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|Kodak Smart Picture Frame
On-line photo-sharing for an off-line world?
Product review by Dave Etchells (Dave says "Too cool!")
I have to admit that when I first saw Kodak's Smart Picture Frame, I thought to myself "Oh yawn, another $350 yuppie photo gadget." (I can get away with yuppie-disparaging remarks like that, being a yuppie myself.) The more I dug into the product though, and the more I played with it, the more I realized how wrong my initial reaction was: This is a really cool product!
The unit itself is pretty straightforward, but obviously packs a lot of electronic horsepower into a small package. The Smart Picture Frame is a cherry-framed LCD panel, about 7.25 x 8.5 inches (18 x 21 cm) in size, with a roughly 4 x 5-inch color LCD panel in the middle (4.0 x 5.25 inches or 101 x 133 mm, to be exact). The cool parts are found in the CompactFlash memory socket on its side, and the RJ-11 telephone jack on the bottom.
That's right, this baby is designed to connect to a phone line, and thence directly to the Internet. You can upload images to the Smart Picture Frame from a CompactFlash card, transfer them from the frame to a web album, or download images into the frame automatically over the Internet.
If you don't have far-flung family members, this may sound vaguely interesting, but when you factor a many-states-away Grandma or Grandpa (or Sister or Brother, or even a Best Friend) into the equation, it gets downright compelling! My own parents are no longer around, but if they were, I'd immediately buy one of these gadgets for them. How great it would be for Grandpa to see photos from the soccer tournament or church musical the next day. (Or even later the same day, depending on how you have the options set.) Even better, Grandpa doesn't need to be a computer whiz to use it (assuming you've visited him and set it up for him - more on this later), it's a completely brainless and painless gadget. It just sits on the counter, table, or desk, and serves up a constantly cycling series of pictures.
Let's face it, email is great, but maybe not for Grandpa. How often will he enjoy your photos if he has to fire up the computer every time he wants to look at them?
Actually, forget Grandpa, I want one of these right on my desk! And on the kitchen counter for my wife! It's silly, but around our house, the digital camera is often referred to as the "digital black hole." The photos go in, but only reluctantly come back out again. (Sit at the computer, page through a few hundred shots, select a few I like, upload them to the online service, order the prints. It happens a lot less often than it really ought to.) The Smart Frame won't make poring through the photos any easier, but the idea that I could surprise my wife with a fresh set of photos a couple of times a week, with no more than a few minutes effort at the computer (don't tell her it's that little), is worth a lot. What better way to say "Hi honey, I'm thinking of you even though I'm at work," than by surprising her with a few new photos on the Smart Frame.
Like I said, I want one on my desk too. When it comes to dealing with pictures and frames and putting new ones around my office, I'm the stereotypical male klutz. (Embarrassing confession time: Dave Etchells, uber-digital-photo-nerd has exactly zero (0) photos of his family on his desk!) With a Smart Frame next to my computer, I could easily update it with favorite vacation shots, photos of family events, etc., etc. I mean, it'd almost be like having a life: "Hey, look at that - I actually had fun last July!"
Oh - and that's not all: You can also subscribe to optional network services, including MSNBC, The Weather Channel, and TrafficStation: How about getting a local traffic update beamed to your desk automatically every day at 5 p.m.?
Of course, the Smart Picture Frame isn't for everybody. For one thing, there's the $349 cost of the basic unit. Then, you need to sign up for at least a $5/month subscription to Weave Innovations Storybox Network services. (That's how the photos get onto the frame from the net.) And setup wasn't exactly a breeze either. But, all that said, I think the Smart Picture Frame is a harbinger of things to come. The price will doubtless come down as production volumes increase, setup is bound to get easier, and $5/month isn't a lot to pay for the level of enjoyment it can bring.
Probably the most surprising thing about the Smart Picture Frame for me was how completely it turned my own thinking around. I have to say that I started out really prejudiced against it. I confess to a bit of a phobia about overwrought technology-in-search-of-a-problem, and gadgets designed primarily to separate gadget freaks from their money. By the time I was done playing with it though, I'd come to the conclusion that this was potentially one of the most "humanizing" innovations in digital photography I've yet seen.
