Update 6/25/2020: We’ve updated our picks just in time for Summer 2020.
Ah yes, sweet summertime. The few months of the year when your time is best spent outside, and that means time in the backyard, if you're blessed with one. After the landscaping is done and you're ready to relax, there are a few items that will go a long way in upgrading your own slice of the great outdoors. From cooking to drinks and entertaining, we've got you covered on the gear that can help you make the best of the rest of your summer and early fall, all without the long car ride or chorus of "Are we there yet?"
Grill all the things
If you're having friends over, a good host always provides some eats. And when it comes to entertaining in the backyard, that usually involves a grill. There's a literal truckload of options to choose from, and you can snag a solid setup for under $100 if you're on a budget. However, if you're looking to impress with your grill game, these selections should do just that.
Weber SmokeFire grills
Weber’s first WiFi-enabled pellet grills showed a lot of promise when they debuted earlier this year. The company introduced some unique design elements alongside a powerful app that guides you through the entire cooking process. However, the SmokeFire lacked some basic features that would have improved the cooking experience. With a massive update this spring, Weber addressed nearly every concern we had with the grills -- most of which were tied to its Weber Connect app. You can now adjust temperature remotely from your phone. That means you can raise or lower the setting as needed, even if you aren’t right beside the grill. You can also use the app to shut SmokeFire down after you’ve removed your food and ventured back indoors.
Push notifications are massively improved, too. They actually tell you what’s happening now, so you know exactly what to do next. And if you’re using a cooking preset in the app, you’re aware of the current status. As promised, Weber added a SmokeBoost mode that lets you saturate your meat with flavor at the beginning of your cook session. And lastly, the company made some big improvements to the firmware, so things like temperature fluctuations and preheat times are no longer causes for concern. Weber has established a regular schedule of updates already, so an expanded library of cooking presets and continued improvements should make SmokeFire even better in the months to come.
Weber iGrill Mini
I get it: A lot of you probably already have a grill you like. However, I've found that Weber's iGrill Mini is a revelation for cooking to the proper temperature consistently. Sure, you can use an instant-read thermometer, but that requires repeatedly poking your food, and even then it can be hard to know when to check based on the outside. With the iGrill Mini, you set a probe at the beginning and that's it. No poking, and no guesswork.
Select your type of meat, specific cut and desired temperature/doneness in the Weber app. The software and iGrill Mini does the rest. Like the iGrill 3, the app alerts you when your food is nearly ready so you can pull it off at the perfect moment. I used to overcook steaks all the time; I was truly terrible at it. I've been using the iGrill Mini for a few years now, and I haven't cooked a New York strip past medium since. I've also used it a lot for low-and-slow cooks like pork shoulders, and it does very well for longer smoke sessions too. The Mini only has one probe though, so if you need more, you'll have to splurge for another iGrill model.
Hold my beer
It's summertime. It's, as the kids say, hot AF. You're going to need a drink while you're enjoying the backyard. These selections will keep the liquids cool while you imbibe so you aren't running to the fridge every 10 minutes for a refill.
Otterbox Venture 45 Cooler
An Otterbox... cooler? Yep! The company that protects your phone from drops and general damage is in the cooler game, taking on the likes of Coleman and Yeti. With its Venture coolers, the company promises up to 14 days of ice retention -- four days more than the popular Yeti claims. Just to be thorough, I put that rating to the test with a Venture 45 full of ice in my shaded, but non-air-conditioned, garage. In the end, there was still ice in this thing six days later, and that's after nearly a week of outside temps in the low-to-mid 90s. I'm confident the 14-day rating would be not problem with milder ambient temps.
Otterbox also offers a range of accessories for the Venture 45 to help you make the most of it. A pricey set of wheels will keep you from having to carry a heavy load. There's also a side table, drybox and separator options you can tack on as additional purchases. The Venture 45 comes with a bottle opener and dry storage tray, so you do get some useful items without handing over more cash.
