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The walls of my house are covered in family photos, paintings, signed art prints and other various decorations. Yet, we still have a pile of framed art that we don’t have room to hang — what do you do when you run out of wall space? Enter so-called “smart art,” a series of products designed to connect to your Wi-Fi and let you hang a frame within which you can place dozens or thousands of photos and paintings — from the classic and modern art styles to vacation and wedding photos or even weekend adventures.
From a smart digital picture frame to 'smart art'
Digital frames for photos, digital Wi-Fi photo frames, smart art displays — call them whatever you want, but they've been around for ages. And they’re now just one small piece of this burgeoning category known as smart art, which broadly includes:
- TVs that display paintings or photos when they’re off
- Smart assistants that display your photos when not in use
- Digital photo frames with Wi-Fi that display feeds just like smart assistants
- And standalone digital paintings can cycle through famous works of art throughout the day
It’s still a relatively new space, but things are heating up: This year, Netgear (which acquired the smart frame company Meural back in 2018) added a lineup of NFTs — or non-fungible tokens — to its art library. And in 2020, computer manufacturer Lenovo joined the smart frame market with a Google Assistant-enabled frame. On August 3, Nixplay also added another digital frame to its lineup — the first to include touchscreen capabilities.
Best digital photo frames and smart art displays
If you get tired of looking at the same couple of photos and paintings every day, these can bring more variety to your wall. They’re great if you’re just dipping your toe into the art world, or as a gift for your parents who are always clamoring for more pictures of your kids. I can feel some of you already backing away, but hear me out: If you’re expecting the low-res, ugly digital frames of the early aughts, forget what you know — screen tech has come a long way, and digital photo frames are a lot better than they used to be.
Based on a decade of reporting on tech, including the emerging smart display space, here are some digital picture frames I think are worth considering right now.
Digital picture frames
Nixplay is one of the best-selling brands of digital photo frames, with thousands of reviews on Amazon for different models — some of which drop the Wi-Fi for affordability, like the NIX Advance. Its most recent 2K-capable photo frame sports a 9.7-inch screen with a 2K resolution (that’s 2048x1536, or a bit sharper than 1080p). It connects to Wi-Fi so you don’t have to constantly copy new photos to an SD card or USB drive. Instead, you can cycle through photos from Facebook, Instagram, Flickr or Google Photos. That makes it especially great for gifting to less tech-savvy friends and relatives (think: Mother's Day), since you can update the photos for them from wherever you are — no matter the distance. Nixplay sells frames up to 15 inches in size, and they can either stand on a table or hang on a wall, the most popular among them being the Nixplay Smart Digital Photo Frame, 10.1 inch model.
Nixplay’s newest release is the 10.1-inch Nixplay Smart Photo Frame Touchscreen. It works like all of Nixplay’s other digital picture frames, but instead of being controlled by a remote, you can just walk over to the frame and control everything right from the screen. With an HD screen resolution of 1280x800p, the Touchscreen model can play HD video clips as well as display photos, and friends and family can upload sentimental moments to the frame from all over the world.
In August 2020, Meural entered the smart frame market with a 15.6-inch Wi-Fi frame. The frame features a Full HD display (which means it has a display resolution of 1920x1080p), and you can either upload your own photos through your smartphone or sign up for Meural’s art membership (which costs $9 a month or $70 annually) to gain access to over 30,000 images, including NFTs, Van Gogh paintings and more.
Lenovo entered the smart art market in 2020 with a 21.5-inch frame that can be mounted on the wall or perched on an easel. It has an anti-glare display with a Full HD 1920x1080p resolution, and you easily sync it up with Google Photos to rotate through your most precious moments. Not only can you control the frame with Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant, but you can also flick your hand to tell the screen to move on to the next photo.
Digital photo frames can cost a pretty penny, but there are affordable options out there. This touchscreen frame from Dragon Touch retails for $130 and features 16 GB of storage (meaning it can hold around 40,000 photos) and an HD resolution of 1280x800p. The frame automatically adjusts from portrait to landscape and vice versa when you flip it, and you can share photos via email and the Dragon Touch app, as well as with an SD card or USB drive.
Smart art frames
If you want to display larger pieces, there are standalone frames that are designed to show photos and paintings in a more wall-friendly size. They all work similarly:
- You hang the frame on your wall, sometimes with a swivel to toggle paintings in different orientations
- Select a style, album or playlist of paintings online or through your phone
- And it’ll rotate through those images on a schedule you define, from minutes between each cycle to days or weeks.
