The 10 Best Portable Projectors
Through The Millions Of Tiny Looking Glasses
Reflected images have been with us since sentient beings have had eyes. All it takes is a little water and a little light, and you've got mirror advanced enough to lure young Narcissus to his watery grave.
The mirror itself is somewhat newer, though its presence in folklore and fairy tales speaks volumes of our reverence for its apparent magic. It is that very magic that a projector harnesses to send you the images you love to see.
When you go to the movies and sit beneath the beam of a professional theatrical projector, you're subjecting yourself to the reflections of at least two million mirrors. These mirrors are, of course, rather small, but they do the job of switching on and off behind dedicated color chips and reflecting a powerful source of light through the lens and onto the screen.
Portable projectors work on much the same principal, except their mirrors may not be as finely ground, nor their lenses as perfectly honed as the professional machines that cost dozens of thousands of dollars.
There's also a resolution limitation here. More mirrors will get you higher resolutions, with about half as many mirrors needed as pixels in the original image. If you want a 4K image, you need about 2,073,600 mirrors, which are hard to fit in a portable projector. This is one of the reasons that most portable projectors limit you to a 1920x1080 resolution or less.
A Picture Quality Is Only Worth 1000 Words
If we were merely talking about projectors here, we could go on at length about the nuanced differences between laser projection and traditional DLP or LCD projection, but let's just say this: laser is technically superior, but not at these price points, where DLP and LCD are the champs.
We could also get into a whole world of features like upscaling, bulb life, color recreation, ease of installation, etc. But there is only one true feature that you must take into account before all others when considering a portable projector: portability.
It seems silly to have to say so, but a solid third of the projectors on our list ought to have you tilting your head inquisitively at the notion that these particular models are actually that portable. They're certainly advertised as such, and compared to some of the behemoth projectors in the world they are, indeed, much more portable.
Still, I think a portable projector is only as good as how far away you can take it. That means the smaller the body and the longer the battery life, the better.
This, like most things technological, does come with a caveat. The absolute smallest projectors on our list do not have the best image quality. Our top projectors do, but they are slightly larger than the most portable among the lot. The best image quality is going to come to you from the projectors on our list who use the term 'portable' with a distinct sense of poetry.
If this is going to be your one and only projector, and you only need it to be portable enough to take across town without having to remove a portion of your ceiling, then you might be best served by a unit with great resolution and a bigger body. If you're trying to project educational videos onto cave walls in Altamira like some anachronistic social studies teacher, more portable might be best.
Projection From The Distant Past
The history of the projector is a history of the movies. It's a history rich with the buttery smell of fresh popcorn, the hush of a darkening theater, and the unveiling of hidden worlds to hungry, curious minds.
You can, if you so chose, reach back to the camera obscura of the 5th century BCE for its true origins in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Mozi. Aristotle wrote of it a hundred years later, and Leonardo DaVinci published what may be the most elucidating account of it in 1502.
Basically, a camera obscura is a large box, or even a room, with a tiny hole in it. Light comes in through the hole and hits a reflective surface, bouncing a portion of the scene outside the room onto a surface within. While the dimensions of projection have changed, we're still sending light through tiny spaces, bouncing it off of mirrors, and projecting it against a surface.
The projectors on our list, however, are movie projectors first and foremost. And movie projectors operate at a specific frame rate that satisfies the human visual system's expectation for natural movement while essentially showing you a sequence of still images. One of the reasons old silent films look strange is that they use higher frame rates, making everything seem like it's going a little too fast to be natural.
The earliest projectors in the era of the moving photographic image were hand-cranked, so the frame rate was inconsistent. Over time, the industry calibrated everything to work at the same frame rate, and the standard 24 frames per second of these and all other projectors was born.