For a serious upgrade in movie night at your house, consider adding a video projector into the mix and moving the party outdoors.
Video projectors come in different shapes and sizes. But they're almost always small and light enough to carry around, and can quickly enable you to create a fun drive-in movie vibe on a more intimate scale.
Often, projectors are box-shaped like old-fashioned VCRs, but sometimes they're cylindrical and of a similar height to a canister of disinfecting wipes, or perhaps even a can of soda. They're usually equipped with all of the ports and connections you need to watch Netflix or DVDs or play video games on a screen more massive than almost any TV. With an extension cord and perhaps a Bluetooth speaker, even projectors that aren't specifically labeled as portable can be set up outside for gatherings.
Video projectors may seem like upscale pieces of equipment, and some models are indeed very expensive. But many popular projectors are surprisingly cheap. In fact, Amazon's bestseller list for the categoryis dominated by projectors on sale for less than $200, with most of the top 20 going for under $100.
At the same time, projectors from top brands generally cost at least $500 and sometimes run well into the thousands. So is it OK to buy a cheap projector? When, if ever, is it a good idea to spend more?
As with so many other products, how much a projector is truly worth is subjective — based on who is buying it and how it's going to be used. The consumer looking for a simple projector to keep kids entertained at the campground has very different needs than the cinephile hosting a screening of Apocalypse Now, or the entrepreneur looking for a machine to help make video presentations really pop.
Best overall: Epson Pro EX10000 Wireless Laser Projector
Best overall runner-up: Epson Pro EX9240 Wireless Projector
Editor's pick: BenQ TH585 1080p Home Entertainment Projector
Editor's pick runner-up: Optoma HD146X High Performance Projector
Best portable projector: Anker Nebula Mars II Pro Portable Projector
Best portable projector runner-up: Anker Nebula Capsule Mini Projector
Best short throw projector: BenQ TH617ST Short Throw Projector
Indoor or outdoor projector?
First off, while many people use projectors to watch stuff outside, there are no real "outdoor" video projectors. At least not in the sense that you could leave them outside indefinitely, exposed to the elements.
Instead, most projectors are compact and portable enough to bring outside for viewing parties on warm weather nights. Afterward, to avoid ruining them, projectors should most definitely be brought back inside for storage.
Do you need to buy an outdoor projector screen?
Video projectors will, well, project images out onto pretty much anything. So it isn't necessary to have a dedicated screen to pair up with your projector.
That said, for anything approaching a decent viewing experience, projectors should be set up in the darkest environment possible — outside after nightfall, or perhaps in a rec room, office or basement with the shades drawn — and they should project onto a flat, large, white or very light-colored surface that's as similar to a movie screen as you can get.
A plain white wall or a flat white bed sheet can often serve as a fine projector screen. Campers sometimes show movies on the sides of their RVs. Just be aware that if the wall is bumpy or textured, the image quality can be blurry or perhaps pretty awful. What's more, wind can be an annoyance outside if you're using a sheet or another surface that might ripple or blow away if it's not properly fastened down.
If you're likely to encounter any of these issues, or if you simply want the video images to be as crisp and colorful as possible, it's probably worth buying a proper screen.
Projector screens come in a wide variety of sizes, prices and functionality. You can buy a basic projector screen made of polyester for under $20, but it may be worth paying extra for a model that has its own legs and carrying bag — like this 100 screen (about $70) or an even larger, sturdier option thats 120 and comes with its own stand. Then there are inflatable, self-standing projector screens with diagonal measurements as big as 14 or even 25, which can be fun for big parties around the pool. Some low-price projector bundles are often sold with screens included, though you shouldn't be expecting the greatest quality or biggest size.
Outdoor projector buying guide
Here are the specifications and features you should be paying special attention to as you shop for a projector:
• Resolution. Like TVs, projectors are sold in varying resolution quality, typically 720p, 1080p or 4K. (The p stands for number of pixels in vertical resolution, so 1080p offers crisper visuals than 720p, and 4K has the highest resolution of all.)
