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Tips for buying a Digital Photo Frame - Buyers Guide

Its no secret that digital frames are slowly replacing the old fashioned picture frames that adorn the walls and mantelpieces of most homes around the world. As we move away from film cameras and towards a more digital world where we regulary take hundreds or even thousands of snaps every year it makes sense that we need a low cost solution to display these photos in an attractive manner. The recordable CD is todays version of a shoebox full of old photos, theres no use taking photos if we never look at them again. Thats where digital photo frames are the perfect solution, allowing you to store and view thousands of photos on a single frame.

The problem is, not all Digital Photo Frames are created equal and it takes a little research to separate the good from the bad. The guide below is designed to give you some insight into what to look for in a frame before deciding on a purchase. It will also give you ideas as to a variety of features you may been previously unaware of.

Ok... lets start at the beginning.


Digital Photo Frame Resolutions

One of the most important factors when choosing a digital photo frame is the resolution of the screen. Resolution is defined as the number of pixels (dots) that the screen can display at once and is generally measured as the number of pixels wide by number of pixels high. The total number of pixels can be determined by multiplying these 2 numbers together so a screen that is 800x600 (800 pixels wide by 600 pixels high) would have a total of 480000 pixels (less than half a Megapixel). Ultimately, the higher the resolution the better your images will look on screen. There are many different resolutions available but some of the more commonly available are shown below:

  • 1024x768 (4:3)
  • 800x600 (4:3)
  • 640x480 (4:3)
  • 320x240 (4:3)
  • 320x234 (4:3)
  • 800x480 (16:9 Widescreen)
  • 480x234 (16:9 Widescreen)

In general, higher resolutions are only available on screens with larger physical sizes. However I expect we will start to see very high resolution screens that are quite small particulary as the newer OLED Digital Photo Frames replace the traditional LCD panels of today's frames.(OLED = Organic Light Emitting Diode).

It's important to note that most digital frames wont come even close to being able to display your photos at the full resolution that your camera was designed for. Even a 1024x768 screen is a little less than 1mp (megapixel) whereas digital cameras these days start at around 6mp and increase in quality from there.

Tip: If you want to save space on your frame or storage card, reduce the size of your photos to the "native" resolution of the screen they will be displayed on using a photo editor such as The Gimp or VSO Image Resizer (both are free). Depending on the frame, this may also help to increase the display quality as some frames don't rescale photos very well. It may also help in playback speed as the files will be much smaller and you will greatly increase the total image capacity of your storage card. Always keep the original high resolution images backed up though in case you ever want to print them or upgrade your frame.


Screen Aspect

This is also a very important factor in your buying decision. There are currently two main types of screen aspects that dominate the digital frame market, the traditional 4:3 aspect and 16:9 Widescreen aspect. Its quite easy to tell the difference visually, 4:3 is closer to being square whilst 16:9 is more rectangular. Some companies also produce screens that have less common ratios such as 5:4 and 16:10 but I'll just discuss the 2 most common ratios below.


4:3 Aspect

This is a similar aspect ratio to regular 35mm film cameras (which is 3:2) and is commonly used on the majority of digital cameras except for SLR (which are still 3:2 generally). The numbers "4:3" are a ratio, this means that for every 4 inches of screen width, the screen will have 3 inches of screen height. This is proportional depending on the size of your screen and whilst the measurements of a screen may be different the ratio should always remain the same (or very close).

Due to the fact that 4:3 ratio matches most digital still cameras it is recommended to buy a 4:3 Digital Frame if you intend to use it primarily for displaying your photos. We may see a shift to 16:9 digital still cameras in the coming years but for the time being 4:3 is the best option in my opinion. It should be noted that many current Digital Still Cameras provide an option to take photos in 16:9 aspect rather than 4:3 however in most cases the camera usually just cuts the top and bottom off the image so in reality you are simply losing resolution. If you do own a Digital SLR (3:2 aspect) then a 4:3 screen is still closer than 16:9.

16:9 Aspect

This aspect ratio is now becoming commonplace for most flat panel TV's and digital video cameras however its use within a digital picture frame can lead to problems. If you attempt to display a full screen image of a photo that has been taken in a 4:3 aspect then the image will appear stretched horizontally (resulting in you appearing shorter and wider in your photos). Alternatively many 16:9 frames will allow you to display the images in their correct aspect however this will lead to black vertical bars at the left and right of the photo which can spoil the appearance of the screen.

The advantage of a 16:9 screen is that your widescreen videos will look better if your screen supports video playback as they will fill the screen in most cases. It's important to make your purchase decision based on your needs, if you will primarily use the Digital Frame for photos then choose a 4:3 screen, but if you want to mainly watch widescreen videos then a 16:9 screen is the obvious choice. Some screens advertised as 16:9 may actually be 16:10 aspect but the difference is so small its unlikely you will notice.


