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The Best Projector Under $500: Cinema Experience Made Affordable

Big TVs are great, but you need a projector to get a real cinema experience. And now you can afford it for the price of about 50 cinema tickets or even less. And having your own shows with family and friends and no strangers is priceless. That’s why projectors are gaining more and more popularity day after day.

But which one to choose? Will you use it only in the dark or in the daylight too? Outdoor or indoor? If indoor, then what size is your room? What’s the best projector under $500? Here is the list of models I’d recommend, from famous to less known brands.

How to choose the best projector under $500?
While all the projectors are designed to do basically the same thing, there are still many differences. They are made for different circumstances, with varying use cases in mind. So, before choosing your best projector for 500 dollars or less, visualize how and when you want to use it. Indoor or outdoor? In the nighttime or at any time? At one location, or wherever you take it? Consider all this to make the right choice.

The Best Projector Under $500 Reviews: Stars and Dark Horses

  1. AuKing M8-F: The Top Pick
  2. TMY V08: Runner-Up – Best HD projector under 500
  3. Anker NEBULA Capsule Max: Premium Choice
  4. ViewSonic PA503S: The Most Connectible
  5. Anker Nebula Mars II Pro: The Geek’s Choice
  6. ONOAYO AYO1: FullHD for your Room
  7. Epson EX3280: Don’t Fear the Ref

1. AuKing M8-F: The Top Pick

Don’t want to spend much? AuKing is on of the best 1080p projector under 500 $. He is one of the most affordable projectors that’s well under $100, and it’s exceptionally well equipped for such a price. You can use it with phones, laptops, tablets, and sticks like Chromecast. Lightweight and portable, it can be installed on a camera stand.

Though the actual output resolution is just 800×480, it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. Just remember that the standard DVD resolution is 720х480, and many people still enjoy it. Still, I wouldn’t recommend using it with larger screens, though in theory, it’s powerful enough to work with up to 170”. A smaller screen will fit better both its resolution and its 2600 lumen lamp.

Versatility is also the key. The ports include HDMI, VGA, USB-A, and a microSD card slot and AV inputs. There are built-in speakers, though I’d recommend using external speakers for better sound.

Take into account that if you try to mirror your screen from another device, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services may fail to produce the sound or the picture (due to copyright limitations). There are workarounds for this, though. This method is preferable, If you can download a movie and play a local file with a local player app.

PROS:
  • Versatile;
  • Rich colors;
  • Long life lamp;
  • Lightweight and portable;
  • Comes with cords;
  • As affordable as possible.
CONS:
  • Needs a dark room;
  • Possible issues with streaming.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ Auking
  • Wattage: 50 watts
  • Display Technology: LCD
  • Brightness: 7500 Lumen
  • Bulb life to: 55,000 hours
  • Resolution: 1080p (supported)
  • Weight: 2.87 lbs

2. TMY V08: Runner-Up

While the one by TMY can’t boast the same bang-for-buck ratio, in some respects, it even outdoes AuKing. For example, it offers better resolution (1280×720, real HD), triple LCD technology for better color, and larger screen support. Though, again, it performs better with smaller ones.

It has onboard speakers, but their quality is mediocre, so choose external ones if you can. The selection of ports is just as rich: HDMI, USB, VGA, AV, and microSD, plus a tripod socket at the bottom.

What’s even better for many unfamiliar with projectors, it already comes with a 100-inch foldable polyester screen and all the necessary cables. It also adds portability, so you can take this projector wherever there’s a socket. Some may find this screen too large and use only a part of it to project, but still, it’s better than no screen. All these perks are not for free: the device comes at twice the price of the one by AuKing. For both home and office use, it’s good enough.

