Why you should trust us
Adrienne Maxwell has reviewed projectors and home theater equipment for over a decade. She is an ISF Level II Certified Calibrator, so she's aware of what makes for a good image and how to get that out of a projector. She has a full complement of objective testing gear to measure and evaluate the performance of these projectors, as well as the knowledge to get the best performance from them. To get a layperson's perspective, staff writer Daniel Varghese tested each projector to evaluate its usability and performance with real-world content. Their work builds off of the testing that was conducted in previous years by staff writers Chris Heinonen and Sabrina Imbler.
Who should buy this
If you want to enjoy the occasional impromptu movie night but don't necessarily want a big-screen TV taking up space in your home, a portable mini projector lets you easily display video on a wall anywhere. They are small enough to carry from room to room and can show a 50-inch-plus image on a wall or screen. You won't be able to use a mini projector as a TV replacement if you tend to watch TV during the day or in a very bright room, but in the dark they look fine and are great space savers.
Many of these models are battery powered and have apps like Netflix built in, so you don't need to lug around power cords and source devices—which makes them great to take with you to a friend's house or on vacation. These projectors likely aren't bright enough for an outdoor movie night, but if you keep the image small and your yard is dark, it might work. In a pinch, the brightest portable mini projectors can also show a PowerPoint or other presentation in a room with the lights on, but these aren't primarily business projectors.
This is not the type of projector you want for a dedicated home theater room. They are not bright enough, and their black-level performance and color accuracy are not up to home theater standards. For the best picture quality, look to our guide to the best home theater projector.
If you need a projector that's portable but you don't need it to run off of a battery, check out our guide to the best cheap projector. Those projectors use standard metal halide lamps, rather than the little LED lamps inside these mini projectors—so they can be five to 10 times brighter and can easily create images 100 to 120 inches in size. They usually have more inputs and more video adjustments to produce a more accurate picture. If you want a projector to watch movies on the wall and still be able to occasionally take it with you, one of those might be what you're after. But if you need something even more portable, a battery-powered mini projector should do the trick.
How we picked and tested
Over the past few years, we've researched over 43 portable mini projectors and called in over 15 models to test. To determine which projectors to test for our latest update, we considered the following elements:
- Connection/source options: We only considered projectors that offer multiple input options so that you can access content in different ways. We required all projectors to have a full-size HDMI input, since that's about as universal a connection as we have today (and won't require you to carry around an HDMI–to–Mini-HDMI adapter). We also considered whether a projector has a slot for a USB thumb drive and if it has internal apps that allow you to stream content without plugging in an external source device.
- Picture quality: A great mini projector should be able to produce a reasonably bright, high-definition image, so we looked for models with at least a 720p resolution and a stated brightness around 300 lumens (knowing that the real-world number would likely be less).
- Portability: We looked for projectors that are battery powered and are at least small and light enough to carry between rooms and put in a backpack.
With these parameters in mind, we narrowed the list to six projectors to test against our previous pick, the AAXA P300. Our test group included the AAXA P6 (the updated version of that previous pick), the AAXA M6 (a slightly bigger projector that promised a brighter image), the LG PF50KA (a popular model with a built-in digital TV tuner), the Anker Nebula Mars (which was almost a pick last year before a rep mistakenly told us it was being discontinued), the Anker Nebula Mars II (which promises a longer battery life than the original Mars and adds support for a remote app controller), and the Anker Nebula Mars Lite (which has the same design as the Mars and Mars II, but no internal streaming apps).
We began our evaluation by testing each projector's objective performance. Adrienne Maxwell used SpectraCal's CalMAN software with a DVDO iScan Duo test-pattern generator and an i1Pro 2 spectrophotometer to measure each projector's light output, contrast ratio, and color accuracy. Adrienne cast a 55-inch image from each model on a 1.1-gain Elite Screens matte white screen. Color accuracy was not very good with any of the projectors we measured, and though some offered multiple picture modes and/or limited picture adjustments, none of it really helped. But given the intended use case for this type of product, we think that light output and contrast ratio are the most important parameters, so here are the numbers we got in those areas:
After these measurements were complete, Adrienne sent the projectors to Daniel in New York for real-world testing. Daniel spent several hours using each projector—through at least one run of its battery life—streaming movies and TV from his computer and, when possible, using the internal streaming applications. Daniel cast the image directly against a white wall, which is how we think most people will use this type of product.
