Our Top Pick for 2018: Sony VPLHW40ES 1080p 3D SXRD Home Theater Gaming Projector
Read our full review.
Home projection systems have become fairly popular recently—especially as the ability to produce high resolution and 3D images continues to improve. However, many people find the desire to relive or reinvent the “drive-in” atmosphere and host a projection viewing outdoors. Of course, the projectors that were designed for indoor use often are not able to adequately reproduce their quality when transferred out of a controlled environment. That is why we have taken the time to identify the top three projectors that you can use for outdoors as well as providing a budget pick. Outdoor projectors have to deal with more ambient light and less ideal positioning, so the factors you may know about projector systems in general may not always carry the same weight or priority in this list.
#1. Sony VPLHW40ES 1080p 3D SXRD Home Theater Gaming Projector
View it on Amazon: $1,699.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Our Gold Pick Winner is an amazing price to value projector that comes from Sony. Sony has developed a reputation for producing some of the best high-end electronics in pretty much every market. They are likely most widely known these days for their console gaming system, the PlayStation, but they make pretty much everything. From televisions to digital cameras to projectors, Sony continues to impress and build upon its already fairly significant reputation as a quality manufacturer of the best electronics outside of niche specialists.
The Sony projector on this list is no different. However, we should begin with a word of warning: if you are looking for an outdoor projector that can produce drive-in cinema size experiences, you may want to keep looking.
The maximum screen size width for the Sony is 10 feet. This places the maximum height at a little over 5 feet—68 inches to be exact. In this regard, if you are looking for a truly overwhelming picture size such that you are essentially swallowed up much like you would be in a traditional movie theater, then this may not be the outdoor projector for you. However, the Sony is such a quality projector that, if you can deal with a large but not gigantic screen size, it will produce an amazing viewing experience that is almost unmatched within its price range.
While resolution is a key variable for every image producing product, when it comes to outdoor projector systems, brightness is arguably a more important factor. You need your outdoor projector to be bright enough so that it can overpower the inevitable ambient light the picture will compete against. If your outdoor projector is not bright enough, the ambient light will wash out the resolution and color. This is actually one of the Sony’s weakest points, though it is not incapable of handling outdoor conditions. Still, the Sony produces the least amount of lumens, the measure for brightness, and as such will be the most susceptible to ambient light. This means that when using the Sony outdoors, you will have to ensure that the setup minimizes as much ambient light as possible, or your image quality will suffer. In this way, the Sony is not truly meant to be used as an outdoor projector. It is technically marketed as an indoor home theater projector—a step up above a home entertainment projector system. However, the impressive features and image quality, combined with the adequate lumen brightness for more controlled environments still places this at the top of the list for outdoor projectors.
The advantage that Sony gains comes in the form of other technologies that account for the different issues that can arise when using an outdoor projector. For instance, the Sony has one of the best lens shifting correction available. However, the Sony also comes with a keystone option. When you combine these two features, the Sony can accommodate a vastly more robust number of positions and scenarios than even the other entries on this list which supersede the Sony in terms of raw brightness. Keep in mind, if you are watching an outdoor projected video on a back porch, chances are that you simply do not have the room to accommodate an enormous maximum screen size. However, if you include the space of a yard, then the surface on which the screen and projector are set are likely not level. In the case of the projector not being level in regards to the screen, the various lens shifting and keystone features are paramount to ensuring that you can still produce a quality image without distortion. The Sony offers a 71 percent vertical and a 25 percent horizontal lens shift. This is an incredible degree available—especially at this price point. When you combine that with the variable zooming lens that has a 1.6:1 throwing ratio, you get a projector that is quite capable of producing excellent images from a variety of positions on the fly.
