Highly Recommended Award
Our Highly Recommended designation is earned by products offering extraordinary value or performance in their price class.
Last fall, with the release of the PT-AX100U, Panasonic introduced a new concept as far as home theater projectors are concerned-they boosted potential light output to 2000 ANSI lumens and incorporated a sensor to measure ambient light. With this information, the projector's "Light Harmonizer" would increase or decrease lumen output based on ambient light, thus making it more versatile for a variety of home entertainment applications.
Now comes the second generation of this design, the PT-AX200U. There is nothing revolutionary about this new model-it is simply a refinement of the outstanding AX100, with a few new features and a much lower price. Most of the specs are still the same-2000 ANSI lumens maximum light output, 6,000:1 contrast, 1280x720p resolution LCD panels, and a very quiet fan. It is a video projector uniquely designed for a wide range of home entertainment uses.
ANSI lumens: 2000
Contrast (full on/off): 6000:1 with auto-iris
Light Engine: 1280x720, native 16:9, 3x 0.7" PolySi LCD with a 220W UHM lamp.
Video Compatibility: HDTV 1080p/60, 1080p/50, 1080p/24, 1080i, 720p, 576p, 576i, 480p. NTSC/PAL/SECAM.
Data Compatibility: Computer resolutions up to SXGA.
Connection Panel: Two HDMI inputs, one VGA input, one set of component YPbPr inputs, one S-Video input, one composite input, one serial port, one Kensington lock point, hardwired power on/off switch.
Lens and Throw Distance: 2:1 manual zoom/focus lens with manual H/V lens shift. Throws a 100" diagonal 16:9 image from 9.9' to 20.3'
Lamp Life: Unspecified.
Replacement lamp cost: $395.
Warranty: Two years when purchased through Panasonic authorized dealers (update from initial release information which stated one year).
The AX200U is not a typical home theater projector. You might think of it more as an all-purpose home entertainment projector. Like its predecessor the AX100U, the AX200U is designed to accommodate changing ambient light environments. If you want to watch a film in a darkened room, the AX200's Light Harmonizer automatically adjusts light output to an appropriate level for that viewing condition. If you are doing video gaming and want a lamp on, the AX200 will sense the presence of that light and boost lumen output incrementally to compensate for it. If you are watching a football game with friends with all of the room lights on, the AX200U will automatically boost lumen output for the brightest picture possible within a given selected calibration mode.
The Light Harmonizer can be set on AUTO mode, or it can be either deactivated or set to manual mode. Thus, in the event you don't care for the results of the automatic adjustments in Auto mode, you can adjust the projector to output the level of brightness you want. Manual mode enables you to set the iris at one of ten different apertures of increasing brightness. And even in AUTO mode, you can make any manual adjustments that you might prefer. For example, if you don't care for the effect of the incremental sharpness that is added when the projector senses high ambient light, you can adjust it to your satisfaction.
The AX200U incorporates several improvements over the AX100U. One more HDMI input has been added to the connection panel, so the AX200 has two HDMI inputs in addition to the complement of traditional VGA, component, S-video, and composite video jacks. The auto iris has been redesigned for longer life and faster action. And the Light Harmonizer has been improved, and is being promoted as the Light Harmonizer 2. In the AX100, the Light Harmonizer adjusted gamma to compensate for changing ambient light conditions. In this system, not only is gamma adjusted when ambient light conditions change, but lamp output and sharpness settings are automatically adjusted as well.
In addition, the AX200 has a preprogrammed Game Mode, which adjusts gamma and brightness to open up shadow details in video games that would otherwise be too dark. So with the AX200U, it is easy to switch back and forth from the Cinema to Game Modes based on the material you are watching, without having to go into the menus to do brightness and gamma recalibrations. An additional feature of Game Mode is that it reduces buffer time to give the gamer an almost instantaneous video image and thus better control.
Other than these changes, along with a significant drop in price, the AX200 retains all of the other features that were so attractive on the AX100. Its long 2.0x zoom range enables it to deliver a 100" image from a throw distance of anywhere between 10 and 20 feet. The primary benefit of this long zoom range is that it enables the user to place the projector on a rear shelf, and get a wide range of projected image sizes no matter the depth of the room. This will allow most users to avoid the cost and nuisance of ceiling mounting the projector.
In addition, the AX200U has manual horizontal and vertical lens shift. When the lens is in its neutral position, the centerline of the lens intersects the image just above its geometric center. From this position the vertical lens shift will let you reposition the image up or down within a total range of 2.5 picture heights. This design is optically ideal for a rear shelf mount.