Now, on to the details...
To make the Smart Picture Frame, Eastman Kodak Company teamed up with a Silicon Valley-based technology firm, Weave Innovations. Originally announced in February 2000 as Weave Innovation's StoryBox Network and StoryBox Connected Frame, this Internet-based, photo-sharing platform was introduced with a half dozen strategic partners, including Eastman Kodak, and online content providers MSNBC.com, E! Online, The Weather Channel, SportsLine.com, and TrafficStation. Since then, Zing Network has come in with its popular digital album technology; and two stock image providers - Corbis Pictures and Getty Images - have promised access to millions of historical photographs and works of art that will soon be available for download by StoryBox subscribers. Kodak's pivotal role in the StoryBox platform was not fully disclosed until April, when it was announced that Kodak-branded frames would serve as the front end of the StoryBox Network, and Kodak photofinishing services would serve as the back end.
Like most Net-based companies, Weave Innovations is a relative newcomer to
the industry, but its mission statement reveals a solid balance of innovation
and practicality: "To create new categories of interpersonal communication
products powered by innovative technologies that are transparently woven into
everyday objects." The Kodak Smart Picture Frame and Weave StoryBox Network
fulfill that goal with an attractive new solution to bringing Grandpa into the
Kodak's Smart Picture Frame will make you the envy of your neighborhood or office. At first glance, it looks like a high-quality, desktop picture frame, but wait a few minutes and you'll see a virtual slide show of personal photographs displayed on its backlit, color LCD display. Plug the frame into an analog phone jack and you can log on to Weave Innovation's StoryBox Network, from which you can send or receive photographs and greeting cards or scroll through the day's latest headlines, entertainment news, weather, traffic, and sports. About the size of a conventional 8 x 10-inch tabletop picture frame, the Smart Picture Frame's traditional cherry finish accents any decor, and it can be accessorized with snap-on bezels to accommodate your personal tastes.
Smart Picture Frame measures 7.25 x 8.5 inches (18 x 21 cm) including the LCD
and frame, and weighs less than two pounds (0.9 kg). Its 6.4-inch diagonal,
active matrix, color LCD display shows pictures at 640 x 480-pixel resolution
- more than adequate for high-quality, on-screen presentation. The built-in
8MB memory enables you to store and display up to 36 images (the frame accepts
JPEG and BMP file formats), and the CompactFlash slot on the side of the frame
accepts Type I and II CompactFlash cards, as well as SmartMedia cards with the
appropriate adapter. (We have to confess, we don't know what a SmartMedia adapter
would look like: The card slot is CompactFlash-sized, not a full PCMCIA card,
and we're unaware of any SmartMedia adapters that convert the pinout to a CF-format
top of the picture frame features several function buttons, including a Menu
button, Left and Right Arrow buttons for scrolling through images, an OK button
to set menu selections or choose photos, and a Share! button to initiate transfer
of images over the network. There's an On/Off switch on the back of the frame
and a Photos/Channels button on the side to toggle between image display and
information channels. The telephone and power jacks are located on the bottom
of the frame. In our testing, we found that the power cord is easily disconnected
from the frame when it's picked up or moved around (we lost power once while
updating information on our test unit); but this is easily remedied by holding
the jack in place with your finger whenever you move the unit.
The Smart Picture Frame's internal 8MB memory can store and display up to 36 640 x 480-pixel images. The CompactFlash slot on the side of the frame allows you to import captured images from a digital camera or computer, or to view images directly from a CompactFlash card. Using the Smart Picture Frame's menu and arrow buttons, individual images can be rotated, moved, or deleted to create a favorite sequence for viewing in Still Picture Mode (one at a time), or Slide Show Mode (pictures advance automatically). By leaving a CompactFlash card in the frame's card reader, additional images can be automatically incorporated into the frame's slide show.
