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How to choose the best outdoor projector for the Olympics, garden cinema nights and more

The Olympic Games are set to start this month – and what better way to watch than on a 300-inch screen? A projector could be just what you need.

How to choose the best outdoor projector

Whether it’s a cosy movie night with a partner, watching the latest sports with friends or beaming Netflix in the background of an evening BBQ with family – a home projector can totally transform your viewing experience.

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The best projectors will be perfect for socially distanced parties or cinema nights, and with the Olympic Games Tokyo soon to be underway, there is arguably no better way to watch the event than on a vast screen in the comfort of your own garden.

In 2021, projectors are more accessible than ever, listed on retailers like Amazon and Currys at a wide variety of price points and specs. But much like in our best TV to buy guide, choosing the right model can be a bit of a minefield.

There’s a lot to consider, including brightness, screen size, portability, contrast ratios, resolutions, connectivity options, throw distances, and so much more. Unlike a new TV, there are external factors to consider when using a projector outside – including unpredictable ambient light from cars, phones or even the moon.

Make the right choice, and you will be able to impress your friends with an image much bigger than most TVs, with the bonus of portability so the set-up can be moved around the home. Choose poorly, and the picture quality could be a mess.

To help you make a buying decision – and avoid some of the potential red flags – we have put together this buyer’s guide that will help to explain the key factors that you will need to consider and recommend several projectors that meet the criteria.

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How to choose the best outdoor projector

How to choose the best outdoor projector

Searching for a new projector can quickly become overwhelming, but the first big question you should ask yourself is: what do I want the projector to do? This will immediately narrow down a search. For example, the type of device needed for a small camping trip will be extremely different from a device required for a movie screening with a large group of people who will be all sitting at a distance.

When looking for a projector that can be used outdoors, there will typically be two main types that match your needs: home multimedia and portable. There are no projectors made for outdoor-only use, but many handle both scenarios.

Ask yourself: will the projector be a permanent fixture, or will it have to be moved about. What’s my budget? Should it be battery-powered or use a cable? What type of content do I want to play? And what specs do I require for that content?

The next point to consider is how much space you have to work with, as this will determine what you need in terms of a short or long “throw ratio.” This is the distance between the projector and screen – be it a white wall or a sheet.

This first stage is all about reducing your options, as there are so many projectors available from a variety of brands – many well-known, others less so. If you are only using the projector for your garden, chances are you will want a portable model that has the option of at least a couple of hours of battery playback.

Of course, there are other factors at play – many unique to home projectors – so here’s a list of the terms you will typically see on an online store listing, exactly what they mean, and what types of models will be best suited to being used outside.

Throw distance and screen size 

One term you may not have encountered before when shopping for tech is throw distance, which refers to the space between your projector and the screen. You will often see a projector described as “short-throw” or “long-throw”.

A short-throw projector is able to be placed fairly close to the screen and still be able to display a large image – this is preferred if you have a smaller space. The long-throw models work best when positioned further from the screen and will project larger images from a distance – better suited for bigger spaces.

The short-throw models can be set from 0.5 meters to the screen, while some long-throw models are best placed over 10 meters away. For outside use, it may be best to consider a short-throw so that it sits closer to the screen without interruptions – including any of your friends who wander in front of the projection.

The more distance between the projector and the screen, the more the image size increases. Some models have zoom lenses built-in. Every projector is different, with picture sizes ranging from 30 inches to more than 300 inches, so make sure that your projector screen matches your chosen model.

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DLP, LCD and light sources

For this article, there are two main types of projector to know about: DLP (Digital Light Processing) and LCD (Liquid Crystal Display). DLP projectors offer better contrast, dark tones and sometimes have 3D capabilities, while LCD models have more vivid colour tones, better saturation and are generally less expensive.

Inside the projector, there could be a lamp, LED or laser. A lamp’s lifespan could last around 4,000 hours before needing a replacement, while an LED and lasers will typically last significantly longer – often cited as up to 20,000 hours.

Brightness/Lumens

The more ambient light that’s in your garden, the more brightness your projector will have to be able to produce. That brightness is measured in lumens, but more specifically rated in ANSI (American National Standards Institute) lumens.

It’s not an exact science – who can say how bright the moon will be or how many cars will drive past your screening – but broadly, an ANSI lumen rating of between 2,000 or 3,000 should help to produce a clear image in most settings. Areas with higher ambient light may require at least 3,000 lumens to be effective.

Some portable projectors will have significantly fewer – maybe 200 or 500 ANSI lumens – and require near-darkness to produce a good image. They do still work, but you will definitely need to limit ambient lighting as much as possible.

Arguably more than most technology, you get what you pay for when picking up a projector. Budget projectors from little-known companies are often accused of exaggerating specifications, especially when it comes to brightness.

Some of those brands are known to list a projector’s lumens in the thousands, but when tested, they will fall well short of the claim because it’s not an ANSI rating. That’s not to say they’re junk, but you should always be aware of what you’re buying.

