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The Best Small TV Today (32-Inches or Smaller)

By Tim Moynihan, The Wirecutter

The $280 Vizio E320i-A0 offers the best value out of any 32-inch TV, thanks to its solid image quality, built-in Wi-Fi and streaming apps.

The $280 Vizio E320i-A0 offers the best value out of any 32-inch TV, thanks to its solid image quality, built-in Wi-Fi and streaming apps.

You can find 32-inch TVs with better overall picture quality for around $300, but you won’t find the built-in entertainment apps and Wi-Fi connectivity that the E320i-A0 offers. Usually, we’d recommend a Roku box, but in this case it doesn’t make sense to spend $100 to enhance a $300 TV while adding an extra box to a presumably crowded space. So unless you already own an external streaming box, the Vizio’s one-two punch of features and performance trumps the picture quality advantages of competing Samsung and Toshiba sets.

Who Should Buy This

Anyone looking for a bedroom TV with built-in Netflix and other streaming services, or someone looking to supplement their primary TV or projector with a smaller TV in a spare room. This set is also a good low-price, full-featured option for a dorm room.

You shouldn’t buy this set primarily as a computer monitor, though. It doesn’t have DVI or VGA inputs. Plus, you’d want something with higher resolution that’s also a little bit smaller.

What To Look For In A Small TV

We define a small TV as one that is 32 inches or smaller. That’s enough screen size for a lot of environments, but if you’re not constrained by space, there’s little reason to go with a TV of this size because you can get a cheapie 40″ or larger screen for around $400. You should be aiming for a small TV because you have a small room.

Nobody makes a 32-inch plasma, so you don’t have to worry about the whole “LCD/LED vs. plasma” argument at this size. You’re limited to LED- or CCFL-backlit LCD sets.

What you really want is the most features at the lowest price.

When it comes to smaller TVs, the key thing to keep in mind is value. At this size, only the starkest differences in picture quality will be noticeable to the vast majority of people. What you really want is the most features at the lowest price.

Regular Wirecutter, CNET, and Sound and Vision contributor Geoff Morrison put it to us directly: “When buying a 32-inch TV, good picture doesn’t really matter. Really, you’re buying a cheap TV, so price is first. If it looks decent, and many do, that’s the sweetener.”

So how cheap is cheap enough? $300 is about as much as we’d pay. That’s because many of the features that make a difference with bigger sets (like 1080p resolution and a 120 Hz refresh rate) aren’t noticeable at this screen size, nor are they worth paying an extra $100-$350.

The same can’t be said of larger TVs, but when it comes to small TVs smart features just make sense. Adrienne Maxwell, managing editor at HomeTheaterReview.com, summarized it thusly: “If you can get a TV with built-in Wi-Fi and a strong web platform for a good deal–and Vizio’s Internet Apps service is very good–I say go for it. In a secondary room, the built-in Web platform makes for a really clean solution.”

Separate streaming media boxes make sense for bigger TVs but not these cheapies, if you can help it.

Separate streaming media boxes make sense for bigger TVs but not these cheapies, if you can help it. A Roku 3 or an Apple TV costs $100, so buying one to use with a “dumb” 32-incher would bring the total investment for a decent TV plus a set-top box to around $400. That might make sense if you’re planning on upgrading in the future to a larger set, but in that case we would advise you to save up just a bit longer to get something larger. Otherwise, by the time you do eventually upgrade there will be better streaming boxes available.

Inputs? It’s nice to have a few but it’s not a priority as you can add a switcher later for less than $100.

As for the image-quality side of things, 720p is the highest resolution you can see in any normal viewing environment with a 32-inch set. Again, Geoff Morrison has a good explanation: “You’d have to be sitting on top of it to tell a difference between 720p and 1080p at 32 inches. I’ve written a lot about this from the 4K resolution side, but the principle is the same: your eye has a finite resolution. To see higher resolutions, you need to sit a lot closer.”

So 720p is fine for a 32-incher, but there are a few reasons why you might want to invest in a 1080p set at this size anyway—not that we recommend it. Maxwell told us, “If the TV will pull double-duty as a computer monitor, then I do recommend you move up to 1080p.” The truth is that for computer work at this size, even 1080p is not high-res enough—most 27 inch monitors these days have more than 1080p resolution and are designed with inputs for computer work like DVI-D and VGA that aren’t present on all small sets.

At this size, you shouldn’t have to worry much about refresh rates either. ”Larger TVs can show blurring more than smaller ones, and they’re more often used for movies that benefit from the 1080p/24 cadence that 120Hz sets can deliver,” says CNet’s David Katzmaier. “For video games, a higher refresh rate often introduces input lag, which is generally worse than any blurring, making 120Hz unnecessary for gamers too.”