The Still Picture Mode is set in the Slide Show menu by selecting the Pause Show option. Once the Still Picture Mode is set, you can change the image on the screen by going back into the Slide Show menu options and changing your selection, or by using the arrow buttons to scroll through stored photographs. If you want your Smart Picture Frame to continually rotate through the images, return to the Menu, reselect the Slide Show option, and use the arrow keys to change the time interval between each image (five seconds to one day). At any point, if the menu option doesn't allow you to back out, you can press the Menu key to return to the main image display.
To download images from the CompactFlash card to your Smart Picture Frame, simply press the Menu button, select Copy Pictures, and press OK. Then select "From CF Card to Frame" and the frame displays thumbnails of each image on the card. Use the arrow buttons to select the images you want to copy and press OK (a check mark will appear over the thumbnail). Continue this process until you have selected all of the images you want to copy, then press Continue. Once you've reviewed the images you've chosen, press OK. Up to 10 images can be copied at a time, converting them to full-frame files for on-screen viewing (because the frame display area is 640 x 480 pixels, high-resolution images are automatically scaled to fit into the display window). A 140-degree LCD viewing angle maintains image visibility from most viewpoints and in most lighting conditions, but the Frame should never be exposed to direct sunlight.
By default, the Smart Picture Frame automatically turns off at 12:00 a.m. and turns back on again at 6:00 a.m. You can adjust the automatic shutdown and power-up times by using the Frame's Menu options or by setting the times online in the personalized My Frames section of your Story Box Network home page. This feature not only saves energy, but prevents unnecessary wear and tear on the LCD (which Kodak claims will last up to 10 years if properly maintained).
You can also use the Frames menu to set a lock code on individual pictures, which prevents others from altering settings, deleting files, sharing images, or ordering prints from your files without your knowledge. (For added physical security, an optional lock cable can be purchased and attached to a lock slot on the back of the frame to prevent theft of the unit.)
Connecting to the StoryBox Network
To take advantage of your Smart Picture Frame's capabilities, you'll need to establish an account with Weave Innovation's StoryBox Network. Through this network, you can share images with friends and family, store image files, create photo albums, personalize information channels, and remotely manage your Smart Picture Frame functions. You must register your Frame on the StoryBox website (www.storybox.com) before you log onto the Network with your Smart Picture Frame for the first time. If you do not have Internet access, you can call the toll-free customer service number and they'll walk you through the registration process. StoryBox offers several subscription plans to Smart Picture Frame owners, as well as free membership to friends and family members who want to send photographs through the StoryBox network, but do not want to purchase their own Smart Picture Frames.
We have to say that setup and connection were the areas where we found the most to criticize in the Smart Picture Frame. It took us several calls to tech support before we finally connected successfully, what with initial connection problems, difficulty finding a local access number, and the all-too-typical technological murk that seems to accompany any product with a computer chip inside it. To their credit, the StoryBox Network tech support staff were unfailingly pleasant and helpful, and we did eventually manage to get the device working, but it really should have been a lot easier.
Once registered, you can access your account on the StoryBox Network with your Smart Picture Frame. The Frame's telephone cable must be connected to an analog telephone line (it will not work with digital phone lines). When you turn on the Smart Picture Frame for the first time, it prompts you to set the date and time. Then it will ask you if the Frame has been moved to a new location since it was last used. If it is your first Network access, you should select "Yes." This prompts the Frame to dial the StoryBox Network's toll free number and locate a local access number. Once connected to the Network, selecting the "Update Now" option allows the Smart Picture Frame to automatically add any special features you selected during the registration process. Future log-ons will automatically update information to the Smart Picture Frame without any prompts.
