Backyard Movies: Projector or TV?

Modified from photo by Roberto Nickson from Pexels

Summer movies are awesome. Summer movies in the backyard under the stars are even better. We hosted our first outside movie last summer with a homemade screen and an inexpensive projector (pulled from the old basement when we upgraded) and it was a great time. We had kids from the neighborhood over and watched a kids’ movie and everyone went home happy.

One of the things about an inexpensive projector is that they don’t natively display at HD resolution, but do some fakery in order to upscale to what looks like an HD image. So this begged the question – would it have been better to show the movie on a TV outside rather than use the projector? How would you decide? So I gave it some thought and looked around the interwebs, and put together this little note to help you decided if you should use a TV or projector for your next outdoor movie.

What We’re Looking At

Here are the questions that we’re going to be looking at to help you decide on projector vs TV. We’ll go into each one a little bit.

  • Before We Begin – Personal Preference
  • What Do You Have Available? Or What Are You Willing To Buy/Rent
  • What Does the Environment Look Like / Do You Have the Space?
  • When is the Movie Happening / How Much Light Will be Outside?
  • When is the Movie Happening / What’s the Weather Like?
  • How Many People are Coming / How Much Screen Real Estate do you Need?
  • Is This a Permanent Setup?

We hope these will help you make your next decision on TV vs Projector

Before We Begin – Personal Preference

Before we go down this path, a great movie experience always depends on you being comfortable with the movie experience! That means that if you have a strong personal preference about either of these you should just stop reading right now and go set up for your movie using your preferred method!

I am personally a projector guy. We don’t have a pool in the backyard and we have a pretty good open viewing area, so even with an inexpensive projector and an old set of speakers we’re still getting good results that we can all live with. I’m going to keep using my projector for our outdoor movies.

It’s okay to just like what you like, even if it doesn’t make sense or you get complaints from others. Forget about them! It’s your movie night and you can do what you want. So if you’re one of those people who just wants to use a TV for their backyard movies – just go ahead and use the TV! Get some good snacks, invite over the neighbors, and have a great time!

Now, if you don’t have a personal preference or haven’t done this before, let’s begin our decision tree with question 1:

#1 – What Do You Have Available? Or What Are You Willing To Buy/Rent

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

While this may seem like a really simple question to ask, there is a little bit more to it at first glance. Yes you have to have either a projector or a TV in order to watch a movie but you also need to consider all the other bits and pieces that you need to watch the movie.

For a TV – do you have the right kind of TV to watch outside? Do you have a stand for the TV?

For a projector – do you have a screen for the projector? Do you have a set of powered speakers you could use for output from the projects? If you’re planning on using sound from the projector itself, it will be in the wrong place and you’ll hear the voices, music, and ambient sound coming from behind you rather than in front.

I have three TVs in my house but all three are wall mounted – and I have never owned a stand for a couple of them. One is a big old plasma TV, which I would never move outside (just getting it off the wall to repaint was awful) and one is old and only 32″ – massive by the standards of 1990, but not so much now. Given all this, none of them would be appropriate for outside use.

If you don’t own a TV that would be appropriate outside and you don’t own a projector, the least expensive way to get set up is to purchase an inexpensive projector (like this one on Amazon) and make your own screen (which should run you $50-$100, but you can do it cheaper too. There are a lot of resources out there on building your own screen) and connect an old speaker with an aux-in function (or grab an inexpensive one on Amazon) and for a couple of hundred dollars you can get an outdoor movie up and running.

Another option for outdoor viewing is renting the equipment that you’ll need. If this is a one-off type of party, it might be very economical to rent a higher-end projector and screen or larger TV. You can either find the individual parts required to show the movie (TV or projector/screen/sound) or hire a service or company that specializes in this kind of presentation. Prices for this kind of rental vary wildly based on the area that you’re in, the viewing area you want, and sometimes the movie you want to see.

#2 – What Does the Environment Look Like / Do You Have the Space?

My yard is pretty simple – it’s fenced in (and we have to replace 2 of the fences next year), has a shed beside the house and not behind it, and has some trees around the periphery. As I don’t have any water features (to look at or get into: pond, pool, or hot tub) I can essentially use the entire yard to watch movies in. This means I can set up a projector across the yard from the screen without any impediments that might ruin the show.

When deciding for yourself between projector and TV, consider your environment. If you have a fairly heavily wooded yard you may not have a good area to project through. If you have a pool do you have a spot where you can set up the projector and the screen (or the TV) where there is no risk of water and electricity meeting? Is your yard big enough to have enough distance for the throw of the projector? If you’ve got a very small or very crowded yard, a projector setup might not be possible for you.

