Digital picture frames? Wi-Fi art? The 'smart art' trend, explained
What is 'smart art'? Wi-Fi-enabled devices stream your favorite photos in digital displays — including art collections ranging from classic to postmodern.
Digital frames for photos have been around for ages. They now make up just one small piece of a burgeoning category of tech known as "smart art."Nixplay
By Whitson Gordon
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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.
Digital frames for photos, digital Wi-Fi photo frames, smart art displays — call it whatever you want: They've been around for ages. But 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
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.
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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. Their 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 going 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.
The Meural Canvas II takes art from classic artists like Vincent Van Gogh to 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 even 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 Meural’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 $8.95/month ($69.95/year) membership for access to more than 30,000 pieces.
Canvia is a brand new smart art frame that I haven’t had a chance to try myself yet, but it’s 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.)
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.
This is just a smattering of the smart art products we’re going to see in the next few years.
Lenovo has already announced its own product, the Smart Frame, which will be available this year.
And TV manufacturers like LG are starting to follow Samsung’s lead with their own framed TVs — also coming later this year.
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Whitson Gordon is a freelance technology writer with bylines in the New York Times, Popular Science Magazine, PC Magazine and more. Previously, he was the editor-in-chief of Lifehacker and How-To Geek.