Outdoor projectors transform the natural world into open-air movie theaters. They feature powerful lamps for use even when the sun hasn’t fully set or the streetlights are on, and they’re light enough to make moving them from your media room to your deck easy on your back. Many projectors suited for outdoor use include features like rechargeable batteries, smart TV operating systems, and robust speakers to help streamline set-up. Most importantly, just like any projector you’d buy for indoor use, they don’t skimp on important image specs, such as color, contrast, and resolution. When you don’t want your cul-de-sac drive-in to turn into a giant car wreck of a viewing experience, turn to the best outdoor projectors.
However, shopping for outdoor projectors can be a tricky process that’s filled with jargon, numbers, and an endless parade of acronyms. There’s a lot to learn if you want the most out of your home-theater experience, especially when your home theater happens to be your backyard. So read on for guidance in choosing the best outdoor projectors to watch the stars under the stars.
- Best overall: BenQ TK850
- Best HD: Epson Home Cinema 3800
- Best portable: Anker Nebula Solar
- Best for rooftops: Epson EpiqVision Mini EF12
- Best budget: GooDee Video Projector 2022
How we chose the best outdoor projector
When thinking about the best outdoor projectors to include in our recommendations, we relied on our own experience with home theater projectors and also reached out to professionals in the TV and AV worlds to discuss their favorites—as well as the types of specs they care about when shopping. We read trade journals and websites and sifted through reviews to get the impressions of typical users. We narrowed our selection of projectors down to 10, focusing first and foremost on image quality. Color, contrast, and resolution were all taken into account. Balanced against these specs were features making the projector most suited to outdoor use, including brightness, portability, and versatility. Price was an important factor, especially in terms of “bang for your buck,” though it wasn’t of primary concern when judging the higher-end categories of projectors.
Things to consider before buying the best outdoor projector
Projectors shine light on a surface and that surface reflects the light back to our eyes. That means using a projector with a plain, white wall isn’t going to deliver the best picture because too much light gets absorbed by the paint. For the optimal viewing experience, you need to buy a screen—which can run from around $25 to a little over $100, depending on sizes, stands, and accessories. These have reflective surfaces that increase perceived brightness, contrast, and color saturation—all of which our top picks for best outdoor projectors deliver.
Blinded by the light
Brightness, which is measured in ANSI lumens, is one of the most important specs for an outdoor projector. This describes how much light the projector creates. The more light, the bigger and brighter the picture. It also determines how dark a space needs to be for the best projector performance. Since outdoor projectors can’t take advantage of blackout curtains to fight ambient light from a full moon or from inside your neighbor’s home, putting out as much light as possible has distinct benefits. High-end projectors have brightness ratings of 2400 lumens or more, while less-expensive machines deliver somewhat less. While manufacturer claims don’t always match independent testing, the numbers are useful for making general comparisons—a 3,000-lumen projector will be about three times brighter than a 1000-lumen one. Remember, you can’t ever go wrong with more light but brightness isn’t the only specification that matters when selecting a projector.
Let there be light
Images are created by focusing a light source onto a chip, and that image is then sent through a lens to your screen. Light sources come in three varieties: Lasers, LEDs, and Ultra High Pressure (UHP) lamps. UHPs are most common in mid-range and higher-end projectors and are essentially high-end light bulbs. Yes, they’re bright, but they also generate a lot of heat and, over time, can burn out. Replacements aren’t cheap, though you won’t have to swap out UHPs anywhere near as often as you might have replaced the old incandescent bulbs in your hallway. LEDs and lasers are far more efficient than UHPs, but there’s a significant increase in cost vs. performance, and they’re usually built into high-end models.
As mentioned above, projectors use imaging chips to create a picture, and there are three types: Digital Light Processing (DLP), Liquid Crystal Display (LCD), and Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCoS). DLP chips find a home in units at all different price points and deliver average contrast and nice color. Sometimes units will use one DLP chip, while sometimes they use three: one each for the Red, Green, or Blue colors that make up an image. LCD chips can be found on budget to mid-range projectors and often have better color than DLP projectors, but contrast ratios sometimes suffer. Lastly, LCoS chips are used in mid- to high-end projectors; they tend to deliver the best picture quality overall, but cost more.
