PANDIGITAL, GIINII FRAMES
Gifting a Digital Photo FrameBy MIKE PASINI
The Imaging Resource Digital Photography Newsletter
Talk about a fish out of water. Take an ordinary reviewer, present him with a special occasion or holiday, pop the idea into his head that a digital photo frame is just the ticket and drop him off at the mall. See the beads of sweat form along his forehead.
But that's just what happened to us.
Our ambition was pretty simple. We were looking for a small digital frame, preferably with a calendar, that could show a couple dozen images. Sort of a novelty item, really, not a family heirloom.
The idea popped into our head at Brookstone. We saw a couple models there, just about what we had in mind. But none of them had any power, so we couldn't see if they were, you know, any good.
Even if they had had power, we forgot to bring the one item that would have proved the point: an SD card of images we were familiar with. Load it with some high contrast images, an image full of blue sky, some portraits and anything else near and dear to you. That will help evaluate these popular devices.
There are a lot of companies offering digital photo frames these days and the frames themselves seem nearly indistinguishable from each other. But we found on our shopping safari that there are vast differences between them. And we're here to tell you about them.
One day they'll make a keychain photo viewer worth its weight in credit cards, but we didn't find one. Naturally, you can't expect much resolution on such a small device and the power requirements to illuminate it are another issue.
But we've all gazed admiringly at small LCDs on old digicams that looked just fine. So the hope does not die. Where did all those bright, 2.0-inch LCDs go?
Although, what turns us off to the keychain concept is the inevitable slapping of a half dozen metal keys against the plastic screen. Not bright.
The small desktop frames we saw at Brookstone were really tempting. They had a calendar function (so they weren't entirely useless) and enough real estate to identify a face at arm's length.
But the trouble with all LCD screens is that they do not show 24-bit color. They show 16-bit color. That's why you take along a picture of the blue sky, which can look posterized on a 16-bit LCD if the frame doesn't have the smarts to blend that graduation intelligently.
And for $30 you don't get smarts like that.
Next stop was Ritz. We would have gone to Goodwill, frankly, if they had frames. Last minute shopping can do that to you.
We may award the Ersatz Nobel Prize for Customer Support and we may also launch into a tirade or three on salespeople who do not know their merchandise. But we felt genuinely sorry for the clerk who helped us at Ritz.
There were a couple of house brand models that looked nice. Shiny black plastic frames with an index card size screen. They were in a lock case, hence the necessity for a clerk. Under $50, hence no idea what the necessity for a lock case would be unless the girls high school across the street is actually a reformatory.
He managed to show us the display models and even plug one in and even hunt around for an SD card with some real images on it (they do sell cameras there). He actually worked at it, we mean. And we appreciated his effort.
The trouble was that the product wasn't very good. When we finally saw an image on the screen, it looked, well, terrible. The 320x240 pixel resolution didn't help, certainly, but the color was a contrasty and the tones were posterized.
It was a gimmick in short.
We stopped for lunch. It became clear to us that our quest for a small frame with a calendar wasn't going to be successful. If the idea was any good, after all, we might as well go for a normal size frame. You know, 5x7 or so, and sacrifice the calendar, if necessary. You can always take a picture of a calendar and put it in the slide show.
So we went to Target, where we vaguely recall seeing a shelf of digital frames. If we'd had more time, we would have gone to Sears or Best Buy or Circuit City, but time (and gas) was something we didn't have. Target was closest to the bull's eye.
And indeed they had a shelf of frames.
Most of the brands were unfamiliar to us (there are hundreds) but the one brand we would have bought without thinking twice (Pandigital) wasn't on the shelf. There were only two brands we recognized: Kodak and Polaroid. But Polaroid isn't Polaroid any more.
Oddly enough the Kodak frame was not plugged into the power outlet hidden in the shelf hardware. The other half dozen frames were. We looked them over and were unimpressed. Then we plugged in the Kodak. It clearly was the better frame, much brighter with better contrast and a much nicer looking image.
