The ultimate 10-Point checklist for buying a digital picture frame

By May 9, 2019 May 18, 2019 Buyer's Guide

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 2019" 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.

Espe­cial­ly women 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 mat to make it look less like a com­put­er mon­i­tor and more like a framed pho­to­graph.

Depend­ing on your taste you may pre­fer the mat 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 rather small in com­par­i­son. Although this may look good in art exhi­bi­tions when you have very small paint­ings, I think that frame and mat 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 which should not be vis­i­ble at all. Nor any pow­er LED.

The Display

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.

Display size

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 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.

Display quality

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 which 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.

Aspect ratio

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.

Viewing angle

I am adding this point for the sake of com­plete­ness although the over­all qual­i­ty across dis­plays is such that is 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!

Wall mount

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.

Computer hardware

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.

Noise

I would first want to make sure that the sys­tem is noise­less, 0 dB. This means that there is no fan.

WiFi

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 Wi-Fi 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 which streams (i.e., down­loads from a cen­tral serv­er) the pho­tos of a playlist like, e.g., the FRAMEN Play­er.

Connectors

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

Speak­ers may come handy for Dig­i­tal Sig­nage appli­ca­tions in adver­tis­ing, espe­cial­ly for video play­back. For use in a pri­vate set­ting, I find them less rel­e­vant.

External hardware

One last impor­tant point: There are pic­ture frames that 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 which 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 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 pho­to or art playlists that oth­ers have curat­ed for you.

Video playback

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.

Image transitions

An often neglect­ed aspect when eval­u­at­ing pic­ture frames are 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.

Energy Management

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 dur­ing 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 set­up for the mass mar­ket.

Cabling options

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.

Manufacturer

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 pic­tures 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 very basic 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.

Conclusion

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 by click­ing here.