Like other digital televisions, truly big-screen front-projection systems are coming down in price. Unfortunately, when manufacturers build to very low price points, they have to cut corners, which invariably causes picture-performance issues. That said, Panasonic's relatively inexpensive ($2,999 list) PT-AE900U is a surprisingly strong performer. This three-panel LCD projector has true HDTV resolution and can produce a good picture for the money. It has especially accurate color reproduction for an LCD projector, but its black-level performance is still relatively weak compared with that of DLP models. DLP projectors of this resolution are significantly more expensive, however, and for the price, the Panasonic PT-AE900U is one of the best performers available today. The design of the Panasonic PT-AE900U is relatively basic. The chassis has a metallic, dark-silver finish and a rectangular shape that's wider than it is deep. It measures about 13.0 by 4.0 by 10.5 inches and weighs a slight 7.9 pounds. Just to the side of the lens assembly is a toggle that allows you to shift the image horizontally and vertically in relation to the projector. That gives you more flexibility placing the little unit than you would have with many projectors in this class. The deep 2X zoom increases your placement options even further.
Panasonic's remote is well designed and, to our delight, nearly completely backlit. This universal-learning model offers direct-access keys for input selection--another feature we applaud since it makes switching inputs much simpler and also helps with programming a universal remote. The PT-AE900U has direct-access keys for the picture mode, the aspect ratio, and the Advanced menu, where the grayscale and gamma menus are located. As we mentioned at the outset, the Panasonic PT-AE900U has true HDTV native resolution, meaning it can display every pixel of a 720p HDTV program. Other sources, including standard TV, DVD, and 1080i HDTV, are scaled to fit the three 1,280x720-pixel chips.
Like nearly all front projectors, the PT-AE900U lacks such traditional conveniences as picture-in-picture or the TV Guide EPG. It does, however, offer a number of setup and picture-enhancing features that make it quite flexible and greatly aid in improving the machine's overall picture performance. For example, in addition to the zoom and the lens shift mentioned earlier, the projector has a CCM (Cinema Color Management) system that allows you to change the color, tint, and brightness of small areas of the picture from left to right and top to bottom all around the screen. This is a great feature because it allows you to compensate for some of the white-field uniformity problems that commonly arise with LCD projectors.
We found a slew of different Picture modes on the PT-AE900U, including Dynamic, Normal (the factory preset), Cinema I, Cinema II, Cinema III, Video, and Natural, all of which have different picture presets and color tones. We settled on Normal for our calibration and evaluation. Frankly, the 12 color-temperature settings (-6 to +6) give you too much choice over the color tone of the picture; we chose -2 before grayscale calibration. The Cinema Reality setting is yet another name for the important 2:3 pull-down circuit. Finally, the Advanced menu provides three gamma settings and all the controls necessary for grayscale calibration.
The connectivity options on the Panasonic PT-AE900U are quite good for this price range. A single HDMI input serves as the only digital connection. Two component-video inputs, an S-Video input, a composite-video input, a 15-pin VGA input for PC connections, and a serial port complete the jack pack on the rear of the projector. The Panasonic PT-AE900U is a decent-performing little projector as far as LCD-based models go. It evinced better color performance and resolution than the . Our biggest complaint with its performance is its lack of truly compelling blacks. Instead of deep, rich blacks such as those you would get from a good 1,280x720-resolution one-chip DLP projector, it produces muddy dark grays. Space scenes and dark scenes in general on the excellent DVD of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back lacked shadow detail, and blacks tended to be on the murky side.
Brighter scenes on the same DVD looked decent but somewhat softer than we expected for a projector of this resolution. Although the Panasonic PT-AE900U fully resolved a 720p multiburst-resolution pattern at both the component and HDMI inputs, DVDs and even HD looked a little fuzzy. The lens is the culprit; when focusing, we noticed that we couldn't see the pixel detail that more expensive lenses will give you.
Running our DVD player in interlaced mode via its component-video outputs, we were pleased to find that the Cinema Reality feature engages 2:3 pull-down; consequently, the projector rendered Star Trek: Insurrection cleanly and smoothly, with no motion artifacts or jaggies.
The color decoding, while not perfect (it pushes red slightly), is reasonably accurate. The actual color of red is reddish orange, and of green, yellowish green, which unfortunately is the norm for all but the priciest of projectors. After calibration, the Panasonic PT-AE900U had impressive color saturation for an LCD projector.
HD material from our Time Warner HD cable system looked good, with the Discovery Channel, PBS, and HDNet looking the best, as usual. Color saturation was commendable, but again detail suffered. Images looked distinctly softer than on some of the lower-cost DLP projectors we've reviewed recently, such as the pricier Sharp XV-Z2000U. Dark concert footage on HDNet looked decent, but it lacked shadow detail and snap.
The reality here is that the Panasonic PT-AE900U is one of the least-expensive high-resolution projectors on the market. Given that, you have to expect some performance compromises, such as the slightly soft picture produced by the lens. That said, for a little more than $2,000, this projector will give you a big-screen home-theater experience that's better than just about anything we've seen in this price bracket.
|Before color temp (20/80)||5,950/7,100K||Good|
|After color temp (20/80)||7,150/6,650K||Good|
|Before grayscale variation||+/- 403K||Good|
|After grayscale variation||+/- 36K||Good|
|DC restoration||All patterns stable||Good|
|2:3 pull-down, 24fps||Y||Good|
|Defeatable edge enhancement||Y||Good|