Still, with outdoor projectors, one of the primary concerns is color saturation. This actually leads the contrast ratio to be a bigger factor than for indoor projectors which generally have more easily controlled environments. Combined with the brightness capability, the contrast ratio is what will determine the quality of the projector’s images when competing with ambient light. It is in this regard that the Sony truly shines. With a color contrast that reaches the low 5,000s, the Sony projector essentially produces color quality that is on par with plasma television sets. This is actually more than twice the color quality that you see on LED television sets. Sony achieves this with a LCOS, Liquid Crystal on Silicon, chips that ensure the image is produced with the best color contrast possible. Moreover, the Sony has a host of features to improve on the color quality and greyscale attributes, though they carry a few downsides. Specifically, these software features which improve color contrast have a tendency to increase the lag of image production by more than double. However, the difference between the image quality when turning these settings off is minimal.
All of these features are displayed in full HD 1080p, which is not quite the cutting edge 4K that we would like to see, but is necessary to avoid paying another thousand or many thousands more for a projection system. Moreover, to account for some of the other issues the color contrast advances may produce, like blurring images with a lot of motion, the Sony projector also boasts a 240Hz refresh rate. This also comes in handy for making sure that the 3D capabilities do not produce doubles or other artifacts. When it comes right down to it, you would be hard pressed to find a superior product at this price point.
#2. Panasonic PTAE8000U 1080p Full HD Projector
View it on Amazon: $1,995.00*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Our Silver Pick Runner-Up selection comes from Panasonic. Much like Sony, Panasonic has a storied history with an excellent reputation for producing high-end electronics. However, Panasonic has lost some of their name cache as they do not generally make it first to new markets, and their products outside of the high-end field are reliable but otherwise unspectacular. Still, in many ways, the Panasonic checks more boxes than the Sony while still maintaining the same price point. In that regard, depending on the conditions when using your outdoor projector, you can look at this option as a 1a and 1b scenario.
In fact, one of the primary differences between the two projectors, and the reason for Sony taking the lead spot, boils down to Sony’s LCOS chip while the Panasonic relies on an LCD projection system. Regardless, the Panasonic still does so many things better than the Sony in terms of fundamental qualities that determine the effectiveness of an outdoor projector that you may end up going with this one. To start, the Panasonic produces 2,400 Lumens. This is a full 700 lumens more than the Sony, equating to a more than 40 percent increase. This sharp jump in brightness will allow the Panasonic to maintain a high quality image with more ambient light. This is important, because outdoor environments are inherently more difficult to control. Aside from streetlights, house lights, and the moon, there are a host of other potential light sources, both temporary and permanent, that can affect the image quality of your projector.
The second quality that sets the Panasonic above the Sony is an astounding 500,000:1 contrast ratio. This is more than 10 times the contrast ratio of the Sony, making the Panasonic a far more ideal choice for use outdoors with less than ideal ambient light conditions. However, one area where the Panasonic will lag behind a bit is in placement. While the Panasonic does a fairly admirable job of providing different aspect ratio features, its lens shift does leave a bit to be desired. First, the lens shift is not motorized. Instead, it uses a digital software process to shift the image vertically or horizontally. While this is generally sufficient, it still does not allow for the widest divergence between the screen and the projector’s position. This means that your viewing space will have to be more level than the Sony’s which can be difficult if you need 30 feet to display the maximum 300 inch diagonal length screen size.
Still, this is another area where the Panasonic beats the Sony. If you are looking to create that true cinematic experience of a gigantic screen and image swallowing up your entire field of vision to fully immerse you in the video, then you will not find that with the Sony. However, the 25 foot diagonal screen size that the Panasonic is capable of will more than block out all of your peripheral and suck you directly into the images on your screen. Moreover, the Panasonic has an excellent quality frame interpolation system which, while not better than the Sony’s, is fairly impressive for a 4-year-old projector. Most of the artifacts from movement will be minimal, and lag has been reduced to a low 41ms with the option of decreasing it further to just over 34ms by turning off some of the image correcting features.
The Panasonic does provide 3D capability but goes one step further by allowing a 2D to 3D conversion. If you are not one of those people who enjoy 3D production, or perhaps, it causes motion sickness or other visual problems, you can use the included 3D glasses to watch any 3D video in 2D. However, that actually brings us to one of the Panasonic’s biggest selling points in general: customizable features. If you are a videophile who likes to fine-tune the features of image production to the n-th degree, switching the features for different films to best play on their color and greyscale schemes, then the Panasonic has a slew of options for you. Of course, if you are not interested in that, there are numerous settings that do not require refined fiddling. Still, this aspect makes the menu a bit laborious to use and takes a bit getting used to.