Most allow access to a limited collection of art for free, as well as the ability to upload your own photos — you can also purchase a monthly membership for access to thousands more.
The Meural Canvas II takes art from classic artists like Vincent Van Gogh as well as contemporary artists like Rose Corcoran and David McConochie and puts them on your wall on a gorgeous screen. Seriously, it looks amazing — between its incredibly sharp picture, superb color rendering and matte finish, it looks better than most 4K TVs. You can wave your hand in front of the frame to see more information about the current piece in a small overlay, or move to the next piece in a playlist. The Meural app lets you browse the brand’s ever-rotating library right from your phone — which ranges from classic art to Marvel Comics posters and even moving cinemagraphs. You get 100 works for free, with the ability to purchase more or subscribe to the $9/month ($70/year) membership for access to more than 30,000 pieces.
Canvia is a relatively new smart art frame that is similar to the Meural in its general pitch: for a few hundred bucks, you can display paintings or photos in a large, wall-mounted frame. What sets Canvia apart is its larger free tier — about 2,500 pieces versus Meural’s 100 — with another 10,000 available through its subscription, which runs $10/month ($80/year). It also comes with a free year-long subscription to the premium tier, which is a nice bonus.
If a standalone digital photo frame isn’t enough, Samsung’s The Frame pulls double duty as a TV when it’s on, and art when it’s “off.” Like other smart frames, it offers a small selection of paintings for free (a few hundred, by my count), and a larger selection for a monthly subscription fee of $4.99/month. The screen doesn’t “pop” in quite the same way as, say, the Meural, and it’s more expensive than both the Meural and Samsung’s standalone TVs. But if you like the idea of having both TV and art in one frame, it’s a great alternative. (I personally own this TV, and I love having something other than a black slab to look at on my wall when the TV is off.)
Though smart displays aren’t solely designed to display photos and videos, most of the top models are now capable of playing photo slideshows when they’re not in use. As an added bonus, since these smart assistants are made by companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook, they feature seamless integration with some of the most popular photo-sharing platforms and websites.
The Echo Show 10 has a 10.1-inch 1280x800p HD screen that works with Amazon Photos and Facebook as a digital frame (and Prime members have access to unlimited photo storage). With the built-in front-facing camera, you can also ask Alexa to take photos and add them to your albums. As a smart assistant, it can make video calls, play music, pull up recipes and more.
If you do most of your video chatting and photo sharing on Facebook, then you might prefer the Portal, which can display photos directly from your Instagram and Facebook account on its 10-inch HD screen. When you want to video chat with family or friends, you can use your Messenger, WhatsApp or Zoom account, and you can control the smart assistant with Amazon Alexa.
The Google Nest Hub, a relatively affordable smart assistant at $100, automatically displays your favorite photos from Google Photos when it’s not in use. You can ask the built-in Google Assistant to stream your favorite TV shows, find you recipes, play music and even act as a sunrise alarm.
Another good option for Google users is the Lenovo Smart Display. The smart assistant has an 8-inch HD display and it can filter through all of your favorite images stored on Google Photos. It’s equipped with Google Assistant, which you can use to make video calls, stream music, check the weather and play YouTube videos. (Notably, the Amazon Echo Show devices can only play YouTubes via a browser window.)
Smart frames: Pros and cons
There are a few caveats with these devices you'll want to keep in mind. First, while they look fantastic, most of these aren’t going to trick your friends into thinking you have a painting on the wall. In a well-lit room, both the Meural and the Frame actually look quite good, enough that most people do a double-take at first glance. But you can definitely tell the difference next to a real painting, and despite the ambient light sensors, the backlit screen is a bit more obvious in the evenings (though the Meural does let you fine-tune its auto-brightness quite a bit).
There’s also the matter of power cords: all of these have to be plugged into the wall to work, and most of the promotional photos cleverly hide this fact. While most attempt to disguise their cables as much as possible — the Meural uses a white, braided cable, and Samsung’s Frame uses a thin, clear cable going to its OneConnect box — they will be visible in most wall-hung scenarios. With a bit of help from an electrician, though, you could put a recessed outlet behind a smart art frame, or find another way to hide those cables within an extremely clean look.