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Digital photo frames not always a ‘snap’ to use

Image: Kodak
Kodak's EasyShare S730 digital frame has an internal rechargeable battery, so it can be unplugged and passed around to show photos on the device, which retails for $140.Kodak

Digital photo frames are still trying to find their place in the home and office. Some are easy to use, but others are not. Too often, someone who buys a frame winds up frustrated with it and puts it back in its box and out of the way, experts said.

Updating the photos in a frame can be another issue for some. "We find that people tend to keep the frame off and just turn it on when guests come over, as a temporary display of images," said Ron Glaz, director of digital imaging solutions and services for IDC research firm.

"But that’s not really their intention. The digital frame is a really good way to release the thousands of pictures that are stuck inside the PC. It’s just not happening because of the complexity of getting new content in there and the interface in understanding how to use it on a day in, day out basis."

Prices on digital frames have dropped dramatically in the past two years. In 2007, 7-inch frames were selling for between $100 and $200; they now go for around $50 to $70. On Black Friday this year, many retailers were offering 7-inch frames at "doorbuster" prices of $29.99.

"We’re seeing photo frames of up to 14 inches in size, and at the opposite end, we’re seeing digital photo keychains, which are becoming popular as more of a novelty," said Steve Koenig, the Consumer Electronic Association's director of industry analysis.

"It just kind of underscores the segmentation that’s going on — you’ve got innovation at both ends, at very, very small screen sizes and very large. Consumers have more choice than ever."

Keeping it simple
But choice or not, Koenig said consumers' use of frames to share photos is nowhere near as popular for uploading photos to Web sites such as Facebook or Flickr, or showing pictures on a home TV.

"Research we've done indicates most people are sharing photos by showing them on the camera itself, or on a laptop, or they’re e-mailing them or uploading them to various social-networking or photo-sharing sites," he said.

Frames that play videos and music or can run wirelessly may be more frame and work than some consumers want or need, said Glaz.

"The predominant number of people who have frames are probably loading photos onto them with camera memory cards," said Koenig. "I don’t see a lot of people taking advantage of video features or more advanced features."

The simplest frames require only that a memory card or USB flash drive be inserted into a slot on the frame, then turned on.

This year, Glaz said, "we've started to see a little bit of improvement in the ease of use of the frames, especially from more traditional vendors in the market — such as Sony, HP and Kodak.

"They deal with consumers day in and day out, and know how to design a user interface that makes sense, and are making it easier for the non-technology consumer to get the content in the frames.

"It's still not easy for the non-technology user, but at least a novice technology user can handle a frame today," he said.

Newer frames, such as HP's wireless DreamScreen, are aiming to make digital frames more of a home Internet appliance, with access to Facebook, weather and streaming music.

The DreamScreen comes in two versions, one with a 10.2-inch screen ($200) or a 13.-3-inch screen ($250). Both have a remote control for navigating the frame. But it will not be for everyone.

"It's not quite the tablet I want it to be and too expensive to justify as a replacement for the digital picture frame I never use," wrote Tom Spring of PC World in a review of the device.

Pandigitial, a longtime maker of digital frames, has an Internet appliance option with its new "Kitchen Technology Center" with a 15.6-inch display. It's a photo frame, HDTV and also includes a digital recipe cookbook from Bon Appetit. The device retails for $330.

Wide-screen frames
Kodak recently started selling a digital frame that can go cordless for awhile so that it can be passed from person to person, much like a real photo album. The EasyShare S730 ($140) is a 7-inch frame and can hold up to 8,000 photos.

Its rechargeable battery can last for about an hour, the company said. Photos are accessed via touch on the frame's touchscreen border.

A 7-inch digital frame that includes a built-in printer for 4-by-6 prints in 45 seconds will be available from Sony after the holidays. The frame (Model DPP-F700) is expected to retail for $200.

Consumers will be able to edit JPEG, TIFF and BMP images using the device. (Editing includes cropping, as well as being able to adjust a photo's size, brightness and sharpness, Sony said.)

The Sony frame-printer and Kodak's EasyShare S730 both have wide-screen displays, something to take into consideration.

Sony's combination digital photo frame and printer (DPP-F700) is expected to be released in January and retail for $199.99.

As Consumer Reports noted, "unless you take pictures using a 16x9 aspect ratio (something most cameras allow, but not by default), stick to frames with a normal (4x3 or 3x2) aspect ratio.

"Otherwise, the frame will display bars above and below or on the sides of the picture, or you'll have to stretch it to fill the screen."

Frame by cell provider
Early next year, AT&T is expected to jump into the digital frame arena with a wireless 10.4-inch display that can send and receive photos from mobile phones, e-mail or Web-based photo sites using AT&T's cellular network.

AT&T will use the Vizit frame, made by Isabella Products of Massachusetts. The frame is estimated to cost $280, and a monthly service fee will be required. An AT&T spokesman said that fee has not been set yet.

A similar undertaking was started by T-Mobile late last year with its T-Mobile cameo picture frame service, which is no longer available for purchase, a company spokesman said.

The cameo 7-inch frame initially cost $100 with a monthly service charge of $9.99, but the frame price was dropped to $40 and the monthly cost to $1.99 last spring.

Even if AT&T sets such a low rate, it may be a tough sell, especially during a recession.

"Consumers are not looking to add another monthly subscription to their household budgets at this time," said Koenig of the Consumer Electronics Association.