What kind of resolution do you need in a projector? For outdoor viewing parties, 720p is probably more than adequate. Take it from BenQ, one of the top names in video projectors: "A masterpiece 4K HDR projector has amazing technology, but to be frank it'll be wasted in the great outdoors." Meanwhile, "you can still enjoy views of 100" or bigger, and with support for 720p native resolution, at outdoor/backyard distances the image quality will be more than fine."
However, if you want a projector to also work for your fancy indoor home theater, the argument is much better for spending more money on a machine with higher resolution.
• Lumens. Lumens are a measurement of how much light a source can produce, used for rating everything from lightbulbs to flashlights and, yes, video projectors. Unfortunately, many budget projectors don't include a lumens rating, or (even worse) some have been accused of drastically overstating their light strength.
Assuming their ratings are accurate, projectors with roughly 500 lumens are easily strong enough for outdoor viewing on dark nights. If, however, you need a projector to work well in even dimly lit conditions, you'll want something more like 2,000 lumens and up. And if you see a dirt-cheap projector that's advertising it has thousands of lumens, that's a red flag indicating the company may be up to something shady.
• Video source. Where are the movies or other video content you want to watch on the projector going to come from? Among the most popular options are streaming services and DVDs.
To stream content from Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ or another service via your projector, you'll most likely have to be connected to Wi-Fi and need a streaming device like Roku or Amazon Fire Stick. To watch DVDs, you'll have to connect a DVD player or laptop to the projector with the proper cable. (Analog connections are often best, because there can be an annoying lag time between sound and video if you're watching with a streaming stick and Bluetooth.)
Most projectors come with a variety of cables, inputs and connection possibilities. Just make sure that your preferred video source works seamlessly with the projector. There's always a fix — perhaps downloading an app, buying a cable adapter or Wi-Fi extender, or moving your router so it reaches your viewing area — but it's good to avoid these hassles if you can.
• Speakers and audio. It's nice that some projectors have built-in speakers. For small viewing parties where quality sound is not a major priority, using such a projector's speakers is probably fine.
But it's important to temper your expectations with these models, because their audio power and sound quality tend to be pretty limited. Basic projector speakers are typically rated at 10 watts or below, and they often sound tinny and weak. Also, the sound usually emanates from one spot and won't carry that far, so a projector's speaker simply can't match up to a multi-speaker surround sound setup.
If great sound is important to you, then hook up a good Bluetooth speaker or sync up your outdoor speaker system so it can provide audio for projector movies. Factor in whether everything can work wirelessly, or perhaps plot out dedicated spots for the best sound possible, within safe reach of your speakers' cables. You don't want viewers tripping over wires, which can happen easily after dark.
• Power source. Battery-powered projectors are convenient for quick setup in the backyard, with no need to worry about power cords. They're also the only projectors you can use if you don't have a power source handy, possibly at the campground. Just be aware that batteries in most portable projectors won't last for more than two or three hours — so don't go planning on a double feature.
Most projectors are powered by a standard cord, plugged into a regular outlet. If you're using wired speakers, DVD players or other devices that require electricity, you'll need somewhere to plug them in too. Prepare ahead of time by grabbing any necessary extension cords and power strips so you can have a viewing party in your preferred location.
• Throw distance. The "throw distance" of a projector is what it sounds like — the distance a projector's images can be thrown onto the screen for viewing. There's usually a range of acceptable throw distance for a projector, and it's best to set up the device at the recommended distance. (Placing the projector a longer distance from the screen will result in a larger picture, but also one that's less vibrant. Bring the projector closer, and the screen gets smaller and less impressive.)
A typical projector placed 10' to 14' away from the screen produces a viewing area of something like 100" to 120", which is great for groups. But every model is different, and so-called "short throw" and "ultra-short throw" distance projectors change how close it can be to the screen.
• Projector placement. Once you have an understanding of your projector's throw distance, you must figure out exactly where you're going to put it. For outdoor movies, a patio table or foldable card table probably does the trick. Many projectors are designed so they can be attached to tripods, so you can go that route as well.
To make setup easier, look for projectors that have adjustable legs. They can be very helpful when trying to tweak and level the angle of the projector's images. Alternately, it's good to have some large books or similar items on hand, so they can be placed under the projector and shim it to just the right level.
