Don’t let anyone tell you that outdoor movie season is over. Fall can be the perfect season for alfresco cinema. It gets dark sooner, you have a reason to curl up in a blanket with your favorite people, mosquitoes are less of a nuisance and hot apple cider (or mulled wine for grown-ups) is readily available.
Thankfully, getting your garden, patio or backyard ready for viewing is a cinch. Here’s everything you need to know to create a rustic outdoor space to watch movies and TV shows, or even host a video game extravaganza.
What you need
When it comes to a portable projector for outdoor viewing, the Nebula Solar Portable stands out amongst every model we tested for its versatility, cost and features. Its picture isn’t as good as the much pricier XGIMI Horizon Pro, nor is its sound as rich as the more midrange Epson EpiqVision Mini EF-12. But it’s got a three-hour lithium-ion battery, it’s light enough to be carried almost anywhere and you can play your content off a USB stick or stream content from your phone (assuming you have a cellular connection).
The great thing about the Nebula Solar Portable is, well, it’s extremely portable, yet it still offers a 1080p image with decent brightness. Other comparable options include the BenQ GV30 and the XGIMI MoGo Pro, which are also portable projectors but don’t offer as good value for your money.
And, if you’re not placing your projector on a table, you may want to consider getting a projector stand for your outdoor home movie theater to keep your pricey electronics off the grass.
Once you have your projector, you’ll obviously need a screen. We liked the Yard Master 2 from Elite Screens. It’s portable enough, at 24 pounds for the 100-inch screen, and it has enough guylines and stakes to steady it in winds up to 7 miles per hour. It was also easy to set up and take down.
If you have a lot of guests over, though, or a very large space, even 100 inches might not be large enough. In that case, consider an inflatable screen like this one from Vivohome. But bear in mind that portable projectors like the Nebula Solar Portable don’t display images larger than about 120 inches well enough to warrant the larger size. If you’re looking for a bigger picture, you’ll want to consider stepping up to a better projector like the EpiqVision.
Finally, if you want to take the cheapest and easiest option, consider hanging a white sheet between two trees or find a large roll of photographer’s paper available from Savage. To use the latter, you’ll want some heavy-duty double-sided tape, and you should mount it on a clean, vertical surface.
Once you’re set for the pictures, next comes the sound. Most projectors don’t have fabulous built-in audio, and dialogue can get lost in the airy outdoors. We like to pair a speaker such as the UE Boom 3 — our best Bluetooth speaker pick — with our projector to boost the dialogue and overcome any ambient noise. But there are lots of other options as well.
Some projectors, however, when connected to Bluetooth speakers, can sometimes have a lag between image and sound. If that’s happening, consider an external speaker with an analog 3.5 mic-in port instead. Either the JBL Charge 4 or the JBL Flip 4 are good choices. They not only get up to 20 hours (Charge 4) and 12 hours (Flip 4) of battery life, but they’re also weatherproof and have audio input jacks. You could also opt for a wired connection via soundbar (the Roku Streambar Pro is our top pick) or a set of wired computer speakers, though you’ll need a power outlet handy.
So, what are you going to watch? Assuming your Wi-Fi extends into your backyard, you can just connect your projector to your home network or use a portable streaming device. The Roku Ultra is our top overall pick for those who want the best performance and features, while our top budget option in the Chromecast with Google TV is both more affordable and more portable for those taking movie night on the road. If you don’t have access to Wi-Fi, most projectors have a USB input port, so you can play content preloaded onto a flash drive. Make sure the format is supported by the projector, however. The most common formats are .mov, .mp4, .wmv and .avi.
You can also stream from your phone to most projectors, but be warned: This will eat up your data if you’re on a capped plan. If not, go ahead and stream to your heart’s content.
And if you want to get gaming, just plug your console of choice into the projector’s HDMI port and away you go.
Drinks, snacks and comfort
Of course, the most vital element of any outdoor screening is the audience. Watching movies outside is inherently a social event unless you’re the introverted outdoorsy type. If friends are coming by, you’ll want drinks, snacks and a way to keep warm if it’s chilly.
Consider one of these insulated coolers for keeping drinks cool (our favorite is the Yeti Tundra 45) and these thermoses (like the excellent Yeti Rambler Travel Mug) for keeping your drinks warm. And if you want to get a fire pit going for extra warmth, we love the Solo Stove Yukon.
There’s no reason to limit your outdoor movies to June, July and August. Unless you’re really far north, the crisp fall evenings are perfect for enjoying the upcoming Oscar contenders. Plus, all of these products work great year-round, so you’ll be more than set once the warm weather comes back.