Image Quality: When video optimized, the HD50 and the AE8000 can produce what we might call relatively comparable picture quality. Neither one blows the other out of the water. They need to be scrutinized side by side to detect the differences, and many casual observers would say they look the same.
To my eye, the AE8000 has a slightly smoother and more integrated image. In some scenes it shows an incremental contrast and three-dimensionality, which makes it appear subtlely sharper. In scenes heavy in black tones, the AE8000 can achieve deeper blacks, but the HD50 does not appear muddy or lacking in sufficient blacks. Standing alone the HD50 produces a solid and impressive picture that is perfectly engaging, and without a side by side comparison there is nothing that stands out as a noticeable flaw. Nevertheless, the AE8000 has an incremental edge in image quality overall, which is rather remarkable considering it is three years old.
In order for the HD50 to keep up with the AE8000 in terms of sharpness, its "UltraDetail" resolution enhancement feature must be set to HD+. If you set these two up side by side and forget to engage that control, the HD50 will look soft and flat compared to the AE8000. In short, this is a potent feature on the HD50 that has a major impact on the clarity of the image.
Brightness: Going by the specs you'd think these projectors would have essentially the same in brightness -- the AE8000 is rated at 2400 lumens compared to the HD50's 2200 lumens. In reality, our test sample of the AE8000 (when the lamp was new) measured 2471 lumens in its brightest non-video optimized mode (Dynamic). The comparable Bright mode on the HD50 measured 1390 lumens.
Once set for optimum video, the AE8000 puts out 1612 lumens in its more robust Cinema 2 mode, and 822 lumens in low power Cinema 1. The HD50 produced 861 lumens in its Cinema mode, or equivalent to the AE8000 in low power. So the specs are misleading; the AE8000 clearly has more latent firepower. Our AE8000 reference unit now has 530 hours on the lamp, and it is still much brighter than the HD50 in equivalent operating modes.
Zoom lens and throw distances: The HD50 has a 1.5x zoom lens that throws a 120" image from distances between 12'2" and 18'3". The AE8000 has a 2.0x zoom lens that will throw a 120" picture from 11'9" to 23'6". So the wide angle throw ratios on the two projectors are about equivalent, but you can set the AE8000 back at a further distance if necessary for any given screen size. Keep in mind that using the long end of the AE8000's zoom will curtail light by up to 40%, so it should be used only after factoring in screen size, screen gain, and ambient light considerations to make sure the 40% loss still leaves you with ample light output.
Power zoom/focus and Lens Memory: The AE8000 zoom and focus is powered, whereas they are manual on the HD50. The powered zoom supports the AE8000's automated Lens Memory system, which enables the projector to reconfigure the lens to fill a 2.4:1 Cinemascope widescreen when displaying 2.4 movies, then adjust to 1.78 when displaying 16:9 subject matter. This feature is worth a great deal if you want to set up a constant image height (CIH) system with a 2.4:1 screen. If you are using a conventional 16:9 screen, you won't be using it much. But it is not an option on the HD50.
Lens shift: The AE8000 has much more extensive lens shift range than the HD50, with a vertical lens shift range of three full picture heights (one full picture height either up or down from the center position). Horizontal shift is one-fourth of a picture width in either direction from center. The HD50's vertical lens shift is modest with a range of about 14% of a picture height. The unit has a built-in upward throw angle, so the centerline of the lens intersects the bottom edge of the projected image when the lens shift is in its lowest position. There is no horizontal shift on this unit.
Installation considerations: Due to the restricted lens shift range and upward throw angle, the HD50 is not going to be seeing many installations on a rear shelf behind the seating area. This projector needs to be either ceiling mounted, placed on a coffee table, or on a low table between the seats. Some caution is advised on this last option, as the HD50 exhaust is 111 degrees and may cause discomfort to someone sitting next to it. The AE8000 runs a bit cooler, with an exhaust temp of 99 degrees.
The AE8000 is better designed to accommodate a rear shelf installation due to its longer throw range and its ability to shift the image downward from the centerline of the lens if necessary. Of course it can also be ceiling mounted or used on a lower table.
Physical size and color: There is a HUGE difference in the size of these two projectors. The AE8000 weighs almost 20 lbs and has a footprint of 264 sq. inches. The HD50 is much smaller, coming in at a dainty 6 lbs and a footprint of 117 sq. inches. So the HD50 is by far the more portable of the two units. If you are intending to deploy your projector for occasional coffee table use and put it away when not being used, the HD50's smaller form factor will make this sort of use much easier.
