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

By January 12, 2019 May 11, 2019 DIY Instructions, Hardware

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 an ample 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 pre­cise­ly 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
  • Pow­er con­sump­tion of few­er 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 excep­tion­al­ly bright. Mil­lions of enthu­si­as­tic fans result­ed in a vast num­ber of Rasp­berry Pi forums, clubs and devel­op­ers all around the world open­ly shar­ing their knowl­edge and find­ings to build yet anoth­er fan­tas­tic 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 help­ful 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 love­ly 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 at 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 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 point 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 many 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 essen­tial 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. You can read all about it in my arti­cle "How I added cross­fad­ing slide tran­si­tions to my dig­i­tal pic­ture frame using Pi3D".

So, what are the options? The eas­i­est is to wait for a new Rasp­berry Pi gen­er­a­tion with 4K video capa­bil­i­ties. Will it 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 the 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.