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Digital picture frames Liven up desk and den with digital displays
Smartparts
Smartparts
SyncPix SPX8
Keep a slideshow of your latest family photos on display with a digital picture frame, a photo-sized LCD panel that sits on a desk or tabletop. Plug the frame into a power outlet, insert a digital camera memory card, select one photo or a group for a slide show, and you're set. Some frames contain built-in memory, so you can store photos in the frame and then return the memory card to your camera. Some can store and play digital music to accompany photos and others can play short digital video clips, although not all of those can play audio with the video.

Frames generally range in size from about 3x5 to 10x12 inches. What's more important is the display area within the frame. We tested 7- and 8-inch frames, measured diagonally. Smaller frames fit well on a desk but usually provide too little resolution to do justice to photos taken with newer, high-resolution cameras. Larger frames have higher resolution but take up more space.

Our tests showed that a number of models have some glitches that affect setup and use, and menus that can be confusing. But those issues can be overcome with a little effort.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Consider the frame's resolution and image quality. The best frames of those we tested had 800x600 resolution. (Larger frames might have higher resolutions.) Almost all of the displays we tested were judged Good or Very Good for overall picture quality. The screen surface also might affect how well you see the picture. All but one model (the Mustek) had non-reflective screens, but four (the Smartparts, Pandigital, Insignia, and Digital Spectrum) have the screen under a piece of glass that creates a bit of glare. The Mustek's mirrored screen caused noticeable glare.

Check the aspect ratio. Aspect ratio represents the relationship between an image's height and width. Ten of the 12 frames we tested had either a 4:3 or 3:2 aspect ratio. They work well because most digital SLR cameras shoot at 4:3 or 3:2. Two frames, the Polaroid and the Kodak, used the widescreen 16:9 ratio typical of digital TV sets. Many cameras can shoot images at 16:9, but only if you change the camera's default setting. If you shoot at the standard 4:3 or 3:2, displaying those images on a 16:9 frame can distort the images as the frame stretches and crops to make the pictures fit. You can also select a 4:3 setting on those frames, but that leaves black bars on each side of the image. Frames with 4:3 aspect ratio provide the best view for most people.

Connections count. Most models can accept the common types of memory card, such as SD, Compact Flash, or Memory Stick. Make sure the frame can use the same type as your camera. Some frames have built-in flash memory that can store images, which is more convenient than leaving your camera's memory card in the frame. If you want to transfer digital images directly from your computer, look for a frame with a USB port. (Those with a USB 2.0 port, noted in the Ratings, generally have faster transfer rates than those with 1.1.) If your camera or cell phone has Bluetooth, you might find the Parrot interesting because it also has Bluetooth capability. But Bluetooth is its only mode of connecting for image transfer. Four of the models we tested-the Smartparts, Westinghouse, Kodak, and Insignia-work with Macs as well as Windows-based PCs:

Consider ease of use. Most of the frames we tested were reasonably easy to use: You insert your camera's memory card into a slot, turn the frame on, and your photos display in slideshow fashion. With others, though, you must decide whether to display a still image or slideshow each time you turn on the frame. Some have on-board software and controls for selecting images stored on a card or in the frame's internal memory and, in most cases, for setting slideshow timings, transitions, and brightness. On most of the frames we've seen, such controls are on the back or side, which keeps them out of sight but makes them harder to reach and forces you to tilt the frame back and forth to see the settings you're changing on the screen. A wireless remote makes the frames easier to use. Most of the frames we tested had one, including the Smartparts, Pandigital, Kodak, Mustek, Insignia, Audiovox, Digital Spectrum, and Polaroid. The software menus were often difficult to use, and the meanings of various settings were unclear. Also, brightness and contrast controls on many frames had little effect.

Look for versatility. Most frames can be placed in either the wider "landscape" mode or the taller "portrait" mode. But not all offer that versatility, so check before you buy. A few frames can automatically rotate individual photos to their proper orientation, but only if the pictures were taken by a camera that records orientation as it shoots. Some frames can be hung on walls but all the frames we tested require AC power, so there is a power cord to contend with. Generally, digital frames are best suited for use on a desk or credenza. Frames with removable outside borders can be customized to match a room's décor. We also found that some models would simply skip over incompatible picture types, such as TIFF and RAW, but others would display an error message, which can be annoying.

Audio and video extras. Some models give you the option of accompanying slideshows with music or narration. It's fairly simple to do with some frames and a bit more involved with others. Some models can play AVI Motion JPEG video with sound, others can play it without sound, and a few can also play MPEG1 and MPEG4 digital video formats.


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