Most $300 TVs have a 60 Hz refresh rate, which isn’t ideal for watching sports or other fast-action footage because you might see some blur or “judder” when things on the screen are moving quickly. These unwanted artifacts are more noticeable at larger screen sizes, but if you are sitting very close to a smaller TV, you may see some blur.

“Since motion blur these days is typically just a loss of fine resolution, if you’re sitting too far away to see that resolution to begin with… how would you know it was gone?” says Morrison. “If someone plans on sitting close, and/or is especially susceptible to seeing motion blur, then a 120Hz set might be a good option.”

It’s hard to figure out a TV’s real refresh rate these days, because many manufacturers embellish them…

While we’re on the topic of refresh rates, you should be aware of a disturbing marketing trend. It’s hard to figure out a TV’s real refresh rate these days, because many manufacturers embellish them, listing inflated numbers that lump the refresh rate in with their own custom blend of backlight-scanning and video-processing technologies. Every company has a different name for it: Vizio dubs it “Scenes Per Second” (SPS), Samsung calls it “Clear Motion Rate” (CMR), Sony’s name for it is “Motionflow,” Toshiba calls it “ClearScan,” LG calls it “TruMotion,” and so on. Not only do the manufacturers list these embellished numbers on their site, but they’re also often listed as the real refresh rate in the spec listings on Amazon, Walmart, and other vendors.

While these technologies might actually improve the smoothness of motion you see on the screen, they’re all slightly different, so it’s hard to say whether a “CMR” or a “SPS” or a “ClearScan” rating of 120 is actually as good as a 120 Hz refresh rate. (And if they really were, there’d be no reason for these companies to produce more expensive sets that actually have 120 Hz or 240 Hz refresh rates. They’d all be 60 Hz panels with the same inset voodoo.)

The good news is that $300 32-inchers don’t fudge the numbers. The bad news is that they’re all 60 Hz sets. You’ll start to see these dubious marketing ploys at around the $400 mark.

Finally, don’t buy into any claims of “enhanced sound.” These TVs are simply too small to offer anything but adequate sonic performance. If you really care about sound, we recommend getting a soundbar.

With all that in mind, we found out via our research and interviews that it’s possible to get a sub-$300 set that has integrated Web services and picture adjustments.

Our Pick

If you want a 32-inch HDTV that offers streaming services and very good picture quality for less than $300, buy the Vizio E320i-A0. According to Vizio, the E320i-A0 should be in the company’s lineup until mid-2014.

The main appeal with the Vizio set is that it offers a very good selection of streaming services at a bargain.

The main appeal with the Vizio set is that it offers a very good selection of streaming services at a bargain. Whereas $300 will buy you any number of 720p/60 Hz 32-inch TVs, the Vizio has the added bonus of built-in streaming apps with Wi-Fi and ethernet connectivity. So if you don’t already have a streaming device, the E320i-A0 offers a lot of bang for the buck. Its streaming services are good enough to compete with a dedicated streamer.

Beyond cash-money savings, the appeal of the Vizio’s built-in Wi-Fi and apps grows exponentially if you’re using a 32-incher as a bedroom set, which is frequently the case with this size TV. A streaming box may be a simple, unobtrusive addition to a primary entertainment center, but if you’re setting your TV on top of a dresser or another piece of furniture that doesn’t have slots for A/V components, having those streaming features built into the set will eliminate set-up time, extra cables and surface-area clutter.

The Vizio E320i-A0’s Web-streaming interface may not be as polished as the Roku’s or Apple TV’s, but it gives both of them a run for the money in terms of content. Most of the big guns are in the Vizio Internet Apps (VIA) catalog, including Hulu Plus, YouTube, Pandora, OnLive, Vudu, iHeartRadio, Vimeo and MOG. The holy trinity of Netflix, Amazon Instant and M-Go are all quickly accessible via dedicated buttons on the remote control. There’s also Skype, but you’ll need an external camera and mic to make it work. There’s no Web browser built into the set, so you’re limited to viewing/streaming content through one of the VIA apps.

Even though low-end TVs are not widely reviewed, a lot of people like this set.

Editors at other publications rank this set’s picture quality relatively highly for its price. Consumer Reports (registration required) rates the Vizio E320i-A0’s HD picture quality as “excellent,” which is the publication’s top mark for that testing category. Color accuracy is noted as a strong suit, but the set’s viewing angles are rated only as “fair.” Consumer Reports also knocks the set a bit for visible motion blur, which isn’t surprising given the 60 Hz refresh rate.

