The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon
The 100 best digital picture frames on amazon

Why the Rasp­berry Pi is the best choice for your dig­i­tal pic­ture frame

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When I start­ed my first dig­i­tal pic­ture frame DIY project in 2014, I looked at many poten­tial com­put­er hard­ware solu­tions. But then I dis­cov­ered the Rasp­berry Pi, and have remained faith­ful to the plat­form until today. In this post, I will tell you why I think it remains one of the best, if not the best, hard­ware solu­tion for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame. But there is a big chal­lenge com­ing.

Small com­put­ers with huge poten­tial

The intro­duc­tion of mini com­put­er boards has cre­at­ed many new appli­ca­tions for home and busi­ness.

Where­as a typ­i­cal Intel or AMD moth­er­board used to be rather large and demand­ed a large pow­er sup­ply, the mod­ern sin­­gle-board ARM com­put­ers have a cred­it card sized form fac­tor and only require a small pow­er sup­ply.

This has made them ide­al for all sorts of do-it-your­­self projects for hob­by­ists, but also many com­mer­cial appli­ca­tions.

When I looked at pos­si­ble hard­ware options in 2014, I came up with these require­ments that still hold exact­ly as they were today:

  • 0 dB noise. This means fan-less oper­a­tion and no oth­er mov­ing parts
  • HDMI video out­put capa­ble of dri­ving a 24 inch­es mon­i­tor with a res­o­lu­tion of 1920 x 1200 px
  • A small form fac­tor, ide­al­ly cred­it card sized, which can be glued onto the back of a com­put­er dis­play and does not have a height exceed­ing 1.2 inches/3 cm
  • A pow­er con­sump­tion of less than 10 watts
  • Enough CPU (main proces­sor) and GPU (graph­ics) pow­er to run an advanced image view­er soft­ware

Regard­ing an oper­at­ing sys­tem, I quick­ly con­clud­ed that using a Microsoft Win­dows or Apple macOS oper­at­ing sys­tem would be overkill, so the choice for Lin­ux was an obvi­ous one.

Back then, the Rasp­berry Pi was the clear leader in mini­com­put­ers and the easy choice for my project. But in 2019, would I still rec­om­mend it as the best option?

Anoth­er fruit com­pa­ny con­quers the world

The Rasp­berry Pi is the brand name for a series of small sin­­gle-board com­put­ers devel­oped by a foun­da­tion in the UK. It intend­ed to pro­mote com­put­er sci­ence in schools and devel­op­ing coun­tries, and yes, they have reached that goal.

Last year over 20 mil­lion units of these cred­it card sized mini­com­put­ers were sold world­wide, and it trig­gered a whole gen­er­a­tion of young and old(er) peo­ple to learn about pro­gram­ming.

The Rasp­berry Pi may be a bit too slow for the use in an office, but it is great for tin­ker­ing with elec­tron­ics, exper­i­ment­ing, home automa­tion and gen­er­al­ly for projects called the Inter­net of Things (IoT). And it proved to be the per­fect plat­form for my dig­i­tal pic­ture frame project.

The tech­ni­cal data sheet sounds unim­pres­sive. The very lat­est mod­el of the Rasp­berry fam­i­ly, the Pi 3 B+ only offers a mod­est CPU per­for­mance and mem­o­ry. But still, this is prob­a­bly more com­put­ing pow­er than Neil Arm­strong and his col­leagues had in their cap­sule for the first moon land­ing and plen­ty for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame project.

What I like about it is the aver­age pow­er con­sump­tion of 3 watts which is prob­a­bly less than the stand­by pow­er of your tele­vi­sion. What­ev­er your motive may be to keep an eye on pow­er con­sump­tion, it just feels right to have a device that is very ener­gy effi­cient.

It only costs around US$35/€35 so exper­i­ment­ing with it is not a too expen­sive endeav­or to under­take. You need to add a pow­er sup­ply, a case and an SD card, so the final tab will be around 60 but still rea­son­able.

No great hard­ware can thrive with­out an ecosys­tem of soft­ware devel­op­ers and this is where the Rasp­berry Pi shines espe­cial­ly bright. Mil­lions of enthu­si­as­tic fans result­ed in a huge num­ber of Rasp­berry Pi forums, clubs and devel­op­ers all around the world open­ly shar­ing their knowl­edge and find­ings to build yet anoth­er amaz­ing appli­ca­tion.

Even the mod­el from 2014, the Rasp­berry Pi 2 Mod­el B, had enough horse­pow­er for my dig­i­tal pic­ture frame. Over four years lat­er, the orig­i­nal pic­ture frame is still run­ning flaw­less­ly much to the delight of friends & fam­i­ly.