Don’t fall for the projectors claiming to have a spectacular lumen rating for under £100 or even £300. If it sounds too good to be true, it almost definitely is.

While they are unlikely to perform well in any brighter environments, there’s still an argument that the low-cost models are decent enough value to get a basic home projector experience, and many connect to smartphones like the iPhone 12 or Google Pixel 5 via Bluetooth. Examples of such devices in this category include:

Contrast ratio and aspect ratio 

Yes, more ratios. The contrast ratio is the difference between the darkest and lightest bits of a projected image – this will play a huge role in picture quality and how the projector will be able to combat ambient light. At its most basic: if your contrast ratio is 3000:1, the brightest part of the image is 3,000 times brighter than the darkest. For using a projector outdoors, the higher, the better. Aim for at least 10,000:1.

You should also make sure the project is able to output in the correct aspect ratio, which is the width and height of an image. For HDTV (1080p) this will be 16:9. This is the standard aspect ratio these days, so don’t overlook having it.

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Resolution

Like when shopping for a new TV, the resolution is a priority, but rushing straight for the 4K options with projectors will quickly empty your bank account. You will want a minimum resolution of 720p but target a native 1080p output if possible. Strike the right balance with throw distance, lumens and contrast ratios.

If you have the budget, go wild – definitely get the best resolution possible. But be aware that every projector will have a native resolution – the maximum amount of pixels it can display. While they may support higher resolutions, it doesn’t mean the quality will be better, only that the image is compressed into fewer pixels.

For outdoor use, aim for 1920 x 1080; however, 1280 x 720 may also be acceptable for the portable models. Here are the most common projector resolutions:

  • 4096 x 2160 (4K)
  • 1920 x 1080 (Full HD)
  • 1280 x 720 (HD Ready)
  • 1280 x 800 (WXGA)
  • 1024 x 768 (XGA)
  • 800 x 600 (SVGA)
  • 800 x 480 (WVGA)

Keystone correction

Alongside zoom and focus, many modern projectors will have the ability to handle a process known as keystone correction. This lets you digitally alter the shape and angle of the image that comes out of the device without having to relocate the entire projector. This could come in handy if your picture isn’t matching up perfectly with the screen or wall –but be warned: it may result in a loss of resolution or quality.

Which projector features should you consider? 

There are a number of key features that should be considered when shopping for an outdoor projector – many that could make or break your decision.

Portability: So your sporting event of choice has ended (in success, of course), and your friends have gone home, it’s likely that you will need to shift the projector back indoors. That’s why weight, size and overall portability is a factor. The best projectors for outdoor use will have a balance of power and ease of use.

Connectivity: Different projectors will have different ports – meaning that you will have to consider what you want to plug into the device. Does it need an HDMI port to link to your laptop to play movies? Do you want to connect to external speakers, a pair of headphones or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, or do you require it to read an SD card? Can it connect to your home Wi-Fi? Does it have Bluetooth? Not all models will.

Audio sources: A number of projectors come with built-in speakers. But these may not always be up to par for all users, so you may have to consider linking the projector up to an external speaker system – even a portable home display such as the Amazon Echo Show 5 or Google Nest Hub Max would work. On this point, another aspect you will have to consider is your neighbour’s tolerance for noise.

Power source: The last thing that you want to be doing four minutes before the England vs Scotland game kicks off is finding out that your extension cord isn’t long enough or that the projector’s battery life is close to being depleted. Do you have a power outlet outdoors? Is your cabling protected from the weather?

Screen: It’s a projector, but what are you actually projecting the image into? Yes, a white sheet, wall or garage door would technically work – but it may impact the picture quality if the device’s specs don’t quite have enough juice. You may want to consider buying a proper projector screen that will enhance the picture quality. Some outdoor screens that come with stands can be found for under £100.

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How much should you spend on a projector?

Projectors vary wildly in price, but it doesn’t have to cost thousands to find a solid model. Increasingly some of the more affordable projectors will have 1920 x 1080 native resolution – although some portables are largely around 720p.

We would say that targeting the £500 – £600 price point is likely to be a safer bet as an entry point – that can get you solid specs for outdoor use. However, as with all tech, the question of how much to spend will come down to your own personal budget. 4K projectors are super cool, but they are also super expensive.

While they may be tempting, always remain wary of ultra-low-cost projectors that over-promise – especially on lumens that are not ANSI rated. Sure, you will save money (you may see these listed for under £100), but the picture quality, noise control, connectivity options and contrast ratios may be lacking. For outdoor use, many of these cheaper projector models just simply won’t be up to scratch.

Which are the best projector brands?

Which are the best projector brands?
  • Epson
  • BenQ
  • Optoma
  • LG
  • ViewSonic

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Should you buy a projector screen or make one?

What’s a great projector without a great screen? How you go about obtaining that screen is up to you – whether it’s a clean ironed sheet, the wall of your garage, an adjustable sturdy screen with a built-in stand or even one that’s inflatable.

