Monday, August 10, 2015

Lights, Camera, Action - It's Movie Night

When I was a kid, my dad used to take us to the Drive In Movies. The rows of cars, all parked on those mounds looking up at the large screen. The big, grey metal speaker box hanging from the window. We would get their just before dusk to find a good parking spot. Us kids would run to the playground underneath the giant screen. Just as it got dark, we would race back to find that my parents had set up lawn chairs and pulled out blankets for us. I can remember the smell the buttered popcorn and taste the licorice like it were yesterday. As much as I love camping and getting back to nature, sometimes it can be fun to have a movie night out in the woods. Cooking up some Jiffy Pop over a campfire and firing up a movie can be a great way to meet your camp neighbors and have a relaxing evening among the stars. 

With the advent of modern LED technology, this is easier than ever to do. So, with this post, I thought I would share my thoughts on some recent advances in projectors and players that can help you have your own movie night while camping.

To start, let's talk about projection. Projectors can be big, hot boxes that require the lamp to warm up before you can use it and cool down before you can shut it off. Replacement bulbs were expensive and could be hard to find. But it doesn't have to be that way, not anymore. A couple of years ago, LED technology made rapid advances in projectors enabling small, compact boxes called Pico Projectors that can fit in the palm of your hand. These small projectors can be as small as a book of matches rated around 30-50 Lumens or so to the size of 2 or 3 decks of cards and have a rating up to 300 Lumens or more. I have even seen some that were built into a cell phone case.

As I do a lot of presentations for my day job and not every place has a display available, I picked up an Acer C205 Pico Projector. This is a small and portable projector that is great for work presentations, but it is also great for outdoor movie nights while camping.

  • 200 Lumens
  • Bulb Life 20,000 (standard mode), 30,000 (eco mode)
  • Power: A/C, D/C, Internal battery (4200mA)
  • Native Res. 854 x 480
  • Native format: 16x9
  • Min distance: 28.74
  • Min screen size: 30"
  • Max distance 90"
  • Max screen size: 100"
  • HDMI Input
  • Audio Line In
  • USB
I did some quick testing of this projector and posted the video on YouTube here:

Overall, this seems to be a good pico projector. However, there are a lot of options out there so be sure to check out a few different brands.   

However, projectors are only part of the story. How do you get your favorite content to the projector? Just like projectors, there are various options on how to get and view content. Certainly you could bring along a portable DVD player and connect it up to the projector, but if you have a large DVD library, this could mean bringing a LOT of DVDs. If you have movies downloaded from iTunes (or other source) on your mobile device, that could be a good option as well. Another option becoming more and more common is the back up or digital copy of the movie provided by the studios when you purchase a DVD or Blu Ray. To do this, having a good player available that can play that digital copy, something that can play MPEG, h.264 or other digital formats comes in handy.

I discovered some time ago that the Roku 3 is perfect for just such a job. It too is a small box and offers some really nice advantages. First, if you have an internet connection at your campground or have a WiFi hotspot, you can stream movies from the internet just like you would at home (assuming internet bandwidth is sufficient for streaming). Got Netlfix or Amazon Prime? No problem. Second, if you do happen to have digital versions of your movies, it can play those too. Whether they are the digital copies provided by the studio or you have opted to make your own back up copies and put them on a portable back up drive, you can plug that drive directly into the Roku's USB port and voila, you have your favorite content, ready for your enjoyment. Just connect up the Roku box directly to your projector via HDMI add a little power and you are ready for your outdoor moving night.

So, having your own outdoor movie night while camping doesn't have to be all that hard. With just a few ingredients, you can be sitting under the stars enjoying a movie and popcorn by the fire. Just get yourself a pico projector, a media streaming box (like Roku) and bring your favorite content.

On our recent camping trip to Palmetto State Park, I was able to give this a try in the wild. Overall, the projector did pretty good. The image quality was very good and we were able to easily drive a 10' screen without issue. The picture was bright and clear. However, there was certainly a challenge with the audio as noted in my review video. The speaker was just not powerful enough to deliver a good experience over the evening crickets and general campground noise. You could hear the audio but if there were quiet scenes with dialog, you could not hear what was going on unless you were within about 2 feet of the projector.
Solving the audio issues. There are a couple of ways to deal with the poor audio quality depending on how you are setting up your system. If you are connecting through something like the Roku listed above, you will need an HDMI splitter with an audio output on it. You can then hook up powered speakers to the splitter to get your audio. Be sure to do your research as quality on these splitters can be all over the place. Generally they will run about $20.00 and up depending on features, etc. Once I get one, I will do a quick review and let you know how the solution works.

For our weekend trip, I did not have a splitter so I had to work out an alternative. We ended up using a laptop to drive the projector.  We connected up the projector to a laptop via HDMI.  We then hooked up a Bluetooth speaker to the laptop and selected the speaker as the audio source instead of HDMI.  This worked great and we had pretty good sound quality for the movie. 

Hopefully this information helps you as you consider pico projectors for your needs.   

Until next time, save me some popcorn.
Jay T.