Panasonic AR100U vs. Epson Home Cinema 8350
The AR100U's primary competitor for sub-$2000 1080p non-3D home theater is the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 8350, which is another LCD projector with a 2.0:1 zoom and H/V lens shift. The two projectors cost about the same and can be used in many of the same situations, but it is interesting to see where they differ.
Light Output. The Home Cinema 8350 is designed for dark-room home theater, and its preset image modes reflect this. Cinema mode on the 8350 measures 560 lumens with the lamp at full power and the lens at its widest setting. Dynamic, the brightest mode, measures 1507 lumens under those same conditions. Compare this with the AR100U, which measures 977 lumens in Cinema 1 and 2487 lumens in Dynamic.
What conclusions should you draw from this? The Home Cinema 8350 is easier to configure in a dark room, since lumen output can be reduced to appropriate levels very easily. The AR100U is better suited to the living room, where ambient light would cause the Home Cinema 8350 to appear washed out and low in contrast. Either projector could be used in the opposite situation, but they cannot match or outperform each other in the uses they were not designed for. In essence, they both have their strengths, and it is best to pick the projector that you need based on the type of usage you anticipate.
Contrast. When it comes to black level in a dark room, the Home Cinema 8350 has a clear head-and-shoulders advantage. Under the right conditions, black becomes nigh invisible, while the AR100U cannot achieve the blacks that are as solid. With regard to dynamic range, though, the projectors are more or less evenly matched. The AR100U's more brilliant highlights make up somewhat for its lackluster black, while the deep inky shadows of the 8350 compensate for its relative lack of brightness. Again, they each look better than the other based on whether they are being used in ambient light, or in a dark room.
Color. Both the 8350 and the AR100U have excellent color at default, though the 8350 is a touch warmer than the AR100U. Either one can be calibrated to near-perfect 6500K without much fuss. Both have default gamuts that do not need adjustment unless one is aiming for absolute statistical perfection, as our measurements indicate that the discrepancies are invisible to the human eye.
Digital noise. In fields of solid color and mid-tones, the Home Cinema 8350 shows less digital noise than the AR100U. Moreover, the noise reduction circuits on the 8350 are more effective at removing what noise does appear without losing fine detail.
Fan noise. Neither projector is loud by any means, but the Home Cinema 8350's fan does not cycle during use, making it easier to ignore. If some quirk of your viewing room requires that the projector be placed close to the audience's heads, the 8350's less obvious fan noise may be of some benefit.
Placement flexibility. While both projectors have 2.0:1 zoom lenses, the AR100U's lens shift range has about 20% more vertical range than the 8350. This may make the AR100U easier to install in certain situations. The AR100U can be easier to ceiling mount without the use of an extension tube, and it can be placed under a low table without forcing you to lower the screen on the wall. Of course, either projector can be placed on a rear shelf. The 8350 loses 39% of its potential light when used at the telephoto end of the zoom compared to 46% on the AR100U. So in both cases you should take potential light loss from the 2.0x zoom lenses into account when planning your screen size and throw distance.
Other features. Neither the 8350 nor the AR100U has frame interpolation, nor does either projector have 3D capabilities. The AR100U has Panasonic's suite of calibration features, such as Waveform Adjust and Split-Screen Adjust, which arguably make it easier to calibrate. The Home Cinema 8350 has a lamp life of up to 4,000 hours in Eco mode, but some reports indicate that these lamps can fail earlier than expected. Epson has extended their lamp warranty to cover the full two year term of the overall projector warranty, but lamp replacements are still an annoyance.