#3 – When is the Movie Happening / How Much Light Will be Outside?

I know this will come as a surprise to many people, but a projected movie requires a pretty distinct lack of external light. (I know, shocking, right?) In the summer when it may not get really dark until well after 9pm it may make it difficult to watch a projected movie with young children. The same may be true if you’re surrounded by families with young children.

If you’re thinking about showing a movie before dusk outside, you will need to use a TV – as long as the sun is not shining directly on the TV it should be fairly easy to see the picture (as long as it’s not an older plasma – then the glare would be terrible.)

When you’re watching a TV your eyes are seeing the result of direct light that’s being produced by the TV – and as such you can see it in brighter light – and how much you’ll see is dependent on the type of material the TV is made of. When you’re watching a projector, you’re watching reflected light from the screen – which makes it dimmer for your eyes and harder to see – and more impacted by other light around it. There’s a good article with a little more detail about lighting and TV/projectors over at Lifewire.

Conversely, if your surrounding environment is very dark – such as a more rural area (and you’re planning on showing the movie after the sun goes down) you’ll be better served by using a projector than a TV. The projector light is softer and less hard on the eyes, while a bright TV in total darkness has many reports of headaches and tired eyes.

#4 – When is the Movie Happening / What’s the Weather Like?

Well, we know you can’t comfortably watch a movie in the rain, but what about other summertime weather? As long as the temperature is reasonable (things get dicey when it’s too hot or too cold – check your operating manual for the specifics for your device) both projectors and TVs should operate without too much issue.

With everything else being equal, the major weather consideration is going to be wind. Both a projector screen and a large TV will act as a giant sail in anything more than the gentlest of breezes – and one of them cost you a heck of a lot more than the other (and is more susceptible to damage when crashing down.) Whether you’re using a home-made screen or an inflatable (like this one on Amazon) you can ensure that your screen is properly secured via ropes and stakes so that it will survive a pretty significant breeze. If you have a big LED TV that’s sitting on a stand on a box (or table) in the middle of the yard it’s definitely in a precarious position. Newer TVs are getting lighter and lighter – so if you do decide to use a TV, make sure it’s also properly secured somehow (although it won’t have the hooks to stake it down.)

The risk you take with your hardware is entirely up to you – but definitely a consideration for what you’re going to use outside.

#5 – How Many People are Coming / How Much Screen Real Estate do you Need?

One of the best ways to kill a good outside movie is by making the screen too small to see properly for the number of people that you have arriving for your show.

There are a number of different recommendations about how big a TV you should get inside (and this article on cnet does a good job of running them down) but in general you want to sit about 1.5X the screen diagonal away from the screen (give or take) and closer is not necessarily a bad thing. If you only have a smaller TV for watching outside, you’re going to have to site relatively close to the screen to get a good view – and this means that you’ll only be able to fit a few people who will be able to see the movie properly.

By way of example – if you have a TV that is 32″ diagonal, the optimal seating position is 48″ away – or 4 feet. More than 3-4 people won’t be comfortable at that kind of distance. We sat 15 people in my backyard with a screen of about 100″ diagonal (which would be ~150″ premium viewing distance, or 12.5 feet) and it left lots of space for additional seating. As the screen size goes up and the premium viewing space gets bigger, so does the slightly-less-premium but acceptable seating. You could do this with a really big TV if you have it.

#6 – Is This a Permanent Setup?

My wife’s friends have a fantastic back yard. Pool, deck, cabana – very beautiful (and very expensive!) One of the best parts about their backyard is that they have a large TV mounted on the weather-protected back wall of the cabana that you can see from the pool (or from the structure). This is a permanent entertaining space that allows them to watch essentially any program at any time. We have other friends who have smaller TVs mounted in weather-protected places in their backyards. This allows for essentially late-May to early-November outdoor watching at any time (day or night. *Always note operating temperatures, etc…*) for baseball, movies, and anything else that fits your fancy.

Of course you can also do this with a projector and a screen (very nicely, with the right projector) but you will be limiting the time that you can use the screen to around dusk or later – which will limit what you can watch.

IF you’re looking for a permanent TV setup outdoors, there is always the opportunity to get a Sunbrite TV (check them out here) that will withstand and be usable in most weather – if you’ve got the money for it.

The Final Decision

Now it’s up to you! We’ve had a chance to review a number of questions that should help you decided if you want to use a TV or projector for your next outdoor movie, but in the end if nothing has forced your hand either way it goes back to personal preference!

Just make sure that your next backyard movies comes out the way you want it to! Enjoy!

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