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, Daniel Varghese tested the projectors to evaluate their usability and performance with real-world content. Adrienne and Daniel's work builds on the testing conducted in previous years by 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 a dim to dark room their images look fine, and they are great space savers.
Many of these models are battery powered and have apps such as 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, they 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 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, see our guide to the best home theater projector.
If you need a projector that's fairly small and portable but you don't need it to run on 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—as a result, 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 as well as the ability to take the projector with you on occasion, one of those models 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 more than 43 portable mini projectors and called in 16 models to test. To determine which projectors to test, we consider the following elements:
- Connection/source options: We consider only those projectors that offer multiple input options so that you can access content in different ways. We require all projectors to have a full-size HDMI input, since that's about as universal a connection as is available today (and it doesn't require you to carry around an HDMI–to–Mini-HDMI adapter). We also consider 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 look for models with at least a 720p resolution and a stated brightness around 300 lumens (knowing that the real-world number is likely less).
- Portability: We look for projectors that are battery powered and are at least small and light enough to carry between rooms and to put in a backpack.
We begin each evaluation by testing the projector's objective performance. Adrienne Maxwell uses Portrait Displays'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. In our tests, we cast a 55-inch image from each model onto a 1.1-gain Elite Screens matte-white screen. Color accuracy has not been very good with any of the projectors we've measured, and though some offer multiple picture modes and/or limited picture adjustments, none of that has really helped. But given the intended use for this type of projector, we think that light output and contrast ratio are the most important parameters, so we weight those more heavily than the projector's color performance.
After these measurements are complete, we spend several hours using each projector, evaluating the picture quality of both the internal apps (if they exist) and connected sources. We switch between using a screen and casting the image directly against a white wall, which is how we think most people will use this type of projector.
In determining what makes the best portable mini projector, we prioritize ease of use over absolute image quality. With this type of projector, 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 look for projectors that have well-designed menus that make it easy to switch between various inputs and to adjust projector settings. If the projector has internal apps such as for Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify, we make sure that those apps are 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, 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 view this as an advantage as long as the app connects quickly and is easy to use.
- Picture setup: Focusing and keystoning (making your image appear rectangular even if you're projecting an image at an angle) your projector should be easy. We give extra points to those projectors that perform one or both of these functions automatically.
- Picture quality: We look at how each projector measures objectively, as well as how the image looks with real-world content.
- Speaker quality: We want to find a projector that sounds good enough that you won't need an external speaker in order to enjoy whatever you're watching. But we make 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 two and a half hours.
Our pick: Anker Nebula Mars II Pro
Of all the mini projectors we tested, the Anker Nebula Mars II Pro is the easiest to set up and use, and it delivers a fairly bright, accurate image with solid contrast and detail. The Mars II Pro has a clean interface, a well-designed remote, and an optional iOS/Android control app—all of which let you easily navigate between connected sources and built-in streaming video apps such as for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Its internal speaker is good 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 Pro unplugged from the wall, note that its internal battery lasted over three hours in our test.
The Mars II Pro's connection options include HDMI and USB, and we found the USB player (which has playback support for music, photos, and videos) to be simple and intuitive to use. The Mars II Pro also employs the Android 7.1 operating system, which gives you direct access to streaming apps such as those for Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Spotify without your having to connect an external streaming stick or player. In our tests, the Android interface worked as expected and made it easy to toggle between an HDMI source such as our Nintendo Switch, a USB source to see photos from a recent trip, and one of the many internal apps.
You can browse and add apps via the built-in app store, but the selection is not as extensive as on the Google Play Store in general. (You can also add apps via Android Package, aka APK.) Sometimes you'll get a warning that a certain app has "Google Services dependencies" and may not work as it should. The YouTube TV app is one service that did not work in our tests, even though we could download the app.
We were able to navigate the Android interface using both the included remote—which is laid out cleanly and features only the buttons you'll need to use—and the Nebula Connect smartphone app. Many of the internal apps, including those for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, require you to use the control app to navigate 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 discover that it doesn't allow you to select specific episodes or adjust settings as easily as the Nebula app. We initially found this restriction annoying, but ultimately we ended up preferring to use the app over the remote.
