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How to choose a projector for outdoor cinema in 2024

When shopping for a projector designed to operate outdoors, think about specific use scenarios. A projector to take for an overland adventure, backyard Netflix workhorse and an outdoor movie projector with a scaling up potential are going to be distinct three models with their set of features and requirements.
While manufacturers and advertisers promise us truly cinematic image and sound quality packed inside weather-proof lightweight housing, let's check these statements relying on basic physics, logic and personal experience.

What are outdoor projectors in general?

Outdoor media projectors are highly portable, distinctively designed devices, rated for moisture and dust protection.

First projectors intended for use outside became possible after LED light source technology emerged and became widely accessible to the manufacturers. LED light emission is compact, low power consuming and generally more robust technology compared to a traditional bulb projector lamp. An important advantage is that LED projectors are less likely to burn out due to power surges in the grid and sudden outages.
700 ISO Lumens in XGIMI Halo+ projector
XGIMI Halo+ LED light emission technology outputting 700 ISO (not ANSI) lumens © XGIMI

Using LED in projectors allowed them to become more compact (Samsung The Freestyle 2nd Gen is only 1.8 pounds), require less complicated cooling system and therefore making them more protected from the elements and dust (BenQ GS50 is rated to IPX2 splash protection and drop proof). Small LED projectors consume less power and many of the models are battery powered.

Portable outdoor projectors compared with traditional media projectors

Outdoor projectors are fairly affordable and pack a bunch of features that standard projectors are lacking. The most popular models are made by brands that are well-known for products other than media projectors. Samsung is a consumer electronics brand, Anker makes quality chargers and power stations, XGIMI is a dedicated manufacturer that makes outdoor and ultra-short throw home theater projectors.

In result outdoor projectors are equipped with features that are rarely seen (or impossible to implement) in traditional media projectors. Here are some of the most distinctive advantages that portable outdoor projectors can offer:

Battery Power

Efficient light emitting technology in portable projectors and lower overall brightness allowed them to operate off-grid. Among the most popular battery powered models are XGIMI Halo+ (2.5 hours operation / 700 Lumens / 3.5 lb) and Anker Nebula Mars 3 (5 hours in Eco-mode, 2 hours maximum brightness / 1000 Lumens / 9.9 lb).
Benq GS50 - Battery Performance
BenQ GS-50 promising battery power operation time © BenQ 

Automatic focus and image geometry correction

Anyone who deals with a traditional media projector knows that setting an image takes the most time and effort. More advanced professional and office media projectors can set focus from a remote control and are equipped with supportive features such as corner correction and vertical lens shift. However these conveniences are incomparable with the features that small outdoor projectors can offer!

Due to a simpler optical lens design many compact outdoor projectors can focus automatically and even adjust the keystone. Here are some of the projectors that adjust an image automatically: Epson EpiqVision Mini EF12 (Adaptive Color Correction, Autofocus, Picture Skew Correction), Samsung The Freestyle 2nd Gen (Automatic Keystone Correction, Automatic Focus and image color adjustment according to ambient lightning).
Nebula by Anker Mars 3 - AI-Powered Auto Image Adjustment
Nebula by Anker Mars 3 uses AI to adjust image © Anker

USB-C Plug and low power consumption

Most current outdoor projector models are powered via a standard USB-C cord and consume 50 Watts on average through Power Delivery or QuickCharge protocol. Which allows you to power them up with your standard laptop charging brick or a large power bank.

Splash, dust and drop protection

As to our knowledge there are no mass-produced traditional media projector models that would claim any IP protection rating. At the same time IP48 or IPX2 can be commonly found in portable outdoor projector designs. Built-in Operating System and Wireless Connectivity In the recent several years built-in operating systems and various wireless data transfer protocols are becoming more and more common in office, professional and home theater projectors. But for portable outdoor projectors Android TV, built-in Chromecast, Bluetooth wireless audio to external speakers and recent ultra-fast Wi-fi protocols are very common features.
Outdoor Proof Anker Mars 3
Moisture, dust and drop-test ratings of Anker Nebula Mars 3 © Anker

Limitations of portable outdoor projectors

While outdoor projectors are fun and smart gadgets with an accent on cool features such as autofocus, built-in operating system and small size there are some limitations of this device category compared to traditional media projectors.

