Panasonic PT-AE900U LCD Projector

All videophiles are looking for the holy grail—a video projector that will blow everything else out of the water and cost next to nothing. Short of the industry adopting the business model used for computer printers (charging $100 for the projector and $4000 for a replacement lamp), that next-to-nothing price will likely remain a dream. But manufacturers are competing hard to make good home theater projectors much more affordable, if not exactly cheap.

Panasonic has been in the game for some time now, first with the PT-AE500U and just last year with the PT-AE700U. But the market is changing fast, and with the competition heating up the new PT-AE900U ($3199) is designed to keep Panasonic in the hunt for offering the best projector at the lowest price.

Behind the Lens
The compact PT-AE900U is a bit more stylish than the equally small but decidedly boxy-looking PT-AE700U, but beyond that its feature set is very similar. Zoom and focus are manual, and a long 1-2.0 zoom range gives you plenty of setup flexibility. According to Panasonic, a throw distance of 9.8-19.6 feet will produce a 100" diagonal (87" wide) 16:9 image. The lens also provides horizontal and vertical manual shift. There's also a less flexible electronic image shift (both H and V) in the user menu, and keystone correction (which you'll want to avoid if at all possible).

Three 1280x720 LCD panels (for red, green, and blue) produce the image, together with a 130W projection lamp. All the usual inputs are present, including two component inputs, HDMI, and a 15-pin VGA connector for a computer or other RGB source. The detachable power cord is not the standard IEC type, and may be a little harder to replace if you loose it.

Like the PT-AE700U before it, the PT-AE900U incorporates a dynamic iris that is said to provide a contrast ratio of 5500:1. Dynamic irises are now being used by several manufacturers under a variety of names (Panasonic calls theirs Dynamic Iris, which clearly describes its function, unlike some of the names we've seen). Fundamentally, they all do the same thing with varying degrees of success: automatically open or close in response to the instant-by-instant characteristics of the image. If the average picture level is bright, they open up for brighter whites. If it's dark, they close down to enhance the blacks and deep grays. While this sounds like a band-aid, it really works. Most of the displays using it still don't come anywhere near the contrast ratio claimed in their advertising (the Panasonic is no exception) but they can, if properly implemented, provide surprisingly deep blacks and the sort of punchy images that, until recently, were unapproachable with digital displays, particularly LCDs.

As usual, you get the option of several aspect ratios, 4:3, 16:9, and three Zoom modes. There is also an uneven stretch mode, called Just, that expands a 4:3 source to fit a 16:9 screen, and a 14:9 mode that will expand a 4:3 image to fit the screen from top-to-bottom with little distortion but some black bars at the sides. Auto will switch aspect ratios automatically (analog 480i and 480p only) if the program material is coded with the proper trigger. V Scroll appears to be a pixel-for-pixel "through" mode and works only through the RGB input (and only with higher resolution sources). H-Fit is available only with 720p and 1080i sources. It produces a wider horizontal stretch than 16:9, to no obvious purpose.

As is often the case, the available aspect ratios are restricted with 720p and 1080i inputs. If you are watching a DVD of, say, a classic film from your player's 720p HDMI output, you can access the projector's 4:3 mode only by switching the player's output to 480p or 480i (not all digital video displays will accept a 480i HDMI input, but the Panasonic will).

Like most digital projectors the PT-AE900U is point and shoot, but not quite plug and play. The mechanical setup—lining it up, zoom, focus, and lens shift—goes quickly. I was particularly impressed by the focus adjustment; there was never any ambiguity about the best setting. With many projectors, there's a comparatively wide span in the adjustment range in which the focus does not visibly change.

Beyond basic setup, however, the Panasonic provides a wealth of picture adjustments. Some of these you'll use often, others you'll rarely employ.

Most of the important video adjustments are available at all of the projector's resolutions. There are, of course, the ubiquitous Contrast, Brightness, Color, Tint, and Sharpness controls. A feature called Dynamic Sharpness "automatically adjusts video signal enhancement based on the difference in brightness of adjacent pixels, largely eliminating noise amplification. . ." This operation is apparently automatic, as nothing I could find in the menus turned it on or off.

A Picture Mode control selects a number of preset picture options (Normal, Dynamic, Cinema 1, Cinema 2, Cinema 3, Video, and Natural) that can be individually modified by the user. I chose Cinema 2 as the best option for movies (it produced the richest blacks) and used it for most of my viewing, together with a fine-tuning of the other video controls to tweak the setup for my situation. There are three user memories, called "Profiles" that can be used to store any setup for future recall.

An Advanced Menu option offers controls for calibrating the color temperature, with red, green, and blue adjustments for the top (Contrast) and bottom (Bright) of the brightness range. It also provides High, Mid, and Low gamma adjustments. While these controls are easily accessible (and not hidden in a service menu) the average user is better off leaving them to a trained calibration technician equipped with the necessary measurement tools.

There is also a simpler, 13-step color temperature control in the Picture menu. While theoretically less precise than the Advanced Menu adjustments, this control has the advantage of offering the average user more flexibility than the Warm, Neutral, and Cool settings typically offered. On my sample, the steps most closely approaching an accurate (6500K) color temperature were right in the middle: 0 and +1.

Panasonic's Cinema Color Management (C.C.M.) is another option in the Advanced Menu. It was also featured in the earlier PT-AE700U projector and, according to Panasonic's promotional literature, "controls both contrast and brightness to provide faithful reproduction of subtle hues. While that fuzzy description sounds great, it isn't much more informative than the descriptions usually provided in video display manuals for things like the Brightness control ("Adjusts the brightness of the color").

What the C.C.M. does provide is a way to adjust the color balance and save those adjustments in one or more Profiles (the color of white and gray cannot be adjusted in the C.C.M.—that's done by calibrating the color temperature). There is provision for eight separate adjustments. For example, suppose the skin tones of your favorite television show are always just a little two greenish, and the tint control doesn't quite do it for you. You can change them without affecting the rest of the image—apart from any part of the image with the same color balance as those flesh tones. If you want to brighten up the reds too, while you're at it, that's also possible. And you'll still have six more adjustments left, should you choose to use them.