The HD50 is a shiny white, and the AE8000 is a flat black. Normally the color is not much of a concern, but if you are planning to ceiling mount against a white ceiling in a living room or multi-purpose room, the HD50 will be less visible in the room because it is white and much smaller.
Connection panel inputs: The AE8000 has three HDMI ports to the HD50's two, and two 12-volt triggers to the HD50's one. Both have one composite video, one 3-RCA component, one VGA 15-pin, and one RS-232c. The AE8000 has an S-video port that the HD50 does not have, and the HD50 has a VESA 3D port for external 3D synch that the AE8000 does not have.
Frame Interpolation: Both projectors have this feature, and it works equally well when set to Low -- radically reducing motion judder without imparting other artifacts or the usually undesirable soap opera "hyper real" effect.
Input lag: The AE8000 is faster than the HD50 in getting the picture to the screen. In Game mode, it measures 50 ms lag compared to the HD50's 129 ms. In its Cinema modes with frame interpolation and detail clarity processing on, the AE8000 lag measures 73 to 75 ms. The HD50 always measures in the range of 129 ms regardless of the processing systems engaged. Practically speaking, you can get away with not using an audio delay on the AE8000 when viewing video, although it is better to have one. Meanwhile, the input lag on the HD50 is enough that lip synch is obviously out of whack and the use of an audio delay is required.
Fan noise: Neither projector is loud enough to be problematic, but the AE8000 is the quieter of the two. In full lamp power mode, both projectors are relatively low in pitch and unobtrusive, but the HD50 is more audible. When they are put into their Eco modes, the AE8000 drops to virtually silent. The HD50 gets a slight bit quieter in its eco mode than it is in full power, but does not go silent as the AE8000 does.
DLP Rainbows not an issue: The HD50 has a fast enough refresh rate on the color wheel that rainbows are virtually non-existent. I noticed two minor flashes of color when viewing Casablanca, a b/w film, but never noticed any when viewing color material. Those who are gun shy of DLP due to potential rainbow artifacts have nothing to worry about on the HD50. This problem, when it occurs, is unique to single chip DLP projectors, and does not occur on LCD products like the AE8000.
Remote control: The AE8000 has the better remote and user interface. The remote itself is easier to use, buttons are immediately responsive, and the navigation of the menu is instantaneous. On the HD50, there is a lag between the button push and the screen response which can mess up the interaction with the menu. Sometimes the menu selection highlighter overshoots the target, highlighting or opening the wrong item, and occasionally changing a control setting without the user telling it to. On the HD50 I found myself backing out of accidental menu selections I did not select, or resetting a value that the system changed without my direction. This pretty much never happens on the AE8000.
The AE8000 remembers where you last were when you closed the menu, and will allow you to fast track back to that control for a subsequent adjustment. The HD50 requires a full re-navigation of the menu to get to where you just were. This is a nuisance when, for example, you are trying to experiment with which frame interpolation setting is appropriate for the material being viewed. Returning to this control requires four clicks on the AE8000 compared to eleven on the HD50. On the other hand, if you are the type who will calibrate it, set it and forget it, then the relatively clumsy menu interaction on the HD50 will not be of much consequence.
3D and 2D > 3D: Both projectors are 3D compatible and have 2D to 3D conversion capability. The most significant difference for the enjoyment of 3D is the AE8000's latent brightness advantage, which becomes a bigger issue since 3D viewing substantially curtails image brightness on all projectors. The HD50 uses RF glasses, while the AE8000 uses IR. In theory RF can be more reliable since it does not require line of sight connection, but in practical use we have not experienced any difficulty with the IR connection on the AE8000.
Anamorphic lens compatibility: Both projectors have a vertical stretch mode that will allow the use of an external A-lens.
Warranty: Both projectors have standard two-year warranties. At this writing a third year is being offered by Panasonic during a promotional period, so check with current resellers about the deals being offered at the moment.
We first saw the Panasonic AE8000 in July, 2012, so it is three years old. Few digital projectors remain highly competitive for long in this rapidly changing industry. The AE8000 was initially released at an MSRP of $3,499, and with the recent drop in price to $1499 it has reestablished itself as one of the hottest home theater projectors on the market. It has surely earned an Editor's Choice Award for 2015, for nothing else in the $1500 price range has its combination of image quality, lens flexibility, lumen output, connectivity, and extensive set of features. See current dealers and prices for Panasonic AE8000U
The Optoma HD50 is a strong competitor, probably the second strongest home theater projector in the $1500 price range. It delivers an outstanding picture in a much smaller package. If portability is important to you, the HD50 has that as a major advantage over the AE8000, and that may very well tip the decision needle in its favor. See current dealers and prices for Optoma HD50"