Holiday Gift Guide: Digital Photo Frames

Two weeks ago, we spent a few hours framing and hanging photographs in our kitchen. When we were finished, there were still a few square feet of wall space left uncovered, but we still have hundreds (if not thousands) of family photos that we’d love to have on the walls to enjoy.

These days, computer hard drives and memory cards have taken the place of shoeboxes for the average household’s family snapshots. But just as in the shoebox days, most of those photos never see the light of day.

Fortunately, a new product has appeared to address this problem: digital photo frames. Load them up with your favorite digital photos, and they’ll show you a continuous slide show. Some are so simple that even an infant could use them, while others do way more than just show photos. Here are some things to look for in a digital photo frame.

Resolution: Some frames use LCD panels with fewer pixels than others. This means they can’t display as much detail as frames with higher resolutions, such as the Kodak EasyShare D830 8-inch digital frame with its 800 by 600 resolution. So if you’ve taken a 5-megapixel portrait of someone, don’t expect to see the fine details when shown on a low resolution panel.

On smaller panels, the loss of detail is less important: You won’t be looking at it closely enough to tell the difference, after all. But it makes a difference on larger size panels. Note that some frames have wide format screens, like an HDTV. Few cameras take wide-format pictures, however, so this won’t be of much value for most.

Screen Size: Smaller frames tend to have screens that are 7 inches diagonal. That may sound large, but it’s really about the size of a 4 by 6 inch print. The screens are arranged in landscape format, meaning that the long side of the screen is horizontal, and the short side is vertical. That’s reasonable: This is the way people hold their cameras when they take most of their pictures.

But for those photos that you take in portrait format – long side vertical – they will be shrunk down significantly to fit upright on the screen. This can make a photo pretty small on a 7 inch screen. 9 inch and larger photo frames may cost more but can be worth it to see more detail in your photos.

Panel Quality: The most expensive component in a photo frame is the LCD panel, and you get what you pay for. Cheap models use low-quality panels. In addition to having low resolution, they often have small viewing angles: The images look okay when viewed from straight on, but colors can shift and look strange when viewed from the side or above or below.

Memory Card Support: Don’t be impressed by how many different card formats a given photo frame can read; many of the formats specified are just minor variations of one format. Besides, the only memory card format that you really need to support is the one that your digital camera uses.

Most cameras use the SD format, and many newer ones can take SDHC memory cards, which have a larger storage capacity than SD cards. If you use SDHC in your camera, make sure that the photo frame can support it. Some frames like the PanDigital P19001DW have Bluetooth support, and can connect wirelessly digital cameras with BlueTooth — handy, though often a challenge to set up.

Music, Maestro: What else could a “photo frame” do besides show pictures? As it turns out, some can do a lot more. Manufacturers are looking for ways to differentiate their products, and one common features is to play MP3 music tracks.

Some can play songs while showing a slide show of photos, providing a soundtrack for your exhibit. But most frames that play music have low quality speakers. Get an inexpensive pair of self-powered speakers for a computer or MP3 player, and plug them into the frame’s headphone jack (if it has one) to get much better sound.

Lights, Camera, Action! Most digital cameras can record home movie clips, complete with sound. Just store the clips on a memory card, pop them in the photo frame, and you’ll be able to watch your home movies right on the screen too. Make sure that the frame is compatible with the format used by your camera; even if a file has the right file extension (like .AVI or .MOV), it may not work with your photo frame unless the frame supports the same encoding format used by your camera. There are utility programs that will convert from one format to another, but you’re more likely to use the feature if you don’t have to make any conversions.

Online Library: Some photo frames will connect to your home network, and let you access photos, music, and movies that are stored on your home computers or on shared network storage devices. With this feature, you don’t even have to transfer the files to a memory card; just find the ones you want and show them on the photo frame. But look for "DLNA support" if you want this feature. Some frames will require that you have a wired network connection, while others will be able to use a wireless Wi-Fi connection if you have one set up for your network.

Give Me the World: The latest crop of photo frames can connect to your home network and use your broadband Internet connection to get content from outside your home, such as HP’s DreamScreen. You can have your device show the current weather conditions and forecast, news headlines, sports information, and more. Some will even access Internet radio stations and other content. These tend to cost the most, but they’re still smaller, less expensive, and easier to use than a full-blown computer.