Most breweries (and bottle shops with draft) fill growlers, and a stainless steel option not only cuts down on waste, but it will also keep your beer cold for a while. The new go-to is the Brumate Hopsulator thanks to its double-walled stainless steel design that fits most drink sizes including standard 12- and 16-ounce cans and bottles. Just push your drink down into the cylinder and it’ll lock into place. The 12-ounce adapter included in the Trio is freezable, too, so you can give that shorter can a frozen surface to sit on while you’re drinking it.
The Hopsulator succeeds at its intended goal -- it keeps beer colder for longer and its design prevents condensation even in the worst heat. It’s also cup-holder friendly, so you can take it to a friend’s backyard party, too. It even works on hot drinks as well, so you can keep using it into the fall and winter. The Hopsulator could basically become your go-to insulated cup, and at $25 for the Trio, that’s hard to beat.
At the very least, backyard entertainment must include some tunes. Sure, you could drag your indoor setup out on the deck, but there are plenty of options that are much more durable, and that don't require risking your everyday gear. Plus, you won't need to stay in WiFi range in order to keep the music going without a cable. And these are a lot more portable.
UE Megaboom 3
Music is an essential component of any backyard party and UE’s Megaboom 3 makes it easy for you to bring the tunes and listen to them, uninhibited. It’s larger than other compact speakers measuring 8-inches high, but it’s still easy to tote from your living room to your patio -- and that tiny bit of extra heft helps it pump out great sound. A durable fabric wraps around its cylindrical body, but don’t assume that means the Megaboom 3 is delicate. It’s actually waterproof, dustproof and drop-proof so it can withstand even the rowdiest of your guests. It also floats so you don’t need to panic if it takes an accidental dunk in your pool.
The Megaboom 3 has solid sound quality and a powerful bass, and we like it’s one-touch control system. Just hit the “magic” button on the top of the speaker to play, pause or skip tracks. It also has a 150-foot Bluetooth range so you can keep your smartphone safely indoors and still stream music to the speaker as it sits on your porch.
Sony SRS-XB12 Extra Bass
But maybe $200 is too much for you to spend on a portable speaker -- in that case, Sony’s SRS-XB12 is a good alternative. Not only is it ultra-compact measuring 3.5 x 3 inches, it’s only $60. Now, you may think that even that price is too much for such a tiny speaker but you’ll be impressed with the sound that comes out of this tiny device. The sound quality is solid and the “extra bass” truly comes through with a punch. It’s also waterproof, IP67-rated and will play tunes for up to 16 hours on a single charge.
There are rugged speakers, and then there's the DemerBox DB2. This audio accessory looks like a Pelican protective case (and it even doubles as one too). Speaking of dry, the DB2 comes with a port plug that makes it fully waterproof. This means your phone, keys, wallet and more can stay safe when you're at the pool or beach -- in addition to any cookout when there's a threat of rain.
The DB2 lasts over 40 hours between charges, which makes it a solid option for a weekend of camping, on top of being a great backyard companion. The speaker can blast tunes via Bluetooth or wired with a 3.5mm aux cable. And if you decide to store your phone inside, there's a volume control on the outside so you don't have to pop the DemerBox open to make an adjustment. You can also pair up to six of these together, if one isn't loud enough (it probably is!).
Fun & games
Spending time in the backyard usually involves more than just food and drink. You're going to need something to pass the time while the burgers cook or a post-dinner activity so you can properly relax. We've got you covered for both.
Cornhole and ladder golf are fun, but it's time to change it up. Spikeball is all the rage these days, and rightfully so. It's great for the backyard and beyond, and it's way more entertaining than tossing some bean bags. This standard kit is for 2-on-2 play, so it's perfect for a small group or rotating teams at a larger gathering.
