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Backyard movie night: Everything you need to set up an outdoor cinema

Now is the time to bring your movies to the great outdoors.

Now that the summer's here there's no better time to transform your backyard into an outdoor home theater. All it takes is a few pieces of gear and you can be enjoying relaxing movie nights under the stars with friends and family. The good news is, you may already have some of the key components and others can likely be repurposed from other rooms around the house. 

The list below offers some ideas and product recommendations on how to achieve the best picture and sound quality for a backyard movie night. You can also grab cushions, pillows and a lawn chair or two to accommodate as much seating as you need around the projection screen. Just don't forget the popcorn, ice cream and other snack essentials -- it's just not a party without them!

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

For the biggest movies you're going to need a projector. Any projector will work, but the brighter it is, the easier it will be to see the picture. That's especially important outdoors, when even on a dark night some ambient light -- from your neighbors, your deck lights or tiki torches -- can affect the picture. Brightness also determines how large an image a projector can create. The Epson Home Cinema 2250 is one of the brightest projectors we've ever reviewed, and it's able to create a fantastic image overall.

Read our Epson Home Cinema 2250 review.

 

There are also plenty of other projectors to choose from. Here's a list of some alternatives for backyard movie night.

  • Epson's EF12 ($1,000) is smaller than the 2250, and has a better speaker built-in, although it's not as bright. 
  • The Anker Nebula Mars II Pro ($550) is even dimmer, but it has an internal battery so you don't need to be near an outlet. 
  • The BenQ GV1 ($270) is cute, inexpensive and portable, but dim and lower resolution (480p) than tke Anker.
  • The Optoma UHD35 ($1,300) is bright and not too expensive, making it our top choice in 4K outdoor projectors for the money.

See our list of best projectors, best 4K projectors and best portable projectors for other options.

Read more: 9 tips to set up your projector perfectly

Now playing: Watch this: How to buy the best home theater projector
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Assuming you don't have an outdoor TV already, you could bring your indoor TV outside. Keep in mind, however, that TVs are very delicate. One wrong twist and you can crack the screen. Even small TVs should be carried by two people. Treat it like you're carrying a thin, expensive sheet of glass. Technically, that's exactly what it is.

You're not going to want to rely on any projector's built-in speaker. Here are some options to let you hear the movie as well as see it.

Big Bluetooth speaker

Anker Soundcore Motion Boom

David Carnoy/CNET

Anker's $95 Soundcore Motion Boom is what Executive Editor David Carnoy calls a mini boombox speaker. It has a big handle, weighs a little over 4 pounds, and even floats. 

It's not quite as loud as some bigger, more expensive options like JBL's Boombox 2 ($400) and Ultimate Ears' Hyperboom ($400), but it's a lot louder than similarly-priced compact BT speakers. 

Read our Anker Soundcore Motion Boom review.

 

Read more: The best Bluetooth wireless speaker for 2021

Ty Pendlebury

If you're using a traditional projector, you're going to have to run electrical power. Since you're running power anyway, why not just connect an actual speaker? A good soundbar will be significantly louder than a Bluetooth speaker, and probably sound a lot better too.

We like this inexpensive Vizio, which we've said "If you want to buy a soundbar on a budget, it's tough to do better than this" and that its sound is "unhurried and natural."

Read our Vizio V21 review.

 

Read more: Best soundbar for 2021: Yamaha, Klipsch, Vizio, Sonos and more

Don't forget that you'll need a cable to connect it to the projector. Nearly all projectors have an analog audio output, which can connect to most soundbars including Vizio. Some have HDMI, so you'll need an HDMI cable from the soundbar to the projector.

Outdoor screen

We don't have a specific suggestion here, but we do have a few tips while you're looking. 

Rigid-frame screens are more expensive and a little harder to assemble, but are more resilient against wind and typically have smoother screens for a better overall image. 

Inflatable screens need to be secured to the ground, and any wind is going to set them rocking. However, they tend to be easier to set up and take down. Keep in mind that their fans run constantly, so in a smaller or enclosed yard, this can be annoying.

There are also infinite DIY options; basically anything fairly reflective and lacking color will work. It's worth noting that you'll be able to see any texture in the screen's surface, so a garage door or the side of your house won't be ideal because you'll see any design, seams or imperfections.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The easiest way to get something to watch on your outdoor projector is via a streaming stick. Most modern projectors have a USB connection so you can connect a streaming stick without running an additional power cord.

We like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus for its ease of use and wide range of content options. It's also a better choice than Roku Express 4K Plus because it's a streaming stick, not a small box.

Check out the best streaming devices of 2021.

 

Read more: Best streaming device in 2021.

This assumes your home's Wi-Fi is strong enough to reach into your yard. If it's not, we've got some ways to fix that, below.

Ry Crist/CNET

Depending where and how strong your Wi-Fi router is, you may not have enough signal to stream anything in your yard. You might be able to fix that: Check out the Wi-Fi tips in our article on how to improve internet speeds for Netflix, Hulu and more.

If none of those options works, consider a Wi-Fi extender. These connect to your main Wi-Fi, then broadcast essentially "more" Wi-Fi from a different point in your house. We like the TP-Link RE220 (aka the AC750). As Ry Crist said in his review, "Nothing else I tested was able to match [the RE220's] level of performance, which makes the RE220 a steal at $30."

Read more about improving your home's Wi-Fi.

 

Or just tether your phone

hoyle-promo-iphone-11-pro-google-pixel-4-xl-4
Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Another option that might work is to turn your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot. This uses a cellular signal for internet, and then broadcasts a little Wi-Fi bubble near the phone. Streaming a movie chews through data, though, so make sure you've got plenty or are on an unlimited plan.

Most modern phones have a feature that lets you create a hotspot. Once it's active, you just connect the streaming stick or projector to it just like it's "normal" Wi-Fi. This guide is for connecting your iPad to your phone, but will work for connecting any device.

Keep in mind, too, that running a hotspot typically drains your battery fairly quickly, so you should also consider a USB battery pack, or plug it in via an extension cord.

Blu-ray player

Sony UBP-X700
Sarah Tew/CNET

If your Wi-Fi isn't strong enough to reach your makeshift theater, and you don't want to burn through all your mobile data, Blu-ray players are very inexpensive and should have your viewing needs covered. You still have some discs, right?

For the most part we recommend getting a 4K Blu-ray player at this point. They're only a little more expensive, will play standard DVDs and Blu-rays too, and 4K discs are the best way to take advantage of a 4K-compatible TV or projector (and I'm assuming you'll be using this for indoor movie nights as well). The Sony UBP-X700 shown here is our pick for best 4K Blu-ray player.

Alternatively, you could get a PlayStation 5 or an Xbox Series X for some outdoor gaming on a huge screen. Both also play Ultra HD 4K Blu-rays.

Extension cord

Having one of these is important for any high-performance outdoor theater. The outdoor ones are far more rugged, so they should survive being stepped on no problem. I like the ones with three outlets at the end. It's better to have too many than too few. Connecting this to a grounded or GFCI outlet is probably wise as well.

Or you could connect a power strip with a fuse in it, but these aren't designed for use outside, so proceed at your own risk

Hammock

hammocks-rada
Hammocks Rada

Lastly, the thing that has kept me sane through quarantine. Don't underestimate the relaxing powers of a good hammock. You could get one from Hammock Hut, Hammocks-R-Us, Put-Your-Butt-There, really any will do. I've had one of these airy models for years and it has held up surprisingly well.

The only problem with watching a movie in one is that you'll be asleep halfway through the second act. Nothing wrong with that.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel

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