As the weather warms up and schools let out, our thoughts turn to fun outdoor activities – beach trips, camping under the stars, fireworks, and ball games. To me, nothing says “summer” like a summer blockbuster movie. This year is a little bit different and you may not be ready to head back into theaters regularly just yet. If you are still hankering for the magic of summer movies, it might be the right time to invest in an outdoor projector and turn your backyard into your own movie house or even a gaming arena.
In this article, we will look at several highly rated projector models and screen options to help you find the right projector to fulfill your outdoor entertainment dreams. In addition to budget, there are four important factors to consider before you start shopping: brightness, content, portability, and sound.
When I think of a movie theater, I think of the smell of popcorn and the expectant hush of a crowd sitting together in the dark. Movie theater projectors operate best in total darkness, so your first big consideration when shopping for an outdoor projector is where do you want to use it and how much ambient light is around. Ambient light is a term that refers to light hitting your screen that comes from sources within your viewing space. When light hits your screen, it causes the projected image to become less saturated, dimmer, and overall, more difficult to see. In the worst cases, dark scenes become impossible to watch, while brighter scenes lack the luster that they would normally have in a completely dark room. Unlike a projector in the house, you may have less control over ambient light when you’re outside. You can’t pull drapes across a full moon or use a switch to flip off the starlight.
So, if you want to use your projector in the backyard with the neighbor’s porch light shining over the fence, you will need a projector with high brightness. You need enough brightness to overcome any ambient light and make colors look vibrant on a large screen. The standard for brightness is measured in ANSI lumens – the total amount of light visible to the human eye from a lamp or light source. The higher the lumens, brighter the projector, and the easier it will be able to cut through ambient light.
In order to get an accurate representation of brightness, you have to measure apples to apples. As mentioned, the standard for brightness is ANSI lumens. This measurement is independent of light source or projection technology, it is universal for all projectors. Some manufacturers use other measurements for their brightness claims, like LUX, Light Source Lumens, or LED Lumens. However, there are no industry standards for any of these terms and it can be misleading and confusing for shoppers. It’s just not possible to compare the brightness of projectors unless they are measured to the same standard. We talk about this in great detail in our recent article, LUX vs LUMENS.
You may have heard that size matters…well, screen size DEFINITELY matters. The larger the screen, the brighter the projector needs to be to properly fill it with a sufficiently bright image to enjoy movies, sports, games, or other content you want to enjoy outside. The rule of squares applies. A 100″ diagonal screen with a 1000 lumen projector will be as bright as a 150″ inch diagonal screen, with a 2250 lumen projector simplified: 1×1 = 1 1.5*1.5 = 2.25. Similarly, a projector projecting onto an 80″ diagonal projector with 640 lumens is as bright as a 100″ diagonal screen being hit by 1000 lumens.
Next, it’s time to think about what you want to watch outdoors on the big screen. Do you want to invite your friends over to watch a baseball game but your living room just isn’t big enough for everyone? Maybe you want to treat the grandparents to a family slide show or invite all the neighborhood kids over for a fun movie. Is it the perfect time to challenge your significant other in the ultimate gaming brawl? Once you decide what you want to watch do you know how you are going to get that content onto the big screen for all to enjoy?
Projectors have different connection options to show the content you want to watch. The more “port” options, the better. Can you connect your phone to the projector via Bluetooth? Can you load files via USB? Can you connect an Apple TV or use an HDMI cable to connect a laptop? Some outdoor projectors function like smart TVs, including built-in apps to easily stream Netflix right to your big screen. The ability to view built-in content really makes it easy to enjoy your projector outside of the house. So…speaking of portability….
Finally, you have to consider the portability of the projector. Not just the size of the projector and how easy it is to lug it through the dunes, all the way to the beach, but does it require power or maybe even a set of speakers to get any sound at all. Running a power cord out to your backyard is probably not an issue but you’re going to need a fairly beefy battery to enjoy an outdoor projector in the middle of the woods on a family camping trip. Not being tethered to a power supply is a big deal.
Unless you like silent films or you’re doing a PowerPoint presentation in the backyard, sound is half of the experience. The bigger the space and the bigger your audience, the more volume you’re going to need. Many projectors lack built-in speakers. Other projectors have built-in speakers but the speakers may be too small to fill your outdoor space with compelling and enjoyable audio. When you are shopping for outdoor projectors, consider both the quality of the built-in sound or if you need to purchase any additional components to play back the audio. And, going back to portability, will any extra audio require power?
Now that you’ve had a chance to think about what you want to show outdoors, where you want to show it, and how you’re going to hear it, let’s look at some of our favorite outdoor projectors.