As far as hardware goes, nothing really stands out. Like most sets of this size and price, you’ll get a few input/output options, but don’t expect the same array of ports that you’d find on a bigger, pricier set. Around the back of the TV, the E320i-A0 has two HDMI inputs—another reason why those built-in streaming services are so convenient, as you won’t need to use one of them for a streaming box.

Also in the mix are an optical audio-out port, a 3.5mm headphone/speaker jack and a USB port for playing back movies, music and photos from a thumbdrive. You also get ports that accept both component and composite video, an Ethernet jack and a coax input.

If you like fine-tuning your picture, you’ve got a few options. The Vizio E320i-A0 has a custom settings mode that lets you adjust backlight, brightness, color intensity, tint and sharpness independently. There are a number of canned presets for movies, games, and individual sports (baseball, basketball, football, and golf), as well.

In his CNET review of the set, Katzmaier writes that the Vizio E320i-A0 has “highly accurate color in bright areas” and “relatively deep black levels.” Details in those blacker areas aren’t as impressive, though, as Katzmaier notes a “bluish color” and “murky shadow detail.”

Katzmaier also notes that the Vizio’s image quality is “not quite as good overall as the picture quality of the Toshiba 32C120U or the Samsung UN32EH4000.” (More about those TVs in “The Competition” below.) Regardless, those weak spots aren’t significant enough to keep the Vizio E320i-A0 out of CNET’s top spot for the best 32-inch HDTV.

On Amazon, the Vizio E320i-A0 has a user rating of 4 stars out of 5, with 322 customer reviews at the time this story was written. In general, the Amazon user reviews are consistently positive regarding the Vizio’s video quality and value, but there are some common gripes that paint a less-than-perfect picture of the set.

Mediocre sound quality is one of them, with quite a few reviewers complaining about tinny audio, but you would be hard-pressed to find anything better than “acceptable” sound quality in a set of this size and price. If you really care, just add a budget soundbar. The time it takes for the TV to turn on is another common complaint, with reviewers noting that boot-up times can sometimes take up to 20 seconds. Some users of Netgear routers report that their routers must be set to use the more-vulnerable WPA-PSK (TKIP) security protocol instead of WPA2-PSK (AES) for the set’s streaming features to work correctly. And almost no one likes the TV’s basic, non-backlit remote control.

If You Already Have a Streaming Box

By many accounts, the Samsung UN32EH4000 and UN32EH4003(both cost less than $300) offer outstanding performance for their size and price. If image quality is your primary concern, you should try to get one of these. CNET says these Samsung sets have excellent picture quality for their class, Digital Trends gave the UN32EH4003 a “Recommended” rating, and The Wirecutter’s prior pick for a small HDTV was the Samsung UN32EH4003. However, they’re only better if you don’t care about smart features or already have an extra streaming box on hand. There’s also another catch: they’re last year’s models.

The Samsung UNEH4000 and UNEH4003 are practically identical otherwise, but the EH4003 is the lesser of the two in terms of audio capabilities. The EH4000 has more-powerful speakers (a pair of 10W speakers instead of the 4003′s 5W speakers) and purportedly better surround-sound simulation out of those two speakers.

The 2013 replacement for both sets is the Samsung 32F4000, which Samsung says won’t be available in the U.S. It’s hard to recommend a set that may not be available for much longer. The most-similar model available stateside is the Samsung UN32F5000AF, but at $400 it’s pricey for a 32-inch TV.

A High-End Small TV That's Too Fancy For Most

Again, it’s worth noting that we do not recommend spending more than $300 on a small TV. At $400 and up, you start entering the fully-loaded zone for the 32-inch class. You’ll find a mix of 1080p sets, built-in streaming services, higher refresh rates, swivel stands, attractive designs and better built-in audio features. All of that may be overkill for a secondary bedroom set, but you may consider splurging if your living room can only handle a 32-inch screen. If you can afford one of these $400 32-inchers, you might as well go with a 40-inch screen.

If you must get a high-end 32-inch TV, I’d go with the $420 Samsung UN32F5500AFXZA. It offers a lot more bang for the buck compared to other $400 sets. For the extra $20, you get a 1080p panel with Wi-Fi connectivity, apps, a Web browser and a swivel stand. Samsung also has a strong reputation for image quality, even at the lower end of its lineup, so it likely performs very well. Like the UN32F5000, its native refresh rate is only 60 Hz, but it has a simulated 120 Hz CMR feature.

Even Tinier

If you need something smaller than a 32-inch screen—a TV for the kitchen or a kid’s room, for example—Vizio’s 29-inch E291i-A1 ($260) and 24-inch E241i-A1 ($200) manage to pack all the streaming features found in the E320i-A0 into a smaller set. For some reason, the 24-inch E241i-A1 offers 1080p resolution–I’d guess because it’s based on a computer monitor panel. Again, in-depth reviews for both these sets are lacking around the Web.

