Which Portable Projector for your Backyard Movie Night?

If you’re thinking of inviting friends over during this summer of COVID-19, staying outside is a good idea. Setting up a backyard movie night is one easy way to maximize the visit. But choosing the right projector can be difficult. Here’s what I bought…

I expect we’re probably into this for the long haul. So, I’ve made the decision to partially release myself from seclusion (to my wife’s great joy). I know that some have seemingly forgotten about COVID-19, but I’m not in that group… believe me.

In fact, I’m still having all of our groceries delivered from FreshDirect and Peapod. The fact that I no longer feel like I’m playing the lottery to find an open delivery slot is a good indication that more people are shopping for themselves again. I should mention that we live in Connecticut, which is currently not a hot spot. And that’s certainly good news. And maybe reason enough for me to take advantage of the relative calm and take care of some business… like getting a haircut! Who knows what the future will bring.

The Limits of Social Distancing
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been particularly conservative about navigating in our new COVID-19 world. But you really can’t entirely isolate your family for an entire summer and prevent all outside social interactions beyond Zoom chatting.

And it’s not even just the summer we’re talking about… it could be another year… or two!

People need some social connection!

Expanding your Safe Circle
So we are now ‘interacting’ with a few other families we know who are also ‘being careful.’ We’re trying to follow social distancing rules, but of course it’s imperfect when there are fifth graders in the equation.

Yes, it’s increasing the risk, but I have to develop a long-term plan that’s reasonable. Sheltering at home for two weeks is easy. Four months is hard. How about asking your family to continue on for some unspecified future?!

Turn Your Backyard into an Outdoor Movie Theater
As we thought about the Lesters’ ‘reopening plan,’ we considered how we would handle playdates. Clearly, those interactions should be outside.

We brainstormed about what they might look like, and we came upon one quaint option of hosting outdoor family movie nights in our backyard.

That’s a perfect idea, right?!

And, of course, it’s the newest challenge for Mr. At Home with Tech…

Looking for a Needle in a Haystack (Again)
As I Googled through what seems like a complicated and vastly oversaturated market of portable projectors that range from $90-$2,000 (really), I immediately felt overwhelmed.

First off, you’ve got to decide exactly what you’re looking for. This tech category can have a variety of names:

  • Pocket projectors
  • Portable projectors
  • Pico projectors
  • Mini projectors
  • Battery-powered projectors

They mostly refer to the same general product line. So, I tried to focus on several key needs:

  • Battery power
    (No extension cords stretched across my backyard, please)
  • An image of at least 720P HD
    (Come on… I’ve got standards!)
  • Bright enough to do its job at dusk
  • Sufficient onboard sound so I wouldn’t also want to use a separate speaker
    (Less clutter)

Everything I found in the sub $200 price bracket didn’t really seem cut out for the job.

My spending cap was $500. Anything more felt too expensive for just a fun outdoor activity. Sure, it would certainly be a big help during this ‘Summer of COVID,’ but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Facing the True Cost
The biggest challenge I created for myself was the need for battery power. That requirement really limited my choices.

And my options dwindled even further as I looked for bright enough projection chops to handle a twilight screening as well as a strong enough battery to make it through an entire movie.

And then the killer: My $500 price point.

The truth is, you’ve got to spend more (sometimes a lot more) to get a bright-enough projector that gives you any flavor of HD, runs long enough on its battery and projects decent sound.

Hello, Nebula Mars II Pro
It’s ironic that with so many supposed choices, only one projector came close to meeting my requirements:

Nebula Mars II Pro
by Anker
$549 on Amazon

It’s effectively an all-in-one solution to launch our movie-night series:

  • 720P Video
  • 3-hour battery
  • 500 lumens (which isn’t the brightest, but is at the top this category)
  • Dual 10-watt speakers (a huge differentiator)
  • Horizontal and vertical keystoning (important to get a squared image)
  • Some cool streaming options through its Android 7.1 OS
  • Can also hard connect through USB and HDMI

And it didn’t hurt that both Wirecutter and Rolling Stone called out the Nebula Mars II Pro as a top pick.

Plus, I already have solid brand loyalty to Anker.

Budget Friendly Choices have Limits
There are more powerful options to consider if you’ve got a bigger budget, but I kept my research focused on more affordable choices. I found a couple contenders, but they couldn’t match the Mars II Pro’s specs:

The price is right, but this AAXA not as bright as the Nebula and the sound output is weak.

  • Viewsonic M1+
    $299.99 on Amazon
    854×480 (WVGA)
    300 lumens
    6 hour battery
    3W (x2) speakers

Good price and great battery, but it’s not true HD and this Viewsonic is even dimmer than he AAXA. The speakers are better than some, but the M1+ still can’t compete with the Mars II Pro.

The Right Tool for the Job
So, I’m going with the Nebula! Yes, it broke my budget cap, but it’s also worth it to have confidence in your choice.

Click.

I could have spent less, but then I’d be setting myself up for disappointment with gear that’s not powerful enough to handle an outdoor environment.

Dealing with the Great Outdoors
When designing a backyard movie-night experience, you should always remember that you’re not trying to create a ‘home-theater’ equivalent. Otherwise, you’ll need to spend a whole lot more.

And your event is inevitably going to be rough around the edges. (I’m only planning on using a white sheet hung from my backyard fence.)

And who knows if our guests will quickly lose interest in our outdoor movie in favor of chasing fireflies? Maybe a swarm of mosquitos will tank the whole screening.

There can be any number of variables that may prevent this investment from finding true success. But, if you’re going to go for it, don’t skimp too much on the oomph of your visual and audio projection.

Open for Business?
I’m excited to have my Nebula Mars II Pro for our Lester backyard movie nights.
Come on over… But don’t get too close.

For me, this is real progress during this Summer of COVID.