The Netgear Meural Canvas II is a solidly built, large digital picture frame that was made by and for art lovers. The recently launched second iteration, following the acquisition of Meural by Netgear, continues to be the industry benchmark for the best screen quality for digital frames. However, there are a few things that you should know before you get one for yourself.
The art of picking a digital picture frame
Last year, I wrote a 10-point checklist for buying a digital picture frame. Its purpose was to make potential buyers aware of a list of features that you may want to look at before buying a digital photo frame.
Since 2005, I have seen many large digital frames come and go. Some had outstanding high-end build quality like PhotoVu, which looked great in the living room. Some had a 3:2 aspect ratio screen size like Memento, which was perfect for photographers. And of course, there were countless cheaper “China models” which didn’t help to get people excited about digital photo frames as there were incredibly bad in every way.
Neither PhotoVu nor Memento are around anymore but the market for large digital picture frames seems to have picked up again. Samsung’s The Frame is trying to answer the question of why people need both a television and a digital photo frame (according to Samsung they don’t – one device does it all).
And Meural, although I didn’t think at the time that they would be able to make it, was swallowed by Netgear which brought financial clout, global distribution, and marketing experience, and production cost advantages.
A second look
I had been following the development of Meural for a while, but since the frame was not sold in Europe back then, I never got my hands on a review unit. This changed when Netgear took over.
So I had a bit of time to check on what other people had said about the Meural Canvas and what most people wanted to know.
That is the advantage of writing a product review a little bit later and that’s why I called this article “a second look”.
Design & Appearance
The Netgear Meural Canvas II is available in 21.5 and 27 inches screen size. They are quite a bit larger due to the bezel and the frame. The bezel is only available in white, but the surrounding frame is sold in black, white, dark wood and light wood.
The wood versions have a high-end feel to it and look great. There are two sliders on the back of the frame which allow you to change the frame quickly and without any tools.
When I first unboxed it, it had a bit of a plastic feeling, but that comes from the back of the frame which you don’t see anyway once the frame is up on the wall. Unlike my old PhotoVu frame which was pure metal and wood, they don’t build them like this anymore.
The bezel does not have any holes for sensors which is great because the holes immediately give away that this is an electronic display and not a real piece of art.
There is an unobtrusive on/off switch below the frame (in landscape mode) and a small latch for an SD card and a micro USB connector). You don’t need either because you can control on/off with gestures, your phone or with your voice through Amazon Alexa.
Overall, the Meural Canvas is doubtlessly the most elegant digital photo frame that I have ever tested.
I had read a lot about the outstanding display quality but having listened to so much marketing hogwash, I wondered how theirs can be different as there are only a few display manufacturers worldwide anyway.
So when I plugged the frame in and a painting from a Meural default playlist came up, I took a very close look.
It was amazing.
It looked like the brushstroke was three dimensional. The display is tack-sharp, has great vivid colors and excellent viewing angles. It has a mat finish that doesn’t attract reflections which is really important in both sunlight and artificial light environments.
The brightness of the screen can either be set manually or it adjusts to the ambient light. This is also very well implemented.
I don’t know who the display manufacturer is but whoever put the specs on this display together did an outstanding job.
However, Meural’s display has one major flaw that all the large digital picture frame models have.
The widescreen 16:9 format is not made for the 3:2 aspect ratio of photographs taken with full-frame digital cameras without some kind of ugly cropping, or “fill bars” straddling the picture. Most mobile photos are taken in 4:3 which makes this issue even worse.
I suppose that the manufacturers of the LCD panels have stopped making panels in at least 16:10 above 24 inches. I took a long and hard look on the Internet but have yet to find a single monitor larger than 24 inches which is not 16:9 widescreen. This is most unfortunate for photographers.
If any of the marketing folks at the big display manufacturers are reading this: Is there any hope that 3:2 or 16:10 aspect ratios will ever come back? And if not, why?
Regarding the installation of the frame, you mount the frame either in portrait or landscape mode. To change the orientation, you just take the frame off the wall mount, rotate it and slide it back on. The wall mount is very well designed with a built -in spirit level.
Alternatively, you can buy a swivel mount, which allows you just to rotate the frame. I always have my picture frames in landscape orientation, but depending on your use case, the swivel mount can be quite practical.
I received my review unit without any instructions (I am not sure if they are usually included) but I found an excellent video by ReviewLamp which I am embedding here because it is most helpful.
The Meural Canvas II is noiseless, has WiFi and Ethernet connection, an SD, and a micro USB slot. It does not have speakers, but you won’t need them anyway.
There is no external hardware that needs to be connected beside the frame. This may sound obvious until you see the Samsung The Frame which has a rather large controller box outside of the frame.
