Best portable projector Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best portable projectors you can buy in 2020.
Projectors are typically neither convenient nor cheap. To get the most out of the best projectors you need to paint entire rooms black, buy yourself a screen, an AVR, a speaker package and possibly even have to fix a chunky mounting bracket onto the ceiling.
This is why portable and mini projectors are a better choice for many. There's no need to replace your TV. Just pull out your portable when you want to go big and you can even take them around to friends’ houses for movie nights. What's more, installing a portable projector is no more complicated than finding a flat surface or even a sheet hung in the garden and pointing the thing at it (though a dedicated screen is so much better).
A few years ago, these mini projectors were still hard to recommend despite their convenience. 'Pico' projectors had dim light sources that couldn't do justice to colours or contrast, even in a darkened room.
Today’s portable projectors benefit from improvements to LED and laser light tech. And that means a bigger, brighter picture and no more worrying about having to replace the lamp after a year or so. Traditional halogen projector lamps tend to last 2000-3000 hours. LEDs last tens of thousands.
There’s no magic brand-new tech in the lower-end of the portable world, of course. If a projector fits in the palm of your hand, it will not be particularly bright nor kick out top notch detail. No micro projector works well during the day with the windows open either.
This is one reason our best portable projector round-up includes almost all flavours in this category. There’s a pick so small you could fit it in some large coat pockets. It is great for camping, travelling or for entertaining the kids without putting a TV in their room.
The newer “lunchbox” style projector is a better fit for many, though. They offer a decent compromise of portability and performance, and will likely have the better software extras, as these are real lifestyle tech buys.
Right at the top of the tree are projectors that blur the divide between normal and portable designs. They are only slightly smaller than some normal home projectors but have built-in speakers and other convenience features such as short-throw lenses. These mean the projector does not have to be as far from the screen to create a large, cinematic image, and they can be stowed away in the cupboard again once you're done with your viewing.
Got all that? If that sounds like the kind of convenience and entertainment you're looking for, then read on for our best mini projectors of 2020.
It's not what you'd call 'mini' but the LG CineBeam has an integrated handle for easy carrying and is small enough to be easily hidden away in a cupboard when not in use.
That's especially impressive when you consider it's more or less an entire home cinema system: a 4K HDR picture, stereo sound, an array of smart sources, all in a unit you can carry like a holdall and set up wherever and whenever you might choose. Even the power cable is wound up inside the base, so there is really nothing you have to plug in if you don’t want to.
That’s the great beauty of the CineBeam: its versatility and intuitive simplicity. As long as you have a clean wall or ceiling upon which to throw a picture, you can have it up and running in a matter of minutes each time you use it.
Picture performance is strong: impressively crisp and detailed, with decent depth and natural hues. It is bright enough without being garish, vibrant enough to combat leaked sunlight. And it sounds surprisingly good by the standards of integrated speakers, too.
The only downside is the price, but if you want the best, you're going to have to pay for it. Besides, you'll find lots of more affordable options below.
Read our LG CineBeam HU80KSW review
The Asus F1 stretches the limits of what we might call a “portable projector”. It does not have a battery and you’ll need a rucksack to take it over to a friend’s house, but it is a very handy projector to take between rooms in your own home.
It weighs just 1.8kg, similar to some laptops, and has a short throw lens. This means it doesn’t need to sit as far from a wall or projector screen to produce a large image. A 1.4m distance gets you 80-inch movies.
It’s also less likely to get damaged when moved about as it uses an LED light array rather than a traditional lamp.
At this size you get much closer to the image quality of a traditional home projector. Its resolution is Full HD, 1920 x 1080 pixels, and the 1200 lumen brightness doesn’t need anything like the light-blocking preparation of a smaller model.
If you want to use a projector in the day time, the significantly brighter Epson EF100 is a better bet. But with the Asus F1 you get a much more cinematic image in a dark room. Colours have real DLP punch and the black level is more than respectable.
We’re not in the same class as JVC’s D-ILA range here, of course, but if you can project onto a grey wall or a white screen with black border, you’re looking at very enjoyable home cinema experience.
Unlike many more traditional projectors, the Asus F1 does not have lens shift or optical lens zoom, just digital zoom and keystone correction. Both limit picture quality so it’s a good idea to take out a tape measure to check it will suit your living room. You need some patience for the menu system too, as it can be very slow to respond.
The Nebula Mars 2 sits in a portable projector sweet spot. It is far from palm-sized, but has a synthetic leather carry strap and a shape similar to the Bang & Olufsen BeoLit 15 “lunchbox” wireless speaker. It’s cute.
This is easily the most fun portable projector in this group too. It has a battery that lasts up to four hours and Android rather than a basic menu system. The front-end is customised for use with the supplied remote, and has a dedicated app store rather than Google Play. But you can still download Netflix, BBC iPlayer and countless other apps to run direct from the Mars 2.
That includes games, but don’t get your hopes up. Most don’t run perfectly, although you can pair your phone and use its touchscreen like a laptop trackpad.
Image quality is respectable too. In a room with closed curtains and no lights switched on, the Mars 2 can produce a watchable image on a 100-inch screen. The projector dims significantly on battery power, but head to the settings menu and you can turn this off. It will simply last closer to two hours than the claimed four.
There’s no worrying about focus either as it has motorised autofocus. Sharpness is less than perfect and there’s some disparity to the sharpness across the image, but you’ll only notice if you look carefully. Its 720p resolution offers far better image detail than a basic 480p model and is a huge upgrade for gaming in particular. And you don’t need to look close to notice that.
The bad parts? Colour reproduction is not particularly good. It lacks finesse and vibrancy, and only minor image controls are available. And while larger than some, the Nebula Mars 2 still needs a partially light-controlled room to produce sufficient image contrast.
Read our Nebula Mars 2 review
Mini projectors don’t get much more convenient than the Viewsonic M1+. It’s tiny, and only weighs as much as four phones stacked in a pile. And it does come with wi-fi, a MicroSD card slot, plus USB Type-A and USB Type-C connectors.
The stand makes projecting an image from slanted surface, or onto angled walls, a cinch. Its speaker is the real surprise, though. While it sounds harsh and brash at maximum volume, the dual Harman Kardon speakers deliver enough volume for a movie night if you keep things sensible. The sound may only be that of mediocre budget bluetooth speaker, but it’s much better than that of most pint-size projectors.
Image quality is mixed, and not up to the traditional standards of TVs and projectors. That's hardly surprising as resolution is very low at 854x480 pixels. Text looks terrible, but we are pleasantly surprised by how invisible the pixel structure is even when projecting at 100 inches. Faces look smooth rather than blocky, although naturally there’s limited fine detail. This is a DVD-quality projector, not an HD one.
The Viewsonic M1+’s focusing is fiddly too. It has a flimsy wheel, and the M1+ tends to change focus slightly as soon as your take your finger off the control. Getting a perfectly in-focus picture requires some finger gymnastics.
And, no surprise here, the Viewsonic M1+ needs a fairly dark room to achieve an acceptable image. No-one is likely to be bowled over by this projector. But it is compact, relatively affordable, sounds reasonable, has a three-hour battery life and does a fair job displaying SD-quality movies. If that's all you require, it does the job.