Behold the broader picture

Until recently, most of the Taylor family’s digital picture frames were gathering dust because we had unplugged them. We had bought a clutch of these first-generation devices for displaying digital photos but found the screens disappointingly small and low-resolution, and the limited internal storage capacities allowed only a few dozen images to be displayed.

But digital picture frames have become cheaper and evolved quickly to add features that include: slots for extra memory cards, which make it easier to load photos; Wi-Fi networking capabilities, so content can be added via a home network; and the ability to refresh content over the internet, so friends and family can add photos, and images can be downloaded from web-based services.

I have been testing some of the latest devices, including Hewlett-Packard’s DreamScreen 100 and Toshiba’s DMF82XKU Digital Media Frame. Both act as much more than mere displays for digital photos. They allow you to play music and display other web-based content such as weather forecasts, news and stock prices.

The HP DreamScreen costs $200 (£150 in the UK) and the Toshiba Digital Media Frame is $150 (or £129 for the similar Air 801). And for comparison I have also tested the Kodak EasyShare S730 ($140, £120), which is less innovative but still squeezes in some surprises.

The DreamScreen is the most advanced “smart” picture frame (that is, one with extra features) I have come across. It displays digital images, stored on memory cards or a local network, on its 10.2in widescreen, but you can also listen to internet radio, keep track of Facebook friends and download photos from photo-sharing sites such as Flickr.

Aside from its stunning – but fingerprint-prone – display, the DreamScreen has a generous 2GB of built-in memory, which means it can store more than 10,000 standard digital pictures; slots for additional flash memory cards, so you can easily load extra pictures; the ability to connect to a home network via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable; and two surprisingly good mini-speakers mounted on the rear.

Thanks to the edge-to-edge glass that covers the screen and shiny black bezel, the DreamScreen looks like a big iPod Touch. But, while the screen and the big, bright menu icons cry out to be touched, the DreamScreen does not have a touchscreen.

Instead, it comes with a small – and easily lost – wireless remote and a set of basic navigation buttons on the bottom right corner of the bezel. I found my way around the DreamScreen’s features pretty easily, however, including the built-in support for Facebook – the device automatically downloads pictures and the most recent status updates from friends.

The DreamScreen also comes with HP’s Snapfish photo-sharing service, which means users can download and view their own images or those shared with others.

From eyes to ears: you can listen to music stored on the device or on a memory card that you plug in, or music stored on your networked PC. For radio listening, HP’s SmartRadio software makes it easy to access thousands of free internet stations across the globe. US-based owners can tune into the Pandora online streaming music service.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sound quality, given the modest size of the speakers. To pump up the volume, you can also connect headphones or a pair of powered speakers.

More mundane but useful features include being able to catch local five-day weather forecasts. The DreamScreen can also display a customised clock with the time in two time zones, sound a musical alarm three times a day and display a calendar.

Getting started is easy. HP sensibly includes CD-based software and a quick guide that makes setting up straightforward and helps users to copy content from a PC. The device also comes with a very solid screw-in stand so it can sit on a flat surface.

The HP DreamScreen is impressive, but not perfect. A touchscreen would be nice, and I found the screen sometimes slow. Another drawback is it must be plugged into the mains at all times – unlike some models. The Kodak EasyShare, for example, has a built-in rechargeable battery that can power the device for about two hours and makes it easier to move the screen between rooms or people.

The Kodak also has a neat search feature that makes it easy to find images in your collection that are similar to the one on display. But the EasyShare lacks the extensive media capabilities of either the DreamScreen or the Digital Media Frame.

A more direct rival to HP’s DreamScreen is the Toshiba device. The Digital Media Frame delivers personalised internet-based content, including weather, news, music and photos through a partnership with Frame­Channel, an internet content service.

In design and navigation, the DreamScreen and the Digital Media Frame look very similar, although the latter’s screen is smaller. But Toshiba’s partnership with Frame­Channel is a smart move. The service offers more than 1,000 free channels of content, including news, stock quotes, weather and a Facebook widget. Once you sign up with Frame­Channel, the content you choose is delivered automatically to the Digital Media Frame as it is updated online.

Like the DreamScreen, Toshiba’s device is helping to reposition the digital picture frame as a much more useful, interesting device that should appeal to a wider audience, particularly if, as expected, the manufacturers of the next generation of smart screens open them up to third-party application developers.

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