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.
Traeger Ironwood 650
Traeger got a head start on barbecue season back in the spring when it introduced three new WiFi-enabled pellet grills. The Ironwood Series is the middle ground between the more affordable Pro Series and the pricier (and more equipped) Timberline range. Though the Timberline has some extra features, they aren't essential for most people, and you can cook some insane food without them -- while saving a few hundred dollars in the process. (More money for brisket!) These grills aren't just for smoking either. With a temperature range up to 500 degrees, you can use them as your regular grill for burgers, brats or even pizza. You can even bake dessert on these things.
Most importantly, the Ironwood Series offers Traeger's so-called Wi-Fire technology which allows you to monitor and control your grill remotely over WiFi. For low-and-slow barbecue cooks that take 8-to-12 hours, this is a game changer. The app also houses a wealth of recipes, which you can send to the grill in a few taps. With its latest models, Traeger introduced a D2 Direct Drive system that powers the grill. The tech offers features like Turbo Temp that make the machines run more efficiently, come to temperature quickly and recover faster when you open the lid to check on things.
I'm still using the Ironwood 650 months after my review and it continues to be a barbecue workhorse. If you need more room to work, the Ironwood 885 gives you more grill space for an additional $200.
Buy Ironwood 650 - $1,200
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.
Buy iGrill Mini on Amazon - $25
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 ($249.99) 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.
Buy Venture 45 Cooler on - $300
Miir Howler/Growler (32 or 64oz)
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. My go-to is the Miir Howler. It's a 32-ounce growler that's double-wall vacuum-insulated to keep your cold liquids cold and your hot ones hot. I like the smaller size because it's easier to carry, and I rarely have a need for 64 ounces of beer (in one container). In addition to having beer for a small get-together, this is super easy to take along to someone else's house as needed. If you do need more capacity, Miir does makes a 64-ounce version for $49.
I've been using one of these for several months now, for both beer and as a water bottle for outdoor activities. It does a good job of keeping things cold for a few hours, and most importantly, it does so without a cooler or ice. Even during a day in the sun when temps were in the high 80s, the Howler retained ice and kept water cold enough to be effective at cooling me down.
Buy Miir Growlers on Amazon - $42.95+
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.
Denon Envaya Pocket
This Bluetooth speaker is small enough you can take it on nearly every outdoor adventure, even if you're only headed out back. The Denon Envaya Pocket DSB-50BT is a solid alternative to the UE Boom series we also really like, and it has some similar features. Most notably, you can pair two of them together for stereo sound. The Envaya Pocket is also IP67-rated dust- and waterproof, so you don't have to worry about breaking it when it meets the elements.
Denon promises up to 10 hours of battery life, which will last well after your guests have worn out their welcome. There's a 3.5mm audio jack should you need it and on-board controls if you leave your phone elsewhere. A battery indicator lets you know about how much juice you have left and a built-in mic gives you access to Siri without having to reach for your iPhone. Sadly, you will still have to reach for the speaker.
Buy Denon Envaya Pocket on Amazon - $99
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!).
Buy DemerBox - $279+
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.
Buy Spikeball on Amazon - $60
Epson Home Cinema 2100 projector
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. Epson's Home Cinema 2100 is well-equipped for just that, offering 2500 lumens of brightness and 1080p resolution. In fact, you can expect full HD resolution at a distance of up to 11 feet. That's a 132-inch diagonal picture.
The projector has two HDMI ports for connecting whatever device you want to play or stream from, which includes a Chromecast, Roku or Apple TV (if you're close enough to your router to get good WiFi signal). There is a built-in speaker, but you'll probably want to use the stereo mini output to hook this up to something that will provide better (and louder) sound. And if you'd prefer to use a computer, there's a VGA connection as well -- projectors are also used for work, after all.
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.
Buy Epson Home Cinema 2100 on Amazon - $667
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.
Brightown Edison String Lights
There are seemingly endless options for outdoor string lights, literally in all shapes and sizes. The Edison bulbs will likely work well in most backyards. They don't look as cheap as some of the others, and they're not crazy expensive. Brightown is a company I came across on Amazon, mostly due to the reviews. And while some items you find that way can be duds, these lights hold up well.
Buy Edison String Lights on Amazon - $44
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.
Buy Kasa Smart Plug on Amazon - $33