Another capability that has begun to appear on many home theater projectors is the ability to accept and display a 1080p/24 signal. Panasonic introduced this on last year's AX100U, and the AX200U has it as well. The 1080p/24 format is important because it is now becoming a standard output format on many of the new HD DVD and Blu-ray players.
The benefit of 1080p/24 transmission between the HD player and the projector is that it eliminates the need for 24 frame/sec film material to go through 2:3 pulldown conversion. This conversion has always been necessary to get film to synch with the 60 cycle displays that are part of the NTSC world. But with digital projectors being able to run at 24 Hz (or multiples thereof, 48 or 72 Hz), the conversion to 60 Hz is no longer needed. This will reduce occasional artifacts such as judder in slow panning sequences and allow a smoother, cleaner display of the film source.
Finally, the AX200U comes with an excellent remote control. It is backlit, and the buttons are large, well-spaced, and easy to read in the dark. The remote provides button control for input selection, aspect ratio adjustment, picture adjustment, color management, access to precalibrated settings for dark theater viewing, living room viewing, gaming mode, favorite calibrations, as well as access to and control of the full menu. Most remote controls are a source of frustration for one reason or another. This one is not.
Last year's AX100U was one of the highest rated projectors of the year, earning a solid 5-star rating in all four categories. The AX200U retains the overall excellent performance characteristics of its predecessor, with two noteworthy improvements-exceptional performance with 1080p sources, and a gaming mode with faster response.
The most remarkable feature of this projector to me is the outstanding rendition of 1080p film material from HD DVD and Blu-ray. The compression into 720p sacrifices surprisingly little detail. Quite honestly, the image at first glace looks as if it were coming from a 1080p projector. You do notice the lower resolution in white block letters of titles and credits, where edges are just a bit less precise than they are on a native 1080p projector. But for the most part, the video image itself looks very close to 1080p resolution. In addition to the excellent compression, the complete absence of pixel structure contributes to this impression. We can discern subtle differences only because we spend many hours looking at these products with the same test clips. But the typical consumer would have no problem believing the AX200U was a 1080p projector if they didn't know differently.
With respect to Gaming Mode, Panasonic has accelerated the video processing such that the video delay from the buffer is only 0.3 ms, compared to 0.9 ms in Cinema and other non-gaming modes. The virtually instantaneous image delivery allows video gamers to achieve more precise control than they might otherwise with slower projector and flat panel video display products. Gaming Mode also alters gamma settings to open up shadow details that often contain vital visual information for optimizing the play of a game.
The range of lumen output on the AX200U is exceptional. Our test unit produced a maximum of 1845 ANSI lumens in brightest precalibrated operating mode (Dynamic), with the lamp on high, and the zoom lens set to its widest angle throw. The minimum reading was 257 ANSI lumens, in Cinema 1 mode, with lamp on low power and the zoom lens set to its maximum telephoto throw position.
There are several factors which affect light output, first and foremost being the zoom lens. At wide angle the projector is at its brightest, and as you move to the opposite end of the throw range light output is curtailed by 40%. So if you are concerned about getting the brightest image possible from the AX200, we'd suggest using the middle to the wide end of the zoom range for its better lumen output. In practical terms, to get a 100" image, the 2.0x zoom lens will allow you to set the projector anywhere from 10 to 20 feet from the screen. But if you place it in the 10 to 13 foot range you will get a noticeably brighter picture than if you place it back 17 to 20 feet.
However, if you are in Cinema 1 with the lamp on low, you can switch the lamp to Normal, which is its brighter setting. This boosts lumen output by 22%. At this setting the fan noise becomes a bit more noticeable, but it is still very quiet (it is almost silent in low lamp mode). So even if you are using the least light-efficient end of the zoom lens, you can get a respectable 315 ANSI lumens from the AX200 in Cinema 1 just by adjusting the lamp setting. With smaller image sizes in the 80" to 96" diagonal range, this is plenty of light for dark room viewing. If this is your intended usage, the long throw end of the zoom lens is quite functional.
Vivid Cinema Mode renders a MUCH brighter image, well over 800 ANSI lumens, without compromising color quality very much. Game Mode generates almost 1000 lumens in eco-mode, and almost 1200 lumens with the lamp on Normal. So there are a variety of options for you to choose from depending upon your intended usage and the amount of ambient light in the room.
