HDTVs are becoming increasingly affordable as price erosion takes a firm foothold with this technology. Still, as with so many things in life, you most often get what you pay for in hometheater equipment. Front projectors have never been more attainable in terms of price, but buyers should beware.
Panasonic’s new PT-AE900U, an LCD projector with a native resolution of 1280x720, is a true HDTV display capable of filling a fairly large screen. It won’t win any design awards, but you can’t expect a fancy-looking case for such an inexpensive projector.
Measuring roughly 13x4x10 inches and weighing a mere 7.9 pounds, the PT-AE900U has a small footprint indeed. Right next to the lens assembly is a toggle arm for horizontal and vertical lens shift, a feature that remains rare in fixed-pixel front projectors in this price range.
The remote is logically designed and intuitive to use. A universal/ learning remote capable of operating a slew of other A/V components, it also has direct-access buttons for input selection, which is really convenient for both end users and custom installers. Direct-access buttons are also provided for the picture modes, aspect ratios, and the ADVANCED menu where the grayscale and gamma controls are located.
As with most front projectors, there are no real consumer-convenience features like PIP (picture-in-picture) or other bells and whistles that you would expect on a rear-projection TV or flat panel. However, there are a number of picture-enhancement and set-up features that make the PTAE900U more flexible in setup than most projectors in its class and help improve the picture quality and performance of the machine from its out-of-the-box factory settings.
Thanks to the horizontal and vertical lens-shift control, you don’t have to mount the unit exactly centered on the screen, which can mean the difference between an easy install and a very difficult one. However, you should make sure the projection axis is perpendicular to the screen so you don’t have to use the keystone feature to straighten the picture. Keystoning actually reduces the resolution and introduces unwanted artifacts. Even though it is touted as a “feature” by just about every manufacturer, keystone is, in fact, a detriment to picture quality.
The CCM (Cinema Color Management) system is one of the coolest features on the projector. It lets you improve the white-field uniformity by changing the color, tint, and brightness of small areas of the picture from left to right and top to bottom. This is a really handy feature, and one that I have not seen on any other LCD projector. The PT-AE900U had relatively poor white-field uniformity out of the box, and CCM allowed me to dramatically improve it.
There are a plethora of picture modes to choose from, including DYNAMIC, NORMAL (the factory preset), CINEMA I, CINEMA II, CINEMA III, VIDEO, and NATURAL, which all have different picture presets and color tones. I chose NORMAL for my calibration and setup of the PTAE900U. Twelve color-temperature settings ranging from -6 to +6 give the user way too many choices of the overall hue of the picture. I settled on -2 prior to grayscale calibration.
The CINEMA REALITY feature is a pseudonym for the all-important 3:2 pulldown circuit, which helps eliminate motion artifacts from film-based program material. This remains a very important feature in any digital HDTV display, even though virtually all DVD players now have 3:2 pulldown along with progressive output, because 75 to 80% of all prime-time TV is still shot on film for archival purposes. Finally, the ADVANCED menu has HIGH, MID, and LOW GAMMA settings as well as all the controls necessary for grayscale calibration by a qualified technician.
As with most inexpensive projectors, connectivity is somewhat limited on the PT-AE900U. My biggest complaint is that there is only one HDMI input; there should be a minimum of two. Generally speaking, a digital display like the PT-AE900U should produce a slightly better picture via HDMI than the component input, because there is no analog-todigital conversion by the projector. With upconverting DVD players all the rage these days, and virtually all HDTV set-top boxes offering HDMI outputs, it is certainly desirable to have multiple HDMI inputs on a display. Rounding out the connections are two component-video inputs, an S-video input, a composite-video input, a 15-pin VGA input for PC connections, and a serial port.
When you consider its price, the PTAE900U is a decent performer. The biggest issue is its lack of truly compelling blacks. Instead of inky rich blacks you would get from a good 1280x720 DLP projector, the Panasonic produces muddy dark-gray blacks. Dark scenes in general, and space scenes in particular, on the excellent DVD transfer of Alien: The Director’s Cut were lacking in shadow detail, and blacks were a little washed out. Brighter material looked much better.