If you're unfamiliar, in Spikeball, your team (pair, in this case) has three touches to return a serve or play by spiking the ball on the net. There's no set position once the ball is served, so you can move around however you need to in order to keep things going. When the ball hits the rim or ground, bounces more than once or you fail to spike in three touches, the opposing team gets a point. What I like most about it is, kind of like volleyball, you can get as competitive or casual as you want. If you want to keep things chill you can, but if you want to go hard, you can certainly do that too.
When the weather is nice after dark, an outdoor projector will help you enjoy being in the backyard without missing the big game or a good opportunity for a movie. A new favorite device for this is the Optoma HD146X projector because it has a whopping 3600 lumens of brightness, which is more than you usually find in projectors at this price range.
It also has 1080p resolution and an HDMI port for connecting to your cable box, game console or other input device. In addition to facilitating an outdoor movie night, this projector could be your main driver for a backyard game competition thanks to Game Display Mode and Enhanced Gaming Mode, which boost visibility in dark scenes and boost the response time up to 16ms. You'll still need a screen or sheet to project onto, but this is the biggest piece of gear you'll need for an outdoor cinema when the sun goes down.
If you’d rather spend less on a projector, ASUS’ S1 portable mini projector is a solid bet. It has 200 lumens of brightness, a 854 x 480p resolution, HDMI input, a built-in 6,000mAh rechargeable battery and weighs only .75 pounds. Not only is it more affordable, but it’s also much easier to bring to a friend’s house if and when they want to have an outdoor movie marathon.
Set the mood
The party doesn't stop when the sun goes down, so you need a lighting solution that looks good but can also be controlled as part of your smart-home setup. Options for connected outdoor lights are lacking without a second piece of gear, but we've got the best options for something that looks good and won't break the bank.
Philips Hue Outdoor
There’s no shortage of outdoor lighting options but we like Philips’ Hue Outdoor lineup. Philips already has some of the best indoor smart lighting you can get and it recently added to its outdoor family with smart pedestal, wall-mounted and spot lights that start at $30. Some are available in white as well as white and color options so you can spring for the latter if you want to add personality to your evening barbeque. Best of all, Philips’ outdoor lighting can be controlled with the Hue mobile app alongside the indoor fixtures you may already have.
If string lights are more your style, there are endless options online. We still like Brightown’s Edison bulbs as they’ll likely work well in most backyards. They don't look as cheap as some of the others, and they're not crazy expensive either.
TP-Link Kasa Outdoor Smart Plug
Connectivity isn't a standard feature for outdoor string lights, so you'll need some type of smart plug to do the job. TP-Link's Kasa Outdoor Plug offers WiFi connectivity so you can control the ambiance without having to step outside and physically plug the things in. It has two outlets, both of which are IP64-rated against dust and water splashes -- plus there are caps to keep them covered when not in use.
This Kasa plug works with Alexa, Google Assistant and Cortana, so you can control your outdoor lights with your voice as well. There's a companion app from TP-Link too, which enables grouping with other smart devices and more. Of course, you can use this smart plug with other items besides string lights, which makes it a solid purchase for your backyard whether you need illumination or not.
Thermacell Patio Shield
When it comes to venturing outside, bugs can put a damper on the festivities quickly. And during the summer months, the biggest nuisance is mosquitoes. Sure, you could douse yourself with bug spray or essential oils, but they’re greasy and far from an ideal solution. Thankfully, a non-topical repellent is available for around $25. The Thermacell Patio Shield is a small canister that houses a tiny mat and a heating element that disperses bug fighting vapors -- no spraying required. Each mat lasts around four hours and the fuel canister needs to be replaced every 12 (unless you upgrade).
We tested this device in a mosquito infested backyard in North Carolina. Patio Shield did its job to keep the bugs away on an outdoor side table, though results were mixed around the edge of the promised 15-foot range. It’s easy to use and portable, so you can take it camping or to a friend’s house as needed. And if you’re feeling fancy, there’s a metallic version of the device for $10 more.