Single-DLP projectors sometimes suffer from what’s known as “the rainbow effect,” where bright objects on the screen leave very quick, multicolored pixel trails behind them. Many people don’t even notice these artifacts, which is why thousands of single-DLP projectors have been sold and continue to sell. Some people simply aren’t bothered by them. If you have an opportunity to test a single-DLP projector at a store, consider doing so in order to gauge how you feel about the rainbow effect should you encounter it.
Another aspect of picture quality is contrast ratio, or the difference between the black and white output. This is usually expressed as a number representing black followed by a number representing white, with each separated by a colon. So, for instance, something like 15,000:1.
The greater the difference between black and white, the more color variation the projector displays. An image from a projector with an 18,000:1 contrast ratio will, in most cases, look better than one with a 3,500:1 contrast ratio, with bolder, more true-to-life colors, subtler gradients, and richer blacks. Remember, though, contrast isn’t the only factor in determining picture quality, so always look at the number in the context of all the unit’s specs.
Resolution describes the number of pixels that make up a digital image. A high-definition image is 1920 pixels wide by 1080 pixels high—we often simply call this 1080p. A 4K image (also called Ultra High Definition, or UHD) is twice as large, at 3840 pixels wide (which is close enough to 4000 to earn the name 4K). The higher the resolution, the sharper the image at large sizes.
A projector that can display a 4K image is wonderful and, since these units also play HD media, you’re covered for whether you’re streaming the latest Marvel movie in ultra high def or you’ve dug out an older Blu-ray. At the same time, many HD projectors use a technology called pixel-shifting to double the 1920 resolution. It’s not perfect but many people won’t notice the difference and these projectors cost less money. Additionally, the resolution isn’t the only factor when determining picture quality; many movies look fantastic in HD, especially if you’re not blowing up the picture to monumental proportions.
Best outdoor projectors: Reviews & Recommendations
Best overall: BenQ TK850
Why it made the cut: True 4K resolution, excellent picture quality, and a relatively lightweight build make this projector our top choice despite a higher price tag.
- Brightness: 3,000 ANSI Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 30,000:1
- Weight: 9.8 pounds
- Native 4K resolution
- Lightweight design that’s easy to carry outdoors
- 10-bit HDR processing
The TK850 continues BenQ’s reputation for making excellent home theater projectors with a true UHD DLP unit that’s bright enough for outdoor use even under higher levels of ambient light. The 30,000:1 contrast ratio isn’t the highest we’ve seen but it still delivers detailed blacks and lush colors (covering the DCI-P3 color space), thanks in no small part to the high-end 10-bit HDR (High Dynamic Range) processor and 12-bit imaging processor, plus a dynamic iris. The projector’s lens array features 10 individual elements—the glass inside the lens—that work to increase color, brightness, and sharpness. The image size can go up to a nice, theatrical-feeling, 300 inches.
Lots of projectors in the TK850’s $1,699 price range have great specs, but BenQ’s 4K projector hits above its weight class—literally. At only 9.8 pounds, it’s a cinch to move movie night from the living room out to the deck. Vertical lens shift and keystone correction work alongside the 1.3x zoom lens to make positioning the projector easier and the built-in 10-watt CinemaMaster Audio+2 speakers are good enough that, at least with smaller events, you won’t need to run external speakers. Connect your media—whether a Blu-ray player, computer, Fire or Roku TV stick, or set-top streaming box—via two HDMI ports or a USB 3.0 data input (so don’t forget those HDMI cables). Or pay an extra $100 for a model with built-in Android TV.
Best HD: Epson Home Cinema 3800
Why it made the cut: This ultra-bright HD projector delivers a cinema-like picture with brilliant colors and deep blacks even when it’s not completely dark.
