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Portable projector pros and cons: Read this before you buy one

Battery-powered projectors are fun, compact and affordable, but they have their limitations.

Geoffrey Morrison Contributor
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.
Geoffrey Morrison
5 min read
Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Battery-powered portable projectors have come a long way in recent years. These tiny PJs can fit in a backpack yet create TV-sized images on any flat surface. Prices have dropped, yet battery life and brightness have both increased. Many even have built-in streaming services like Netflix and Disney Plus

We've reviewed a bunch of these little light-throwers recently and while they're certainly compelling, they have some significant limitations too. Compared to traditional projectors they're not bright and their picture quality often leaves a lot to be desired. And their batteries, especially measured against marathon binge-watching sessions, probably don't last as long as you'd hope. 

But these might not be issues that concern you when the result is something the size of a Bluetooth speaker that lets you watch Parks and Recreation in a park, recreating. Read on for the pros and cons of cute portable projectors.

Peruse pleasing portable projector pics, please

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What are portable projectors for?

If you just want is to take your projector into the wilds of your backyard and watch a movie or TV show, most will work fine. Even so, check out the brightness and battery life sections below. Most won't last longer than one movie on a single charge and none will compete with ambient light. Outdoor movie night is a post-sundown viewing experience for sure, unless you make the image very small.

One use that's common, in the projector's marketing at least, is to use these portable projectors for the occasional movie night at home. Don't get me wrong, they can do that, but if this is your main purpose, you might be better off with a "real" projector. For roughly the same price as a portable projector, you can get a lower-end "home theater" projector like the Optoma HD-146X, which will be significantly brighter, usually higher resolution, though a bit larger. If you add an extension cord, you can bring these projectors into your backyard and have a much brighter, larger image than any portable projector could hope to offer.

For more about this type of PJ, check out the options for the best home theater projector.

Streaming by the stream

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

There's an odd mix of streaming options when it comes to portable projectors. Smart TVs have apps and streaming pretty well figured out, but projectors not so much. Some don't include any built-in streaming while others offer downmarket versions of familiar app stores that may or may not include your favorite streaming service. Still others may have an app like Netflix, but only at standard definition, not HD.

With most it's possible to connect a streaming stick, which will definitely get you all the apps you want, but it will come at the cost of increased battery drain. 

If your projector is out of Wi-Fi range, the best option for streaming is your phone. Most phones let you share your internet connection with other devices, creating a Wi-Fi hotspot. I wouldn't recommend it unless you have free or cheap data, however, as streaming video eats gigabytes. It also eats your phone's battery. Make sure you have a USB battery pack, ideally one large enough to also charge the projector. 

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

A few projectors have built-in storage, so you can download shows and movies to watch elsewhere. Not only does this save your data, but it also prevents the annoyance of finding the perfect camping spot and finding out you have no bars to watch the movie.

Size is the enemy of brightness

With all projectors, the size of the image is inversely proportional to the brightness. The larger the image you project, the dimmer it will look. The smaller the image, the brighter. 

Keep in mind that this ratio is tied to the area of the image, not the diagonal measurement. A 100-inch image, for example, is going to be 25% as bright as a 50-inch image.

No portable projector is particularly bright to begin with, so don't expect it to project something the size of a garage door that's easy to see. For larger images, as mentioned above, you're better off getting a standard home theater projector and running an extension cord. Most portable projectors can create a watchable TV-sized image, as long as there's little ambient light.

If you're new to the world of projectors, it's also worth keeping in mind that you'll be able to see any texture or imperfections in your screen surface, whatever that surface may be. The smoother and whiter (or grayer) the projection surface, the better. 

Battery life and how to extend it

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Portable projectors are a study in efficient packaging, but they come with tradeoffs. It seems most companies don't want to go with a huge battery, which would increase the projector's size and price. In their brightest modes, the best portable projectors will last the length of a 2-hour movie, but not much more. Others not even that.

Conveniently, they all have modes that are less bright, but give you longer playtime. If you're willing to deal with a smaller or dimmer image you might be able to squeeze in two short movies with most portable projectors.

I also recommend models that can recharge via USB. This way you can get a big USB battery pack and extend the viewing time significantly, probably while charging your phone at the same time. If you're going the streaming stick route, you should definitely have one of these since it will add additional draw on the battery.

Into the great wide open

Tiny, battery-powered projectors are still fairly new to the market. At least, ones that create an image of any size you want to watch. They're pushing the limits of what's possible with current technology: bright but efficient LED light engines; powerful but compact batteries; and affordable high-resolution DLP chips.

In my reviews I've encountered a lot of variability in features, image quality and price. As long as you keep in mind that these are portable devices first and projectors second, you should be fine. But as mentioned, if you don't really need the portable part, you're far better off getting a small home theater projector for only a little more money. 

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff Morrison 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 and travel adventures on Instagram and YouTube. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel