Two years have passed since Panasonic launched itself into the world of full HD home cinema projection. We're now onto its third generation with the PT-AE3000, which looks identical to the first in a sober black box fronted by a motorised zoom lens and topped off by two dials for vertical and horizontal lens-shift adjustment.
The PT-AE3000 has plenty of new goodies: three lens memories, for example, will store different permutations of zoom, focus, horizontal and vertical shift, and if you have an adjustable mask screen with 4:3, 16:9 and 2.35:1 modes, the AE3000 can be optimised for them.
Choose the correct screen, then, and you'll get CinemaScope without the borders or the need for an anamorphic lens. From a purist viewpoint, though, Panasonic's clever technology is no substitute for such glassware. The native 1080p resolution is not being fully utilised, so detail is inferior, especially if your source is HD. There could also be problems with 'spill' if your 2.35:1 source has 'burnt-in' subtitles. It's also a pity that the machine cannot trigger adjustable screens directly.
The AE3000 incorporates Panasonic's proprietary 100Hz Motion Picture Pro, which analyses adjacent frames before creating new ones that can be seamlessly inserted with the minimum of perceptible judder or other artefacts. Thanks to this, 50Hz and 60Hz signals are doubled to 100Hz and 120Hz respectively; 24p sources, meanwhile, are quadrupled to 96Hz. Also newly introduced is the Detail Clarity Processor 2, which selectively applies sharpness correction.
As per its immediate predecessor, the AE3000 incorporates Panasonic's 'Smooth Screen' optical trickery. But this is fairly redundant simply because the 2million-odd pixels of a full HD projection are imperceptible at normal viewing distances. However, the claimed contrast-ratio has been raised to a whopping 60,000:1, courtesy of the new lens, dynamic-iris and a light-leakage reduction technology known as 'Pure Contrast Plate'.
Ease of use
Sensibly, the AE3000's optics have been engineered with domesticity in mind. To achieve a 3m 16:9 diagonal, for example, the projector and screen can be between 3.6m and 7.2m apart depending on the setting of the 2x zoom lens.
The combination of the non-motorised lens shift adjusters with the motorised zoom/focus controls, and an onboard pattern generator, plus accommodation of all common mounting arrangements add up to a straightforward self-installation experience. And you'll appreciate the digital keystone corrector if you have to set the projector up in a less than optimal position.
The AE3000's unusual waveform monitors help you to determine whether your source equipment/software is up to scratch, and can even identify faults such as incorrect connections.
Then there is the battery of picture adjustments. In addition to 'usuals' like overall contrast/brightness, saturation and colour temperature are gamma, independent adjustment of contrast and brightness for the R, G and B channels, noise reduction, overscan and picture-positioning. If they're not deemed necessary the dynamic iris, x.v.Colour support and proprietary features such as frame-creation, detail clarity and cinema-reality can be disabled.
Sixteen 'banks' of settings can be memorised, and you can also store different colour-profiles for each of the seven picture modes. Expert installers can harness such power to carry out calibration to ISF standards.
The rest of us will appreciate that basic operations such as input and aspect ratio selection are a cinch, thanks to the sensibly designed handset and menu structure. Anyone thinking about tweaking those more esoteric settings will appreciate the 'splitscreen' facility that's there to provide 'before/after' comparisons.
While fine detail is evident during Spiderman 3 on Blu-ray we found that the trickier textures of the Sandman were not quite as obvious as they are with some rival projectors. However, the recent broadcasts of Swarm and Survivors on the BBC HD channel were in the 'so-real-you-could-touch-it' class, while noise (more of a problem with broadcasts than Blu-ray) was kept at bay.
During the test, we accidentally discovered that the Southend vs. Chelsea FA Cup replay was being carried by the sporadic ITV HD channel. During the broadcast you could easily make out individual faces among the supporters and even blades of grass on the pitch.
Colours are lucid yet natural, although calibration is needed to bring out the best in them. We suspect that only those at Roots Hall that evening saw the grass any better. Given that the AE3000 is a LCD projector, there's none of the rainbow effect that can affect competing single-chip DLPs.
Shadow detail is excellent, recognisable elements being rendered from scenes that another projector reproduced as a featureless dark grey. But while black levels are strong, competing lightboxes such as JVC's recent models reach deeper. Furthermore, the AE3000 doesn't yield the world's brightest picture, although this isn't really objectionable in sensibly designed viewing rooms.
Auto-iris systems tend to shift black-level noticeably according to picture content. Panasonic's implementation proved clearly superior to some we've seen before, but it's not totally impervious to this 'hunting'; for that reason, we preferred to turn it off.
Fed from Blu-ray and SkyHD, the AE3000 was found to handle movement devoid of judder. DVDs and digital TV benefited from sympathetic portrayal of colours, wide contrast range and depth. What a pity, then, that the projector won't handle interlaced standard-def sources via HDMI where Panasonic technology usually performs so very well.
Value for money
The Panasonic AE3000 can be summed up as a good all-rounder; to get noticeably better, you would need to spend a lot more money. Pictures can be truly gob-smacking in their scale and intensity, although for best results careful attention must be paid to adjustment (at the very least, employ a calibration disc such as Digital Video Essentials).
Connectivity and configurability, meanwhile, are both first-rate, and indeed some far more expensive devices are inferior to the AE3000 in this respect.