Most of the mini projectors we tested produced a good but not great image, and the Nebula Mars II Pro was no exception. What made the Mars II Pro (and all of the previous Nebula Mars projectors) stand out in our tests was how easy it was to set up that image. This is because the Mars II Pro can automatically focus and keystone the image so that it's always optimized for the projector's throw distance and angle at that moment: Whenever you move the projector to a new location, it pauses what's playing and corrects the image to its new distance and angle. As a result, we found this model so much easier to use than other projectors that require you to fiddle with a dial to focus (such as the LG PF50KA) or to push trapezoidal buttons on the remote to keystone (such as the AAXA P300)—and the resulting image looked more crisp and clear than what we were able to dial in manually with some of the other models.
The Mars II Pro has a 1280×720 resolution. Compared with its predecessor and our former top pick, the Mars II, the Mars II Pro is brighter (rated at 500 ANSI lumens, just like the original Mars) and has a higher contrast ratio, so the picture has more depth and pop. In our direct side-by-side comparison of the two, the Mars II's image looked a bit flatter and more washed out, especially in a room with a bit of ambient light. The new model also had slightly more accurate colors, though its color temperature (or color of white) was a tad bluer than that of the Mars II. That made bright scenes seem even brighter, but it also created a little more redness in skin tones. The effect was not excessive, though. Overall, we were satisfied with the picture quality of the Mars II Pro, both with internally streamed content and with Apple TV and Blu-ray content that we input via HDMI.
On the audio side, the Mars II Pro's internal speaker system (dual 10-watt speakers) was one of the best we tested. Although it was a little light on bass, the sound was undistorted and full. You'll have no trouble understanding dialogue and hearing sound effects, though you might lose some of the details within an underlying orchestral score. You can easily connect external speakers via the 3.5 mm output or Bluetooth, and the Mars II Pro can also serve as a Bluetooth speaker—a quick press of one top-panel button turns off the video and puts the Mars II Pro into speaker mode.
In our tests, the projector's battery lasted about 3 hours, 15 minutes in battery mode, which decreases the brightness of the projector slightly to conserve battery life. (We got a little over 2 hours in standard mode; that's still enough for many movies.) Whereas some projectors we tested dramatically cut out in the middle of a scene—Sopranos style—when their battery life expired, the Mars II Pro gave us ample warning that it was time to go grab the charger.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Nebula Mars projectors are the biggest mini projectors we tested. You could 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 Pro only between rooms or out to the backyard, this shouldn't be a big deal. In fact, the thin handle on the top makes carrying easy.
The Mars II Pro supports screen mirroring from iOS and Android devices, but you can't mirror any content that is copy-protected, which eliminates most of the major streaming services and any Apple or Google Play downloads to your phone or tablet. We were able to stream some YouTube videos from an iPhone XR without issue, but when we tried to stream personal videos recorded to that phone, the motion was so choppy that it was basically unwatchable. You're better off sticking with the Mars II Pro's internal streaming apps and using a USB stick for personal media.
What to look forward to
At the CES 2020 trade show, Epson introduced its first "mini" projector, the $1,000 EF-100. Available in white or a black/copper cabinet, this 3LCD projector has a 1,280 x 800 resolution and a stated brightness of 2,000 lumens (with a laser diode light source), with Android TV, a speaker, and auto keystone correction built in. It's a bit larger than most of the projectors we've tested for this guide, and unfortunately it lacks a built-in battery to make it truly portable, but we plan to check it out anyhow to see how it compares with all the DLP projectors in this category.
The Philips PicoPix Max portable DLP projector has a 1080p resolution, a stated brightness of 800 ANSI lumens, Android OS, 16 GB of internal memory, and a connection panel with HDMI, MicroSD, and USB-C—for under $600. This is an Indiegogo-funded product that was supposed to come out in October 2019, and the release date keeps getting pushed back. For now, we're keeping an eye on it.
The $1,000 Puppy Cube is a 720p DLP projector that also serves as an interactive touchscreen. It has Android OS, Bluetooth, and screen mirroring built in, and it supports 4K signal input. At CES 2020, the company showed off the similar Hachi Infinite touchscreen projector, with limited details.
We also plan to test Optoma's $900 LH150, a 1080p DLP projector with a built-in battery, iOS/Android screen mirroring, and a stated brightness of 1,300 lumens.
AAXA M6: In our tests, this projector was extremely bright, more than twice as bright as the Anker Nebula Mars II Pro. Its picture was also relatively color-accurate with a high contrast ratio, but the color temperature looked 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 for its image to appear at eye level—you can't just prop it at an angle with a book.
AAXA P300: A former 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, its 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 keystoning, 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 P300 Neo: This projector looked like a newer, smaller, cheaper version of the AAXA P300. But in our tests 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 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.
AAXA 4K1: AAXA's newest projector has a 3840×2160 resolution and a stated brightness of 1,500 lumens. It also offers built-in speakers, dual HDMI inputs, a composite video input, and USB and MicroSD readers. But it lacks a built-in battery, so it doesn't meet our portability criteria for this guide.
Anker Nebula Capsule: This is a scaled-down version of the Nebula Mars that's around the size of a tall soda can. It has built-in Android 7.1 and a claimed battery life of up to four hours, but its 854×480 resolution is just too low for streaming movies, and it's rated at only 100 ANSI lumens.
Anker Nebula Capsule II: The newer Capsule II has the same small body as the original Capsule and ups the resolution to 720p, but it's rated at only 200 ANSI lumens of light output and two and a half hours of video playback time. The Mars II Pro offers a brighter result, has a longer battery life, and costs less.
Anker Nebula Mars II: This model is our previous top pick, but it's not quite as bright or color-accurate as its successor, the new Pro model. As we write this, the Mars II Pro is only $50 more than this projector, and we think the upgrade is worth the investment.
Anker Nebula Mars Lite: Anker has discontinued this model, our former budget pick, though you may still find remaining stock online. This projector is dimmer than the Mars II and Mars II Pro and lacks the built-in Android OS, but it delivers solid performance and has the same easy setup and remote. If you're looking for something affordable to use with a computer or other AV source—and if you can find it in stock—this one is a good choice.
Cinemood Portable Movie Theater: A fun option for parents trying to entertain little ones on a trip, the Cinemood is a tiny, 3-inch cube with a stated five-hour battery life, and it comes preloaded with 40 Disney ebooks as well as cartoons and other kid-friendly content. But it also has an HDMI input, the Android OS, and screen mirroring, so it can serve grown-up content, too. Unfortunately, the Cinemood has only an 800×480 resolution, so we did not test it for this guide.
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, which makes the image appear brighter but creates a horrible result. Chris Heinonen 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." The T20 is also large and heavy, but with no internal battery and none of the perks. We don't recommend that anyone buy it.
LG PF50KA: This projector has plenty of connection options (it even includes a TV tuner) and a well-designed user interface. Unfortunately, we can't say the same about its included remote, which is crowded with tons of buttons that don't serve essential functions. Plus, in our tests its image was much dimmer than that of the Anker Nebula Mars II Pro and noticeably bluer than it should have been.
Optoma ML550: Compact and portable, with a rating of 500 lumens, this projector has no battery option. We had enough competing models offering battery power to choose from, so it didn't make the cut.
Vivitek Qumi Q6: This projector has dual HDMI inputs and supports 3D, but in our tests it exhibited video processing bugs that reduced the image quality. It had to be closer to the wall than the Anker Nebula Mars II Pro to produce the same-size image. We also saw posterization artifacts in moving objects, especially on faces, so it's a worse choice for movies. The internal Wi-Fi lets multiple people connect and project content for presentations, but that feature doesn't make up for the projector's other issues.This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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