And unlike mobile phone oper­at­ing sys­tems which appear to get slow­er with every upgrade on the same hard­ware plat­form, this is not the case with Rasp­bian, the Rasp­berry Pi oper­at­ing sys­tem, a Debian deriv­a­tive (Lin­ux).

How­ev­er, today in 2019, there are a num­ber of hard­ware alter­na­tives to choose from.

Let's start with the old bull.

Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+

The lat­est Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+ released in late 2018 is a mod­est upgrade to his pre­de­ces­sors. The CPU has been upgrad­ed to 1.4 GHz and 5 GHz onboard Wifi has now been includ­ed which is very nice because it avoids the don­gle and any dri­ver issues that you might encounter. Blue­tooth 4.2 is also part of the stan­dard pack­age.

What I find a bit incon­ve­nient in the lat­est mod­el, is that the SD card slot has no spring ejec­tion any­more. When I first got it, I thought that my mod­el was bro­ken and was ready to send it back. But after some inter­net research, I dis­cov­ered that this was the new tech­ni­cal design. My wor­ry that it could slide out is prob­a­bly unfound­ed in a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion, but I pre­fer tight con­nec­tors. Also, when your case is fas­tened onto a sur­face (in my case glued to the back of the mon­i­tor), you now have to take the moth­er­board out of the case to change the SD card. This was eas­i­er with pre­vi­ous mod­els although tak­ing the SD card out always required long fin­ger­nails or some­thing like a paper clip.

How­ev­er, to put this into per­spec­tive: The addi­tion of 5 GHz Wifi is a big plus, the faster CPU very nice and I only real­ly change the SD card dur­ing test­ing and set­ting up, so it's not much of a deal.

The size hasn't changed, and pow­er con­sump­tion with the dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion run­ning remains a 3 watts, about 1 watt more than with the old­er mod­el 2B.

It still costs US$35/€35 plus pow­er sup­ply and SD card. You save your­self the wifi don­gle now, so the price has gone down slight­ly.

The clone wars

The suc­cess of the Rasp­berry Pi has inspired many ven­dors to come up with their own brands. It's a bit like the clone wars of the 1980s after the launch of the IBM PC. There is a Banana Pi, an Orange Pi, a NanoPi and a few more with or with­out "Pi" in their name.

The word­ing "clone" is tech­ni­cal­ly not quite cor­rect as there is no direct com­pat­i­bil­i­ty with the hard­ware of the orig­i­nal Rasp­berry Pi.

So, if some­thing works on the Rasp­berry Pi, it is not guar­an­teed to work on the clone as dri­ver issues can intro­duce a lot of com­pli­ca­tions. "Pi" ven­dors try to ben­e­fit from the pos­i­tive image of the Rasp­berry Pi series, but in real­i­ty, the clone may have lit­tle to do with the orig­i­nal.

None of them can real­ly beat the Rasp­berry Pi on price. Most of them come with a more per­for­mant CPU, but this is not rel­e­vant for a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tion. My aver­age CPU load on the Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+ is less than 5%, so there is just no need for more horse­pow­er.

The dif­fer­ence regard­ing soft­ware and com­mu­ni­ty sup­port means clones are only a suit­able sub­sti­tute in some cas­es and you may end up spend­ing many hours fix­ing bugs that you don't see on a Rasp­berry Pi.

All the tuto­ri­als on this web­site are work­ing on a Rasp­berry Pi com­put­er. There is no guar­an­tee that this will work on any of the oth­er Pis.

I fail to see a real advan­tage in rec­om­mend­ing the Pi clones. They are often more expen­sive and don't nec­es­sar­i­ly have any­thing that would make a real dif­fer­ence for this use case.

Except for...

There is one issue where I am not hap­py with the Rasp­berry Pi, even with the lat­est 3 B+ mod­els. The issue is the lack of 4K sup­port.

The Rasp­berry Pi in com­bi­na­tion with a 24 inch­es mon­i­tor run­ning at 1920 x 1200 px is a match made in heav­en. It's cheap, proven, reli­able and well sup­port­ed by hard­ware man­u­fac­tur­ers and the over­all glob­al fan com­mu­ni­ty.

But when the itch starts and you want to use larg­er dis­plays with a 4K res­o­lu­tion, you are hit­ting a dead end with the Rasp­berry Pi.

