Black Levels and Shadow Detail
Now we get into another major difference. The Panasonic is about typical in terms of black level performance: We're talking about how dark gray-blacks look on a screen (only CRT projectors can produce a true black). Often I like to say, that "black levels are the holy grail of home theater projectors", and certainly it's about on the top of every hard core enthusiast's list of important abilities.
By comparison, the HC4900 had the least good black levels of any of the 1080p projectors tested. Should this scare you off? The answer for most, is no. First, for the best possible black levels, you need no ambient lighting - I'm talking cave here, and the cave should have dark walls, ceilings and floors. (Not exactly your average family room, but what most people creating a dedicated theater room strive for.) If you have even a very low level of lighting in the room, it will quickly destroy black levels. Even with all lights off, having white or off-white walls means enough light is reflecting back to the screen to reduce black level performance.
So, how much difference does the room make? If you've got that dedicated cave, the difference is rather significant. Even with white walls, you will be able to tell. But, it doesn't take much ambient light to reduce any difference to insignificance.
I need to definitely point out, that while I am picking on the black level abilities of the HC4900, I should mention, that compared to the typical, and not much less expensive, lower resolution, 720p projectors, the HC4900 does just fine, probably at least average or perhaps a little better. (There are some 720p projectors though that are really good).
It really comes down to this, if you are a serious enthusiast, the HC4900 just isn't for you, but most consumers are less concerned about black levels and more concerned about a host of other items like brightness.
When it comes to shadow detail, how much you can see in the darkest areas of a scene, both projectors perform very well. No issue there.
Overall Picture Quality
I have to give the advantage to the Panasonic. Like it or not, those better black levels do make for a more perfect image, and the Panasonic, out of the box, does have a slight advantage in color accuracy, although with a little work, both projectors can do better than what you start with.
Some might argue with me, based on the sheer difference in brightness and sharpness, with these two in "best" modes. If you are less critical, the HC4900 still comes out just great, sharp and bright, and good shadow detail. If you are more critical, you are willing to sacrifice some brightness and sharpness, and black levels for more perfection.
Ask yourself this: You've owned TV's for years, when was the last time you ever touched the controls - if ever? Did you realize your TV probably has modes for Movies, or Vivid/Bright modes (for bright rooms), and more?
Both projectors are very well endowed, with a good selection of inputs, and lots of lens shift. The Panasonic has the advantage of more zoom range, 2:1 compared to the Mitsubishi's 1.6:1, but for most the Mitsubishi will have enough to work for them, ceiling or shelf mounting. Both also have power zoom and focus. The Panasonic comes with a learning remote that can control the projector and up to three different devices. Of course you can buy other programmable remotes for not too much money.
The PT-AE2000U also has a built in wave form monitor and "split screen" color management, features that should appeal to enthusiasts, as they let you freeze a frame, and see, side by side, how your changes to various image settings affect the image. Basically, it gives you a look at "before" and "after". Nothing like that on the HC4900, or any other projector in this report.
No question that the Mitsubishi HC4900 is priced well below the Panasonic. Based on March 2008 pricing, the HC4900 has a $500 mail-in rebate, and most dealers are selling it for under $2500, and often a couple/few hundred less. By comparison, the Panasonic is probably going to cost a couple hundred more on initial purchase, but instead of a cash rebate they provide a 2nd year warranty, and a $400 Blockbuster rental card. Problem is, not everyone is that interested in the rental card (some are apparently selling them off on ebay?), and for them the price difference will seem like at least $500.
Of course prices will change over time.
I don't think the value proposition figures very significantly when comparing these two projectors. That is because the differences between the two are more likely to eliminate one or the other. If you need the lumens, it's the Mitsubishi, if you want the black levels, it's the Panasonic... and so on.
Mitsubishi offers a standard two years parts and labor, better than Panasonic's 1 year warranty. However, for most of the time the Panasonic has been shipping, they have made the second year extended warranty part of their promotions. As long as Panasonic continues to do so, it's a tie, in terms of warranty coverage. Neither offers overnight replacement or a loaner program.
Art's Two Cents
This is just a matter of reiterating what I said above. While both of these are great consumer projectors, with different strengths, it is the specific requirements of the users that will determine their choice. Even forgetting the price difference, the Mitsubishi HC4900 has the distinct advantages of more "horsepower" to support larger screens, or deal with ambient light, and more sharpness. The Panasonic has a definite advantage in black levels, thus appealing more toward those seeking a more technically perfect image. If you just want something that really can rock in the family room, the HC4900 has to be the best value around. While many 1080p projectors are better in different ways, and as I said earlier, that it's black levels are the worst of the 1080p projectors, it is still good by the standards of, say, two years ago.
Thus, the choices are pretty clear. I should say, that for those who don't need the extra lumens, but are definitely limited in budget, they will be comparing the HC4900 to the similarly priced Sanyo PLV-Z2000, which in many ways is very similar to the Panasonic, but sharper, and even less bright.
On the other hand, the Panasonic's better blacks make for a slightly better image for those that really care. Remember, there's always something better coming, but the Panasonic is the kind of projector that once you have it, you just sort of have to say, "this is really good".
Click on these links to read more in-depth comparisons.