- Brightness: 3,000 ANSI Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 100,000:1
- Weight: 15.2 pounds
- Accurate color
- Can display 4K content using pixel shifting
- Easy-to-adjust settings
- Wide variety of inputs
- Somewhat heavy
The Epson 3800 projector is an excellent outdoor choice for anyone who doesn’t need native 4K resolution but still wants a large, movie-theater quality picture. And with a contrast ratio of 100,000:1 and 10-bit HDR color processing, this 3LCD projector will give you deep blacks and bold colors (100% of the RGB color signal) on a screen that’s up to 300 inches corner to corner.
What’s more, the 3800 can still deliver a 4K image—sort of. While its native resolution is 1920 x 1080, it uses a technology called pixel shifting to interpolate the missing pixels and fill out a full UHD frame. Is it perfect? No, and at the maximum screen size some loss of sharpness has been reported. But at, say, 150-200 inches, issues become much less noticeable.
At 14.1 pounds, the projector isn’t as heavy as units meant to live permanently in a media room, but it’s also not a complete lightweight. The same could be said for its $2,000 price tag, which is a bit high for an HD unit. On the other hand, the superb picture quality and ability to play 4K movies without having to down-res them to HD are worth the extra bucks. The Epson also features dual HDMI 2.0 ports, dual USB ports, dual 10-watt speakers, and Bluetooth connectivity for easy integration into any media environment.
Best portable: Anker Nebula Solar
Why it made the cut: Lightweight, battery-powered, and featuring built-in Android TV, this projector travels easily and delivers a strong picture despite a relatively low brightness rating.
- Brightness: 400 ANSI Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 1,000:1
- Weight: 3.1 pounds
- Very lightweight
- Up to three hours of battery life
- Built-in Android TV
- Native HD resolution but can accept 4K inputs
- Picture suffers in ambient light
- Color accuracy could be better
This 3.1-pound, battery-powered projector is built for on-the-go use. Fully charged, it runs for 1 1/2 hours in Standard mode and 3 hours in Battery mode—albeit with a dip in brightness. That’s usually enough for a couple of episodes of your favorite series or one movie. And don’t worry about carrying media around with you, because the built-in Android TV includes apps to connect to all the major streaming services (though you’ll need access to a Wi-Fi network and a Google account). Built-in dual 3-watt speakers can handle Dolby Digital Plus encoded audio and are loud enough for a decent-sized screening out on the lawn, though the sound quality could be better.
The Solar Portable accepts 4K signals and down-converts them to its native 1080p resolution. In HD mode, colors were nuanced (if just a bit off) and shadows maintained a lot of detail, even in dark scenes. However, 4K content requires some contrast adjustment and never improves on the 1080p image. Also, while the projector is bright enough to deliver a nice, 180-inch image, don’t expect to go much larger without the picture starting to go soft.
When considering a projector like the Solar Portable, it’s all about weighing priorities. You might be giving up a larger image and a bit of color accuracy, but you’ll gain the kind of portability that could have you watching movies in unique places like a treehouse, the middle of a field, or on a hill where you first proposed to your spouse. It’s a combination of factors that make this one of our favorite portable projectors.
Best for rooftops: Epson EpiqVision Mini EF12
Why it made the cut: This small and light projector is easy to lug up a few flights of stairs, but comes in heavy with its picture quality and built-in Android TV.
- Brightness: 1000 ANSI Lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 200,000:1
- Weight: 4.7 pounds
- Native 1080p resolution
- Supports 4K media (down-converted to HD)
- 3-chip LCD avoids rainbow artifacts
- Built-in Android TV
- Excellent speakers
- No 3D support
- Could be brighter
Movies on the rooftop in the summer—what could be more fun? The EpiqVision Mini EF12 is small and light enough to perch on even the highest roof and delivers a gorgeous 1080p picture once you’re there. The integrated Android TV means you don’t have to go back downstairs to grab a Blu-ray player, and the built-in 5-watt Yamaha stereo speakers save you a trip for extra audio. The 1,000-lumen MicroLaser light source is bright enough for a 140-inch screen if it’s really dark out but it’s more reasonable to expect 80 inches on most neighborhood rooftops awash in light pollution. Thanks to the projector’s 200,000:1 contrast ratio, colors are nicely saturated and shadow details pop. Three-chip LCD technology displays 100 percent of the RGB color range. Besides the built-in streaming functions, the EpiqVision Mini also has two HDMI inputs for external players.