PROS:
  • Better resolution;
  • 3-LED system for better colors;
  • Bright long-life lamp;
  • Supports large screens;
  • Portable and lightweight;
  • Durable enough for outdoor use.
CONS:
  • The fan is quite loud;
  • Fails in ambient light.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ TMY
  • Display Technology: LCD
  • Brightness: 7500 lux
  • Lamp lifetime to: 60,000 hours
  • Resolution: 720P (1920 x 1080 Support)
  • Weight: 4.13 pounds

3. Anker NEBULA Capsule Max: Premium Choice

This one is of a different breed; Anker has built itself a reputation as a decent accessory maker which sells decent cameras, cables, adapters, and headphones. The Nebula family of projectors is an all-in-one solution capable of working without an external source. For it, this one that looks like the big Apple HomePod has much more than just a quality built-in speaker. Though it has a decent built-in speaker, there’s more to it, including a battery that may last up to 4 hours (at moderate brightness).

More importantly, Nebula Capsule Max has its OS (basically, Android 8.1) and its own app store. Controlling these apps from a remote or buttons can be tricky, but you can connect it to your phone via Bluetooth and use the Nebula app (like you do with Apple TV and iPhone). It also has USB and HDMI ports for conventional connections. As for its projector qualities, it boasts a720p resolution and adjustable angles, which allow to position it not in front of the screen only but against its edges too, short ranges, and fast autofocus.

If you search for the best portable projector under 500 with as many things onboard as possible, you should look at Nebula by Anker. Yet it barely touches our price margin from below, sometimes even transgressing it.

PROS:
  • Completely autonomous;
  • Runs its own OS;
  • Decent image quality;
  • Built-in battery;
  • Can play Netflix and Hulu with native apps;
  • Controllable from a smartphone;
  • Fantastic design.
CONS:
  • Rather pricey;
  • Built-in OS may be tricky to use.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ NEBULA
  • Wattage: 45 watts
  • Display Technology: DLP
  • Brightness: 200 ANSI Lumens
  • Lamp lifetime to: 30,000 hours
  • Resolution: 720p
  • Weight: 1.60 lbs

4. ViewSonic PA503S: The Most Connectible

ViewSonic is one of the most famous brands on this list of top projectors under 500. So expect premium quality but limited features and higher pricing. With PA503S, that’s exactly the case. Despite the mediocre resolution (800×600 max), this projector delivers a smooth picture even on bigger screens. The quality lens and the very bright long-life lamp are well recompensing for that. The contrast is also great, letting you use the projector in ambient light.

What’s strange to see for a device of 2017 is a Mini USB port. The rest of them reveals what’s this projector made for: along with the traditional two VGA and one HDMI, there is a monitor out, audio in and out, and an RS232 port. With these options, the projector is meant for stationary use with its likes, the RS232 allowing for wired remote control, and ins and outs for syncing a bunch of projectors.

Also, there is a built-in speaker (though a weak one), a keystone correction module that prevents image distortion, and even a 3D support (with 3D-ready sources). Even more important for many is that it has all the authorized components to play Netflix’s and other streaming services’ content. As for the price, it usually exceeds $300, but for a reason.

PROS:
  • Brightness!;
  • Solid build;
  • Intuitive controls;
  • Many ports (some of them you’ll never need);
  • Image correction;
  • You can buy two and sync them.
CONS:
  • Rather pricey;
  • Mediocre sound.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ ViewSonic
  • Wattage: 260 watts
  • Brightness: 3800 Lumens
  • Lamp lifetime to: 15,000 hours
  • Resolution: 800×600
  • Weight: 5.5 pounds

5. Anker Nebula Mars II Pro: The Geek’s Choice

Yet another Nebula projector is also a decent choice. It looks like a case with a handle, with speaker mashes on its sides and the lens on the front. The idea is the same: it’s a smart projector with its own OS (based on Android), decent speakers, a battery, and excellent connectivity. Physical buttons double the remote on the body, which is also good if you position the projector next to you. With keystone adjustments, it can be placed at almost any height and even against the edge of the screen.

Its OS is based on Android 7.1, which is older yet fresh enough to support most necessary apps (like Netflix, Hulu, or Disney+). It only supports up to 100” screens, which seems less, but the resolution appears too low on bigger ones, and the brightness is insufficient. The battery life is also up to 1.5 hours on maximum brightness and up to 3 hours on medium, which mostly allows for one movie at a time. For more, plug it in.
If you want to benefit from its smart features, though, you’ll need to apply many tricks, because modern app versions may be incompatible with it, and old ones just not supported. So it’s a geek’s choice.

