Digital picture frames have quickly gone from expensive technological baubles to cut-rate commodities that you grab on your way out of the store. For not much more than the price of a professionally framed 8-by-10 print, one of these compact LCD screens can show off hundreds of vacation photos.
They can provide an elegant solution to the problem of sharing all the shots you accumulate with a digital camera. But, as I found while testing four new models -- made by Ceiva Logic, Kodak, Smartparts and Westinghouse Digital -- they can also combine the worst traits of computers and electronic gadgets.
As the prices of digital frames have plunged, the devices have also grown more complex as each manufacturer reaches for ways to make its product stand out. The frames read photos saved on a memory card or USB flash drive plugged into the back. Most can also store photos in built-in memory and play music and video. Many come with remote controls and can connect to a home network.
Not all of the add-on features are worth using. A digital picture frame's innards may hide some of the same ingredients as a personal computer, but that doesn't mean it should act like one on the outside.
Consider one of the most common bonus functions on digital frames, the ability to play video. It makes sense: Digital cameras can record short video clips as well as take still pictures. But watching these mini-movies on these frames can be distinctly unpleasant.
Only Kodak's $199.95, 8-inch EX811 acted as you might expect, correctly playing the short clips stored on a USB flash drive and a memory card plugged into the device. On Westinghouse's $199, 10-inch DPF-1021, the clips played back without any sound and at a small fraction of their original speed.
Smartparts' $299.99, 12-inch SPX12 stalled at a screen announcing that its SyncPix software had detected the drive and the card. And Ceiva's $224.99, 8-inch Ceiva Life frame couldn't play video at all.
Music seems almost as important. After all, what's a slide show without a soundtrack? But although both the Kodak and Smartparts frames could play MP3 files, there was no simple way to shuffle the playback of music files accompanying a group of pictures. Result: After hearing U2's "Beautiful Day" repeatedly accompanying every slide show, I'm going to need to take a break from that song.
Another obvious feature, the ability to connect to a home network to show pictures stored on your computer or a photo-sharing Web site, is absent from most digital frames. Of the four I tried, only the Kodak included a WiFi receiver; on the Ceiva, adding WiFi required a $34.95 adapter that plugs into a USB port behind the frame.
Kodak and Ceiva limit the utility of the wireless connections to a few preset functions. The Kodak could display only photos hosted by the company's EasyShare Gallery Web site. That may make sense in terms of Kodak's corporate politics, but not if you keep your pictures on Yahoo's Flickr or Google's Picasa.
Sharing your computer's photos wirelessly ought to be simpler, but Kodak's carelessness makes doing so even less straightforward. You have to disregard the Kodak EasyShare software in favor of Microsoft's Windows Media Player program to put your shots in the frame.
The Ceiva frame's networking was even more underdone. It doesn't allow any computer-to-frame transfer over a home network, instead limiting you to sending pictures via the company's $99.95-a-year Picture Plan online service (which throws in such bonus content as weather and sports updates).
The greatest failing of these frames wasn't any one missing feature but their overall clumsiness. I kept running into silly little usability flaws that should have been fixed early in the design stage but survived to become constant nuisances.
Kodak's limited but still somewhat useful multimedia and networking capabilities made it the best of a mediocre lot, but its remote control worked only if I aimed it right at the middle of the frame. The Smartparts frame tried to liven up a slide show by panning across photos, Ken Burns style, but ruined the effect with jerky motion. The Westinghouse frame's mosaic-style display of two or three photos at once provided the niftiest photo-viewing option, but it appeared to freeze up several times, leaving the screen blank and its buttons unresponsive. And the Ceiva's way of telling me that I had the wrong network setting was a screen full of gobbledygook, such as "MA ERR:eth0 not found."
These frames were far more pleasant when they (and I) didn't try so hard. When I gave up on most of the features advertised on these things' boxes and just popped in a memory card full of photos before sitting back and enjoying the view, there was little to object to. That's the simplicity the designers of these things should be aiming for: Gawking at your latest photos ought to be a vacation from everyday computing, not an addition to it.