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Digital Picture Frames Reviewed

December 23, 2004

Digital Picture Frames Reviewed;ei=5088&38;partner=rssnyt


IN a couple of days, millions of people will find shiny new digital cameras under the tree. They'll discover just how flexible, not to mention e-mailable, Web-postable and slide-showable digital photos can be. About the only thing you can't do with a digital photo in its electronic form is stick it in a frame on your desk.

Or can you?

Yes, with the ultimate digital camera accessory: the digital picture frame, a flat-panel screen designed exclusively for showing digital photos. A digital frame can do something no ordinary frame can do: change what's in it at the touch of a button, or even treat you to a slide show. Think of it as a screen saver that doesn't tie up your computer.

Most of these frames come from companies you've never heard of: Mobi, ArtPix, Ziga, Ceiva, Pacific Digital and Wallflower Systems. Four of them fall into a category aimed at nontechnical photo fans: small, inexpensive frames that have slots for digital camera memory cards (Compact Flash, SD or Memory Stick).

As a bonus, this kind of frame, when connected by a U.S.B. cable, doubles as a memory-card reader for a computer (to copy a camera's pictures to a hard drive, for example). The photos look bright and clear - at arm's length. Up close, the grid of individual pixels betrays your low budget.

In this category, the contenders and prices begin with the Mobi Technologies Digital Picture Frame, which clocks in at $160, 3.5 inches diagonal, 320-by-240-pixel resolution and a white plastic frame that might have come from George Jetson's garage sale.

Unfortunately, photos don't appear unless they're named a certain way (four letters, four numbers). And there's no Rotate button to fix sideways shots; in that circumstance, the manual actually suggests picking up the frame and turning it.

The ArtPix dgAlbum50 ($200), on the other hand, measures five inches diagonally, with a bizarre resolution of 960 by 234 pixels. It looks all right, although the white plastic frame probably cost the manufacturer 2.6 cents.

The top edge is lined with small, hard-to-decipher buttons that nonetheless perform useful functions, like pausing a slide show and rotating sideways shots. The free 16-megabyte Compact Flash card, preloaded with photos, is a nice touch; it almost offsets the disastrously translated manual. (Sample line: "Dividing Photo is shown to (4x4) on screen press button after stopping function of slide.")

But if $200 is your price ceiling, you can't top a mysterious little number called the VDPF2. The screen bears the name Ziga, although the actual maker goes unidentified in the manual and at (AVtech Solutions claims to be one of only three sellers of this frame - and declines to name the other two.)

This five-inch, 640-by-480-pixel screen looks a lot nicer than the ArtPix or Mobi models, thanks to the clear acrylic matte that surrounds its white frame; if you can overlook a faint greenish cast, its images look fine. It also costs less than its rivals ($185) and does a lot more, thanks to a remote control; its buttons let you play, pause, rotate and even zoom in on a photo (a rare feature).

This frame also plays any MP3 music files on the memory card (through a built-in speaker) and certain kinds of digital movies. You can even hook up the Ziga to a television and a stereo - enhanced audiovisual fun for the whole family.

Getting away from tiny screens in cheap plastic frames requires spending $243. That's the online price of the Vialta Vista Frame VF-100, whose 6.8-inch screen glows inside a great-looking brushed-metal frame. The screen's resolution is only 384 by 234 pixels, so don't expect razor sharpness; thanks to supervivid colors, though, photos look handsome from three feet away.

To make matters even more appealing, hitting the Save button during a slide show commits the current photo to the frame's memory. It can display up to eight such captured photos even after you've removed the card.

The Vialta has its own minor frustrations, though. When you first insert a camera's card, the frame asks you to choose which folder contains the photos, rather than just autoplaying all the pictures it can find - a bothersome bit of bureaucracy that would frustrate the technophobe.

Technophobes? Did somebody say technophobes? That's where the Ceiva 2 comes in. It plugs into a phone line - no camera, card or computer is required. Then you, the slightly techno-savvier giver of this gift, can do the rest from across the Internet, sending photos using or a special Windows uploading program.

