Bright projector, outdoor speaker, good Wi-Fi: Backyard movie night checklist

September 7, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments

Sure, relaxing under the stars is nice, but sometimes a bit more action is desired. Or if not action, comedy. Different kinds of stars, if you will. Transforming your backyard into an outdoor home theater for your family isn’t difficult and, during the warm nights of early fall of shelter-in-place, can make a great substitute for visiting an actual indoor theater.

It does require some gear, however. Some of it you might have lying around already, and some you can probably repurpose from other places in your house. Check out the list below for some ideas and product recommendations to get the best picture and sound quality for outdoor movie night. Just don’t forget the snacks!

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

For the biggest movies you’re going to need a projector. Any projector will work, but the brighter it is, the easier it will be to see. Brightness also determines how large an image a projector can create. As far as our picks for home projectors, I actually like the Epson Home Cinema 2150 for this. It’s bright and has a long throw distance for a small projector, meaning you can position it farther from the screen. This might make placement easier for you.

Epson Home Cinema 2150 review.

Another Epson, the EF-100, is even smaller, and has a streaming stick built-in.

The Viewsonic M2 isn’t as bright as either of those options, but can be run on a USB battery pack, so you don’t need to be near an outlet. See our list of best projectors for other options.

Assuming you don’t have an outdoor TV already, you could bring your indoor TV outside. Keep in mind, however, that TVs are very delicate. One wrong twist and you can crack the screen. Even small TVs should be carried by two people. Treat it like you’re carrying a thin, expensive, sheet of glass. Technically, that’s exactly what it is.

David Carnoy/CNET

Projector speakers are not loud. Worse, they’re often competing with the projector’s own fan noise. So if you’re sitting close enough to hear the speakers, you’re trying to hear them through the woosh of the fans.

A Bluetooth speaker can connect to certain projectors, or some streaming sticks. The better and larger ones should be plenty audible. More importantly, you can place them closer to where you’re sitting.

We like the UE Hyperboom. It’s big, heavy and not cheap, but if your screen is 10 feet wide you should have some big sound to go with it. It’s loud, but just as important, it has an analog 3.5mm input, so you don’t have to worry about lip-sync issues by going via Bluetooth. 

Read the UE Hyperboom review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

If you’re using a traditional projector, you’re going to have to run electrical power. Since you’re running power anyway, why not just connect an actual speaker? A good soundbar will be significantly louder than a Bluetooth speaker, and probably sound a lot better too.

We like this inexpensive Vizio, which is “the best budget soundbar we’ve ever heard, period.” Part of its secret is the subwoofer, which can pack a real punch, even in your backyard.

Read our Vizio SB3621N-E8 review.

Don’t forget that you’ll need a cable to connect it to the projector. Nearly all projectors have an analog audio output, which can connect to the Vizio. Some have HDMI, so you’ll need an HDMI cable from the soundbar to the projector.

Outdoor screen

This is a tough one, as outdoor screens are selling out incredibly fast right now for fairly obvious reasons (…gestures at everything…). 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. Inflatable screens need to be secured to the ground, and any wind is going to set them rocking. However, they tend to be easier to set up. 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. The top of my head comes to mind. It’s worth noting that you’ll be able to see any texture in the screen’s surface, so a garage door isn’t ideal because you’ll see any design, seam or other imperfections.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

We like the Roku Streaming Stick Plus for its ease of use and wide range of content options: “With its simple design and focus on features you’ll actually use, Roku’s most affordable 4K HDR streamer is one you should get.” 

Check out the best streaming devices of 2020.

You can read more in our guide to the best streaming sticks.

This assumes your home’s Wi-Fi is strong enough to reach into your yard. More on ways to fix that below.

Ry Crist/CNET

Depending where and how strong your Wi-Fi router is, you may not have enough signal to stream anything in your yard. You might be able to fix that, check out the Wi-Fi tips in How to improve internet speeds for Netflix, Hulu and more.

If none of those options work, 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 TP-Link RE220 (aka the AC750). As 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.” 

Read more about improving your home’s Wi-Fi.

Or just tether your phone


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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 the ability to 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 in if you’ve run an extension cord.

Blu-ray player

Sony UBP-X700

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 and 4K discs are the best way to take advantage of your 4K TV. Not that the projector we’re recommending here is 4K. One’s only 720p! But 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.

Alternately, you could get a PlayStation or an Xbox for some outdoor gaming on a huge screen. The PlayStation doesn’t play 4K Blu-rays, however.

Extension cord

One of these is rather crucial 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 and/or GFCI outlet is probably wise as well.

Alternately, you could connect a power strip with a fuse in it, but these aren’t designed for use outside, so proceed at your own risk



Hammocks Rada

Lastly, the thing that has kept me sane through quarantine. Don’t underestimate the relaxing powers of a good hammock. You could get one from Hammock Hut, Hammocks-R-Us, Put-Your-Butt-There, really any will do. I’ve had one of these airy models for years and it has held up surprisingly well.

The only issue with watching a movie in one is that you’ll be asleep halfway through the second act. Nothing wrong with that.

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff 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 Instagram and Twitter, 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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