Screen Size

Is bigger always better? This question will best be answered by deciding on your own needs. For instance, what size room will the screen be viewed in, will you be mounting it on a wall, will the screen be used for advertising or just personal use etc. Generally, larger screens will increase the price but it's important to note that screens of the same physical size are not always on par in terms of their resolution. That bargain 10 inch screen might actually have a lower resolution than the 8 inch next to it. Keep in mind that most Digital Photo Frame manufacturers will use a diagonal screen measurement when describing actual screen size (ie, from top left, to bottom right). The advertised screen size should in most cases describe the size of the actual LCD panel, and not the total size of the frame which could be misleading. Check the specifications on the box or literature for "panel size", "LCD size", "Screen size" etc.

Common screen sizes range from 5 to 10 inches, however if you have the cash then companies such as PhotoVu offer much larger sizes such as 19 inch and 22 inch.

Another factor to take into consideration regarding size is the actual thickness of the screen from front to back. This can be important if you are planning to wall mount the frame and dont want it to stick out too far or simply if your desk is already a little pushed for space. A thinner screen may be more visually attractive when viewed from the side.


Screen Technologies

LCD Displays: The dominant screen technology in today's market is LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) sometimes also referred to as TFT (Thin Film Transister). Quality of LCD panels varies greatly and the main features to watch out for are brightness, contrast ratio and viewing angle. Manufacturers are renowned for overstating these figures so a visual check is always helpfull. Cheaper screens may tend to underperform on each of these aspects although you may find some standout gems in the lower price range.

Brightness: Luminance or brightness is measured in candelas per square meter (cd/m2). Generally, 300 cd/m2 is the standard. Anything lower is not bright enough and too high may begin to limit the viewing angles.

Contrast Ratio: This is a measure of the shades of colour that the screen can display (blacker blacks and whiter whites is the usual aim). A higher ratio means a better colour range and will result in less colour "banding" (this is where areas of colour gradation, such as a sky exhibit noticable bands of colour change rather than a smooth transition). Generally 300:1 is ok but keep an eye out for frames that have 400:1 contrast ratio or higher for better colour range.

Refresh Rate : The speed at which the screen refreshes the image. This is measured in cycles per second or "Hertz" (Hz). Generally you wont find this information in the specifications for the screen however you can easily check this with the screen on. Simply look slightly to the side of the screen and if the you see a noticable flicker then the refresh may be too low for your needs. Low price and low resolution screens often suffer from screen flicker which can be an annoyance for some users.

Viewing angle: Usually measured in degrees (°)and the larger the angle the better. For instance a viewing angle of 160 degrees horizontal means that the image should be visible from 80 degrees either side of straight on. Check both the specifications for vertical and horizontal viewing angles. If you are outside of the specified viewing angle then the image will start to lose colour clarity and perhaps even become a negative image.

Whilst a product's specifications sheet may give you some details, often its best to check several screens side by side in order to do a direct comparison. Its not uncommon for manufacturers to "massage" the technical specifications of their products which can sometimes result in misleading information.

OLED displays: Digital Photo Frames featuring OLED displays (Organic Light Emitting Diode) are now creeping into the market. OLED has the advantage of not requiring a backlight as each pixel is able to light itself. This results in a display that has more colours, is brighter and uses less energy. Viewing angles on an OLED screen are also better when compared to LCD making them well suited to Digital Photo Frame use. Large OLED displays are currently expensive so expect to see smaller frames using this type of technology first (7-9 inches initially).


Screen Finish

Digital Photo Frame screens generally have either a matte or glossy screen both of which have their positives and negatives.

Matte Finish: Less reflective and as such may be a better choice if the frame faces a light source such as a window or lamp. A matte finish may tend to smooth out the image slightly resulting in a slight loss of definition however some people prefer this effect.

Glossy finish: Can suffer from reflection problems particulary where the frame faces a lightsource. They do however tend to show a slightly crisper image but this is dependant on pixel resolution. Some people also prefer the glossy screen appearance for its aesthetics. Glossy screens also show fingerprints a lot easier than Matte finish screens so keep that in mind if its likely to be poked at a lot.


Frame Design & Aesthetics

This is one aspect that will come down to personal preference and there are a huge amount of designs to choose from. Frame materials can include everything from genuine timber, to stainless steel, acrylic, plastic or glass. Some models are available with swappable frame surrounds to give you a choice.

Factors that you may want to consider from a design point of view may include:

  1. Does it have any visible buttons on the front face that may detract from the appearance?
  2. Does it have the manufacturer's logo on the front and would this be a negative for you?
  3. Is the frame contruction well built?
  4. Is the remote control sensor suitably hidden or does it detract from the appearance?
  5. Is the rear of the frame ugly and will it be visible when it is on display?
  6. Is the frame wall mountable and does it have slots on the back to make this easier?
  7. Does the stand allow the frame to be placed vertically as well as horizontally?
  8. Are the power cable and adapter small and easy to hide?
  9. Is the outer frame too large or too small compared to the screen size.
  10. Is the frame excessively thick?
  11. What type of storage cards does the frame support? Will it directly support your camera card or will you need to copy the files to a USB drive first?