The frame dials in during the wee hours of the morning, downloads those photos (up to 30 a day) and greets the lucky recipient with a fresh slide show in the morning on the sharp, bright, realistic 8.2-inch screen (640 by 480 pixels). Other things that can appear daily, at your option, include the weather report, horoscope, comic strip or a recipe of the day.

The Ceiva owner can pause the slide show, delete an unfavorite shot or even order a print (which will arrive by postal mail) just by pressing buttons on a slide-out panel. In short, the Ceiva has "grandparent" written all over it in fluorescent 96-point lettering.

All this, for the lowest price of any digital frame, $110, after rebate, at Surely there's a catch.

Yes, and it comes in the form of a subscription fee: $100 per year or $250 for three years. If you drop the subscription, the last 30 photos are stuck on the frame forever - or until you resubscribe, whichever comes first. (That would also happen if the company went out of business. By way of reassurance, a spokeswoman said, "The company has been in business for five years, is profitable, is in growth mode and will be around.") The Ceiva may be the gift that keeps on giving, but only if you're a giver who keeps on paying.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, two frames offer larger screens, bigger price tags and much-higher-resolution displays that easily withstand nose-to-glass scrutiny. Half picture frame, half computer, these models are capable of more stunts than the Cirque du Soleil - but they're designed by geeks, for geeks.

For example, photos on Pacific Digital's 10.4-inch, 800-by-600-pixel Memory Frame (about $400 online) look absolutely gorgeous. Interior decorators note: You can replace the included silver plastic frame with any standard wooden 8-by-10 picture frame. (Pacific Digital also offers a smaller, lower-quality, 5-by-7 model.)

The trouble is, this frame doesn't have memory-card slots and doesn't connect to the Internet. Instead, you must fill its 80-picture memory by connecting a U.S.B. cable directly to your camera or card reader. But that only works if the camera or reader offers something called Mass Storage mode, which most people won't know until they buy the frame and try it.

If all else fails, you can also connect a Windows PC to the frame (by way of the U.S.B. or even a wireless network) and then upload a slide show you've built using the included software. It offers photo-by-photo control over timings, transitions and captions. But both methods of filling this frame can be slow and tricky.

Finally, there's the cleverly named Wallflower, whose size and picture quality blow its competitors out of the gallery. You pay dearly for this hand-built majesty, though: $700 to $900, depending on size (12 or 14 inches) and hardwood finish.

Of course, for that kind of money, you could buy a whole computer - and, in fact, that's just what you're buying. The Wallflower incorporates a laptop-like screen (1024 by 768 pixels), the Linux operating system and a 40-gigabyte hard drive (which is, unfortunately, not completely silent).

You set up the screen by networking it with your Mac or PC - there's even a wireless model - and copy photos, music and movies onto it from across the network. This phase is decidedly not grandparent friendly.

But here's a twist: Once the screen is connected to the Internet, you can feed it photos by e-mailing them (yes, a picture frame can have its own e-mail address) or by posting them on a Web page that you specify. The frame can even download news headlines and other Internet broadcasts (technically known as R.S.S. feeds), which it displays as a ticker below the photographs.

In theory, then, you could duplicate the Ceiva concept, filling a distant loved one's screen with fresh photos every day, but without paying a subscription fee. Heck, compared with six or seven years of Ceiva fees, the Wallflower actually starts to look like a bargain (although it's nowhere near as simple to operate).

If you want something for your desk, then, consider the inexpensive Ziga or the classier-looking Vialta. For faraway relatives who can't admire your amazingly good-looking children in person, the very cool Ceiva system is ideal - if you can get past that annual-fee business. And for anyone who doesn't bat an eye at the phrase, "Let me boot up my picture frame," the Pacific Digital and Wallflower machines present your photography with gasp-inducing color, clarity and size.

In any case, digital photos from a digital camera have a convenient showcase in a digital picture frame. Next project: digital walls to hang it on.


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