Every StoryBox member is provided with a secure personal StoryCenter. There you can upload images from the Picture Frame or a computer, retrieve images from other StoryBox members (these can be sent to your private InBox or directly to your Smart Picture Frame), or add images from other Internet sources to your personal collection. You can organize, edit, and store images in your InBox, arrange them in digital albums, or add them to your on-line Virtual Picture Frame, where they will be held until the Smart Picture Frame dials in for an update, at which time they will be automatically downloaded to the Frame for viewing (provided enough memory is available).
beauty of the Kodak Smart Picture Frame is that you can send and receive images
electronically without owning a computer. As a StoryBox member, you can maintain
a list of up to 10 people or groups with whom you wish to share pictures on
your personal StoryCenter Share! List. This list can include the names of other
StoryBox members, as well as e-mail addresses of nonmembers. If you do not have
Internet access via a personal computer, you can create or modify your Share!
List by calling the StoryBox customer service center. An updated list will be
automatically downloaded the next time you log on to the StoryBox site with
your Smart Picture Frame.
As a safety precaution, anyone sending images to a member's personal StoryCenter
must have permission to do so (i.e.: their name must be listed in the receiver's
address book as an approved sender). While you can only receive images from
other StoryBox members, you can send images to any friend or family member who
is not registered with StoryBox Network, as long as you have their e-mail addresses
entered on your approved Share! List.
Expanding on the "no computer needed" theme, the Smart Picture Frame lets you share photos with people on your share list directly from the Picture Frame itself. (We could see this being very handy for situations where you've set up a frame for a non-computer-savvy friend who also has a CompactFlash-based digital camera.)
In addition to sending photographs, the StoryBox Network provides an online greeting card service, so you can send cards to anyone on your Share! List. You can also order prints from your digital images and shop for decorative, snap-on bezels, and other accessories for your Smart Picture Frame.
Network offers two subscription plans for Smart Picture Frame customers. The
purchase price of the Frame ($349) includes a free six-month Premium Plan subscription.
After six months, you have the option to subscribe to the Basic Plan for $4.95
per month or the Premium Plan for $9.95 per month. The Basic Plan includes two
automatic updates per day, 15 instant updates per month (connect instantly,
whenever you want), unlimited photo sharing, additional connections/updates
at 10 cents each, five basic channels (available channels listed below), and
40MB of storage space in your personal StoryCenter for up to 275 images. The
Premium Plan includes four automatic updates per day, 60 instant updates per
month, unlimited photo sharing, additional connections/updates at 5 cents each,
10 basic channels, and 60MB of storage space in your personal StoryCenter for
up to 500 pictures. The Premium Plan also receives weekly deliveries of art
and photography from the StoryBox Gallery, with selections provided by online
stock agencies, Corbis and Getty Images. The gallery includes fine art, 20th
century black-and-white photography, travel, space images, and more. Both Plans
provide access to the StoryBox Channel, with news, information, and promotional
updates from the StoryBox Network.
The following optional channels are currently available on the StoryBox Network
(Corbis and Getty Images will be added as access channels shortly):
MSNBC: MSNBC.com supplies personalized news and headlines to StoryBox Network subscribers with critical updates on local, national, and global events. Subscribers can select one or two MSNBC channels:
1) Top Stories of the Day, which delivers breaking news and the day's top headlines, including in-depth business, technology, lifestyle, and local reporting.
2) Custom Headlines, which provides stories on user-selectable topics such
as International News, Science, Business, Health, Living and Travel, Opinions,
Technology, and National News
TrafficStation: TrafficStation is the Internet's leading traffic information processing and distribution system, providing the information subscribers need to plan their daily commute. Subscribers can select one or two TrafficStation channels: Traffic Update 1 and Traffic Update 2.
The Weather Channel: The Weather Channel, based in Atlanta, is the leading provider of weather information via the Internet and television. Subscribers will be able to customize this channel to provide a three-day forecast based on ZIP Code.
E! Online Entertainment Headlines: E! Online is the number one source of entertainment news and celebrity gossip, providing a colorful, daily dose of Hollywood delivered in a fun, hip, irreverent tone. User selectable topics include: Movie, Industry, Event, TV, Celebrity, and Music News.