The Panasonic projects images in full HD 1080p and offers a 2-year warrantee. The difference between the Panasonic and Sony when choosing the outdoor projector that is right for you will primarily come down to two things: what kind of ambient light are you dealing with, and do you plan on using this exclusively outside? If you have a lot of ambient light that you cannot correct for, then you should get the Panasonic. However, if you are looking for an indoor/outdoor projector, the Sony will provide a better image quality in general.
#3. Optoma EH500 1080p 4700 Lumens 3D DLP Network Projector with HDMI
View it on Amazon: $1,199.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
Following in the trend of this list, the Bronze Pick Third Place entry is the Optoma which provide even more option for strictly outdoor projection use but is somewhat limited in regards to the finer details, nuances, and bells and whistles that you might expect.
Much like the Panasonic, the Optoma provides a massive maximum image size of 25 diagonal feet. Moreover, this projector is the brightest in the list by far. Whereas the Panasonic beat the Sony by 700 lumens at a 40 percent increase, the Optoma blows both of them out of the water with a blinding 4,700 lumens. This is almost twice as bright as the Panasonic. Of course, this increase in brightness also cues you into what this projector is used for. In fact, the Optoma is actually designed for large scale use in areas that have significant amounts of ambient light. Business presentations in auditoriums first come to mind. However, this also makes the Optoma exceptionally viable in outdoor projection where there is a great deal of ambient light. If you live in a large metropolitan city and wish to host an outdoor projection viewing on a rooftop, then this is the projector for you.
Unfortunately, the contrast ratio of the Optoma is nowhere near the Panasonic. Though, in fairness, few projectors at this price point are able to offer a 500,000:1 color contrast ratio. Still, the Optoma provides a solid 10,000:1 color contrast which allows it to maintain excellent color quality in much brighter settings, especially when combined with the incredible brightness level this projector provides. Also keeping in line with the other entries on this list, the Optoma displays images in a full HD 1080p resolution and can also display 3D videos. Of course, much like the Panasonic, the Optoma will require a considerable amount of space to project its largest images. The Optoma’s throw ratio ranges between 1.59-1.91:1 which is fairly large, even for an outdoor projector. In fact, the Optoma will require 4 and half more feet of distance to produce the same size image as the Panasonic. While this may not seem significant when we are talking about distances on 30 feet and more, it still adds another potentially onerous requirement on an already difficult scenario to satisfy.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, this projector was more or less designed for business situations in large spaces with plenty of ambient light. This projector is actually capable of being networked to function in conjunction with over 250 other projectors. Of course, if you plan to use the Optoma for outdoor home use, this feature is pretty superfluous. Still, it does provide the ability to display the same video from numerous points simultaneously. This can be especially useful if you need to display the same video to multiple groups of people separated over distances too large for a single projection display.
However, one area where the where the Optoma definitely falls by the wayside when compared to the Gold and Silver pick winners is positioning correction. This projector does not have lens shift in any form, and its keystone correction only provides a 15 percent vertical adjustment. This means that you will very nearly have to place the projector in an ideal spot for it to provide an image that is not disfigured in some way. If you are using the Optima in a business context, this should not be difficult as most of these events are hosted in controlled environments. Likewise, if you plan to use this projector indoors, the positioning should not be an issue. However, it is when you want to take advantage of the Optoma as an outdoor projector displaying its maximum image size that this can become a concern. As already noted, this projector requires over 34 feet of clearance to project the largest image size. As if that amount of space was not difficult enough to accommodate, now you can only have a space with a slight gradation that does not exceed 15 percent of a vertical alignment. If your outdoor setting is constructed for such a purpose you will have no issues. Of course, most outdoor settings are not aligned so well. This may very well reduce the maximum image size you can create without deforming the image, thus negating one of the better features of an outdoor projector.