PROS:
  • Decent colors and resolution;
  • Good speakers;
  • Built-in battery;
  • Portability;
  • Keystone angle adjustment;
  • Standalone app store.
CONS:
  • Performs well only in the dark;
  • Outdated OS.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ NEBULA
  • Wattage: 57 watts
  • Display Technology: DLP
  • Brightness: 500 ANSI Lumen
  • Lamp lifetime to: 30,000 hours
  • Resolution: 720p
  • Weight: 3.95 lbs

6. ONOAYO AYO1: FullHD for your Room

While you have to settle for HD or smaller resolution with other projectors, ONOAYO AYO1 boasts FullHD! It may be its strongest selling point, as with this resolution it’s functional with screens up to 300”, great for outdoor cinema evenings. It comes with a carrying bag for this use case, a set of cables, and even a cloth. The vendor is rather unknown; probably, it’s one of these Chinese factories that supply their products directly to Amazon or Walmart.

Among other perks, there is a bidirectional Bluetooth and Dual Wi-Fi module that allows for using other devices both as sources and as receivers (for example, you can stream videos from your laptop via Wi-Fi and connect Bluetooth speakers for better audio; in this case, though, watch whether the lip-sync works properly). Or you can use it as a Bluetooth speaker; with its 8W, it makes sense, but without a built-in battery, it loses portability.

The picture is bright and colorful with an LCD solution. As for hardware ports, it has the standard set. It includes USB, HDMI, VGA, AV, and 3.5mm for audio. Last but not least: the manufacturer has bothered to prepare video instructions for the device.

PROS:
  • High resolution;
  • Dustproof lens;
  • Rich wireless connectivity;
  • Long-life lamp;
  • Decent speakers;
  • Great support;
  • Can be used as a Bluetooth speaker!
CONS:
  • No battery;
  • Loud fan.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ ONOAYO
  • Wattage: 65 watts
  • Display Technology: DLP
  • Brightness: 380 ANSI Lumen/9500 Lux
  • Lamp lifetime to: 120,000 hours
  • Resolution: 1920*1080P
  • Weight: 1.87 lb

7. Epson EX3280: Don’t Fear the Ref

And this is probably one of the most famous brands in this selection. You might expect projectors by Epson to be well beyond our price margin, and yes, they are. As for this one, though, you can opt for a refurbished version for about $400. It’s rather hefty and meant for stationary use, but if you need to carry it, yes, you can.

Though it can only boast an XGA resolution, it’s enough for most throw distances. The minimum for it is just 1,44 ft, so you can put it close to the screen and still enjoy a great picture. It is made even better by 3-chip 3LCD technology, which provides full color without a rainbowing effect. It does its job in well-lit rooms, maybe better than all the other rivals on the list.

It has a built-in speaker, though its 2W may be too low for large audiences. Given that it supports screens up to 150”, you may have to connect external acoustics to the source device. The vertical keystone correction operates with a picture skew sensor, so you don’t have to bother about distortion. The selection of ports is rather spartan: HDMI, VGA, and USB-B, with no wireless modules. Still, if your priority is quality build and great picture, this one is among the top projectors under 500. You just need to be sure that’s what you want.

PROS:
  • Fantastic brightness;
  • Solid build;
  • Precise colors;
  • Wide throw range;
  • Easy setup;
  • Automatic keystone correction;
  • A trusted manufacturer.
CONS:
  • Only fits the price limits as a ref;
  • No wireless connectivity.

Specifications

  • Brand:‎ Epson
  • Display Technology: LCD
  • Brightness: 3600 Lumen
  • Resolution: XGA
  • Weight: 5.2 lb

As you can see, unknown vendors may well compete with established industry giants when it comes to projectors. More than that: the models are diverse enough, so you can easily define the one that fits your needs best.

Home Projector Buyer’s Guide

With so much variety within this seemingly narrow class of devices, how do you choose the best home theater projector under $500 that will meet your needs? The only way is to compare key features and align them with your priorities.

What should I look for when buying a projector?

Even after reading these reviews for projectors, you may be a bit confused about what this or that parameter means in practice. So, let me drop a word or two on each of them.

