Anytime there’s a scandal, it becomes a “gate,” reminiscent of Watergate, the hotel/condominium complex in Washington, D.C. where the 1972 break-in of Democratic headquarters led to a President’s resignation. My most important memory of the period was spending the night there once, in my uncle’s home, about a week before the dastardly deed was done.
Apple has had a few scandals, though whether or not they were serious is debatable. I don’t recall having any problems with the iPhone 4, although it did lose reception if you held it in a way that covered the external antenna system. Still, “Antenngate” brought enough bad publicity to force Apple to give away free iPhone bumper cases for a while; that move overcame the problem.
The bending issue with the iPhone 6 Plus evidently was first spotted when the unit was placed in the rear pocket of someone’s tight pair of jeans. Call it “Bendgate,” and while Apple and others, even Consumer Reports magazine, claimed that the product was acceptably resistant against such damage, Apple shored up the structure for the iPhone 6s Plus.
Now we have what I call “Throttlegate,” the practice if capping performance on recent iPhones when the battery is determined to have seriously deteriorated. Apple defends the move as preventing a potential shutdown when these units are under heavy load, but maybe they should have been more proactive to explain to customers what was going on. So far, at least three class action lawsuits have been filed, and while claims that Apple throttles performance to fool you into buying a new model don’t pass muster, the failure to provide at least a warning message may be enough to force Apple to settle these cases.
Typical of such legal filings, lawyers will earn millions. Complainants will end up getting discount coupons for their next Apple purchase.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured outspoken commentator/podcaster Kirk McElhearn. Front and center was the ruckus over reports that Apple was deliberately throttling performance of older iPhones. Kirk gave you his unvarnished opinion of the practice; does Apple deserve to lose those cases? The discussion also focused on Apple in 2017, and the costly iMac Pro all-in-one computer, which is now shipping.
You also heard from tech publisher/editor Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, who also offered his opinion on Apple’s actions over what Gene calls “Throttlegate.” Gene and Bryan also talked about the value of Apple TV. In offering a brief report on the VIZIO M-Series TV he’s reviewing (see the next article), which comes with Google Chromecast built in, Gene wondered about the future prospects for Apple’s streamer. In pop culture mode, the duo talked about Apple’s reported billion dollar move into TV production, which includes a new sci-fi show produced by Ronald D. Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame. And does Tom Cruise really do most or all of those death-defying stunts in his movies?
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Rosemary Ellen Guiley & Michael Brein, co-authors of The Road to Strange: Travel Tales of the Paranormal and Beyond. This collection of 44 true stories tells of travelers around the world who are suddenly faced with ghosts, paranormal phenomena, unusual synchronicities, time slips, magic, visions, past-life connections, premonitions, mystical experiences, mysterious figures, and more. Rosemary, a perennial favorite guest, needs no introduction. Michael is a seasoned traveler and travel writer who has written over a dozen travel guides for those heading out around the world to exotic locals and also has published the Travel Tales Monthly since 2012.
FIRST LOOK: 2017 VIZIO SMARTCAST M-SERIES DISPLAY
I’ve been previewing this column for a while, ever since I worked out a deal where VIZIO provided the set in exchange for my agreeing to review it. But they put no restrictions on how I should rate the product, so I’m free to do what I’ve done for the past 25 years, which is to give my unvarnished opinion about a tech gadget.
This time I ran into a couple of obstacles. Since it was just months after I sustained some back injuries in an accident that took out my car, I asked a neighbor to help me do the heavy lifting, removing my 2012 55-inch VIZIO E-Series and replacing it with the comparably sized 2017 SmartCast M-Series Display.
Not that these sets are heavy. The new VIZIO weighs around 36 pounds with the metal feet installed. The other set weighs maybe 10 pounds more. Carrying either wouldn’t normally present a problem, but lifting it onto the stand required some help.
The old set has a single base in its center. The new set has two legs at the edges of the unit. But my existing TV stand measures just 41 inches wide, while the new VIZIO’s feet are 43 inches apart. I had hoped to use it with a ZVOX Audio Z-Base 580 soundbase, but it’s just 36 inches wide.
Both had to go. Fortunately, I was able to acquire a suitable TV stand, an AVF measuring just shy of 50 inches wide, at a huge discount from a store that was just two days from shutting down for good. VIZIO recommended their highly-rated SB3621n-E8 36″ 2.1 Channel Soundbar, which comes with a wireless subwoofer. Despite selling for $149 or less, this product has received five stars from CNET for delivering surprisingly robust audio quality. The TV lists for $699, but you can probably find a discount if you look real hard.
For a 4K set with HDR, that’s fairly cheap, but VIZIO doesn’t cheap out on performance. The specs specify 32 local dimming zones, built-in Google Chromecast, 4 HDMI ports, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and an eight-core CPU to process the picture.
So where does VIZIO scrimp to keep the price reasonably affordable?
Well, there’s no built-in tuner; that’s why it’s referred to as a “display” and not a TV set. I suppose VIZIO theorizes that most people are going to use a cable or satellite connection if they aren’t relying on the unit’s smart features, or an external streamer, such as an Apple TV 4K or a Roku. If you need to receive over-the-air stations, you can find a suitable tuner at Amazon for $30 or so. No big loss.