It also happened to be a touch frame with a set of touch buttons on the mat along the bottom and right side of the frame. And the image area itself was wide screen, not 4:3, perfect for HD movie playback. No calendar, although it did have a timer.
But as a gift, missing features can be forgiven -- especially if the price is right. And manufacturers know that most frames are given as gifts.
Regardless of features, missing or not, it's the image that counts, after all.
As much as we take for granted (though we shouldn't) the quality of a computer monitor image, photo frames vary quite a bit more in quality. Like a television, it's best to go to the store and look at them in operation before you buy one.
There it's easy to see the difference between an 8-inch frame with only 600x480 resolution and one with 800x600 pixels.
It's also easy to see the difference in how a frame is lit. A frame that uses LED backlighting will be brighter than a frame that uses fluorescent backlighting. Brightness matters a good deal because your frame will typically be viewed in a room lit either by diffused sunlight or artificial light -- not, that is, a darkened viewing booth. LED backlighting can stand up to that but fluorescents get as washed out as your camera LCD in bright sunlight. We half suspect the Kodak was unplugged at Target to make the cheaper fluorescent frames look better. So look for LED backlighting.
Oddly enough, like HDTV screens, all these screens are non-glare not glossy (like laptops). They have to be seen in bright rooms where you can't control glare for multiple viewers. Some models, however, do include a frame with glass.
Your computer monitor needs calibration to be trustworthy, no matter how much you paid for it or how new it is. You can calibrate a photo frame, but not with any hardware calibration. You're reduced to fiddling with the built-in brightness, contrast and color controls until your eye is happy. That's why bringing a set of images along with you when you shop is helpful. Some frames can be adjusted, others can't quite cut the mustard.
The trick to that is the firmware.
We've rarely found a frame whose firmware did not allow you to adjust Brightness and Contrast. Color controls like Tint and Saturation are not so universally available. And the outside of the box doesn't always reveal this sort of technical detail.
Pandigital does a nice job here, with Brightness, Contrast, Tint and Color adjustments on the 8-inch PandTouch frame we reviewed recently. In contrast, the GiiNii 8-inch Ultra Thin frame, here for testing, offers just Brightness and Contrast but uses an ambient light sensor to adjust the display for room light.
They're both attractive frames. The very thin GiiNii is set in a contemporary brushed metal frame with a quarter-inch white mat. You can set this in a wooden frame for a more traditional look. The Pandigital has a traditional black wood frame and three-quarter inch reveal on the mat.
Perhaps even more attractive than these fairly traditional approaches is the GiiNii 7-inch Wedge frame, an aluminum box shaped like a wedge with a widescreen LCD. There's no adjusting the angle of view but it doesn't tip over easily either.
But unlike the larger two frames, it only accepts small SD and xD cards, not CompactFlash or Memory Stick cards. So if you shoot with a camera that uses either of those cards, you'll have to copy your images from the computer to the Wedge to see them. There isn't a USB connector suitable for plugging in a thumbdrive either. So make sure the frame you buy supports the camera cards you use. Because the easiest way to get display photos is to just pop a card into a frame.
Also unlike the other two frames, the Wedge doesn't include a remote. That may not seem important for a frame you can reach when you're looking at it, but we found remotes to be very handy, so to speak.
The Pandigital mat covers the IR receiver for the remote control, so you can't tell by looking at it that it has a remote. For that matter, you can't tell it's a touchscreen unless you tap the top right corner of the mat. Well done.
Both 8-inch frames are LED backlight frames and are nearly indistinguishable in quality next to each other. You do have to look at them straight-on to enjoy the best display because looking at an LCD frame from an angle distorts the image.
Neither achieves more than a tinny sound from their small stereo speakers. But both play movies and audio files.
But don't even ask us about transitions (of which they have many). All we want is a simple fade. Everything else distracts from the show.
