Good news from the projector world is that you can get more for less as the market becomes more crowded and competitive.

Take the subject of this test: the Panasonic PT-AE700E. It is an LCD projector, but an unusually refined one. It is well built and extremely quiet, at least until you hit the off switch and the fan goes into overdrive to dump excess heat as quickly as it decently can.

At the heart of the PT-AE700E is a group of three active matrix 16:9 LCD panels with 1,280 x 720 pixel resolution. The optical system is good for a 1,000 ANSI Lumens output, while contrast radio is a wholly exceptional 2,000:1 which is right up there in DLP territory.

Better still, the Panasonic includes something called Smooth Screen technology, the effect of which is to banish the grid structure associated with LCDs - almost.

Although there is only a limited number of inputs, you do get HDMI, which is rapidly establishing itself as the universal high definition digital input, as well as an RGB compliant Scart socket. In addition, a joystick which pokes out of the front of the projector operates a simple but highly effective optical lens shift and allows the projector to be positioned off the normal axis to the screen in both planes.

From a normal viewing distance, the picture looks crisp and clean, though from close up there is clearly some structure in the way adjacent pixels appear to almost overlay each other, but this is far preferable to the conventional LCD chicken wire effect.

Skin tones often looked rather yellowish, and there were some other colour casts and a low level muddiness which could be addressed to an extent with careful tweaking of the various fine setup options which are available.

High-def quality

Predictably, picture quality is much improved via HDMI which suggest that its analogue video processing is not completely transparent. Any colour settings can be memorised and recalled with a colour management control on the remote handset. This also offers a variety of picture condition memories. Keystone adjust (vertical) is also readily accessible from the handset.

Despite some niggles about the accuracy of some of the colour range, colour reproduction generally was well saturated and realistic. Contrast also appears to live up to expectations. But the Panasonic is not as bright as some competing projectors. It doesn't really have the on-screen punch to double as a surrogate TV display in a dimmed, but not fully blacked out room.

Here then, is a serious projector that for general home cinema duties can stand comparison with the best at the price. It doesn't attempt to be the brightest or most powerful projector in its class, but instead tackles the DLP contenders head on, while offering some key advantages, including much lower noise levels than usual (a key failing with many projectors of all types), and of course no DLP type colour wheel rainbow effects.

To add some spice to the value rating, the projector is supplied with a 16:9 wall/ceiling mount black backed beaded matt finish (phew!) projection screen measuring 814 x 1,440 mm when open.