Digital picture frames are fantastic. They will transform your home or help you increase business revenues. But how do you know which one is best for your requirements and budget?
This post will provide you with a comprehensive guideline to support you in making the best and most informed choice.
Why most product reviews suck
When you look up product tests by magazines or online publications, they typically declare a winner like “The best,” “The one to buy,” The best in 2021″ or whatever vociferous words are being used.
I believe that this approach has always been flawed. It may be easy to sell, and people usually fall for it. But in the end, what is best is a matter of your evaluation criteria.
There is no such thing as the best digital picture frame: It has to be right for you. Features that some people don’t care at all may be crucial for others.
That is the background why I have compiled a checklist that you can use to make an informed purchasing decision.
You will learn which specifications and features are essential and for what reasons. You can then make an informed decision if a criterion is relevant for you or not.
The weight of each criterion is up to you. If you don’t need it, you leave it out. But in the end, you will come up with a score that will help you make that buying decision.
As an added benefit, you may discover features that you hadn’t thought of before but may deem to be very useful.
This checklist is also the foundation for any product tests that I will publish on this blog. So if you read my product reviews, you can always come back to this article to get more background.
Design & Appearance
A digital picture frame is like a piece of furniture in your home. It, therefore, must blend in with your overall decoration style.
Women especially have a keen eye when it comes to deciding if an object works with the rest of your interior.
Frame material and colors
It starts with the haptics: The frame material will either be aluminum, wood, or plastic. Which would you want in your living room?
What are the color choices of the frame? Can the frame elements be changed?
Mat or not
Does the frame come with a mat (Passepartout) or not? Many digital picture frames have a matte to make them look less like a computer monitor and more like a framed photograph.
Depending on your taste, you may prefer the matte look. Other people may think it looks old-fashioned.
Pictures Frames like Samsung’s The Frame even come with the option of a digital mat, which does look quite real.
I have seen digital frames where the outer dimensions were huge, but the actual display was rather small in comparison. Although this may look good in art exhibitions when you have very small paintings, I think that frame and matte should not be larger than the display.
Visible sensors and lights
Are there any visible sensors or buttons on the frame? Many digital photo frames have an 8 mm round and quite conspicuous motion sensor in the mat area (the usefulness of which can be a subject of debate, I think there are better ways to save energy).
Other visible sensors can be infrared sensors for the remote control and luminosity sensors to control the brightness of the display relative to the room brightness. However, they are typically only 1-2 mm wide.
Visible sensors tend to give away that it is not a static photo but a digital frame. Some manufacturers do a better job at hiding them than others.
The same is valid for buttons that should not be visible at all. Nor any power LED.
I have written an extensive article on choosing the right display for your do-it-yourself picture frame project.
Let me focus on the criteria that you should look at when you purchase a digital picture frame.
If you want to mount your digital picture frame on the wall, I would recommend opting for 21 inches as the smallest size. From there, you can go to much larger screen sizes, like, e.g., Samsung’s The Frame at 65 inches.
I like the size range of 24 to 30 inches for a living room environment. But I am also impressed by the ultra-large screens, but it is crucial to have enough space so that people don’t sit or stand too close to the display.
If you are looking for a simple stand-up picture frame to put on a desk, there are plenty of smaller screen sizes available, like, e.g., the NIX digital photo frame collection.
The quality of a display is defined by the number of pixels per inch (PPI). The more pixels there are, the sharper the screen will appear.
To give an example: A 24 inches screen with a resolution of 1920 x 1200 will have a pixel density of 94 per inch. A 30 inches screen with the same resolution only has 75 pixels per inch. You can find a Pixel Size Calculator here.
The difference isn’t immediately visible when you do not have a side-by-side comparison. But once you get used to higher screen quality, you don’t want to settle on a lower PPI value.
It’s called the “Retina Screen Effect.” When Apple introduced its iPhones and later MacBooks with a higher PPI value screen and called them “Retina,” people started noticing the difference a high-quality display can make.
If you are looking at a screen size of more than 27 inches, you should probably get a 4K model that will deliver a real crispy image.
An acceptable PPI value for a picture frame is around 90. Higher is better. The further you stand away from the screen, the lower the PPI value can be.
The aspect ratio of a display is the ratio between the longer side to its shorter side. Most digital picture frames sold today have an aspect ratio of 16:9.
I find this highly unfortunate. But there is a reason.
Great pieces of art and most photos were created with an aspect ratio of 4:3 to 3:2. As videos became more popular, the monitor manufacturers mimicked the format of movies and made screens wider.
16:9 became the standard format that was adopted. You can still get 16:10 displays, but their availability is dwindling, especially when you go higher than 24 inches.