As a gift, features may not sway you (who looks a gift frame in the firmware?) but that's how hundreds of frames, whose hardware is made by a handful of companies, distinguish themselves.
Memory card slots and battery power (rather rare) are the features that most influence purchase. But there are a number of other tidbits to look for.
The 8-inch GiiNii, for example, offers a Collage function that can show two or three images at the same time. Westinghouse frames also have this feature but the GiiNii approach adds background templates. Templates are built into the frame for Mother's Day, Baseball, Golf and Fishing.
That clock/calendar function we were looking for is another firmware bonus on all three of these frames. The Wedge alternates its clock or calendar display with your images (an annoying approach in our view). The Ultra-Thin overlays its calendar over your images, ghosting them underneath (also aggravating). The Pandigital can run a slide show in the corner of its calendar display, the approach we like the best.
Some frames, like the Kodak and the Ultra-Thin, offer alarm features. We're not alarmists so we aren't big on that feature.
In fact, the features themselves often sound a lot better on the box than they work in practice. More important is the little operating system built into every frame that lets it communicate with its card reader and your computer.
Card readers are pretty straightforward, but beware a slot location that makes it hard to load and extract your card. The Ultra-Thin exhibits that flaw with a very narrow reader (not much wider than the slots) and cramped slots that are not spring-loaded. The Wedge has a much nicer spring-loaded SD slot that clicks when you insert a card. And the Pandigital gives you enough room to push cards into its spring-less slots.
When connected via USB to your computer, they all mount as removable disks so you can copy images, movies and music to their internal memory. USB specifications are hard to find on most models, probably because few support USB 2.0 Hi-Speed. Copying can be pretty slow unless you wisely resize your images first. Another reason to rely on the card reader.
Actually interacting with the frame, though, can be the hard part.
It took us a while to get used to the Wedge's touch buttons on the right side of the frame. They aren't buttons with clicks but indentations that send a signal when touched. The frame responded slowly to them, however, and we had to slow down our expectations. If you leave your finger on them, they repeat the command quickly. Ingenious indeed, but they take getting used to. And on the Wedge the Power button also functions as a button, switching between playback modes of Photo, Clock, and Photo/Clock.
What a button does, however, is the tricky part. Every frame seems to redefine how a frame should operate. That's tolerable if all you have to do is set the date and time and a few options for display (like whether to view one image or a slide show and which music to play). But if you like to fiddle much or get bored easily, changing things on a frame can be a trial.
Remote controls are our preferred way of interacting with a frame. The controls built into the back of the frame require you to hold the frame, risking a smudge on the glass. Touchscreens are a nice touch (we prefer Pandigital's implementation to Kodak's because it's subtler than Kodak's illuminated touch panel) but we use the remote a lot more.
We liked both GiiNii and Pandigital approaches to menu design. GiiNii wins the looks award and Pandigital the function award but they both get the job done.
Finally, frame firmware isn't very tolerant of marginal images or high-fps movies. If your slide show or movie playback is disturbed, the frame may be choking on a file it can't understand.
To take just one example, we popped an SD card full of images into the Wedge frame when it arrived for review. We expected the frame to display the images on the card once we switched to Photo only mode so it wouldn't alternate with the clock.
Instead the frame would show one of the images on the card and then one of the built-in images, of which there were just three. It kept alternating between the card images and the built-in images.
So we connected the frame to a computer to delete the built-in images. But we couldn't find them on the frame. They're permanent.
Our next bright idea was to just copy the images to the frame. We did that but we couldn't avoid those built-in images.
Because the manual said the Power button would be green if all was well and it had remained a steady reddish orange, we suspected a hardware malfunction. GiiNii sent another frame -- and it did the same thing.
GiiNii has online support, an 800 number, live chat and email support options. Desperate reviewers have their own option. We talked to Saad Kahn, a GiiNii tech, who explained the alternating behavior is actually the frame's way of saying it can't read the an image.