Unlike the 2016 models, VIZIO isn’t providing an Android tablet. Instead, you can use your own iOS or Android device and set up the TV with VIZIO’s SmartCast app.
Instead, I opted to use the supplied remote and install the app later. Other than streaming content, I ran the TV with a Cox cable remote, which can be configured to call up the essential functions of the TV and the soundbar.
Typical of VIZIO gear, the mounting of the ports require you to insert the plugs vertically, rather than horizontally. For the most part, I got it to work without much trouble, except for some difficulty in connecting the optical cable from the soundbar, which required a little trial and error.
Once you turn on the unit for the first time, you’re taken through a setup assistant that allows you to configure basic settings, and connect to your Wi-Fi network. Here I ran into a glitch, where one character in my password would always echo back as the upper case equivalent rather than the correct lower case. I managed to induce it to work by essentially backspacing and reentering the character. After that, the connection was pretty quick.
The onscreen menus are fairly simple to understand and navigate, though you might want to download the full user manual if you plan to manage more than the basic settings; the unit comes with a printed “quick start” guide. The assistant also has several legal proclamations that you are asked to accept. The one that you can refuse is the statement that VIZIO will collect your viewing data. This is something other TV makers do, but VIZIO got attacked for the practice several years ago. Since you’re entering Google’s ecosystem if you plan to use the Chromecast features, it’s something you should expect.
After the setup process was done, I had to wait another 10 minutes or so for the unit to update the firmware and software.
There are several picture presets. At first, I opted to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation to use Calibrated, which “allows your Display to deliver the most accurate picture quality for most environments.” Later on, I also turned on the Auto Brightness feature, to accommodate the fact that we watch TV in our master bedroom with lights on and lights off. When the lights are off, the only lighting comes from the foyer and the bathroom, so it’s fairly dim. The automatic setting, which has three brightness options, is meant to accommodate such situations.
For a brief time I experimented with another setting recommended by some reviewers, Calibrated Dark. But as the label indicates, it’s useful if you mostly watch your TV in dark surroundings, so even with a higher backlight setting, with Auto Brightness enabled, I ultimately returned to Calibrated.
I have no doubt that professional calibration will improve the already excellent picture even further, but most people who buy TVs make do with the existing settings. Most never change the defaults. So I wanted to focus this review on how regular people will use a TV such as this, which means sticking with the presets.
I’ll be spending the next few weeks putting the set through its paces with a variety of program material. During the first few days, I concentrated on cable fare, and some 4K content from Amazon and Netflix, such as “The Man in the High Castle” and “Stranger Things.”
While TV makers are selling loads of 4K gear, there’s a dearth of compatible content. Cable and satellite companies have made few moves to change that state of affairs, so most of the programming you’ll watch will be scaled up from lower resolutions, and here’s where some TVs fall down on the job. Fortunately, the VIZIO does a creditable job in upscaling, as regular HD shows were clearly sharper, with richer colors. Genuine 4K fare, especially with HDR support, was even sharper and the colors popped.
To really see 4K in all its glory, you need a set with a large enough picture, unless you sit real close. Since our master bedroom is relatively small, a 55-inch display is quite enough to see the resolution advantage.
Even with HD shows, the M-Series is a revelation. On the old set, blacks were usually dark gray. Here even the labels on the set-top box’s TV guide were deep black. The wider contrast ratio was obvious. Indeed, the deep blacks reminded me of my old Panasonic plasma; well, except for the fact that any LCD LED set, such as the VIZIO, will present a more limited viewing angle.
But what about the audio?
Well, it’s passable. You don’t expect much in a TV at this price range. Audio was clean enough, but there wasn’t a whole lot of bass, which is to be expected. Here the SB3621n-E8 made a huge difference.
Setting up the soundbar was mostly plug-and-play, but the subwoofer needed some extra adjustment. Since the walls in this apartment are notorious for producing sympathetic vibrations when bass is cranked up too high, and I didn’t want to annoy the neighbors, I placed the subwoofer next to the front of the stand. At its default setting, there was plenty of thump with content that provided a decent amount of bass; maybe too much thump. In another room, I could hear and feel the thumping through the wall, similar to the effect of being near a car where the subwoofers are running in overdrive.
A properly adjusted subwoofer should enhance the sound, not overwhelm it, so I had to back off on its level with the supplied remote until I reached the sweet spot. Typical of two-channel soundbars, there’s a faux surround sound feature, in this case DTS TruSurround, which expands the width of the soundstage beyond the unit’s 36 inches. It’s not the real thing, but a decent simulation. A crisp midrange means that dialogue is especially clean. I noticed that I could play it at a lower volume than the ZVOX, which will no doubt please the neighbors.
In this household, the family’s TV is a constant presence, so I’ll know soon enough how well the VIZIO works with a variety of program material. As it stands, I’m extremely pleased that I took on this review, despite having to replace the TV stand and audio system. When it comes to a TV’s picture, I’m obsessive about quality, and this system, so far at least, deserves my highest recommendation.
I’ll have more to say about it in these columns, and on my radio show, in the coming days. In the meantime, another neighbor has offered to take my old set, the stand and the soundbase off my hands for a small sum. I gladly accepted the offer.