 

Remote control: Many Digital Frames include a remote control which will come in useful when making adjustments or flicking through photos from the comfort of your couch. Investigate whether the entire frame can be controlled via the remote or just basic functions. Also pay attention to the button layout and markings, is it easy to use and can you press the buttons easily? It is a larger remote or slimline credit card size. Would you easily break or lose it?

Touch Screen: Whilst currently rare, touchscreen functionality will likely become a popular feature of future Digital Photo Frames particulary those with better software functionality. When purchasing be sure to take into account the durability of the screen surface itself and whether or not it is likely to relatively fingerprint resistant. Matte screens tend to be more resistant to fingerprints than glossy screens. Some screens feature a pseudo touch screen whereby the frame edges are touch sensitive rather that the screen itself.

Photo Scanner: Some screens feature an inbuilt photo scanner enabling you to quickly scan existing photos so you can view them digitally on your screen.

 

Digital Frame functions

All frames are not created equal. Some frames only have very basic software functions and interface whilst others include a host of features. Some features to consider are described below:

Photo playback: The minimum you need is Jpeg support which should be supported by all frames (otherwise you have probably bought a chopping board by mistake). Ideally your frame should support automatic slide show (random, sequential, single folder, multiple folder etc).

Video playback: Some frames support videos usually in the AVI format. However not all AVI files are compatible with all frames. AVI is a very generalised format and consists of a large number of "codec" types including xvid, divx etc. Its quite possible that the videos you take with your digital still camera may not play correctly or at all on frames that supposedly support video so if you can test the frame with your videos first this may be the best solution. If not then consider converting your videos to a format which the frame does support. Better frames can also support additional video formats such as WMV.

Audio Playback: Whilst this is a nice feature, ultimately the inbuilt speakers of most frames will sound like a "blowfly in a tin can". However keep a look out for frames with an audio out or headphone out jack if you wish to connect up to a home stereo or headphones. Most audio capable frames will at least support mp3, whilst better models will support a wider range of audio formats including OGG, WMA etc.

Clock and Calendar: When you get bored of all your photos you can always watch the clock. Its always handy to have a secondary useful function for your frame.

Clock Radio with Alarm: Kill two birds with the one stone by purchasing a Digital Photo Frame with inbuilt clock radio.

Weather Station: Some frames have an inbuilt weather station which can be a great feature.

Inspirational quotes: Some frames have inspirational quotes built right in... but if not then you can always use Framebug's own inspirational quotes products for something a little more elegant.

Auto shutdown and startup: A handy feature that saves power when you are not in the room. Usually this operates on an adjustable timer however some frames include an infrared movement detector which will turn the screen on as soon as you enter the room and shutdown again after detecting no movement for a period of time.

Wireless networking connectivity: Wireless frames allow you to send files directly to the frame via your wireless network. Some can also be set to automatically connect to the internet to receive files remotely, allowing the images on the screen to dynamically change as new photos are uploaded to the internet. Keep in mind that most "Wireless" frames generally use this term in regards to networking and still have the need for wired power supply.

Battery Power: This can be a handy feature with regards to portability, allowing you to take the frame to family picnics, for advertising purposes at an outdoors market etc. Its also useful to be able to pick up the frame and take it to someone to view instead of them having to walk to it (ideal for the disabled or elderly).

RSS Reader: Some wireless frames allow you connect directly to an RSS feed from the internet. This will allow you to gain information on news and weather etc. In some cases it may also allow you to connect to image sharing website directly.

Direct photo Emailing: This is where the frame is given its own email address. Friends and family can then directly email photos to the frame for display. Some frames also feature the reverse of this whereby you can send images directly from the frame to another email account.

Text Messaging: Allows you to send text messages directly to the frame for display.

Auto Rotation: This feature allows the frame to tell when the frame is in either a horizontal or vertical orientation and automatically rotate the images to suit.

Auto Resize: This is a feature of most frames and enables you to load images that are physically larger than the screen area and the frame will reduce the images to fit. Some frames handle this function well whilst others will cause the image to look somewhat pixelated after the size reduction. In most circumstances, best results will be achieved if you resize the images on your PC first to match the frame's screen "native resolution".


Conclusion

At the end of the day you are buying an item which you can always use more than one of, if you make a mistake and are not 100% happy with your first purchase you can always hide it away in the kids room or hand it on to a friend or family member. You will probably have a clearer idea of your needs when it comes to buying a frame second time around. Remember that frame technology will advance year by year, so today's perfect screen will seem dated and featureless 2-3 years down the track.

If you take just one thing away after reading this page, make sure its Resolution, Resolution, Resolution... and remember, the higher the resolution, the better the image will look.

 


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