While other TV manufacturers add special design elements to help distinguish their new models, Vizio keeps things pretty straightforward in the aesthetics department. The VF551XVT has a fairly boxy look, with a glossy black cabinet and a black, non-swiveling base. I wouldn't exactly characterize the speaker panel as discreet--it's a distinct element that appears to hang below the screen and runs the full length of the bottom bezel. It's also silver, which makes it stand out noticeably from the rest of the unit. The combination of the larger bezel and full-length speaker makes the VF551XVT look more bulky than comparably sized models from Samsung, Toshiba, and LG. On the clear panel that runs between the TV frame and speakers, you'll notice several illuminated logos (XVT Series, TruLED, etc.) that you can turn off in the setup menu if you desire; unfortunately, you can't turn off the illuminated Vizio logo in the center of the lower bezel. The remote control's aesthetic matches that of the TV, with a glossy black finish and silver strip along the bottom. It lacks dedicated input access but offers full backlighting, which is always appreciated (although there's no dedicated button to activate the backlighting; pressing any button will illuminate the remote).
The VF551XVT has a thorough connection panel, starting with a generous five HDMI inputs. You also get two component video inputs, as well as a PC input and an RF input to access the internal ATSC and Clear-QAM tuners. Picture-in-picture is available. The HDMI inputs accept both 1080p/60 and 1080p/24 signals, and Vizio has placed both an HDMI input and a component video input on the side panel for easy access. The side panel also sports a USB port that supports playback of music, photo, and video files. The TV automatically detects when you insert a USB flash drive and asks if you'd like to play the content, or you can press the remote's Media button to pull up the media navigator, which is straightforward and easy to maneuver. Absent from the connection panel are an RS-232 port for advanced control and an Ethernet port to access Web widgets and video-on-demand content.
The video setup menu includes most of the important controls, but it lacks a few higher-end options that are available on other LED-based models. The VF551XVT has a whopping nine picture modes, four of which are tuned for sports programming (football, golf, basketball, and baseball). Of course, I went with the Movie mode, which looks the most natural and has the best black level out of the box. The menu includes the requisite adjustable backlight, but this TV lacks a light sensor and auto mode that allows it to automatically adjust panel brightness based on room lighting. Digital and MPEG noise reduction are available, and you have the option to turn the Smart Dimming technology on or off (although I can't imagine why you'd turn it off). In the color realm, you get four color-temperature options, as well as advanced white-balance controls. The TV lacks advanced gamma control and a color-management system to individually fine-tune the six color points. Instead, you get a Color Enhancement system that lets you choose between five color palettes: off, normal, rich color, green/flesh, and green/blue. I began by using the off mode and tried the other options as I went along, which we'll discuss in the next section. The VF551XVT offers four aspect-ratio choices for SD content and four for HD content: The Full mode displays 1080i/1080p content with no overscan (there's no mode that adds overscan to remove potential noise around the edges of broadcast HDTV content).
As with Toshiba and LG's 240Hz implementations, Vizio's Smooth Motion 240Hz SPS (Scenes Per Second) technology does not produce a true 240Hz refresh rate: This TV has a 120Hz refresh rate and flashes the backlight to create a 240Hz effect. The Smooth Motion technology is designed to reduce motion blur, and it also uses Motion Estimation/Motion Compensation (MEMC, also known as motion interpolation) to reduce judder; the menu includes off, low, medium, and high settings. There's also a Real Cinema mode that deals specifically with film sources, with off, precision, and smooth options. I experimented with various permutations and combinations of these two features, and again we'll discuss performance in the next section.
Over in the audio realm, the setup menu includes five preset audio modes: flat, rock, pop, classic, and jazz. An equalizer is available to further tune the audio output. SRS TruSurround HD audio processing can be turned on or off, and you can also enable SRS's TruVolume control to minimize level discrepancies between sources. I found the TruVolume to be fairly effective in evening out the level between Dolby Digital 5.1 HDTV shows and commercials, and overall the audio quality is on par with other TV sound systems. The speaker panel has solid dynamic ability.
The primary performance benefit of local-dimming LED technology is that it allows the TV to produce deeper blacks and better contrast than a traditional LCD that uses an always-on fluorescent backlight. So, naturally the first performance parameter I wanted to check out on the VF551XVT was its black-level reproduction. With the TV's adjustable backlight at its minimum setting, the VF551XVT produced a wonderfully deep shade of black in demo scenes from The Bourne Supremacy (Universal Home Video), Signs (Buena Vista Home Entertainment), Casino Royale (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment), and The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista Home Entertainment). It was notably deeper than that of my reference Samsung LN-T4781F, a first-generation local-dimming model. As a result, the Vizio's image has a great sense of depth and dimension. One trait that helps the Vizio's black level is the lack of glow around brighter images. A potential issue with local-dimming LEDs is that, because the number of LEDs is not a 1:1 ratio with the number of pixels, the lighting is imprecise. You'll sometimes notice a glow around bright items--for instance, white text on a black background or a bright moon hanging in a dark sky. The VF551XVT exhibits minimal glow, so the black areas next to those bright images look darker.
Read more about the performance of the VF551XVT HDTV on Page 2.