Best budget: GooDee Video Projector 2022
Why it made the cut: Despite some flaws, this projector impressed with its 1080p native resolution and a wide variety of inputs—all for about a 10th of the cost of our top picks.
- Brightness: 300 ANSI lumens
- Contrast Ratio: 3,000:1
- Weight: 5 pounds
- True HD resolution
- Dual 3-watt speakers
- Incredibly inexpensive
- No control for display size
- Hard to adjust the unit height
- No wireless connectivity
The most recent upgrade to the GooDee projector raises the native resolution from 1280 x 768 to full 1080p, a welcome upgrade that improves picture sharpness. A 300-lumen LED doesn’t provide the most light but the projector can still create a 200-inch picture with respectable color and contrast thanks in part to a 3,000:1 contrast ratio. It won’t win any awards for the picture quality but, considering that all this is delivered for less than $200, it’s an impressive device.
Expect some compromises at this price, however. For one thing, the projector doesn’t perform well with any ambient light; wait until the sun is well and truly down before starting your movie. It also suffers from a dearth of adjustment controls. For instance, to make the picture bigger or smaller, you’ll need to move the projector closer or farther from the screen. But the wealth of connectivity and dual 3-watt speakers add to the convenience and value.
Q: How much does the best outdoor projector cost?
The best outdoor projectors cost roughly $900 to $1,900 depending on features and specs. Generally, with projectors, you get what you pay for. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find excellent units at many different budget levels.
Q: How many lumens do you need for an outdoor projector?
Outdoor projectors can project an image with brightness as low as 500 lumens. However, you won’t get as large a picture size at that brightness, and any ambient light will cause the image quality to suffer. For the best outdoor use, look for units that feature a brightness of more than 2,000 lumens.
Q: Is it worth getting a 4K projector?
It’s worth getting a 4K projector if you watch a lot of 4K media and want as big a picture size as possible without losing detail. Otherwise, some HD projectors will use a technology called pixel-switching to create a nice 4K image, while others will accept a 4K signal but down-convert it to HD.
Q: Can you watch Netflix on a projector?
You can watch Netflix on a projector, along with any other streaming service. Projectors have a variety of inputs, including HDMI and, sometimes wireless, making it easy to connect to a set-top box like a Roku. Some also have USB inputs for Fire TV sticks or similar. Finally, newer projectors, like smart TVs, sometimes come with certain apps pre-installed and ready to play back media from your favorite streamer right out of the box.
Q: Do outdoor projectors work in daylight?
Outdoor projectors do work in daylight—sometimes. The trick is to find one that has a high enough brightness rating for the amount of light you’re dealing with. However, projectors often suffer at their brightest settings from color and contrast issues that might be bothersome when watching a movie. On the other hand, if you’re gathering with friends for a World Series party, and cinematography isn’t a priority, these shortcomings are much less of a concern. Generally speaking, projectors always perform best in darker environments.
Final thoughts on the best outdoor projectors
Choosing the best outdoor projector isn’t too different than choosing the best projector for your home. To capture that cinema experience, you want one that delivers a large picture with bold colors and rich blacks. On top of that, it needs to be bright enough to overpower ambient light, and mobile enough to easily move in and out of the house. A tall order, but one we think the BenQ TK850 accomplishes with ease. We also really like Epson’s Home Cinema 3800 and EpiqVision Mini EF12, but the 3800 costs nearly as much as the BenQ while using pixel shifting to achieve a 4K picture. Meanwhile, the EpiqVision Mini EF12—though lighter and cheaper—also uses pixel shifting, and is much less bright than the other two. All three have strengths to recommend them, though, depending on your needs and viewing habits.