This is where oth­er ARM-based mini com­put­ers have been able to offer a real advan­tage. At least in the­o­ry, because I am hear­ing about a num­ber of dri­ver issues that make it dif­fi­cult to exploit this advan­tage.

There is one board that got my atten­tion which may become more inter­est­ing for dig­i­tal pic­ture frame appli­ca­tions in the future.

ODROID-C2

Intro­duced already by Hard­Ker­nel in 2016, the ODROID-C2 brings a sig­nif­i­cant per­for­mance boost at a sim­i­lar price as the Rasp­berry Pi 3. But the real gem is that it has a much more per­for­mant graph­ics proces­sor unit, the ARM Mali 450, which allows a res­o­lu­tion of 3840 x 2400 px (4K). Wifi and Blue­tooth are not includ­ed on board, but that's a minor incon­ve­nience and out­weighed by its graph­i­cal capa­bil­i­ties.

In a way, I some­what find it a bit odd that there hasn't been an upgrade of the C2 for two years, so I am not entire­ly sure what to make of this board.

How­ev­er, I am intrigued by the ODROID-C2. The ODROID sup­port com­mu­ni­ty is gain­ing momen­tum which is a cru­cial require­ment for do-it-your­­self projects.

I am not aware of any com­mer­cial dig­i­tal pic­ture frame ven­dors that are using the ODROID-C2. It may be pos­si­ble that Memen­to Smart Frame have used them in their com­mer­cial prod­ucts but Memento's last sign of life is from sum­mer 2017, so I guess they went out of busi­ness.

I found one good exam­ple of a 4K dig­i­tal pic­ture frame based on an ODROID-C2 on the inter­net, but it uses a sim­ple FEH image view­er and not some­thing which pro­vides beau­ti­ful image tran­si­tions like the Pi3D soft­ware which at this point is not com­pat­i­ble with the ODROID-C2. This is essen­tial to the dig­i­tal pic­ture frame expe­ri­ence and makes a huge dif­fer­ence.

The 4K road ahead

There is always this itch to improve. To build some­thing which is bet­ter.

And one day, I will post a tuto­r­i­al on how to make a great dig­i­tal pic­ture frame with out­stand­ing image tran­si­tions in 4K.

Two issues are keep­ing me from build­ing it today.

One is the lack of a decent 27 or 30 inch­es high 4K mon­i­tor with an aspect ratio of 16:10. If they exist, please send me an email. I haven't been able to find them except for some extreme­ly bulky and expen­sive mod­els for med­ical appli­ca­tions. 16:10 is impor­tant to avoid crop­ping too much from a stan­dard 3:2 cam­era pho­to.

The oth­er one is a Pi3D com­pat­i­ble ARM board. Pi3D is an out­stand­ing image tran­si­tion soft­ware (and a lot more) which turns a home­made dig­i­tal pic­ture frame into a great visu­al expe­ri­ence. There will short­ly be an arti­cle on this out­stand­ing piece of soft­ware.

So, what are the options? The eas­i­est is to wait for a new Rasp­berry Pi gen­er­a­tion with 4K video capa­bil­i­ties. Will that hap­pen any­time in the com­ing two years? Only Eben Upton, the founder of the Rasp­berry Pi ini­tia­tive, and his col­leagues know, and they will prob­a­bly not dis­close it today.

On the oth­er hand, I may make sense to explore the ODROID-C2 (and poten­tial suc­ces­sor mod­el) option. But this road may be a rough one with an open end­ing.

But what about Intel NUC and sim­i­lar­ly sized mini­com­put­ers? The rea­son why I have not includ­ed them in this post is that their price is about ten times that of the Rasp­berry Pi and they have much larg­er phys­i­cal dimen­sions and the space behind the mon­i­tor is very lim­it­ed.

Con­clu­sion

If you want to build a dig­i­tal pic­ture frame today, pick a Rasp­berry Pi 3 B+ as your com­put­ing hard­ware of choice.

CPU per­for­mance doesn't mat­ter for the dig­i­tal pic­ture frame use case. What mat­ters is com­pat­i­bil­i­ty, reli­a­bil­i­ty and clear instruc­tions that you can fol­low.

The Rasp­berry Pi has the most sub­stan­tial fol­low­ing of any ARM sin­­gle-board com­put­er. The amount of guides, tuto­ri­als, and soft­ware avail­able for the Rasp­berry Pi is unmatched by any oth­er board.

All the DIY tuto­ri­als on this site are cur­rent­ly for the Rasp­berry Pi. So if you are inter­est­ed in pro­duc­ing a result quick­ly and reli­ably, this is the road to take.

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