CBS SportsLine: CBS SportsLine offers three separate channels from which StoryBox subscribers can choose:
1) CBS SportsLine Headlines provides breaking sports news, live scoring, fan interaction, and award winning coverage of game action. User-selectable topics include: Auto Racing, NCAA Football, NBA Basketball, Tennis, MLB Baseball, NHL Hockey, NCAA Basketball, NFL Football, Golf, and Soccer.
2) CBS SportsLine 'My Team' provides the latest scores and reports of your favorite sports teams. Users can select up to three teams.
3) CBS SportsLine 'My Region' provides the latest scores and reports of
all teams in your geographic region.
Operation and User Interface
Overall, we were very pleased with the operation of the Smart Picture Frame. The user interface is very straightforward and simple to operate, and once we completed the initial setup of our test unit, we didn't have to refer back to the accompanying manual. We did have some trouble finding a working local access number, but this was soon remedied by the customer service staff through the website's customer service number.
The Smart Picture Frame's operating menu is comprised of only one page and the right and left arrow keys on top of the Frame navigate efficiently through the settings. The few control buttons located on the outside of the Frame are well-placed and easy to access. We were particularly impressed with the adjustable support stand, which allows you to display the Frame at several different viewing angles.
Once your StoryBox account is set up, accessing the Network's various features is a breeze. Navigating through the site is simple, with informative tidbits on special features and functions throughout. Customizing the information channels is easy; you simply fill out a survey by checking the options you want for each channel. When you're done, you'll receive only local weather, traffic, and sports news, plus personalized articles based on your individual interests.
On/Off Button: Located on the back panel, just above the support stand, this button turns the frame on or off.
Menu Button: On top of the frame, this is the first in a line of buttons (starting from the left). This button displays the frame's one-page operating menu. It also cancels menu options and returns the frame to the image display. The operating menu offers the following submenus and options:
Right and Left Arrow Buttons: These buttons are located on the top panel of the frame, to the right of the Menu button. They allow you to scroll through the frame's images, as well as images stored on an inserted memory card. The arrow buttons also scroll through the operating menu and select menu options. When the frame's information channels are displayed, these buttons can be used to change channels.
OK Button: Between the two arrow buttons, the OK button confirms menu selections and frame settings.
Share! Button: The last button on the top of the frame, this one accesses the frame's image sharing feature, enabling you to instantly send copies of images to anyone on your Share! List (set up through the StoryBox Network website).
Pictures/Channels Button: Located on the right side of the frame (viewed from the front), directly above the CompactFlash slot, this button alternates between the image display and channel display modes. Once the channel mode is displayed, the right and left arrow buttons cycle through each channel.
As we said at the outset, the Kodak Smart Picture Frame turned out to be a "sleeper" product, at least in our experience. Initially unenthusiastic, we quickly joined the ranks of true believers. More than most products we've seen this year, the Smart Picture Frame extends the boundaries of digital photography, reaching beyond the die-hard technophiles, and making "live" viewing of digital photos accessible to their non-technophile friends and family, as well. In the online photo-sharing space, the Smart Picture Frame finally moves digital photos out of the computer and into the living room (or kitchen, desk, etc.) where they can become part of your daily life. Combine its slide show capabilities and extensive information resources with what appears to be a strong platform for other image-related services, and the StoryBox Network holds the promise of a whole new way of interacting with pictures and information. Kodak and Weave's biggest challenge will be in communicating the excitement of the Smart Picture Frame experience to consumers. If they can manage to do this, we predict a promising future for the product. That could be an uphill battle though, given that even confirmed digital photo "tweaks" like ourselves didn't immediately recognize what a Smart Picture Frame had to offer. Can they do it? Stay tuned...
See what other Imaging Resource readers have to say about the Kodak Smart Picture Frame, or add comments of your own. (Have you purchased the Smart Picture Frame yourself? Come back here and share your experience with the rest of the community!) Questions or feedback on this review? Email us at [email protected].
For More Info:
Visit the Kodak Smart Picture Frame page.
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