While it may be pretty tempting just to use a white sheet or wall, buying a proper projector screen will give you much more control over where you can project the image. Ambient light from the moon, for example, is uncontrollable. But having a screen lets you relocate the projector – you can’t move your garage wall.

A proper projector screen will likely have a dark border to help frame your image, be made from better materials that can enhance the image quality, and have no creases or marks that possibly would get in the way of picture quality.

Many proper screens will be collapsible, so they are fairly easy to store – and many will be priced around £100. The more you spend on the projector, the more likely it is that you should also be investing in a solid projector screen alongside it.

Which garden projector should you buy?

It’s clear there are more aspects to purchasing a new projector than some people may initially consider. However, based on what we know about the specifications required to work in an outdoor setting, we can still suggest some solid projector options at a variety of different price points.

Great for portability: Anker Nebula Mars II Pro

Price: £549.99

NEBULA by Anker Mars II Pro
NEBULA by Anker Mars II Pro

This box-shaped portable projector has a lot of the features that you would want for watching movies or sporting events outside. It runs on Android OS so you can get easy access to apps like YouTube and Netflix, projects up to 150 inches, boasts a native resolution of 1280 x 720 and has a 500 ANSI lumen rating when connected to a power source (200 lumens when running on battery). The Mars II Pro has built-in speakers and connects via HDMI, USB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. It even has a handle on top.

Great for beginners and travellers: BenQ GV1

Price: £328.99 £289.00

The BenQ GV1 is a mini portable projector
The BenQ GV1 is a mini portable projector

This neat little portable projector is unlikely to win any awards for its specs but stands out for its size and ease of use. It has been made with wireless streaming in mind and can connect to devices using Wi-Fi, USB-C and HDMI. It’s 480p and has 200 ANSI Lumen, so it would definitely need to be dark outside to get a decent image, but the GV1 has a 3-hour battery life – and even doubles as a Bluetooth speaker.

Great for performance: Optoma GT1080e

Price: £599.00

Optoma GT1080e
The Optoma GT1080e is a short-throw projector

The Optoma GT1080e has an impressive spec sheet that should mean it performs well in both ambient light and dark conditions – perfect for outdoors. It’s short-throw, can project up to 300 inches, has 3000 lumens and a 25000:1 contrast ratio. The GT1080e has a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (HD) and can even display 3D content.

Great if you’re on a tight budget: WiMiUS K1

Price: £229.99

The WiMiUS K1 is cheap, but has compelling specs
The WiMiUS K1 is cheap but has compelling specs

If you want a projector to watch the Olympic Games and are willing to sacrifice some quality, the WiMiUS K1 could be an option. That’s due to it offering a native resolution of 1920 x 1080 for under £200. The projector has a 10,000:1 contrast ratio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, can beam an image up to 300 inches and claims to have a lamp life of 100,000 hours. The ANSI lumen rating isn’t clear – but on paper, it remains a compelling model.

Great for a premium 4K experience: BenQ TK850 

Price: £1,479.00

The BenQ TK850 is a 4K projector with top specs
The BenQ TK850 is a 4K projector with top specs

If money is no object and you want a stunning 4K experience from your projector, then the BenQ TK850 could be the one for you. With 3000 ANSI lumens, 3840 x 2160 resolution (Ultra HD), HDR and a large 30,000:1 contrast ratio – the BenQ TK850 is a beast of a projector with a highly impressive skill set. Good timing for any Olympics fans with a large budget: the TK850 has a dedicated sports mode that enhances picture and sound during games. The downside is that it lacks streaming features.

Great for mid-range price but high lumen: Optoma HD145X

Price: £479.99

Optoma HD145X

The Optoma HD145X is a mid-range projector that offers fantastic brightness – 3600 lumens – for under £500. It projects up to 301 inches, is 1080p Full HD resolution and can display 3D content. It’s a long throw model with a 25,000:1 contrast ratio, has a 5-watt speaker and comes with one HDMI port.

Great for small size and simplicity: Philips PicoPix Max One PPX520

Price: £529.99

PHILIPS PicoPix PPX520 Mini Projector

This neat little mini projector can fit in the palm of your hand, but don’t judge it by its size alone. The PicoPix PPX520 beams out an image in Full HD 1080p with a screen size of up to 120 inches and even boasts a 10000:1 contrast ratio. Great for movie or sports nights with friends – it comes with a built-in 5-hour battery life and a USB Type-C port to connect up to laptops, smartphones and tablets.

Great for being compact and lightweight: LG CineBeam PF50KS

Price: £529.00

LG projector

With a 600 lumen output and a 1080p resolution, the tiny LG CineBeam PF50KS has really solid specs for its price. At 17 x 17 x 4.9 cm, it will easily fit in a backpack or be transported between rooms. It projects up to 100-inches in size, will provide 2.5 hours of battery life and quickly connects to phones and laptops via USB Type C. 

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