Low-Cost Mini Projectors Let You Set Up a Home Theater Almost Anywhere

These tiny devices cost less than full-size models and offer decent picture quality and go-anywhere flexibility

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A mini projector home theater set up on a deck
Using a mini projector, a streaming stick, and a sheet as a projection screen, it's easy to set up an outdoor theater.

This past weekend, my wife and I watched a movie in our bedroom. While that might not seem like a big deal, what made this experience unique was that we didn't turn on our TV. Instead, we beamed the film onto the ceiling with a mini projector, catching all the on-screen action lying flat in our bed.

That's just one of the creative ways to use a mini projector, one of a relatively new breed of portable projectors that can go almost anywhere. Whether you're beaming movies onto a ceiling or wall, or setting up a mini theater outdoors, as I did in the photo above, portable projectors can be a fun way for families to beat the stuck-at-home sheltering blues.

While I've been playing around with a couple of models, the crack Consumer Reports video testing team has put five portable projectors through some fairly rigorous testing.

Tested models, here in alphabetical order, are the Aaxa S2 Pico Projector ($280), LG CineBeam PH550 ($450), Miroir HD Pro Projector M220 ($400), Piqo Mini Projector ($400), and Vankyo Leisure 430 (2020 Upgraded, $120).

Full test results, below, are available to CR members.

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"These mini projectors are not necessarily intended to compete with full-sized home theater projectors," says Claudio Ciacci, the TV-testing program leader at CR who oversaw the projector project. "But many offer decent brightness and picture quality, plus a level of portability that will let you take them almost anywhere."

Prices for these projectors can start below $100. The ones in our test ranged from about $120 to $450. Most were tabletop models, but there was also a micro-sized cube that fits in a pocket.

Compared with the full-sized models people install in home theaters, these smaller versions typically have fewer user controls and picture adjustments. All of the models except one were DLP projectors—where the light is reflected off a chip with a vast array of tiny mirrors—so some people may notice "rainbows," or momentary flashes of colored light on certain dark scenes. The Vankyo uses LCD technology, where light is sent through a prism and filters before hitting the lens.

All the models except one come with a remote control, and a few have a carrying case that made toting them a bit easier. Some have a built-in rechargeable battery for go-anywhere portability, while others require AC power. In general, we found you get what you pay for, both in terms of image quality and features, though we did find a bargain in the bunch.

In our tests, which involved test patterns as well as TV shows and movies, the biggest differentiator was image brightness, which affects not only image quality but also the size of the image you want to present. Because all of these projectors lack a zoom feature, to increase the size of the picture you have to move them farther from the screen. That reduces brightness, thus limiting the size of an acceptable image. 

Like home theater models, these mini projectors need a darker environment; you can't really see TV shows or movies in a brighter room, especially with larger screen sizes.

To test the projectors, we measured brightness capability at both 65- and 100-inch screens sizes, as well as at a 6-foot distance from a screen, which simulates a picture projected from the top of your bed to an 8-foot ceiling (just in case you want to emulate my wife and me). We took color-temperature readings using the 65-inch screen. We also evaluated image quality on a 133-inch projector screen. That would be a reasonable image size for a full-sized home-theater projector, but it pushed almost all of the compact projectors beyond their practical limit.

While some features varied, there were a number of similarities among the models. Most of the projectors in this test are 720p HD models, so while most are capable of providing a satisfying picture, they lack the finer detail you get with true 1080p projectors. All have HDMI inputs for connecting a streaming player such as an Apple TV or Roku device, and one model has built-in smarts so you could stream video using just the projector. All have at least one USB port, as well as an auxiliary audio input and jacks for using headphones.

Here's how the models stack up.

 

LG CineBeam PH550

Size: 6.9" x 1.7" x 4.3"     Weight: 1.4 Pounds


Price: $450

Expert Evaluation Scores
PICTURE QUALITY: How good the image looks based on accuracy of detail, color, contrast and depth of black level.
PICTURE QUALITY
4/5
65" BRIGHTNESS: How satisfying the brightness of the image is when the picture size is expanded to 65" inches.
65" BRIGHTNESS
5/5
100" BRIGHTNESS: How satisfying the brightness of the image is when the picture size is expanded to 100 inches.
100" BRIGHTNESS
4/5
19
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