The Light Harmonizer feature is interesting, but it does not provide the full range of automatic adjustments to ambient light that the projector is capable of if you adjust it manually. For example, if the projector is operating in low lumen Cinema 1 mode in a dark room, the introduction of ambient light will cause the projector to automatically boost lumen output in highlights by about 15%, and in the shadows by about 30%. However, if you go into the menu and select Vivid Cinema mode, light output more than doubles. In addition, if you are already in Vivid Cinema mode, the Light Harmonizer does not have any incremental effect on light output. Therefore, the feature nicely accommodates a limited amount of ambient light introduced into a dark room, but it is not comprehensive enough to manage the projector's light output for all ambient light conditions.
Brightness uniformity was measured at 75%, with the brightest measurement in the center of the image, and the darkest in the lower right corner. We've seen more even illumination on other projectors. However, there is no evident hotspot and the only time one would notice the unevenness is when viewing a 100 IRE test pattern. When viewing video or film, the picture looks naturally illuminated from edge to edge.
Panasonic's SmoothScreen technology eliminates any hint of pixelation, even at very close viewing distances. There is simply no screendoor effect whatsoever on the Panasonic products that have this filter, which includes all of their home theater models.
At an official street price of $1,299, the AX200U is priced in the middle of the pack of currently popular 720p resolution projectors. Lower priced models include the Mitsubishi HC1500, the BenQ W500, the Optoma HD70, and the Acer PH530. These all have limited range 1.2x zoom lenses. Among them, only the BenQ W500 has 1080p/24 capability, and none of them have the lumen potential of the AX200U. They all have one year warranties, with the exception of the Optoma D70 which is two years. Yet for those on a tighter budget, they offer alternatives well worth considering.
Priced head to head with the AX200 at $1,299 is the Sony AW15 which is selling for street prices lower than the official price. Due to the anticipated demand for the AX200 this fall, we don't expect street prices to be too much lower than the official price for some time to come. The Sony AW15 is a good value for the money, and it has a noteworthy contrast advantage over the AX200. However, the AX200 is much brighter, the image is pixel-free, and overall offers greater versatility for ambient light home entertainment.
Popular 720p models priced above the AX200 include the Epson Cinema Home 400 and the Sanyo PLV-Z5. Each of these LCD models comes with a three-year warranty. However, the AX200 has several unique advantages that will be of interest to buyers including the pixel-free image, the highest possible lumen output, 1080p/24 compatibility, and video gamers will prefer the ease-of-use offered by the new Gaming Mode.
The most impressive attribute of the Panasonic AX200U is its beautiful rendering of HD DVD and Blu-ray. During this review the phrase "poor man's 1080p projector" kept coming to mind. If you want virtual 1080p picture quality but don't have the cash to go for an actual 1080p resolution projector, the AX200U delivers a magnificent, sharp, pixel-free high definition picture for a fraction of the price. (At $1,299 it is well over $1000 less than the cheapest 1080p projector currently on the market.)
By using the AX200 as a surrogate 1080p projector, you sacrifice a small bit of detail and precision that is really noticeable only in titles and text, and even then it is not much. You also give up some black level and contrast since all of the 1080p models on the market will outperform the AX200U on these measurements. Nevertheless, the AX200U's high definition image sparkles, and for most users the incremental advantage in contrast offered by the more expensive 1080p projectors would only be evident in side by side viewing.
Therefore, if your objective is to get a terrific HD picture on the screen for the least amount of money, one way to do that is to forego the expense of a 1080p projector, buy the AX200, and buy an HD DVD and/or Blu-ray player to go with it. Entry level HD DVD players are dropping to $199 this fall, so they are well within the reach of the mass consumer budget.
Meanwhile, the AX200 will deliver a brighter image than any of the 1080p models on the market, with the exception of the big and pricey light cannons from makers like Digital Projection and Christie. Thus, its second major advantage is its ability to outperform the competition when there is some indirect ambient light in the room. This makes family viewing of sports, television, and movies less formal and more socially interactive.
The third competitive strength of the AX200 is in the area of video gaming. Its high lumen output in Game mode, its automatic gamma adjustments to bring out shadow details, and its almost instantaneous transfer of the video image from buffer to screen all add up to a projector that is particularly well-suited to large screen, rapid action video gaming.
In short, the AX200 is one of the most versatile multi-purpose projectors we've yet seen for the home entertainment market. Last year's AX100U rated a full 5 stars across the board. The AX200 delivers even better performance at a lower price. It is a highly competitive offering in today's market and warrants another solid 5-star rating. Due to its versatility and attractive price, we expect the AX200 will be one of the hottest selling home theater projectors of the season.
For more detailed specifications and connections, check out our Panasonic PT-AX200U projector page.