Photo Management Approach
The Meural was created by art lovers and everything about the Meural has an artsy touch. It is designed first and foremost for art images that are either free, that you can subscribe to, or that you can buy.
Adding your own images is not quite as thought through as I have seen it with Nixplay or FRAMEN.
To add your images, you must first upload them to the camera roll of your smartphone. In the Meural mobile app (iOS and Android), you can then select your images and upload them to the Netgear Meural cloud. You can then add them to your playlists.
However, the app has a major flaw. While you can select multiple photos from your camera roll to be uploaded and assigned to a playlist, you have to assign each already uploaded photo individually to a playlist. This is not great, and I still hope that I may have overlooked something.
To illustrate this point: I currently have about 1,300 photos on my (homebrewed) digital picture frame. Transferring them to my iPhone and uploading them to the Netgear cloud would still work, although it would take me hours to make the image selection on the phone as there is no “select all.” If I later want to make individual playlists, I would have to go back to each uploaded image and assign it to a playlist. This is more than highly inconvenient.
If Netgear would have only been as thoughtful with their software are they were with the display selection, this would make things much better. This could be fixed so easily!
But maybe adding own images was an afterthought given the focus on the art subscription business.
The Meural canvas can playback video which looks great with some of the art samples that they have included.
Image viewing options
You can define as many playlists as you like, and filter by Artist or Category. Playlists can be shuffled and rotated which means that once a playlist ends, another one will start automatically.
There are no other image transition effect options except for a hard cut. This can create a bit of a disturbance as the sudden change in brightness can be uncomfortable in a low light social setting.
But this effect is mitigated somewhat by Light Sensitivity settings and the Auto-Brightness mode. I found it less disturbing on the Meural than on other frames.
What I found quite nice is that you can change the color of the background canvas. This may come in handy should you want to display your images in their original aspect ratio which creates these “beloved” black letterboxes.
General frame control & operation
Playback on the Meural can be controlled either with the mobile app, gestures or voice.
The mobile app (iOS and Android) looks nice, and except for the image upload issue that I mentioned above, it does its job. As with almost every other app these days, you have to create a Netgear account, and your uploaded images will be stored on a Netgear server in a cloud far away.
Where the Netgear Meural Canvas II is quite unique is the gesture control. It seems to me that people either love it or hate it. When you start using it, it can drive you crazy because it doesn’t do what you want. But after a while, you figure it out. It doesn’t operate flawlessly, but you get used to it quickly.
I found it works best when you move your hand on the same level as the bezel. You can use it to move images forward/backward, show the notes that are available for the art images and change a few settings.
The third option is voice control through Amazon Alexa. You need to download the Meural Canvas skill from Amazon, but at the time of writing, this skill was not available in Germany (and probably in many other countries outside of the US), so I couldn’t test it.
But I found a video where you could control the playback, brightness and on/off with Alexa. The tip that was given in the video below by Erin Lawrence, was to change the name of “Meural” in the Alexa app to “Mural” because Alexa has trouble understanding “Meural” in the original spelling.
I measured 18 watts for the 21.5 inches Meural frame which obviously depends on your brightness settings. This is in line with other screens of this size.
You can set an on/off timer in the app and opt to automatically turn the frame off when the room lights go out.
There is no motion detector but I personally don’t think you need it anyway.
The Meural Canvas comes with a thin 2m cord which looks a lot better than your normal power cable and is easier to hide.
Getting the cabling right is something that the manufacturers can make easier, but ultimately it is up to us users. There are three options: You can put the cable under self-adhesive cord hiders (ugly as hell), put a flower pot in front of the frame (may work sometimes), or cut in the drywall and permanently conceal the cable.
If you love large digital photo frames, bite the bullet and hide the cable properly in the wall. It’s easier than you think and it will make all the difference.
Pricing and subscription services
I believe that the Netgear Meural Canvas II is priced competitively (check current prices here).
Some people will say that all it takes is a monitor and a mini-computer and you’ll have a digital photo frame. But just like you can’t blame a restaurant for charging a bit more for that odd bottle of Chardonnay when you have a delicious dinner, a digital picture frame is more than the sum of its parts. And if there is one thing which you can’t build yourself, it is the outstanding display that the Netgear Meural Canvas II comes with.
The annual art subscription is $70 which brings over 30,000 artworks to your home. You don’t need to buy a subscription to show your own photos.
The Netgear Meural Canvas II may not be perfect but it is close.
It is the most elegant large digital picture frame available on the market. Especially with the wooden frame option in dark or light, it looks great.
The art subscription can be most useful to brush up your culture a little bit, and it comes with the gimmick that you can always look up with a single hand gesture what the painting or photo is all about.
Now, if only a 3:2 or 16:10 display version was also available…