5 tips for choosing an outdoor projector for your summer movie nights

Anker Nebula Cosmos Laser 4K outdoors
(Image credit: Anker)

Outdoor projector movie screenings are almost as synonymous with summer as sun and sand. But, while outdoor movie festivals and events should be one of the things to tick off our summer lists, sometimes you just want to kick back in the comfort of your own backyard and enjoy a quiet movie night under the stars away from… ahem… people.

The good news is, projectors – particularly portable projectors and projectors with smart TV features – have become a huge thing in the last year or so, making it easier (and cheaper) now to organize an outdoor movie in your garden, at a campsite, or during your private pool party. Even more so considering the wealth of options to choose from across different types, sizes, price ranges, feature-sets, and capabilities. 

True 1080p projectors with massive, 100-inch or larger image size are just as prevalent as lower-resolution ones on Amazon, and many of them are fairly affordable. 4K projectors with made-for-outdoors brightness levels – ideal for conditions with brighter ambient lighting – offer an even better, if pricier, proposition. Travel-friendly options with a built-in battery and media storage space are on hand too. As are premium ultra short-throw options that are great for tight spaces, as long as you’ve got the money to spend on them.

The outdoor projector you should choose, of course, is the one that fits your needs best. But, even with that in mind, there are also a few basic considerations you should start with for a more elevated alfresco viewing experience. 

1. Brightness is key.

The darker the room, the better, but the maximum level of brightness a projector can reach is just as important, especially for outdoor screenings. Outdoors, you have less control over lighting than say your media room. You’re dealing with all sorts of ambient lighting sources: street lamps, string lights, cars, city light pollution.

So, when investing in an outdoor projector, pay close attention to its max brightness, which is measured in lumens or the more accurate ANSI lumens (2.4 lumens = 1 ANSI lumens). At least 3,000 lumens or 1,250 ANSI lumens is ideal for outdoor movies, but those projectors also typically cost at least $1,500/£1,500.

Considering the current soaring inflation, you might want something cheaper. A 1080p projector with 800 to 900 ANSI lumens – like the Nebula Cosmos – should get you under that $1,000/£1,000 mark and still deliver comfortable, decently immersive viewing outdoors. Even when you’ve got those backyard string lights on.

Xgimi Halo+ being lifted by a camper in a campsite

The Xgimi Halo+ is one of the best portable projectors for outdoor movie watching. (Image credit: Xgimi)

2. Go portable. 

If you’re happy to carry and set up a massive projector from inside your house to your backyard every time you want to watch an outdoor movie, by all means. It still sounds so needlessly tedious, however, especially when there are so many portable and mini options out there that are affordable, effortless to set up and deliver high resolution. 

We recommend opting for a portable one when choosing an outdoor projector. These smaller options, many of which you can simply toss in your backpack (with care, of course), also have the advantage of being travel-friendly. So, whether you’re camping with the family, renting a nice AirBnb for the weekend, or going on the road, you’ve essentially got a 100-inch TV in your bag. 

Several of the best portable projectors such as the Xgimi Halo+ also come with smart TV functionality, built-in storage for your downloaded shows and movies, and a built-in battery – the whole portable package. 

3. A built-in battery will come in handy.

Decide before hitting the buy button whether or not you want or need something that can play movies even without access to an electrical outlet. Not all portable projectors come with a battery built-in, unfortunately. 

If you do want the convenience of not needing to set up an extension cord in your backyard or being able to watch something at a rugged campsite with no power access, choose one that comes with a built-in battery. Just bear in mind that those projectors that have it will typically only give you three to five hours of playtime, sometimes less, which means a movie marathon might not be possible. That’s especially if you plan on watching one of those three-hour-long MCU movies.

Alternatively, you can skip the built-in battery option and invest in a power station, which should have enough charge for your other devices as well as to run a 4K projector like the Nebula Cosmos Laser 4K and Samsung The Premiere, whether you’re in your backyard or at a campsite.  

4. Temper your audio expectations.

Most outdoor projectors come with built-in speakers, which should deliver decent enough audio for most viewers to hear what’s happening on screen and crisp enough for them to understand the dialogue. Some of the portable ones can also get impressively loud for their size, and a handful even offer 360-degree sound so that everyone around the projector can enjoy the same level of audio quality.

Unfortunately, most outdoor projectors – unless you’re shelling out for one of those premium ultra short throw ones – are also not able to offer a well-balanced sound and the most immersive audio experience. That’s just where we are with this technology at the moment.

The good news is that many projectors have Bluetooth connectivity so if you’re simply not happy with what you’re hearing, just bring your favorite Bluetooth speaker with you and pair it with your projector. I personally love using my Bang & Olufsen Beosound A1 (2nd Generation), which delivers a warm, laidback yet detailed sound and plenty of volume. Best of all, it’s just as portable as my favorite projector. 

Elite Screens’ Yard Master Manual Series

Elite Screens’ Yard Master Manual Series should round out your experience nicely. (Image credit: Elite Screens)

5. A projector screen makes a massive difference.

Visuals from a projector tend to look flatter than the images on a typical TV, but a projector screen, which is designed specifically to enhance the projected image by making it brighter and more detailed, should improve picture quality. It’s also necessary for outdoor movie screenings, unless you just happen to have a big empty wall handy.

Whereas you can easily get away with using an empty wall in your house as your screen, setting up outdoors is trickier. A quality screen from a trusted brand is necessary — many cheap options on Amazon might be made of thin fabric that doesn’t have the vital reflective coating necessary to enhance the image and tends to arrive wrinkled. 

Projector brands typically have a screen or two on offer so check with your projector’s manufacturer first. If they don’t have one available, Elite Screens is a trusted name in outdoor projector screens, and has both outdoor projector screens with a stand and pop-up options. There are inflatable outdoor projector screens as well, if you want something a little more fun, like this one from Insignia that comes with its own air pump.

If you're still looking for an excellent outdoor projector, we've got three of the best ones below.

3 best outdoor projectors

Michelle Rae Uy

Michelle Rae Uy is the former Computing Reviews and Buying Guides Editor at TechRadar. She's a Los Angeles-based tech, travel and lifestyle writer covering a wide range of topics, from computing to the latest in green commutes to the best hiking trails. She's an ambivert who enjoys communing with nature and traveling for months at a time just as much as watching movies and playing sim games at home. That also means that she has a lot more avenues to explore in terms of understanding how tech can improve the different aspects of our lives.