One of our images was a problem for the frame and rather than skip it, it switched to the built-in image before continuing with the slide show. Of course, that isn't what we'd call ideal behavior (it should just skip it) but that's how GiiNii's firmware handles the problem.
Frames aren't too smart, so you have to be when you run into a problem.
In addition to a tiny operating system in firmware, frames have a smaller memory capacity to store your favorite images than many other electronic devices. A useful range is 128MB to 512MB. That may seem rather limiting compared to your camera, but the resolution of an 8-inch frame is only 800x600 (or should be, let's say). And your camera captures a lot more pixels than that. So resizing your images before moving them to the frame maximizes the number of images the frame can store.
Cleaning a frame isn't rocket science. But since it's an electronic device you want to be sure you aren't squirting any liquid into it. Frames with glass over the mat like the Pandigital can be cleaned with a commercial cleaner like Windex (spray the cloth, not the screen) but naked screens like the GiiNii should be dusted with a microfiber cloth. Disconnect before cleaning to be safe.
If you're buying the frame as a gift for someone who doesn't have a camera or any images, why not include a flash card full of images?
We went through our archive the other evening to copy every image shot on every Christmas since we started shooting digital in 1998. We put those on an old memory card, resized for the frame, making the best Christmas "card" we ever created. Ten years of family get-togethers.
We popped it into the Wedge frame, whose stability promises to survive the eggnogged, and let it run a slide show with some of that free Christmas music stored on the card.
Some frames can be updated via WiFi over your local area network. Kodak frames can read your Kodak Gallery albums over your Web connection, too. Tapping into this feature may require a resident geek, though.
So to recap, our shopping advice is pretty simple.
- Look for a seven- to nine-inch frame with at least 800x600 pixels. Larger sizes compete with notebook displays and smaller sizes don't compete with the framed photos hung on the wall.
- Make sure it's illuminated with LED backlighting, not fluorescents.
- Aspect ratio (4:3 for traditional digicam images or 16:9 for widescreen) isn't that big a deal. Don't write off 16:9. That's what your video will one day be and you can shoot 16:9 with many digicams (which is a blast).
- Make sure the card reader can handle your cards, especially if you use CompactFlash cards. Many readers support just SD cards.
- Look for a thumbdrive connection and a USB 2.0 Hi-Speed port for your computer.
- Look for at least 128MB and preferably 512MB of built-in memory. Having some favorite images in the frame makes a nice fallback when you've seen enough of the images on the card you've inserted.
- Remote controls are very handy even if viewing distance is not far.
- Confirm the frame can play Movies and Music -- but don't expect much. And check for stereo speakers. Remember you can create your own slide shows with your own audio on your computer sized for the frame.
- Options like battery power for wall mounting and a timer to cycle the frame off at night are big pluses. Clock/calendars are wonderful for desktop frames, too.
- Touchscreen and WiFi (or Bluetooth) are nice but expensive treats that take some expertise to enjoy.
- Test the frame in the store with your own card of images. Test image quality by examining smooth gradations in skies and observing brightness. Test ease of use by trying to change the time and date.
We've used several Pandigital frames and like them very much. We've also used several GiiNii frames and find them an attractive alternative if you don't need movie playback. We haven't used Kodak frames but have looked them over at trade shows, as we have Westinghouse and Smartparts and a few other brands. But Pandigital stands out in this crowd, with Kodak and GiiNii fighting for second place.
A good frame will list for $100 and up, but you can find them at street prices for $80 and up. Cheap frames, however, really are cheap, sacrificing resolution and brightness, not to mention features.
We suspect digital photo frames are big sellers because they're usually bought as gifts. And as electronic devices, they have the added bonus of implying the giver is pretty smart.
But fighting it out on the price tag, many frames cut back severely on image quality while touting features that are, frankly, half-baked.
Your gift will be most appreciated if you take the time to test the frames you find available in the store, shopping at a store that displays them with power so you can pop in your own card. And including a card full of images with your gift is a great idea.
After all, it's the thought that counts.