaming app getting confused and no longer showing a connection to the TV. Since this regularly happens on my Chromecast, I lean toward blaming Google. Quitting and reopening an app almost always gets you back on track without much incident. But even Vizio’s SmartCast app can lose connection to the TV, and sometimes there’s a delay between entering commands on the tablet and seeing them happen on the screen.
To its credit, Vizio has delivered a slew of updates to SmartCast over the weeks that I’ve been testing, and the company is working to ensure that this whole system works smoothly even if your Wi-Fi connection gets a little slow at times. That’s something that happens in the real world, and Vizio needs to cut out as many potential headaches as possible if this Google Cast transition is actually going to work.
And now onto the TV itself. Vizio gives you five HDMI inputs to work with, and one of them is perfect for a gaming console since it’s got barely any input lag. So it’s ideal for first-person shooters or any other game where split-second reactions make a difference. Playing Uncharted 4 on this display had my jaw dropping at times. There’s also a component hookup and two USB ports, where you can plug in an external hard drive or flash stick loaded with movies and photos. But what you won’t find on the back of this TV is a cable jack. As I mentioned earlier, the P-Series (and Vizio’s other new TVs for that matter) lack a built-in tuner. So cord cutters will need to buy both a tuner and an antenna to receive over-the-air channels. That’s a bummer for sure, but hey, at least you’ve got plenty of room for those HDMI devices. Do yourself a favor and buy a soundbar or surround setup to go along with this TV though, because audio is absolutely the biggest weakness of the P-Series. It’s acceptable for everyday TV, but downright bad and lifeless for movies, games, and other content where immersion is important.
The P-Series offers the two major features you’ll want in a 2016 TV: 4K and HDR (high dynamic range). And Vizio’s sets are compatible with both Dolby Vision and the HDR10 standard, which will be enabled in a coming firmware update. That means you should be able to watch HDR content regardless of whether it comes from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu, or YouTube. Right now, however, there’s barely anything to watch at all. Netflix’s series Marco Polo is available in Dolby Vision, and Vudu will let you rent or buy a handful of movies including San Andreas, Man of Steel, Edge of Tomorrow, and The Lego Movie. They’re really expensive ($30 to purchase), so be warned.
There's just not much to watch in HDR
But when you do come across something in HDR, it’s an incredible experience. The P-Series automatically switches into a different picture mode that gives you brighter highlights and more vivid, lush colors. It’s a dramatic upgrade from your typical streaming or Blu-ray experience, and you can see the difference right away. So hopefully it won’t take years for these companies and movie studios to widen the selection of what’s available. If you just want to see something in 4K, well, that’s getting far easier. Most new shows produced by Netflix (Daredevil, Jessica Jones) and Amazon (Bosh, Mozart in the Jungle) are available in UHD, and if nothing else, there’s some awe-inspiring demo material on YouTube. Streaming 4K from Netflix requires the 3-screen subscription plan though, which required me to upgrade during my review period; I’m not a fan of that forced upsell just for some extra resolution.
Thankfully you don’t need HDR for this TV to look really, really great. Vizio’s full-array backlighting (with 128 active zones) results in a phenomenal picture. The P-Series gets plenty bright, so it’ll cut through sunny rooms without issue, and it’s just as strong of a performer at nighttime. Vizio’s "Calibrated" and "Calibrated Dark" modes look excellent out of the box; you really don’t have have to mess around with picture settings at all. The image quality will likely have you marveling out of the box. No, the blacks don’t reach OLED levels, but these TVs aren't priced as high as LG’s top sets, and Vizio has achieved a truly outstanding picture that’s right up there with the best I’ve seen — especially for that $999 starting price. Blu-rays look first-rate, though I was a little bummed at the quality of my cable box. Vizio’s upscaling is decent, but it’s not a reason to buy the P-Series. There is a little blooming (where bright objects can show slight halos when surrounded by dark) if you’re viewing the TV from an angle, but it’s not something you notice head on. It's top notch picture through and through.
If you’re TV hunting and it meets your budget, the new P-Series should be at the top of your list based on picture quality alone. It’s a stunning showcase for 4K and still-new living room technologies like HDR. With OLED still priced fairly high, it’s hard to find anything that clearly stands out as better at this price range, though Sony and Samsung have some strong performers of their own. But this is a great, great product.
The Google Cast switch won’t be for everyone. There are kinks to iron out, and it will always be confusing and frustrating for some people. But if you’ve been left wanting a "dumb" TV that’s a canvas for your content, well, this is almost that. The P-Series is definitely still smart, but Vizio puts the apps and everything else in the palm of your hand — on the tablet, on your phone — instead of building it all into the TV itself. You can ignore all of that if you want to, but the freedom of using almost any device to control this giant screen can often feel like a real step into the future.
Photography by Chris Welch.