Projector Type

Projectors may utilize various technologies to project images. The three most common (among the models on this list) are the following:

  • DLP or LCD? DLP utilizes micromirrors and mechanical motion, while LCD uses screens and cheeps for digital processing. Thus, though DLP projectors provide a smooth picture and deeper colors (including black), LCD ones are less demanding for the screen and are better in terms of contrast.
  • Laser or LED. These use lasers instead of lamps as the light source. While the picture they deliver is precise and bright, this solution is pricier (as you can see here by Anker Nebula models). LED-powered models are cheaper though less eco.

Screen Size

Two main factors limit the largest screen size: brightness and resolution. The picture on the largest screen supported by your projector may be either too pixelated or too dull (usually both). For most rooms, 100-120” will do. You can pursue bigger diagonals for the outdoor cinema experience, though, when distance doesn’t matter that much.

Brightness

It depends on the lamp and the technology of the projector. Usually, 1,500 lumens are enough for an indoor cinema experience. For classrooms, conferences, and other daytime activities, the lowest margin is 2,500.
There is a trap, though. Usually, a projector has two major parameters measured in lumens: color brightness and white brightness. The color brightness is usually about 1/3 of the white one, so if you see only one of these parameters in the item card, it’s probably white brightness. AS you see, the most profitable one on our list by AuKing provides only one value, so the color brightness is about 700.

Contrast

Let’s discuss the difference between the darkest and the lightest areas on the screen. The greater this value is, the more expressive the picture is; otherwise, it’s just becoming indistinct and dull.

Resolution

One more point is the maximum number of pixels the image has. Projectors with greater resolution provide a more detailed picture. On the other hand, if you use an HD or Full HD projector for presentations, you need to watch whether the text is readable. If it is, reduce the resolution of your source (computer or whatever). But for cinema, the greater, the better.

lcd projector being turned on

Throw Distance

It’s the distance between the lens of the projector and the screen. The perfect throw distance for a 120” screen is 12-15 ft.

Bulb Life

The longer it serves the better, But if you plan to replace your projector in three or four years, you don’t have to worry: a good lamp serves up to a decade, so you won’t have to replace it.

Connectivity

It’s the ability to connect external devices, both as the sources (via inputs) or as extra receivers (via outputs). While most projectors share the same set of HDMI, VGA, AV, and USB ports, some of them boast more (like ViewSonic’s ports for synchronizing and remotely controlling a group of projectors). You should check the wireless connection of projector: for home use with your favorite gadgets, it’s crucial, but for playing videos from a console or a stick, not so.

Compatibility

As for hardware compatibility, the projectors are mostly equal. However, there are options, like wireless connectivity or extra modes or using a projector as a Bluetooth speaker.

Is it suitable for outdoor use?

That’s when the battery starts to matter. Otherwise, it’s a question of how well protected a socket you can install near your outdoor cinema. The overall build also matters. You also need to protect the wire and the socket separately unless your projector has a battery.

FAQ

Some questions are still to be addressed in this section. So, here we go.

Can a projector be used in daylight?

Yes, but its brightness should meet certain requirements (be at least 2500 lumen, as some say).

How do I know what size projector screen to buy?

It depends on where you intend to use it. If indoors, check the distance between the wall (or wherever you want to place it) and where you’re about to sit. Calculations say that, for an average 120” screen, the perfect distance is between 160 and 220 inches. It changes in line with the size of the screen. For an outdoor party experience, you can afford a larger one, but I’d recommend about 80% of the maximum capacity of the projector.

How much brightness do I need in an at-home projector?

For indoor experience in the dark, it’s about 1500 lumen, though even a 700-lumen one can provide a decent picture. For daylight, it should start at 2500 lumen.

Welcome to the Project!

So, now you can choose your best home theater projector under 500 dollars, according to your preferences. Lots of things matter, from the size of your room to the circumstances that make you use the projector under your budget. But here are intendedly diverse options that will enable you to choose your perfect one.

Have you ever had any of these projectors or any other model? How about sharing your experience with us here? What can you tell or maybe want to ask? Welcome to the comments!

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