In determining what makes the best portable mini projector, we prioritized ease of use over absolute image quality. With this type of product, we believe that although people do value a nice-looking image, they're willing to accept some sacrifice in picture quality to get the most user-friendly experience. So we set the following criteria during our evaluations:
- User interface: We looked for projectors that had well-designed menus that made it easy to switch between various inputs and adjust projector settings. If the projector had internal apps like Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, we made sure that those apps were as easy to use as the mobile and desktop versions (and that they receive regular updates).
- Control options: At minimum, the remote included with the projector should have buttons for power, source selection, and volume that actually work. An ideal remote is lightweight with a simple layout that makes all of the primary buttons easy to find, and not crowded by other options. Some projectors give you the option to download a remote app on your phone that you can use instead of the included remote. We viewed this as an advantage, as long as the app connected quickly and was easy to use.
- Picture setup: Focusing and vertically keystoning (making your image appear rectangular, even if you're projecting an image at an angle) your protector should be easy. We gave extra points to those projectors that did one or both of these functions automatically.
- Picture quality: We looked at how each projector measured objectively, as well as how the image looked with real-world content.
- Speaker quality: We wanted to find a projector that sounded good enough that you won't need an external speaker in order to enjoy whatever you're watching. But we made sure that, if you wanted to, you could connect one, either directly or with Bluetooth.
- Battery life: You should be able to use your projector's internal battery for at least the duration of an average movie, about 2½ hours.
Our pick: Anker Nebula Mars II
Of all the mini projectors that we tested in 2018, the Anker Nebula Mars II is the easiest to set up and use, and it delivers a fairly bright, accurate image with solid contrast and detail. The Mars II has a clean interface, a well-designed remote, and an optional iOS/Android control app—all of which make navigating between connected sources and built-in streaming video apps like Netflix and Amazon Video simple. Its internal speaker is decent enough that you shouldn't need to hook up external speakers for a casual movie night, although you can easily connect speakers directly or through Bluetooth. And if you want to use the Mars II unplugged from the wall, its internal battery lasts almost four hours, even if you're using the built-in Netflix app the entire time.
The Mars II employs the Android TV interface, like one of our favorite media streamers. When testing TVs, we've found that the Android interface can be laggy and unresponsive. On the Nebula Mars II, however, the software worked exactly as expected. Having such an elegant interface made it easy to toggle between an HDMI source like our Nintendo Switch, a USB source to see photos from a recent trip, screen mirroring with a mobile device, or one of the many internal apps.
We were able to navigate the Android TV interface using both the included remote—which is laid out cleanly and features only the buttons you'll use—and the smartphone app. Some internal apps, including Netflix, require you to use the control app to navigate within their interfaces. When you open these apps, a pop-up appears on the screen telling you to use the control app. You can attempt to use the remote anyway to perform very basic navigation, but you'll find it doesn't allow you to select specific episodes or adjust settings as well as the smartphone controller app. We initially found this annoying, but ultimately we ended up preferring to use the app over the remote—not having to dig into the folds of our couch just to adjust the volume is pretty great.
Most of the mini projectors we tested produced a good, but not great, image, and the Nebula Mars II was no exception. What made the Mars II (and all of the Nebula projectors) stand out was how easy it is to set up that image. This is because all of the Nebula projectors can automatically focus and vertically keystone their image so that it's always optimized for your desired throw distance and angle. Whenever you move the projector to a new location, it pauses what's playing and corrects the image to its new distance and angle. This was so much easier than with the other projectors that require you to fiddle with a dial to focus (like the LG PF50KA) or trapezoidal buttons on the remote to keystone (like the AAXA P300)—and the resulting image looked more crisp and clear than what I was able to dial in manually with some of the other models.
Though the Mars II was not the brightest or most accurate projector in our test, in important areas like brightness and contrast, its objective numbers did land near the top (see the chart above). And the image looked really good with real content—it's bright enough and has a high enough contrast ratio that the image was vibrant even in a room with some ambient light.
On the audio side, its speaker was one of the best that we tested. Although it's a little light on bass, the sound from the Nebula Mars II is undistorted and full. You'll have no trouble understanding dialogue and hearing sound effects, although you might lose some of the details within an underlying orchestral score. Considering that other projectors we tested from AAXA and LG sounded compressed and actively unpleasant, we don't think the shortcomings of the Mars II are a big deal—especially since you can easily connect external speakers via a 3.5 mm input or Bluetooth.