#4. ViewSonic PJD5155 LightStream SVGA Home Entertainment Projector
View it on Amazon: $299.99*
*Price typically updated every 24 hours. Current price may be different.
The drop from our top three options to our budget option is fairly steep—both in price and quality—but you can still get a capable outdoor projector for a price many people can afford. Of course, whereas the previous three entries could more or less be categorized based on your need, this one is definitely a lesser quality product.
The ViewSonic is the first entry on this list that uses an SVGA or XGA input system. This means you will not be able to project image resolutions in HD—full or otherwise. In fact, your maximum image resolution is about the same as a standard definition computer monitor: 800 x 600. This may very well be a deal breaker for many consumers. Be forewarned, your image quality will be somewhat blurry. The lines of definition in the image will not be that clear. Now, this is not to suggest that the image quality will be unwatchable. However, if you have an HD television in your home—and chances are that you do—then you will most certainly notice a considerable drop in resolution when you use your outdoor projector. In fact, the ViewSonic has been noted as an excellent projection system for business and classroom. However, it is not marketed as highly towards at-home-use. That alone should tell you something.
Still, for a cheaper option, it does provide a solid 3,300 lumens, which is brighter than both the Sony and Panasonic—though not the Optoma. Moreover, the ViewSonic actually offers the second best contrast ratio in the list at 20,000:1. This means that the images are far less likely to be overpowered by ambient light or have the color washed out, even if the actual detail itself is still a bit sub-par. This is all the more frustrating when you consider that the ViewSonic actually has an HDMI connection to display 3D video. Why the company would not have gone that little extra mile to ensure the lens and chip could also display HD resolution is baffling. Still, the color artifacts on this projector are not too significant, though the greyscale will have a tendency to drift into the greenish spectrum.
The ViewSonic comes with an onboard speaker, though you will almost certainly want to use a separate stereo system if this is for home use. A 3-year limited manufacturer’s warrantee is nice and somewhat better than a couple of the other models on this list. Still, if you are looking for a cinematic experience, this is not the projector for you. However, if you just want something for the kids or maybe to watch the game on, it should do suitably.
As with pretty much every image producing product, resolution is likely to be a primary, if not the primary, concern when purchasing an outdoor projector. This, however, is where things can get a bit tricky. Generally, we have all become accustomed to viewing images in an incredibly stable and controlled environment—namely, indoors. Once you attempt to create an image in a less controlled environment, the factors you cannot control will have to weigh heavier than they otherwise would, and you may be forced to make sacrifices.
One of the first sacrifices that you will likely have to make when using an outdoor projector is resolution quality. This does not mean you need to consign yourself to watching a blurry undifferentiated image. However, you need to understand that, unless you spend an exorbitant amount of money, you simply will not get the same resolution quality as you do in your home. However, you can still achieve a very high degree of resolution, full HD 1080p in some instances. Moreover, even in those cases when you cannot get 1080p, you will still usually be able to achieve a lesser HD resolution—perhaps 720p or maybe even 1080i. Depending on how much money you are willing to spend, you may very well have to settle for an inferior resolution than what you are used to.
If you have checked some of our other lists about projectors, you will have noticed a lot of talk about the brightness of the image. Specifically, the brightness of a projected image will directly impact the ability of that image to persist in the presence of ambient light.
Put another way, ambient light will wash out the color and detail of projected images, therefore your needs for bright projected images will be directly proportional to the amount of ambient light in the viewing space. Of course, it is impossible to achieve the same levels of darkness outdoors as opposed to an indoor, controlled environment. That is why when purchasing an outdoor projector, this may occasionally be more important than resolution. Of course, it is a balance between the two that is often desired, but the best outdoor projectors that do not use the exceedingly expensive laser displays almost invariably use traditional bulbs which have their advantages and disadvantages.
