The one last remaining hold-out for technology in the typical home is usually the patio or deck. Most home-owners stick with the basics—a few deck chairs, a grill, and maybe a Bluetooth speaker or two. Yet, as I found out recently, there’s a way to turn your patio or deck into a tech haven that competes with the living room or even outclasses your den.
You have to think a bit differently and invest a bit in furniture and decor, but when you’re done, there’s nothing quite like watching a movie, listening to a high-quality music stream on speakers meant for outdoor use, or reading a book on a sectional that is intended for lounging all day in the sun.
To use my setup, I’ve listed out the steps required to turn your patio into a high-tech digital domain. Be ready to invest a little in a few gadgets and other products, but you’ll end up with another area for entertaining that makes the inside of your house seem low-tech.
Step 1: The Signal
A word of caution here. For the perfect smart patio, you are going to need a good signal. Most patios are not situated right next to an office or kitchen where you might have a router running. And, most routers are designed to share a signal around your house but not out to the patio. Trust me on this—I’ve tried, and in my early days as a tech reviewer I tested routers constantly. Even if the box says it will cover a few hundred feet, your patio connection will suffer.
I used the Linksys RE7000 Range Extender that costs $130. Here’s the thing—you’ll appreciate having a range extender when it is movie night outside and everyone is using a phone or tablet. Linksys says the extender covers about 10,000 square feet, which is enough to stretch out to the backyard BBQ pit and maybe past the pool and the tennis courts (if you’re Katy Perry). In my tests, I mostly wanted to watch Jessica Jones on Netflix, and it worked famously.
Step 2: The Furniture
Fold-up patio chairs won’t do, and neither will some stiff deck furniture meant for eating brats around a glass table. What you need to do is turn your deck or patio into a living room that is comfortable enough to work as a lounge area all day. The goal is to make it so inviting that you would rather sit out on a deck or patio and watch the U.S. soccer team lose by wide margins in the repeat ESPN airings of summer tournaments than sit inside with the AC blasting.
I tested the Garden Treasures Palm City 5-Piece sectional fit perfectly on my 12×12-foot patio and matched up with my plans to use a projector and a screen. I also added a low-cost Garden Treasures 34-inch Fire Pit that doubles as a foot-rest when you are not toasting logs. I had room for a few extra chairs, a grill, and (most importantly) room for a projector screen.
Step 3: The Video
You have to decide how to watch Netflix or DISH out on the patio, and the best option is to use a portable projector you move outside for the evening or an outdoor television you install permanently and leave out there. I don’t recommend using a normal HDTV and moving it back and forth unless you want to get a good workout. For anyone thinking of using a laptop for movie night, remember that they really only work for one or two people, not a group. You want to go big or… go back inside. Also, my suggestions are all for evening entertainment.
I chose an Epson Home Cinema 2045 because it ghave me a massive outdoor-ready image and costs only $849. If you do go with a Sunbrite or another brand, it will cost more and they’re not portable. I also used a Visual Apex Projector Screen HD110 that costs $189. The screen is portable and folds up in a bag, but it’s massive—the 9-foot diagonal image is way bigger than my 55-inch HDTV. Being outside means you can create a movie theater screen, although here’s some advice on that, too. The bigger you go with a screen, the more space you’ll need, and the more you can annoy the neighbors. My 9-foot screen was about the right size.
The easiest way to get a video signal to the projector is to use the NVIDIA Shield that costs $199 and let me rent movies from the Google Store in a few clicks. I don’t recommend a phone or tablet setup for a smart patio. The reason is simple—you’ll want to use the tablets and phones for other purposes, not streaming video. The NVIDIA Shield is light and compact, so it was easy to move outside when I wanted to watch a movie or YouTube clips. It works in 4K, although my Epson projector is on 1080p. That’s not a big deal outside where the goal is to have a big and bright screen. And, the Shield has one major benefit that worked for my setup…
Step 4: The Sound
A patio or deck is not that well-suited to surround sound, and there’s a nice big gap between the world of audio streaming from a phone and playing sound for a movie like Zootopia outside. For most streams, I experimented with a few options and settled on using the audio from the projector itself for one reason: If you want high-quality surround sound, you’re probably going to annoy the neighbors. I liked the audio quality from the Epson 2045 but only for sporting events, the news, and other streams where the only important factor is hearing someone talk.
When I wanted more high-fidelity, I used two AR Santa Clara speakers that cost $149 each and can stay outside and connect for left and right stereo sound. They’re waterproof and look a bit like bug zappers, have area LED lighting and can even glow in color and match the music. They’re also all black, so at night you really have to look for them. The NVIDIA Shield can play Bluetooth music in stereo, so it worked perfectly for Hollywood movies.
Step 5: The Lights
That’s right, you have to think about lighting. It was amazing how the right lighting created a different mood for late nights watching movies like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and made the whole experience more appealing to everyone involved. It’s more than just being able to see and not trip over a bug zapper or a speaker, although that’s important. It sets the mood.
I used the Belkin Osram Lightify connected home garden lights that that cost $80. They can be set to light up automatically—say, from 8PM to 10:30PM each night. It’s like having a dimmer for the outdoors. The lights come on near the patio or deck and everyone knows it’s time to use that space for watching movies and shows if they want. You can daisy chain multiple lights together, run them around the entire deck, and use any color you want. The lights have built-in stakes so you can peg them down anywhere in the grass, a rock garden, or along a path.
This was in addition to the lighting I already have installed the the AR Santa Clara speakers that have colored lights. I plan to add even more lighting and possibly more AR speakers.
Step 6: Other Considerations
Out on the patio, you’ll notice there’s a different dynamic at work. It gets colder, the fresh air makes you feel tired, there are bugs you have to think about. All of that wonderful tech and furniture on your patio or deck won’t matter if everyone is cold and miserable, so I found I had to keep blankets around and a space heater on some nights. I used a Dynatrap DT1050 Insect Trapthat zaps bugs over a half acre area and has a built-in light, and I also added some patio torches with mosquito repellent to augment what I had done with the connected lighting.
What else? I had a strong Wi-Fi signal and multiple gadgets at the ready including an iPad and a laptop or two. I kept the Wi-Fi and the Arnold Palmer flowing. Friends and family liked the fire pit and the sectional because it felt like a living room. For security, my patio is positioned off a backdoor where I have a Vivint smart doorbell installed—it transmits video to an app and can record whenever there is motion detected (and works as a normal doorbell). If someone decided to check out my speakers and linger, the doorbell would record their activity. Also, they’d probably get scared off by the bug zapper and our Doberman Pinscher.
Overall, my smart patio added tremendously to the value of my house. It’s like a never-ending entertainment room. I can expand easily with more lights, more chairs, and more beer.