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CEDIA 2006: Panasonic's new projector pair

CEDIA 2006: Panasonic's new projector pair

Panasonic took the opportunity to announce two new home-theater projectors at this year's CEDIA show in Denver. Both use LCD technology, one to achieve 1080p resolution, and the other to deliver good ol' 720p.

The 1080p projector gets model number PT-AE1000U and will be available in December. The company didn't announce pricing, but I assume the unit will be competitive with the other new "budget" 1080p projectors introduced at the show, namely Sony's $5,000 VPL-VW50 and Mitsubishi's $4,500 HC5000U. The PT-AE1000U uses the same Epson 3LCD chipset as the Mitsubishi but claims a higher contrast ratio (11,000:1 vs. 10,000:1) and light output (1,100 lumen vs. 1,000)--although as with most such numbers, I take them with a healthy grain of salt. Panasonic also touts the unit's built-in waveform monitor (!), saying it can measure brightness output from video sources to better optimize picture settings (that does sound pretty cool). Horizontal and vertical lens shift, as well as a 2X-powered zoom, should make installation easier, as should the short-throw lens. These are some pretty juicy specs, so I was excited to see the unit in action, but unfortunately when I visited the Panasonic booth, it wasn't set up; instead the two theaters were devoted to displaying the new 720p model.

Said 720p projector, model PT-AX100U (available now, $2,999), is the successor to 2005's impressive, value-conscious Panasonic PT-AE900U. Improvements include a room-lighting sensor, said to automatically adjust the picture to compensate for some ambient lighting, as well as improved black levels. I saw both in action at the booth; the ubiquitous Blu-ray demo of Corpse Bride exhibited nice, deep blacks and good detail for a 720p projector, and like the 900U the screen-door effect was minimal; I had to stand closer than 6 feet from the 100-inch diagonal screen to see pixel structure. I'm no big fan of room-lighting sensors in general, however, and with projectors, they seem doubly questionable: if you're using a projector, just darken the room as much as possible and leave it that way. Of course we'll back up these cursory first impressions with a full review as soon as possible; Panasonic's rep says an AX100U should arrive at CNET any day now.