Most projectors that creep around the £1,000 mark are designed predominantly for business or education use rather than home cinema. Not Panasonic's PT-AX200E. This £800 LCD-based affair has been built from the ground up to cater for the domestic user, raising real hopes -- especially given Panasonic's venerable heritage in the home projection market -- that here at last could be a quality projection solution for the reams of home cinema fans out there who don't have bottomless pockets.
The AX200E's £800 price ticket is clearly its star attraction. It builds on this by providing two HDMI sockets when we might reasonably only have expected one, as well as sporting a component video input, a dedicated D-Sub PC port and the usual lower quality S-Video and composite video options.
We wouldn't normally expect a projector as affordable as the AX200E to boast many features, but Panasonic has managed to squeeze in one or two tricks. First up is Panny's proprietary 'Smooth Screen' technology, which uses various optical tricks to smooth away all traces of LCD's common 'chicken wire' problem. This problem shows when you can make out the grid-like structure of the LCD panel in the picture.
The AX200E also goes beyond the call of duty for its price point by supporting 1080p/24 feeds of the sort delivered by most Blu-ray players these days, and by boasting a truly impressive-looking contrast ratio of 6,000:1. Obviously, this contrast ratio isn't 'native', in that it's only achievable by using a dynamic iris system that reduces the image's brightness when dark scenes are detected. But if applied sensibly, such dynamic contrast systems have proved capable of delivering impressive results on other projectors.
Backing the dynamic contrast system up is a startlingly high claimed brightness output of 2,000 ANSI Lumens -- practically double what we'd normally anticipate from a model of this price.
The AX200E's native resolution of 1,280x720 pixels, meanwhile, is as high as you'll probably ever get for under a grand. In the 'unexpected features' list, there's an MPEG noise reduction system for tidying up digital broadcasts, a Light Harmoniser that senses the light in your room and adjusts the AX200E's pictures accordingly, and a Pure Colour Filter that manipulates the lamp output to boost colour tones.
Yet more good news finds the AX200E remarkably easy to set up, not least thanks to an impressively flexible 2x optical zoom and an inspired joystick-based system for shifting the image up, down, left or right to centre it on your screen.
In action, the AX200E's pictures look remarkably vibrant and rich during bright scenes. Objects pass crisply and smoothly across the screen without smearing or any dot noise, too, and colours enjoy tones as natural as they are fully saturated. The AX200E's game picture preset is also superb, presenting your console games with a dynamism and purity that beggars belief on a £800 projector.
Although the AX200E makes good first impressions with its price and connectivity, it pours cold water over your ardour by being one of the ugliest little units we've seen: a clunky, boring rectangle finished in what appears to be -- gulp -- beige. Scary.
Sadly, our other problems with the AX200E all have to do with its performance. Even with the dynamic contrast system in play, dark scenes tend to look greyed over and flat, thanks to a shortage of black level response. Secondly, the dynamic contrast system isn't always as subtle or quick-acting as we'd like, meaning you sometimes see noticeable 'jumps' in the image's brightness.
Dark areas sometimes suffer low-level dot noise and while Smooth Screen undoubtedly does a great job of doing away with the chicken wire problem, it also smooths away the extreme crispness we ideally like to experience with HD sources.
If you really love movies, the AX200E's black level issues mean we'd recommend that you try and save up more cash to get your hands on a good budget DLP projector instead, such as something from InFocus. That said, the AX200E offers way more in terms of performance and features than you've really any right to expect for £800, especially if you're an avid gamer.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday