Not so long ago, the concept of having a projector that was small enough to carry in your bag, let alone in your pocket, was just wishful thinking. But as projectors have dropped in size, portable models have come into their own, allowing you to project your data and video wherever you are. (Although “anywhere” these days just means around the house.)
Portable projectors include a surprisingly wide range in size, brightness and features. Here we will help you find out their differences, as well as highlight our favorite models – all of which weigh less than two pounds.
Pico and Palmtop projectors
Pico or pocket projectors are slightly larger than smartphones. Because most of them can hold videos and photos for on-the-go entertainment (in addition to slides and diagrams for presentations in business or in the classroom), these models can be perceived as multimedia display systems. Although practical and smart, they tend to have low brightness and are relatively expensive in terms of their performance.
So-called palmtop projectors are larger (and generally brighter) than pico projectors, typically a bit too large to fit comfortably in the palm of your hand, even with your fingers outstretched. Still, they are light enough that you would not think twice about packing one in a bag or a backpack. Most are lighter than pico models and have multiple connectivity options.
Most pico and palmtop projectors can run files from a USB drive and / or SD card, so you do not have to lug your laptop with them. (However, if you want a laptop with you, check out our list of the best ultra-portable laptops.) Some even have up to 8 GB of internal memory for storing media files. Many people can project content from a smartphone or tablet, either wirelessly or via an HDMI port that supports Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL). An increasing number are offering USB-C connectivity. Many models come with built-in rechargeable batteries so you can use them away from an electrical outlet.
Larger but still portable projectors
Many manufacturers have introduced mini projectors that are generally slightly larger than palmtops, but significantly lighter. They have a relatively high resolution, and their larger frames let them include more physical ports than their smaller brothers.
The next step up from these, thin and light projectors, are just as wide, deep and bright as standard models, but barely an inch thick, and they weigh about 4 pounds. They are very portable, but you pay a premium for their slimness, and they usually have a limited set of connectivity choices.
Finally, some standard projectors are still small and light enough to be easy to carry, whether you move them between classrooms or take them on a cross-country flight. Many come with soft carrying cases, but they can just as easily be put in a travel bag or backpack. Although a few have internal batteries, most standard projectors – as well as most thin and light – are limited to AC power.
Brightness, resolution and technology
Pico projectors have low brightness (from less than 50 to up to several hundred ANSI lumens). They generally have low resolution, often 854 by 480 pixels (aka FWVGA or 480p), with a 16: 9 widescreen aspect ratio. This combination limits their efficient use of projecting on a small screen in a dark room, with optimal image sizes from 24 to 48 inches, measured diagonally. If too much ambient light is introduced, or the image is enlarged too much, it will look washed out and details will be lost.
Although a few palmtop projectors have a brightness of less than one hundred lumens, most fall in the range of 200 to 600 lumens. Some palmtops have 480p or lower resolution, and a few have resolutions up to 1080p (1,920 x 1,080), but most are 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels). Their optimum image size tends to be between 36 and 60 inches, depending on their brightness and resolution. Slightly larger mini projectors may have brightnesses of 1,000 lumens or more. Thin-and-light and standard-size portable models are often in the 3,000-lumen range, use standard projector screens and can tolerate ambient light.
We’ve seen a couple of small laser based projectors and a bit of liquid crystal on silicon (LCoS) models. However, the vast majority of pico, palmtop and other small projectors are LED-based, and most use TI’s Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology in their light motors. LEDs have an unusually long life and are generally rated at 20,000 hours or more, so the light source should last the entire life of the projector. Single-chip DLP projectors often display potentially annoying rainbow artifacts (small red-green-blue flashes), but this so-called rainbow effect tends to be more of an issue in standard projectors than in pico or palmtop models.
Larger portable projectors vary in technology, most are either DLP or liquid crystal display (LCD). An advantage of LCD projectors is that their images are free of rainbow artifacts.
Multimedia projector trends
We have recently seen an increasing number of small multimedia projectors that can act as Bluetooth speakers. When you switch one of these projectors to Bluetooth mode, it acts solely as a speaker. In that feature, it can play music streamed from a Bluetooth-enabled device, such as your mobile device or computer. When you want to use it as a projector, just switch it to projector mode.
Many newer consumer-oriented small projectors (including some Bluetooth speaker models) have their own Android operating system. Although most packages standard Android builds, we have also seen those running Android TV OS. Android-based projectors let users run pre-installed apps (such as YouTube, Hulu and Netflix), download more from the Google Play Store, and perform other standard Android features.
So which portable projector should I buy?
Lately, due to the pandemic, many of us have been less mobile than our devices. But now is a good time to make sure your technician is ready to go on the field. Whether you are a business traveler making presentations in multiple locations, or you want to share movies and photos with friends in person, there are portable projectors that do the job. Just be sure to choose one that is designed for the images you are projecting and the space you want to be in.
The projectors we highlight here are relatively light, with the heaviest weighing just over 2 pounds and the lightest just around 3 ounces. They vary considerably in size, brightness, features and performance. Any of these could be your favorite travel companion.