• Controls. Projectors in the mid-range and above price range usually have manual focus (or autofocus) and zoom controls, color and brightness adjustment options, and different viewing modes like Cinema, Game and Living Room. They can help you get the picture just right; just be aware that using the brightest settings will burn out your bulb sooner (and replacements can cost in the hundreds).
Meanwhile, cheaper models may have fewer controls and settings, so you'll have to work around their limitations and make adjustments to the projector's placement, the screen and general lighting conditions to get a better image.
1. Best overall: Epson Pro EX10000 Wireless Laser Projector
There are many amazing video projectors on the market, with prices for hi-tech 4K models going well over $3,000. We're assuming that the people reading this story do not have the needs (or budgets) of Fortune 500 company conference rooms. If, instead, you're looking for an excellent all-purpose projector that will work well indoors for home theaters or business meeting as well as outdoors for fun movie nights, our top choice is the Epson Pro EX10000, which we've usually seen listed for around $1,300.
The Epson offers great color and brilliant, crisp visuals, with 1080p and 4,500 lumens — high-quality enough to see fine details even in fairly well-lit rooms. In addition to two HDMI ports and multiple other analogy inputs, it offers wireless connectivity and screen-mirroring capability via Miracast.
Laser projectors last much longer than their counterparts with lamps that will need replacing, and the EX10000 promises up to 20,000 hours of projecting with no maintenance required. Another nice bonus with this model is that it has 16w built-in speakers for sound that's louder than similar competitors. It comes with a remote control and a soft carrying case to fit the projector and all your cords as well.
Before you buy this projector or any other, think about where you are going to put it. This model works best only if it's placed fairly far away from the screen: At a distance of 10', the image will be 100", and at 30' feet the screen goes up to 300". This capability may work perfectly for outdoor movie parties in the driveway or backyard where there's plenty of space, but might not be functional in more cramped settings.
2. Best overall runner-up: Epson Pro EX9240 Wireless Projector
If the Epson Pro EX10000 is sold out — and it has frequently been listed as out of stock at Amazon — or you simply want to browse similar high-quality projector models and maybe spend a little less, check out the Epson Pro EX9240. Neither of these models is specifically designed for outdoor use; in fact, they're mostly marketed for business and professional settings. But they're both great all-purpose projectors that are perfect for screening movies almost anywhere, with brilliant color and crispness.
The Epson EX9240 has 4,000 lumens, which is slightly lower than the EX10000 so it's not quite as bright. But this Epson is also an excellent indoor and outdoor-capable 1080p projector that comes with 16w built-in speakers and has screen mirroring via Miracast. And at a price of around $800 to $900, it costs a few hundred dollars less than the EX10000.
Finally, it's worth considering offerings from BenQ like the LH710 and the LH930. BenQ is renowned for making great projectors, and these two models are high-quality options that can show movies with high quality inside and outside alike. They typically cost $1,900 and up, however.
3. Editor's pick: BenQ TH585 1080p Home Entertainment Projector
To select our editor's pick, we focused squarely on the best overall value for the typical buyer. Specifically, we set out to find the best projector that cost around $500, which seemed like a reasonable price for the average shopper looking to host casual backyard movie nights.
We gave the nod to the BenQ TH585 because you get so much for the money. BenQ is a top brand in projectors, and the TH585 is one of its lowest-price models with 1080p resolution.
It's probably not the projector you want for a high-end home theater, but it's more than adequate for great outdoor projector parties. And it's an especially good purchase if you also want a projector for gaming, indoors or outside. The TH585 provides excellent brightness (3,500 lumens, good enough for projecting in rooms with some light) as well as a very low lag time (16 millisecond response, plenty fast enough for gamers).
The TH585 offers terrific versatility too. Placed roughly 7' away from the screen or wall, the image will be 80"; at a distance of 12' the image goes up to 150". In the back of the unit are all the ports you'd need, including inputs for two HDMIs, one USB-A, one PC and one RS232. The TH585 comes with a remote, controls on the projector itself such as zoom and focus, and a built-in 10w speaker. BenQ provides a three-year warranty, which beats the 12-month policies of most competitors.
