Portable projectors can create big images anywhere. Is one right for you?

March 1, 2021 0 By boss



Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

It’s hard to argue with the instant appeal of a tiny, battery-powered portable projector. Something you can toss in a backpack or throw on a shelf for an impromptu movie night anywhere, anytime. In the last couple years they’ve fallen in price and become more capable, with features including built-in streaming and internal storage.

We’ve reviewed a number 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, don’t last long. 

Those might not be issues for you when the tradeoff 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.

What’s it for? (managing expectations)

If all you want is to take your projector into the wilds, like 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 small.

One use that’s common, in the projector’s marketing at least, is to use them 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 standard projector like the Optoma HD-146X, which will be significantly brighter, usually higher resolution and larger. Also, if you add an extension cord, you can bring it into your backyard and have a brighter, larger image than any portable projector could offer.

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.

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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 on hand since it will add additional draw on the battery.

Into the great wide open

Tiny, battery-powered projectors you can afford are still fairly new to the market. They’re also 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 on InstagramYouTube and on his travel blog, BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel


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