Projection Image Positioning
This is a consideration that will not often come up with indoor projectors, but can make or break the viewing experience depending on your needs. Essentially, outdoor projectors are often designed to produce larger images than indoor projectors. As such, this means the projector will likely be positioned further away—much further. Whereas indoor projectors will rarely require more than 10 to 15 feet, outdoor projectors can often demand 30 feet or more.
Depending on your situation, this space requirement alone may be a bit taxing. However, this issue can be further compounded by the demand that the space be level for the entire length. Even if you are fortunate to have 30 feet of straight line space in a yard, the odds of that space being level make this a serious concern for all but the luckiest or well-off consumers. As such, manufacturers of outdoor projectors have made their products more adaptable to the likely inevitability of differing grades of incline. This often takes the form of two approaches—one which is distinctly more effective than the other. The first is keystoning. This actually forces the projector to manipulate the image such that it accounts for the difference in angle. This is an inferior fix and generally a solution for cheaper products. The alternative is a lens that can literally shift the angle of projection, this is a far better solution but often costs more.
This is less of a concern with outdoor projectors for the most part, because there is usually not a lack of available space when it comes to positioning outdoors are there is indoors. Indoors, you usually have to deal with the size of the room and the size of the wall, not to mention the space occupied by the people watching the projector. All of these factors can create a difficult arrangement for indoor projectors—especially before short throw and ultra throw projectors were developed.
Outdoors, this issue is more about the maximum projected image size. There are also factors of brightness and resolution that may factor in to throw ratio, but primary you are concerned with maximum image size. Throw ratio will determine the amount of distance the projector needs to be away from the screen to present the image in its size at the best quality.
As mentioned prior, the maximum projected image size will directly affect the distance necessary for the projector to be placed from the screen as the throw ratio demands. However, since and outdoor projector is often used for larger gatherings and get-togethers of family and friends, the maximum size itself will generally be an important factor. For instance, it is not uncommon for indoor projectors to have a maximum image size that is between 8 and 10 feet. This is often a monstrous size indoors, but outdoors, where space is generally less of a luxury, 8 to 10 feet will often feel tiny. In this instance, more impressive maximum image sizes can be 200 inches or larger. This is anywhere from 15 to 20 feet and is more appropriate to adequately replicate the awe-inspiring effect that a movie theater can create. Of course, unless you are willing to spend large sums of cash, chances are your maximum image size will be smaller than 200 inches or, if the maximum image size is that large, then the resolution will fall precipitously the larger the image becomes.
This is another specification that is often highly touted for indoor projectors but will rarely play that large of a role in those heavily controlled environments. However, when you move the projected image outdoors, the number of this spec becomes far more relevant. Essentially, much like the lumen requirement, the various amounts of ambient light have a tendency to wash the color out of projected images. However, there are physical differences in how the contrast ratio of colors account for ambient light.
Whereas lumens increasing brightness simply seek to overpower the ambient light, contrast ratio seeks to account for ambient light with the specific variations of lightness and darkness in the color of the image itself. While indoor projectors will often boast a contrast ratio of 1,000:1, outdoor projectors will need at least twice that amount. Moreover, the larger the maximum image size, the better the contrast ratio necessary to account for the total amount of ambient light being combatted. Contrast ratios above 10,000:1 are not at all uncommon, nor do they necessary require as sizable a financial investment as perhaps some of the other considerations will to ensure the best quality.
Conclusion (Wrapping it up)
Outdoor projection systems are all about weighing your options and finding the right setup for your needs. Whereas other projection systems are easier to compare due to similar settings, outdoor projectors require a solid understanding of the environment in which they are intended to be used. The Sony is an excellent quality projector that can function both in or outdoors, but it is not necessarily the best in a bright environment.
The Panasonic is actually the better outdoor, but only if you have a fair amount of ambient light. The Optoma is best for a lot of ambient light like in an auditorium or outdoor setting in a large city. The ViewSonic is a budget option, though it lacks many of the modern features we have come to expect from our video producing electronics. In this regard, you will have to carefully determine which factors are more or less relevant to your situation, but there will always be a bit of a trade-off without spending many more thousands of dollars.