This means that photos that have been taken with 3:2 in mind have to be cropped substantially if used on a 16:9 screen unless you accept letterboxing which is even worse.
While most people may not even notice it that much, it is not great at all for us photographers that have an eye for these details.
You may argue that the old 3:2 format is bound to change as the mobile phone screens are all wide, but so far, that hasn’t happened. Most images taken with a smartphone are 4:3, which is even further away from 16:9.
If you have the choice between a 16:10 and a 16:9 digital picture frame and you want to display photos or art, I would always recommend the 16:10 model. But they are becoming extinct.
Glossy vs. matte
Displays come in two varieties: They are either glossy or matte. Glossy screens typically mean that the colors will look vivid. Matte screens will have fewer reflections.
Matte screens carry an anti-glare coating and are therefore better at preventing reflections. However, their rendering of colors is considered to be somewhat less bright.
My personal experience is that matte digital picture frame is preferable for a living room situation. The colors are great and not as exaggerated as glossy displays. And a matte digital picture frame blends in nicely into a social setting without drawing too much attention.
But this is a matter of taste and intended application area.
I am adding this point for the sake of completeness although the overall quality across displays is such that isn’t much of a differentiator anymore.
The Viewing Angle defines how well you can see the image on the screen from a multitude of viewing directions. The image may become darker, garbled, or show strange colors if the viewing angle is low.
Especially in a living room or a professional setting, you want to have a screen that can be viewed just as well from about any direction. The theoretical maximum viewing angle is 180 degrees both horizontally and vertically.
The industry has made a lot of progress in this area so that most modern IPS displays allow for viewing angles higher than 160 degrees horizontal and 140 degrees vertical which are excellent for any living room application.
But it always helps to check!
Finally, I would look at how a frame can be mounted on the wall if that is what you intend to do.
There are mounting devices that allow you to rotate the frame from landscape to portrait orientation, which may be very useful in a business setting.
A digital picture frame is nothing else than a display and a small computer.
In most cases, you will have no idea what the CPU or mainboard of your digital picture frame is. There are no “Intel Inside” stickers.
And it doesn’t matter. The chances are that you have an Android board or a Raspberry Pi running some lightweight open-source operating system.
I would first want to make sure that the system is noiseless, 0 dB. This means that there is no fan.
Then comes the question of the WiFi protocol supported. 5 GHz is much faster than 2.4 GHz if you have a router and the corresponding Internet download speed that goes along with it.
The numbering scheme of the WiFi Alliance can is hardly consumer-friendly; it goes by 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac for the most common specifications.
So look for 5 GHz, that is the fast one.
It will come in handy when you upload new images to your frame locally but also when you have a picture frame that streams (i.e., downloads from a central server) the photos of a playlist like, e.g., the FRAMEN Player.
If your frame supports streaming, then your computer hardware will not have an SD card or a USB slot for image storage. In some cases, you may still find a USB slot, but it will be suitable for maintenance operations only.
Speakers may come in handy for Digital Signage applications in advertising, especially for video playback. For use in a private setting, I find them less relevant.
One last important point: There are picture frames that are very slim, but require an additional hardware box. Samsung’s The Frame is such an example.
The promotional images always show the sleek frame but rarely the controller box.
Also, you may end up with an external power supply that you need to store away somewhere.
This is something to understand before the purchase. Is everything included in the picture frame?
Photo management approach
As important as the digital frame hardware is, you will find the software side even more essential in your daily interaction.
This is why I am splitting this part into three chapters: Photo Management, Viewing Options, and General Control.
Photo Management refers to the ease of use concerning adding and editing photos of your digital picture frame.
Adding own images
What are the options for adding images? Is there a mobile app that you can use to upload images directly from your iPhone? Can you send pictures to your frame via email? Can you allow others to add images as well? Can you edit your photos from your local computer? Can you link it to Dropbox or Apple/Google Photos?
Making this easy and convenient is of the biggest challenges that the manufacturers of digital picture frames face. I am often surprised by how clumsy, un-intuitive, and crash-prone the software solutions of major companies are.
This issue is so vital because editing your images often will keep the level of enjoyment with your digital picture frame high.
Imagine you can use the waiting time at the airport after a nice vacation to already upload your favorite images to your picture frame at home. Or children can send their parents new images that appear instantly on the image frame in their living room.
Using third-party images
Another aspect is access to third-party image libraries.
Maybe you are not into photography yourself, but you still enjoy great images. In this case, it would be a big plus to be able to stream photos or art playlists that others have curated for you.
The use of picture frames as Digital Signage typically requires video capability, so this would be something to check. I consider it less relevant in private settings, but maybe I am not enough video-focused. Let me know what you think!
