10 ways to make digital photo frames better

The sudden popularity of digital photo frames has turned them into love-it-or-hate-it devices. The dichotomy goes like this: Tech-savvy folks tend to dislike them (sometimes intensely), while most others are fascinated by the technology, if statistics are to be believed (the category went from 787,000 units sold in fall 2006 to 3 million in fall 2007, according to research group NPD). The reasons for this contradiction aren’t entirely clear: at first glance, a frame seems to be a pretty straightforward and inoffensive gadget — dutifully displaying its owner’s digital photos, either from a memory card or (more rarely) internal memory. But their ubiquity and relatively low manufacturing cost has invited no end of manufacturers tossing barely functional frames into the market, cheapening the whole enterprise.

Still, as prices continue to fall, folks looking for something to display their digital pics might be tempted by the big screen of Aluratek’s 11-inch frame (model No. ADMPF311F). I’ve lived with that particular frame for a couple of months, and after seeing my friends oooo and aaah when I had it displaying a slideshow during a party, I’m pretty confident it’ll serve — even impress — most people who buy it.

On the other hand, I now know better what those tech-savvy skeptics are talking about. This frame hardly pushes any envelopes, missing many opportunities to make things more convenient and provide a better user experience. Inspired by my time with the Aluratek, I present 10 things manufacturers could do, from the just-do-it-already easy to the not-invented-yet difficult, that would raise the cachet of the oft-maligned digital photo frame.

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1. Frame Menus Should Work More Like MP3 Players
The first thing that surprised me about the Aluratek was the relatively primitive menus, and the limited options within those menus. It’s surprising because the code on this feature was cracked a long time ago… by the iPod. Sure, that’s music, but come on, people — media is media. When I found I couldn’t organize specific photos in the 1GB of internal memory into slideshow “playlists,” or combine those pics with photos on a memory card into the same slideshow, I was shocked. This isn’t rocket science; if you let me tailor my experience to my needs, I’ll be more inclined to use your device.

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2. Big Screens

This may sound predictable, but after using Aluratek’s 11-inch frame I don’t know why anyone would go for anything smaller. A frame isn’t something you hold in your hand and watch like a portable video player — it’s something you “notice” from across a room, especially with the brightness of the LCD screen. Unless the technology changes (see No. 10 below), 4x6 screens aren’t going to cut it, and you’re going to want a decent-size screen like the Aluratek.

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3. Full Mac Compatibility

Do you like Apple computers? Then you’re probably not going to like Aluratek’s frame much — I had difficulty filling its internal memory with jpegs from my MacBook. The problems are probably pretty familiar to Mac owners: Media copies over with strange, incompatible “ghost files” and you get a message that the item's capacity you’re copying over to is full when you know it isn’t even close. This is a frustrating problem; if flash drives can work with Macs and PCs, there’s no reason a frame can’t. Why do manufacturers constantly scrimp on this? The Mac market isn't that small.

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4. Modular Frames

Yes, it’s true: People do buy frames to match their décor. While most manufacturers make an effort to put some quality in the actual frame (the bezel, as opposed to the screen), that screen could look at home in way more places if they’d just make the frame modular, which the Aluratek's sadly isn’t. That way they could include a few different-style frames in the box, or simply make them available as options. And people would have to shell out more cash for a new frame when they want to move their photos from the dining room to the living room.

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5. No One Cares About Music

OK, fair enough — a frame is capable of reading files of all kinds, even MP3s, so why not let it play music, too? I guess it makes sense that frames like the Aluratek can rock out, but it makes me wonder who’s really interested in that? I’d wager that so few photo-frame owners play their slideshows with music that those production costs would be better spent including technologies that are actually useful, like wireless abilities (see No. 9 below). And if you really want music with your digital pics, just fire up your stereo already.

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6. No One Cares About Video

Same deal as above. Want to watch short video clips on something? Try your TV or even your laptop — both are almost guaranteed to have bigger and better screens than any frame, the Aluratek included. Just focus on the photos, please, and spend what you save on multimedia-playback technology on…

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7. Battery Power

Do regular analog photo frames just sit on shelves and hang on walls, gathering dust? Generally, yeah. But how many have cords sticking out of them? Stop monopolizing my power outlets, gadget makers! Besides, I want the freedom I have with any frame — the ability to pick it up and move it to another shelf, take it from the wall to my end table, and throw it against a brick wall whenever a picture of my ex appears. The Aluratek cruelly sports this tether. Sure no one wants another item that needs recharging, but that problem could be minimized if the tech in No. 10 comes to bear.

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8. Controls on the Frame

While it’s handy to have a remote control, it's also handy to have some basic controls on the device itself. Thankfully, the Aluratek's designers had the same idea. Small remotes have a habit of getting lost, and if that happens your frame becomes a lot less useful. While I'm sure replacing them is pretty easy (if not, the company hasn't thought ahead one bit), backup buttons enable operation in a pinch, and could easily be hidden in the back (as on the Aluratek) or behind a modular bezel (see No. 4 above).

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9. All Wireless, All the Time

Am I the only one getting tired of repeatedly plugging my MP3 player, phone, and digital camera into my computer for update after update? Now that wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are increasingly being built into these gadgets, could wireless syncing please become standard? Why should I have to take my digital frame off the wall to upload pics into it? Better still, why not give the frame an e-mail address and let me send photos to it from anywhere in the world? One or two frames can already do this, but if a big frame like the Aluratek had manageable wireless tech that really worked, I just might consider it for my technophobic Mom.

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10. Color E Ink

This is the most important thing that digital photo frames need, though it's also (currently) the most unattainable. You see, the real problem that's keeping digital photo frames from fully supplanting their print-holding predecessors — while also inspiring much of the ire of technophiles, I suspect — is they just look tacky. Why? Those LCD screens, brighter by far than a regular print, make the frame stand out as an attention-demanding whore of a gadget rather than a subtle room accent like a regular frame. This playing field could be equalized with a technology like color E Ink. E Ink technology, which does a good job of making a screen look like a regular piece of paper, is now widely available in e-readers like the Sony Reader and Amazon Kindle. There’s no commercial color version of the tech yet, but as soon as it arrives, my hope is that digital photo frames adopt it en masse. And since they don't need any power to display pictures (only to refresh), they'd be greener, too. Color E Ink would finally make digital frames a true upgrade over the old technology. I think that's called progress.