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Jun 18, 2009

Want to Buy a Digital Photo Frame

Got a dad who likes showing off his snaps? Follow our five simple rules to find him a frame that delivers sharp images and great features at a pleasing price.

Plain old picture frames are so last century. After all, they don't do much more than show off one shot. Snore. Digital photo frames, on the other hand, let you create slideshows with cool transitions to display all of your vacation pics. Some of these handy devices integrate video, audio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and a host of other features, too. The best part? LCD technology is finally becoming affordable enough for these frames to be had at reasonable prices. We've reviewed a bunch of digital photo frames and have found that you can land a great bargain on an excellent one; but you need to know what to look for. So here are our rules for picking the perfect digital picture frame.

Rule 1: Consider the User

Some of the picture frames we've reviewed, such as the Sony VAIO Wi-Fi Photo Frame VGF-CP1 ($299 list), have fancy features like full Web browsers, streaming Internet radio, and text news feeds. With some exceptions—such as the Smartparts 8" WiFi Digital Picture Frame (SPX8WF; $140 street) and the Kodak EasyShare W820 Wireless Digital Frame ($150 street)—Wi-Fi photo frames generally cost quite a bit more than those that display only local content. Those features also add complicated menu options that may be confusing to novice users. And people on your gift list may just want to see their photos and little else, so it may be best to stay away if you don't think you or the person receiving the frame will take advantage of the wireless features.

On the other hand, more sophisticated users will enjoy Web-enabled features, such as the ability to e-mail photos or see up-to-date weather forecasts. Features like dedicated e-mail addresses make basic Wi-Fi frames, such as the Smartparts model, a good fit for anyone with a wireless network.

Rule 2: Don't Buy Based on Brand Name Alone

We had high hopes for HP's first digital photo frame, the HP df750 7-inch Digital Picture Frame ($129.99 direct), for example, so we were surprised to find that the company built it around a dismal LCD riddled with scaling problems that produced jagged, grainy images. This frame also has a hard-to-maneuver menu system that makes it difficult to recommend.

On the flip side, the lesser-known Pandigital used an excellent display in its 8-inch PanTouch Digital Photo Frame ($169.99 list) touch-enabled frame that delivered quite good images and can now be had for about $100. Our tests showed images with pleasing color accuracy, and the device offers picture adjustments for brightness, contrast, tint, and color for fine-tuning almost any photo to perfection. The bottom line: Always read reviews before you buy!

Rule 3: Never Settle for Resolution Below 640 by 480 Pixels—Regardless of Price

Rock-bottom prices on some frames, such as the $79.99 (list) Cenomax F7024B 7-inch Digital Photo Frame, may render them mighty attractive, but beware subpar images. This frame's resolution of 480 by 234 pixels is too low to display details, so most of its images look boxy and pixelated—no bargain! Consider only frames with a resolution of 640-by-480 or higher.

Rule 4: Select Your Aspect Ratio

Photo frames typically come in one of two aspect ratios, 4:3 or 15:9. By default, most point-and-shoot digital cameras capture photos in 4:3. A frame with an aspect ratio of 4:3 will be the best fit for your photos, as 15:9 frames will have to crop a piece of the top and bottom of your photos to fit the image on the LCD screen. On the other hand, a 15:9 aspect ratio gives your images a pleasing widescreen feel, which might be a better bet for some. One of our high-rated frames, the Sony DPF-V900 9-inch Digital Photo Frame, displays in 15:9. That, together with its slick design and intuitive software, makes it look and feel like a mini HDTV. If you shoot a lot of portrait images, you might also want to consider a frame that can stand in either landscape or portrait mode. The Ipevo Kaleido R7 Wireless Digital Frame ($199.99 direct) takes that flexibility to the next level with its rotatable display.

Rule 5: Images Are Only Part of the Picture

Superior image quality isn't the most important feature to everyone. Sure, you want to see your pictures clearly and sharply, but ease of use and additional features are also something to consider. For instance, the PF Digital eStarling Impact8 Connected Wireless Digital Photo Frame ($169.99 list), the D-Link Digital Photo Frame (DSM-210) ($244.99 direct), and the Pandigital 8-inch PanTouch all have easy-to-use menu systems; the first two mentioned integrate Wi-Fi, so you can send pictures to the frame over a home network. In addition, these frames let you view images from online photo sites. If you're tech-savvy, you'll find it simple to set up the frame at your parents' house and upload your pictures to the Web so your family can see them. (As mentioned before, these complex frames also include complicated menus, so they're certainly not for everyone.) For those who want to pass the photos around at parties, the Viewsonic DPX702 might do the trick. The frame features an internal battery, which allows up to 1 hour of cable-free photo viewing.

And there you have it. So start by reading the reviews mentioned below, and be sure to follow our rules as you shop for a digital photo frame.

In this roundup:

Cenomax F7024B 7-inch Digital Photo Frame

$79.99 list
This frame's 480-by-234-pixel screen resolution is the kiss of death. It makes images appear boxy, jagged, and pixelated.

D-Link Wireless Photo Frame (DSM-210)

$244.99 direct
You'll enjoy the large, high-quality display of the D-Link Wireless Photo Frame (DSM-210), but the mats for the frame's surround suffer from poor design that gets in the way of usability.

HP df750 7-inch Digital Picture Frame

$129.99 direct
Even though this photo frame sports an HP logo, its image quality, user interface, and overall build disappoint.

Ipevo Kaleido R7 Wireless Digital Frame

$199.99 direct
With a poor viewing angle in portrait mode, this Wi-Fi frame's rotatable display isn't enough to offset the high price.

Kodak EasyShare EX811

$229.95 direct
It's the first Wi-Fi–enabled digital photo frame we've seen that is relatively easy to set up and use. Although its photo quality isn't the best, the frame's other offerings—including 128MB of onboard memory and headphone jack—attract attention.

Kodak EasyShare W820 Wireless Digital Frame

$219.95 direct
The Kodak EasyShare W820 Wireless Digital Frame gives you a budget-quality device at a premium price—not the best combination.

Network PhotoPandigital 8-inch PanTouch Digital Photo Frame

$169.99 list
This frame's LCD has rich colors and lots of image adjustments for the pros. It gives the highly rated Sony DPF-V900 9-inch a run for its money.

PF Digital eStarling Impact8 Connected Wireless Digital Photo Frame

$169.99 list
You won't get tons of fancy features with the PF Digital eStarling Impact8 Connected Wireless Digital Photo Frame, but that keeps the interface drop-dead easy.

Smartparts 8" WiFi Digital Picture Frame (SPX8WF)

$125 street
If you're looking for only the basics in a wireless digital photo frame, the Smartparts 8" WiFi Digital Picture Frame (SPX8WF) can afford you very good image quality and simple navigation at a fantastic price.

Sony DPF-V900 9-inch Digital Photo Frame

$299 list
In terms of image quality, ease of use, and aesthetics, this is one of the best digital picture frames we've seen, but extra features you may not need inflate its price.

Sony VAIO Wi-Fi Photo Frame (VGF-CP1)
Editors' Choice Logo
$299 list
The Sony VAIO VGF-CP1 digital picture frame is pricey, but its high performance and extensive feature set justify the investment.

ViewSonic DPX702

$149.99 list
This 7-inch digital photo frame's rechargeable battery makes it handily portable, but poor contrast levels make images look a bit washed out.

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