Image viewing options
This topic is described in much detail in my article “5 essential tips I learned from building digital picture frames,” but I will summarize here.
An often neglected aspect when evaluating picture frames is the types and quality of images transitions available.
Image transition refers to the way how the frame switches from one image to the other. In the simplest case, there is just a hard cut from picture to picture.
A hard cut causes quite a disturbance, especially with a larger screen.
There may be a sudden change in brightness which is uncomfortable, something which distracts, something which doesn’t feel right especially in a social setting.
Some picture frames come with a variety of random image transition types. This can be amusing initially, but the novelty may wear off after a while.
In my experience, the best transition is a slow crossfading effect. If your picture frame can do this, it’s a big plus.
Playlists and filters
Just like with music, a playlist allows you only to show images that you have either added by hand or that meet specific rules.
Manual playlists require the user to add images to a playlist like vacations, birthdays, or weddings. This is useful for example when you have events where you only want to show a specific set of images or in business settings when you want to run a promotional campaign based on pre-defined images.
Many of you will know the rule-based playlists that you can define in iTunes, where only music that meets specific criteria is automatically included in the playlist. With regards to images, this could be EXIF-based data like the date range when photographs were taken (for holidays or events) or automatic face recognition to only show family images.
While this isn’t too hard to implement technically, I have not seen rule-based playlists in digital picture frames.
If your picture frame player supports playlists, it is essential to have a Shuffle switch to keep up the suspense of which image is coming next.
Also, it should be possible to select multiple and all playlists. In my experience, playlists are a useful feature, but it’s nice to be surprised by an image that you haven’t seen for a long time in your 1000+ images collection.
General frame control & operation
This point refers to the different ways how you can control your digital picture frame.
It may have an Alexa or Google Home voice interface, a gesture control where you wave in front of the frame for specific commands, an infrared remote control, a motion detector, or automatic presence detection to turn the frame off when you leave the house or when you go to bed.
Ease of use is paramount. Everybody in the house (or office) must be able to operate the picture frame without anything more than two minutes of training.
A 21 – 24 inches digital picture frame will typically draw about 10 – 20 Watts per hour. Depending on where you live, this comes down to something like $ 1 – 3 per month in electricity costs assuming your frame is powered on for 16 hours every day.
But every little thing counts. Every electronic device should draw as low energy as possible, especially if there is no added value.
This means for the digital picture frame that it should turn itself off when it is not needed.
Very common are motion detectors or luminosity sensors. I am personally not a fan of either method. But a fully fletched presence detection may be too complicated to set up for the mass market.
This point is closely related to the overall design and appearance of your digital picture frame. Having a cable protruding from your casing doesn’t look great.
This issue was recognized and is being addressed by the manufacturers. Most often, they will sell flat cables in grey or white that you can paint over, so check if they are available for your frame model.
I have described a few other options in my article “5 essential tips I learned from building digital picture frames” if you want to go further.
Is it relevant who makes your digital picture frame? Should you only buy from large, established companies?
I don’t believe it matters. Several smaller companies have advanced the digital picture frame market significantly. FRAMEN has developed state-of-the-art software for controlling images and picture frames, and the company has only been in business since 2018. Samsung offers amazing hardware with “The Frame,” but their software is the subject of much chagrin in support forums.
And just as smaller companies may decide to shut down, large companies may discontinue product lines as well, so there is no guarantee.
What counts for me is that the picture frame meets as many of my requirements. It’s a low-maintenance product without moving parts, so unless you drop it, it should have a life expectancy of 4 – 8 years or even longer.
Pricing and subscription services
The last point is the pricing structure.
Is there a one-off payment for the picture frame, or does the software come with a subscription model that you need to enter into to do more than the elementary stuff?
This may also include access to stock photography or art collections (like, e.g., Meural offers).
I am not against subscription services provided they have a real and ongoing value.
If the manufacturer offers to store your images in the Cloud (like, e.g., FRAMEN) and by that is making it much easier to share playlists, use multiple frames or run a promotional business campaign, then there is a real value that needs to be compensated.
Every purchasing decision is different. Some people will value price over design; others are looking for a specific feature.
I hope you will find this list useful when you look at getting your digital picture frame.
This checklist will also be my guide for my product reviews, so you can always come back here and read up on the details.
I’d be very interested in hearing your feedback. If you have any comments, please let me know.
- My 2020 review of the tack-sharp 2K Nixplay Smart Photo Frame – get ready to be spoilt
- How much energy does a digital picture frame consume – and how to keep it low with no lack of convenience
- The Top 10 Digital Picture Frames that I can fully recommend
- My review of the FRAMEN Player 2019 with Streaming Technology