What the Tech: More Christmas gift ideas

What the Tech

Of all the gadgets, devices, and doo-dads I’ve tried this year, most people ask about backyard movie theaters. When theaters closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, portable projectors and screens became big sellers for online retailers.

They make great gifts that the whole family can enjoy but what do you need for a high-quality backyard movie experience?

You’ll need a good projector and something to project on. Some of the best projectors I’ve found are from ViewSonic. The company sent me a few to try out but didn’t ask me to say anything good. So what you read here is my honest opinion.

The least expensive, and most portable is the M1 mini. It’s small enough to fit in a pocket so it can be taken anywhere. Depending on how you’re displaying content these LED projectors can operate for up to two-and-a-half hours on a battery so you won’t need an extension cord. It has a built-in speaker and plays content from a USB drive, HDMI cable, or casting it from your phone. I found the speaker to be just okay but there is an audio-out jack if you want to connect an external speaker (which I recommend). It’s the most portable projector on the list. But it isn’t in HD and unless it is very dark outside, the image quality may not be as great as you hope, especially if you’re projecting the image to a large screen (100″ and larger). Still, it’s a fine
choice if you have the occasional movie night and don’t want to spend a lot of money.

The Anker Nebula Capsule is HD and is the easiest to use with Android TV built-in to play Netflix, YouTube, games, and most anything else. Once I logged into the projector using the app and connected it to WiFi, I saw the same menu as I use on a Google Chromecast with Android TV. The remote makes the Nebula very simple to use. It too runs on a battery and is super portable with a very good speaker. I’ve watched a full movie without the battery running down so I haven’t had to connect it to power. The 360-degree speaker is very very good, but the projector is expensive. As I write this the Nebula II Capsule is $579 at Amazon.

For the best picture hands down, ViewSonic’s M2e. Full HD and triple the lumens. It looks great even on an 18′ screen. You can play content from just about any source but you will need to provide power as it doesn’t have a battery. This is simply the best picture I have seen from a portable projector. The M2e is the best choice if picture quality is more important than portability. It is getting hard to find the M2e online as it is sold out at the ViewSonic website and a few other online retailers I’ve checked.

There are a couple of ways to go for the screen. There are 18′ inflatable screens for around $150. The one I tried was a brand from China that took about 2 weeks to arrive after ordering it on Amazon. It was fairly easy to set up but very difficult to take down and put back into the storage bag. The air blower makes some noise while the movie is playing but after a few minutes, I didn’t notice it very much. It’s important to use the included ropes to secure it with the ground as a gust of wind can blow it across the yard, or until the extension cord to the blower gets pulled out. It is a monster of a screen and the picture quality is very good but I wouldn’t want to set it up and take it down frequently.

I returned the inflatable screen to Amazon and purchased an Elite Screens Yardmaster series. I had purchased one of the company’s smaller screens a few years ago. The newer 10′ screen is free standing and the colors didn’t bleed through the back. Most importantly, it is easy to set up and take down. The bag or case that comes with it holds the legs, tie-downs, and screen without trouble. I have actually taken this huge screen on trips with no issues at all. As far as picture quality goes, it is perhaps a bit better than the inflatable screen but not by so much that you’d notice unless the two were side-by-side. By the way, a 10-foot screen will likely do for any backyard movie nights as it’s plenty large enough for a big crowd. The Elite Screens Yardmaster is around $170.

If it is an occasional backyard movie night I would probably put more of my money into the projector than on the screen. Amazon sells several movie projector screens that are basically an upgrade from a bedsheet. They also need to be affixed to a wall or fence but you can find those for under $50.

If you’re building a backyard theater, remember big screens need a good projector.

As for those very inexpensive movie projectors you see listed on Amazon as 1080HD for under $70, I’ve tried a couple of those and they are simply not great. The one I purchased is okay for watching something on a smaller screen indoors but if you want to create a movie theater-quality experience in your backyard, you can expect to pay $500 or more.

For more gift ideas visit the What the Tech website.

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