In our tests, the projector's battery lasted about three hours, 45 minutes while continually streaming video from Netflix—as long as it was in battery mode, which decreases the brightness of the projector slightly to conserve battery life. This should be more than enough power to last through an entire movie. Whereas some projectors we tested dramatically cut out in the middle of a scene—Sopranos style—when their battery life expired, the Nebula Mars II gives you ample warning that it's time to go grab your charger.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As we said before, the Anker Nebula Mars II doesn't have the best image quality, objectively speaking, of the mini projectors that we tested. Both the AAXA M6 and the Anker Nebula Mars produce a brighter image and have a higher contrast ratio, and the AAXA P6 is more color-accurate. But those projectors lack some usability features that we think are more important to the overall experience.
The Anker Nebula Mars projectors are the biggest mini projectors we tested. You can fit them in a backpack, but it would be awkward to carry much else. That said, if you're interested in lugging the Mars II only in between rooms or out to the backyard, this shouldn't be a big deal. In fact, the thin handle on the top actually makes this easier.
Runner-up: Anker Nebula Mars
If you prioritize image quality over usability, the Anker Nebula Mars is an excellent alternative to the Nebula Mars II. The Nebula Mars offers the best overall image quality of any projector we tested for this update, and it has the same inputs, Android TV interface, remote design, and size and shape as its newer sibling. However, the older Mars doesn't support the iOS/Android app, which makes it difficult to use some of the updated versions of the internal Android apps, like Netflix. Plus, its battery life is a little bit shorter than that of the Mars II, and this model costs more.
The Mars is not as user-friendly as the Mars II. Although it also offers the same set of inputs (HDMI and USB), screen-mirroring support, remote, auto focus and keystone system, and Android TV applications as the Mars II, the lack of support for a control app makes the Mars less intuitive to use on a daily basis. Some of the internal apps are optimized for use specifically with the mobile app controller and don't quite work as expected when you use the remote. For example, when streaming Netflix on the Mars II, we were easily able to use the app remote to select the specific season and episode of Parks and Recreation that we wanted to show to our friends. (Season 2, Episode 22: Andy brings a puppy into the office, and it licks Ron's mustache.) With the Mars, we were unable to use the supplied remote to pick an episode other than the one we were previously watching.
The picture quality of the Mars, however, is better than that of the Mars II by every metric. The image is notably brighter (336 lumens compared with 252 lumens for the Mars II), and this projector has a higher measured contrast ratio than any projector we tested for this round. Plus, it has the most accurate color temperature, which means the "color of white" won't look too blue or too red. Even if you're using the Mars in an environment with some ambient light, you should be able to enjoy a well-saturated image with a nice amount of detail, and the higher light output lets you go larger on the screen size and still get a bright picture.
The Mars has a slightly worse battery life than the Mars II—two and a half hours versus almost four hours—but it's long enough to last the entirety of most movies and multiple TV episodes. Its internal speaker sounds similar to that of the Mars II, and you can use your own speakers, either by plugging them into the 3.5 mm input or through Bluetooth.
Budget pick: Anker Nebula Mars Lite
The Anker Nebula Mars Lite lacks some of the features that make the Mars II so easy to use in a variety of environments, including internal applications like Netflix and support for the smartphone control app. But if you plan to use your mini projector primarily with external sources like a computer, media streamer, Blu-ray player, or thumb drive, the Mars Lite offers surprisingly good image quality and long battery life at a much lower price than our other picks.
Unlike the Mars and Mars II, the Mars Lite doesn't use the Android TV operating system, so it lacks internal streaming apps, as well as support for screen mirroring. In order to use it, you must connect an external device to its HDMI or USB port. This makes it a little harder to just sit down and cue up something to watch, and it makes the system less portable because you have to take source devices along with you. That said, once your devices are connected and ready to go, the Mars Lite's simple interface makes it easy to toggle between inputs and adjust the projector's settings.
In terms of measurements, the Mars Lite emitted a slightly dimmer image with a lower contrast ratio than the Mars II, but its image was more color-accurate (it earned the second best score of the seven projectors we tested). Perhaps more important, the Mars Lite has the same auto focus and keystone system as the Mars and Mars II, which makes the Lite's crisp image just as easy to attain without much extra effort.
The Mars Lite's battery life is about three hours—long enough to last through most movies and several TV episodes, but not as long as that offered by the Mars II. The Mars Lite's speaker is comparatively a little worse than that of the Mars II. At max volume, the Mars Lite's speaker is a little quieter, but you'll still be able to understand dialogue and hear the score. And although you can still connect external speakers directly via the 3.5 mm input, the Mars Lite doesn't allow you to connect external speakers through Bluetooth (even though you can use the Lite as a Bluetooth speaker itself).