Limited brightness output

Portable outdoor projectors are low power consuming and small-size which limits their ability to project bright images. Typical average ANSI lumens brightness for compact outdoor projectors is 500 lumens (BenQ GS50) with the brightest models of up to 1,000 lumens (Nebula Mars 3).

This results in a less vivid projected image, especially on a larger screen size (more on this below) and poor performance in high ambient lighting conditions. Not to mention daylight interior projection.

Limited Maximum Image Size

Most outdoor projector models mentioned above are capable of projecting an image of up to 120” in diagonal. Which makes these projectors useless for most inflatable screens due to their size and larger audiences that require bigger projector screen size to comfortably accommodate everybody.

Are built-in speakers in outdoor projectors any good?

The loudest portable outdoor projector that we managed to find is Nomvdic X300. It is being marketed as a Smart Portable Speaker & Projector. Nomvdic X300 accommodates 16 Watts Harman Kardon Speaker which is sufficient for interior use, but isn’t enough for any open space and the audience of more than five people.

While the sufficient wattage for an outdoor sound system is a disputable question most professionals recommend at least 60 Watts for 300 square feet patio. We at Big Screen Pro include 500 watts of audio with our smallest outdoor movie system.

Can you use traditional media projectors outdoors?

Despite the fact that projector manufacturers will not recommend using their products outdoors and will specify acceptable temperature and humidity range in practice, media projectors can successfully operate open air. Being outdoor movie event professionals our team uses media projectors in different weather and temperature conditions on a daily basis.

But what if it starts raining? For harsh weather conditions there are specially designed projector enclosures that will protect your projector from rain, dust, snow and even freezing temperatures.

Big Screen Pro Projector Enclosure
Big Screen Pro Projector Enclosure

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Alternatives to portable outdoor projectors

At a comparable price point there are home theater projectors that can compete with portable models and offer significant advantage. For example Epson PowerLite 1795F is small and lightweight enough (2.10" x 11.50" x 8.40", 4 lbs) to fit in a backpack.

It can’t operate from the battery as the power consumption is 309 Watts in max brightness mode. There’s no Android TV onboard and the built-in speaker is only 1W loud. But this model delivers 3,200 ANSI lumens of brightness and can cover up to 300” projection screen with an exceptionally good quality picture from the famous 3LCD image processing chip.

Optoma GT2000HDR is not compact compared to portable outdoor projectors. But it features 3,500 ANSI lumens laser light source, HDR image support and 120Hz refresh rate for gaming. This Optoma laser projector can cover a 300” screen and has a short-throw lens design that will project a 100” image from 3 feet away.

Factors to take into account when choosing an outdoor projector?

Now that you know the major advantages and limitations of portable outdoor projectors compared to traditional media projectors for office, home cinema and professional events let’s remember some key factors to make an educated final choice.

Projector brightness is a key performance indicator. Affordable price tag and compact size might be tempting, but the brightness of your projector results in overall image quality and screen size.

Larger projection screens require brighter projectors. Be sure to refer to advertised projector brightness in ANSI lumens for an adequate brightness comparison between different projector models.

Maximum Screen Size that your projector can cover is also determined by the lens design. Most portable projector models can operate with up to 120” inch diagonal screens.

Sound quality and loudness of built-in speakers in portable projectors is fine for interior settings, but for the comfortable use outside you’ll want to bring an external audio system. However portability, ease of use and off-grid operations might be decisive factors for many outdoor cinema enthusiasts that are going to use their equipment occasionally and don’t plan to scale-up.

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