On the downside, the TH585 doesn't come with a carrying case, and — as you'd expect for a primarily in-home projector in this price range— it doesn't have Wi-Fi or battery power. So it's not the most easily portable projector.
4. Editor's pick runner-up: Optoma HD146X High Performance Projector
The Optoma is about the same price as the BenQ TH585, and it has almost the same capabilities and features — including 1080p resolution, 3,600 lumens of brightness, 16ms response time for smooth, no-lag gaming and a built-in speaker.
Yet while the Optoma is indeed a solid value at this price point, the inputs are limited to just one HDMI, one USB and one audio. Also, some owners complain that the projector's fan, needed to keep the unit from overheating, is very loud.
5. Best portable projector: Anker Nebula Mars II Pro Portable Projector
For the ultimate portability and convenience in a projector, you'll want one that's battery-powered and therefore doesn't need cords or a nearby power source. Built-in speakers are a must too, so that all you need for impromptu movie nights is one device and a screen.
Popular tech brand Anker makes several models with all of these features, including the Nebula Mars II Pro, which is its brightest projector with 500 lumens.
The Mars II Pro weighs 4 pounds and is a little larger than other portable projectors, but comes with a carrying handle and is still quite small — about the size of a box of tissues. It has one-second autofocus and 720p resolution for HD clarity, and the battery should last up to three hours of playtime (it can also be plugged in to a power source).
A pair of 10w speakers produce acceptable audio sound from either side of the projector, which can cast a screen up to 100" (though a smaller screen will look clearer and more vibrant). The Mars II Pro is rectangular, very solid, and designed to stand on its own, and it can be attached to a tripod if you like; Anker's very sturdy universal tripod costs about $80, and other cheaper models should also work fine.
As for connectivity, the Mars II Pro offers a HDMI and USB port, and it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability. All you have to do is download Netflix or another streaming app to the projector. Anker Nebula projectors also have a mirroring feature to screencast images from a phone or other device, but due to copyright laws it cannot cast Netflix, Hulu and such — so you need to use an app instead. Your phone works as the projector's remote control, once you download the Nebula Connect app.
6. Best portable projector runner-up: Anker Nebula Capsule Mini Projector
Anker's Capsule is a smaller and cheaper — though also less bright and clear — version of its more powerful portable projectors. The cylindrical Capsule is priced at around $300 (compared to roughly $550 for Mars II Pro), and, at only 5" high and weighing about a pound, it's comparable in size to a soda can.
As you'd probably guess, the speaker is not particular powerful (5w, and there's only one). It offers standard-definition clarity at 480p, the focus is manually controlled (no autofocus), and with only 100 lumens this is a projector that should probably only be used in near blackout conditions. But it has all the connectivity options of higher-priced portable projectors, the battery lasts up to four hours, and the combination of low price and very convenient portability make the Nebula Capsule a compelling option.
If you're torn between the Capsule and the Mars II Pro, the Anker Nebula Capsule Max may be the perfect compromise. With 200 lumens, 720p resolution, and an 8w speaker, the Capsule Max is brighter, clearer and louder than the regular Capsule, with the same solid four-hour battery life. At the same time, the Capsule Max is smaller, lighter, more easily portable and often about $80 cheaper than the Mars II Pro.
7. Best short throw projector: BenQ TH617ST Short Throw Projector
Depending on the space you're planning on using a projector, it may be best to go with a "short throw" model that can be placed close to the screen and still cast a nice big image. Short throw projectors also help you avoid the possibility of someone walking in from of the projector and shadowing out the image entirely.
For most people interested in such a projector, the BenQ TH617ST fits the bill. At around $700, it's less expensive than most short throw projectors. It has 3,000 lumens and 1080p for brilliant color and resolution, and it can project a 100" screen at 5' away, or an image up to 300" if placed further back. Geared for gamers, the TH671ST has a very fast 16.67ms input lag time, and it has nearly every input and connectivity option you'd need (but no Wi-Fi).
If your budget is a little bigger, consider upgrading to the similar BenQ HT2150ST, which can be placed even closer to the screen: It'll project a 100" image from just 3' away. This BenQ generally costs about $850.