The Competition

In the process of picking the Vizio E320i-A0 as the best overall 32-inch set, I looked at 20 sets from the major manufacturers: LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Vizio.

After 13 hours of digging through each company’s lineup, it became clear that $300 will usually buy you a very basic 720p/60 Hz set. The exceptions were the Samsung EH4000 and EH4003, which were consistently rated as having top-notch image quality. Beyond that, there are a few notable alternatives to the Vizio E320i-A0, but none of them have smart features.

The Toshiba 32L1350U ($267) is a sub-$300 set that pimps a simulated “ClearScan” of 120 Hz. That’s not the same as having a 120 Hz refresh rate; it’s a 60 Hz set with some video-processing tricks baked in. I haven’t seen any in-depth reviews of the 32L1350 from major publications, so it’s hard to say whether that feature truly reduces motion blur—and if it does, it still might not be noticeable when you’re sitting a normal distance away from the screen. If the largely positive user reviews on Amazon are any indication, it’s a solid sub-$300 set, but the Vizio has a lot more going for it at around the same price.

Most LCD sets these days are LED-backlit panels, but another $300-range Toshiba set, the Toshiba 32C120U, kicks it old-school with a CCFL backlight system. It’s another 720p HDTV with a 60 Hz refresh rate. Compared to LED-backlit sets, CCFL backlighting doesn’t mean anything one way or another in terms of picture quality at this price, but it does contribute to a few factors: It’s more energy-consuming, heavier and thicker than similar LED-backlit sets, and it also contains world-damaging mercury. CNET gives the 32C120U good marks for picture quality, but its remote control and color accuracy are weak spots. It warrants mentioning as an option, but it may also be discontinued; Toshiba no longer lists it on its site. The set’s price also seems to be creeping up over the $300 mark, and it doesn’t have enough going for it to pay that much. Pass.

There are higher-end sets we dismissed, too. In general, we don’t like high-end small TVs…

There are higher-end sets we dismissed, too. In general, we don’t like high-end small TVs, and for various reasons these ones are less attractive than our pick for a fancy small TV above.

Toshiba has a step-up model for $400, the Toshiba 32L4300U, which offers Wi-Fi connectivity and apps to go along with its 1080p/60 Hz panel. It also has a “ClearScan 120” feature, which purportedly simulates a 120 Hz refresh rate. Compared to the Vizio, you’re paying an extra $100 for 1080p and faux refresh-rate enhancements, two things you may not even notice at this size.

Also around the $400 mark is the LG 32LN5700, another 1080p/60 Hz set with Wi-Fi, streaming apps and LG’s own “TruMotion” flavor of simulated 120 Hz technology. It comes with a free six-month subscription to Netflix through July 20. Inputs are a strong suit, as it has 3 HDMI ports and 3 USB ports. But we feel the Samsung (and its reputation for image quality across its LCD line) is a better buy for 20 bucks more.

Samsung’s UN32F5000AF ($400) is a basic 1080p set with a 60 Hz native refresh rate and Samsung’s “Clear Motion Rate” (CMR) motion-enhancement technology, which simulates a refresh rate of 120 Hz. There’s no built-in Wi-Fi or apps, and for that much money, it should have those. Pass.

Even further up the price chain is the $600 Samsung UN32F6300AF, a 1080p set with an actual 120 Hz refresh rate (and a “CMR” of 240Hz). It packs in Wi-Fi connectivity and streaming apps, a Web browser, a swiveling stand,and good connectivity options for a 32-inch HDTV (4 HDMI and 2 USB ports). But this thing costs as much as a 50-inch TV. Forget it.

And if you want to spend the absolute maximum amount you can on a 32-inch TV, look no further than the $650 Sony KDL-32W650A. It’s a 1080p/60 Hz set with a simulated refresh rate of 240 Hz (according to Sony), and it offers Wi-Fi connectivity, built-in streaming apps, simulated surround-sound audio and an Opera Web browser. The hefty price tag doesn’t get you many input options, though, as there are only 2 HDMI slots and 1 USB port. No way.

Wrapping It Up

The Vizio E320i-A0 offers significantly more than the rest of the 720p/60 Hz cookie-cutter models, and that’s why it’s our top pick. It has good image quality for its price and it sweetens the deal with connected features that you’ll only find in sets that cost $400 or more. It’s a standout, low-cost, all-in-one HDTV/streamer package for your dorm, den, apartment or bedroom.

This story originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 7/4/2013 and is reprinted here with permission.