Outdoor Movie Night: Best Projectors and Gear for Summertime Cinema
Take full advantage of your outdoor space with everything we'd recommend for an epic movie night.
Updated June 7, 2023 3:00 a.m. PT
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Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
As the weather turns warm and the backyard beckons, it's time to start thinking about outdoor movie nights. Whether it's for your family, neighbors, friends or all of the above, hosting your own outdoor cinema can be a great way to spend a summer evening. Fortunately, a great outdoor projection setup doesn't require a lot of money. Cheap outdoor projectors can still create a great image, and many indoor models offer even better picture quality if you don't mind running an extension cord.
Generally, all you'll need is a projector to transform your yard into your own personal drive-in theater. To bring your setup to the next level, you can add a speaker so everyone can hear the movie, even if you have a big yard. Below are some ideas and product recommendations, including outdoor projectors, to help you set up an open-air cinema in your own backyard.
We've broken down our top projector and sound picks according to whether you'll need power, like an extension cord or power station, or whether you intend to rely on the device's built-in battery. You might also want to consider a surge protector to let you plug in a few devices. You can also grab cushions, pillows and a lawn chair or two to accommodate as much seating as you need around the projection screen to create your outdoor cinema. Just don't forget the popcorn, ice cream and other snack essentials.
For the biggest movie screen, 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, because even on a dark night some ambient light from your neighbors or deck lights can affect the picture. A projector's brightness also determines how large an image it can create. The BenQ HT2060 is the best projector for the money overall, and one of the reasons is its bright image.
To use this projector in the backyard, you will need to run a power cable. But if you can't do that, you should try a portable, battery-powered projector instead.
If you don't mind forgoing a bit of picture quality for overall brightness, the Epson EpiqVision Flex CO-FH02 is the brightest projector we've ever tested. That means you can create a truly massive image. It doesn't look quite as good as the BenQ HT2060, but it's about 50% cheaper.
So if you want something that can turn the whole side of your house into a giant movie screen, and still be bright enough to see what the movie is, the CO-FH02 is a great option. It even has Android TV built in (via an included dongle), so you can stream Netflix and the like without any other devices or cables. The internal speaker is OK, but a separate speaker (which we talk about below), will be way better.
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Epson's Home Cinema 2350 ($1,000) is brighter than the BenQ HT2060 and 4K, though the BenQ looks a little better overall.
The Vimgo P10 is the best cheap projector we've reviewed. It looks ... pretty terrible to be honest, but when you consider it's under $150, and often way less, that mediocre image quality doesn't seem so bad. To be clear, every other option on this page performs way better, but if you want to spend as little as possible, you could do far worse.
The Anker Nebula Mars II Pro is our favorite portable projector because, while it doesn't do any one thing as well as some competitors, it has the best overall package. It's small, easy to use, fairly bright, sounds decent and has a fairly large battery.
The AAXA is cheaper, the Xgimi has better performance, but for around $550 the Mars II Pro continues to be a winner.
Bright and inexpensive portable projector (if you don't have power)
This AAXA is the brightest portable, battery-powered projector we've ever tested, but it's still fairly dim compared to a plug-in projector. The BenQ HT2060 above, for example, measured more than three times as bright in our tests. If you don't mind its (relatively) small, dim image, however, a projector like the AAXA can be a great backyard companion and offer a large screen.
It's a lot lighter and more compact than most plug-in models, and the built-in battery lasts longer than most of its competitors. It's also a third of the price of the BenQ and hundreds less than many other portable projectors. It lacks built-in streaming, but there's an HDMI port and USB power so you can connect a streaming stick and remain wireless.
The Xgimi Halo Plus is fairly expensive compared to other battery-powered portable options, as it's basically the same price as the far better performing projectors powered via an AC plug. However, it looks far better than the AAXA, with better colors and contrast. It has Android TV built into its stylish case, so it's easier to use than most portable projectors.
If you don't want to run an extension cord, but don't want to sacrifice picture quality, the Xgimi Halo Plus is the way to go.
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Watch this: How to buy the best home theater projector
If you're using a traditional projector, you're going to have to run electrical power. Since you're running an extension cord (and maybe a surge protector, see below) anyway, why not just connect an actual speaker? A good soundbar will be significantly louder than a Bluetooth speaker, and will probably sound a lot better, too.
We like the inexpensive Roku Streambar, which is easy to set up, reproduces clear dialogue, and has built-in streaming if your projector doesn't. It's also extremely compact. More expensive soundbars might have better sound overall, but you can't beat the Roku for its combination of price and sound.
Anker's $109 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 it even floats. A plug-in soundbar like the Roku will sound better, but if you don't want to run a cord, you'll want something that sounds big and has a battery.
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 breeze 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 features, seams or imperfections.
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.
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 inexpensive TP-Link RE220 (aka the AC750) best for backyard movie night. As CNET's 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."
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Or just tether your phone
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.
Nonstreaming option: Blu-ray player or game console
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 and surge protector
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.