The most obvious competition in home theater this year is between the Epson PowerLite Home Cinema 5020UB / 5020UBe and the Panasonic PT-AE8000, another sub-$3000 1080p 3D LCD projector released this year. With similar specifications and features at a similar price point, the two are going to go head-to-head for the attention and dollars of many home theater consumers this year. Below are the salient differences between the two.
Update 11/9/12: We have corrected a pricing error. -bl
Update 12/4/12: We have expanded the Warranty section. -bl
2D Image quality. Our comparison uses the AE8000's Cinema 2 mode and the 5020UBe's Cinema mode, which are (a) very similar and (b) the best images that the projectors can produce for home theater use. The 5020UBe has a slight black level advantage over the AE8000. Both projectors have sufficient brightness, excellent color, and razor-sharp pictures. It is becoming more and more difficult to make a distinction between two projectors, especially two projectors exhibiting this high level of polish. We're ready to call this a draw.
3D Image quality. As 3D is newer and less established than 2D, there are still some important differences in these two projectors' 3D images. The AE8000 has a number of interesting features such as 3D Depth Control and 3D Motion Remaster that make it easier to watch 3D comfortably, and Frame Creation is available in 3D on the AE8000. The 5020UBe does not have thesse features and 3D Frame Interpolation is not available. On the other hand, the 5020UBe has radio-frequency synchronized glasses, while the AE8000 uses infrared. RF glasses are less prone to interference and losing synchronization than their IR counterparts. The AE8000's glasses have a 3D-to-2D function, which is a nice touch if you want to watch in 3D but someone else in your household prefers 2D. Neither projector needs an outboard signal emitter. Both projectors do an outstanding job of controlling crosstalk, but we were more likely to see slight crosstalk on the 5020UBe than on the AE8000.
Light output. While there was a light output difference between the AE7000 and 5010, that difference has been eliminated in these new models. In Dynamic mode, the AE8000 measures 2471 lumens; the 5020UBe measures 2432 lumens. Living Room mode on the 5020UBe measures 1725 lumens after calibration while Cinema 2 mode on the AE8000 measures 1612 lumens. Cinema 1 mode on the AE8000 measures 822 lumens to the 5020UBe's 914 lumens in Cinema mode. These differences -- all under 150 lumens -- are near invisible to the human eye. They are functionally irrelevant.
Contrast. We've come to the point where you can safely ignore contrast differences on spec sheets. The 5020UBe is rated at 320,000:1 on/off contrast, while the AE8000 is rated at 500,000:1. However, the 5020UBe has a more aggressive auto iris. The difference boils down to a small black level advantage for the 5020UBe in most scenes. Both projectors maintain shadow detail exceptionally well.
Color. Neither projector is perfect out of the box, but both of them calibrate very well. This is a tie.
Sharpness and clarity. The AE8000 and 5020UBe both have smart sharpening systems (the AE8000's is called Detail Clarity instead of Super Resolution) but Super Resolution on the 5020UBe seems more aggressive than Detail Clarity on the AE8000. That could be good or bad, depending on how much you enjoy the effect.
Frame Interpolation. Both FI systems have three settings, but the AE8000 has an edge in maintaining the film-like character of the picture on its lowest setting. Even on the 5020UBe's Low setting, there is still a touch of the digital video effect that one can see. The AE8000's FI system is also available in 3D.
Placement Flexibility. Both projectors feature extensive zoom range and lens shift. The 5020UBe has an incrementally larger shift range while the AE8000 has powered zoom and focus. While both projectors can be focused to razor-sharp clarity, the powered focus helps to get your focus adjustments done quickly. On the other hand, the larger shift range of the 5020UBe makes it easier to mount.
2.4x Cinemascope compatibility. The AE8000 has an anamorphic stretch mode for compatibility with anamorphic lenses. It also has automated Lens Memory, which can zoom the picture from 16:9 to 2.4 widescreen based on the aspect ratio of the content. This gives you the option of a constant image height (CIH) setup without using a costly anamorphic lens. The 5020UBe lacks both of these options. Anamorphic stretch mode is available on the Epson 6020UB and 6020UBe, but those models cost significantly more.
Connectivity. The AE8000 has three HDMI inputs while the 5020UBe has two. The AE8000 has two 12V triggers while the 5020UBe has one. The 5020UBe has a wireless transmission option which raises the price of the projector; the UBe model sells for $2899 versus $2499 for the UB model. However, the AE8000 costs $2999 and has no wireless option. Comparing apples to apples (5020UBe versus AE8000), you get more ports for about the same money with the 5020UBe.
Input Lag. We saw noticeably more lag on the 5020UBe in Cinema mode -- 84 milliseconds (5 frames) -- than we did on the AE8000. Considering that the AE8000 itself measures a pokey 67ms of delay (4 frames) in Cinema, this isn't much of a victory for the AE8000, either. On the other hand, the AE8000 has a game mode which measured 34ms (2 frames) while the 5020UBe's Fast processing is one full frame slower at 50ms.
Fan noise. Both projectors are dead silent in Eco mode, but the AE8000 is quieter than the 5020UBe in its full power mode. If you plan on running the projector that way and positioning it near the audience, it is something worth thinking about.
Lamp. Both projectors have lamp lives of 4,000 hours in full power and 5,000 hours in Eco mode. However, replacement lamps for the 5020UBe cost $299 while replacements for the AE8000 cost $379. Over the life of a projector, that may be a minor cost factor to consider.
Warranty. Both projectors come with a 2-year warranty, though there are some differences. Panasonic's warranty covers the projector for two years or 2,000 hours, whichever comes first. On the other hand, Epson's warranty covers two years regardless of hours. 2,000 hours in two years works out to roughly 20 hours per week. If you use your projector more than this, Epson's warranty is a better deal.
Menus. The 5020UBe's menus, including single-line pop-out items, will stay on screen until you cancel them with the Esc button. This is infinitely more helpful than the AE8000's menus, which cancels pop-out items after a few seconds with no way to change the timing. When you are making fine adjustments, sometimes it is helpful to watch the picture for a few seconds before deciding what to do, and the 5020UBe's menus make that task easier.
The Panasonic AE8000 has a number of features and picture enhancements that the 5020UBe lacks. However, the 5020UBe has a few unique features of its own, such as a wider lens shift range and RF glasses. In terms of picture quality, the two projectors are evenly matched, and this becomes a very difficult shootout to call one way or the other. It ultimately comes down to which projector's features have more appeal to you, as the picture you get from either one will be stellar.