What to look forward to
In October 2018, Anker announced the Nebula Capsule II, a follow-up to the Anker Nebula Capsule. Despite the fact that the original Capsule employs the same easy-to-use software as the Nebula Mars II, we dismissed it from consideration because it can display images at a maximum resolution of only 480p. The Capsule II will be a bit more powerful than the original—reportedly capable of outputting images with a 720p resolution and 200 lumens of brightness. It also charges over USB-C, has a more powerful speaker, and includes Google Assistant. We'll consider testing the Capsule II once it is released.
We tested the following projectors in 2018 and decided not to recommend them.
AAXA M6: This projector is extremely bright, more than twice as bright as the Anker Nebula Mars II. Its picture is also relatively color-accurate with a high contrast ratio, but the color temperature looks overly green. Unfortunately, not only does this projector lack internal apps, but it also cannot keystone its image. If you're attempting to watch a movie from the comfort of your couch, you might have to put the projector on a tripod in order for its image to appear at eye level—you can't just prop it at an angle with a book.
AAXA P300: Our previous top pick, this projector features very few connection options. If you're planning to hook up a device via only HDMI, it works fine, but the model we tested didn't allow us to play the video files we had loaded onto the thumb drive that we plugged into the projector's USB input. Because the projector lacks internal apps and the ability to connect to Wi-Fi, this model's portability is limited because you'll never be able to leave your computer and HDMI cable at home. In addition, the P300 doesn't have auto focus or keystone, which makes producing a clear image harder. And even when you've optimized the image for your placement, it looks a little dim and reddish.
AAXA P6: The P6 is brighter and more color-accurate than its predecessor, the P300. Its internal speaker also sounds better—you'll be able to understand the dialogue from movies and TV, but you might not be able to make out the score. That said, it has the same usability issues. We think you'd be better off with something that has internal apps, automatic focus, and automatic keystoning.
LG PF50KA: This projector has plenty of connection options (it even includes a TV tuner) and a well-designed user interface. Unfortunately, you can't say the same about its included remote, which is crowded with tons of buttons that don't serve essential functions. Plus, its image is much dimmer than that of the Anker Nebula Mars II and noticeably bluer than it should be.
In previous years, we tested and dismissed these projectors:
AAXA P300 Neo: This projector looked like a newer, smaller, cheaper version of the AAXA P300. But the image wasn't as bright or clear as that of the original P300, sporting a contrast ratio under half that of the AAXA P300, and we couldn't get the keystone correction to work.
AAXA P4X: Although it's small and portable, this projector isn't bright enough for most situations, and owner reviews are generally negative.
Anker Nebula Capsule: A scaled-down version of the Nebula Mars that's around the size of a tall soda can. It runs on the same Android software as the Mars and Mars II, which means it is just as easy to use and claims its battery lasts up to four hours. But its 854×480 resolution is just too low for streaming movies. It's also much dimmer than the Nebula Mars Lite.
Asus S1: A prior pick, this small projector comes with a carrying case and has a built-in battery that delivers up to three hours of use. It produces a large image without a long throw distance, but it delivers just 90 lumens at 480p, which is far too dim and small for a movie screening at home. The image is also noticeably washed out. This is the absolute smallest portable projector we tested, so if you need an ultralight, compact projector in a pinch, you might check it out.
Asus ZenBeam E1: This projector produces a tiny 854×480 picture at 150 lumens. Measuring 4.3 by 3.27 by 1.14 inches and weighing 11 ounces, it's smaller than even the Asus S1 (and with a 6,000 mAh battery, it lasts for five hours—two hours longer than the S1). But it's just not bright enough.
DBPower T20: This frequent Amazon best seller claims to produce an extremely bright image (1,800 lumens) and a 1080p resolution. It manages to produce all those lumens by adding an excessive blue tint to the image, which makes it appear brighter but produces a horrible image. Chris called it "by far the worst display device I've ever tested, with a grayscale that is excessively blue and colors that are not accurate at all, with very low HDTV gamut coverage." It's also just large and heavy, but with no internal battery and none of the perks. We don't recommend anyone buy it.
Optoma ML550: Compact and portable with a rated 500 lumens, this projector has no battery option. With enough models available that offer battery power, it didn't make the cut.
Vivitek Qumi Q6: This projector has dual HDMI inputs and supports 3D, but it exhibits video processing bugs that reduce the image quality. It has to be closer to the wall than the Anker Mars II to produce the same size image. There are posterization artifacts with moving objects, especially on faces, which makes it a worse choice for movies. The internal Wi-Fi lets multiple people connect and project content for presentations, but this doesn't make up for its other issues.
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