Digital Photo Frames Buyers’ Guide

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According to some estimates, the global market for digital photo frames is set to undergo somewhere in the region of a fifteen-fold increase, in terms of the number of individual units sold, in the next few years. The reasons for this are plain enough to see. A digital photo frame allows you to transfer digital photographs directly from your digital camera – without the need to download them to a computer – via an integral memory expansion card slot, or a card reader, or, in some cases, wirelessly. Indeed, some digital photo frames, nowadays, are so sophisticated that they can be managed, and updated, remotely, not only with digital photographs, but with other useful digital content, such as weather forecasts and RSS, or “Rich Site Summary”, feeds. Digital photographs can be displayed singly, or as a slide show, accompanied by professional looking transitional effects, such as blurring, or fading, and possibly sound effects, or music, played back from MP3 format files, via a speaker, or speakers, in the frame. Advances in LCD, or “Liquid Crystal Display”, technology now mean that digital photo frames can be created in sizes small enough – at 1, or 1½, inches across, diagonally – to be incorporated in key rings, alarm clocks, and other keepsakes and mementos. Even these tiny models are often equipped with 8MB, or 16MB, of internal memory, adequate for the storage of 56, or more, individual digital photographs.

Screen Size & Resolution

The overall physical size of a digital photo frame, and the size of its screen – which, remember, refers to the visible area on which an image is displayed, and is, therefore, smaller than the surrounding frame – are important considerations, particularly when it comes to portability. Screen sizes start at just over 1 inch, and 1.44 inch, and 3.5 inch, models – small enough to be clipped onto a key ring, or carried in a purse, or pocket – are also popular. Screen sizes continue, through 5.6 inch, 7 inch, 8 inch and 10.4 inch models up to 15 inches, or more, and while some of these models cannot be considered portable, in the sense that they can be easily carried around, many are, nevertheless, capable of operation on rechargeable batteries. This means that they operate in environments where mains power is unavailable, or inaccessible, without unsightly, trailing wires, and therefore offer a degree of portability in this sense.

The “resolution” of the display – or, in other words, the number of individual picture elements, or “pixels”, that it contains – is what determines the clarity, and sharpness, of the image displayed. If you are considering a very small digital photo frame, you may have to sacrifice something in the way of resolution – a 1½ inch screen, for example, may contain 128 x 128 pixels, but probably not a lot more – but as you move up the scale of screen sizes, better resolutions quickly become available. Screen sizes between, say, 5.6 and 9 inches, may typically offer resolutions of 640 x 480 pixels – probably the lower limit for a digital photograph that is to be displayed on a desktop, or on a mantelpiece – or 720 x 480 pixels, while a 10.4 inch frame is more likely to offer 800 x 600 pixels, and a 15 inch frame as many as 1,600 x 1,200 pixels. The Mustek PF-E150 digital photo frame, for example, features a tiny, 1½ inch screen, with a resolution of 128 x 128 pixels, while the Nextbase Gallery 15 digital photo frame features an 8 inch screen, with a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels.

Other characteristics of the screen to consider include its “aspect ratio” – the ratio of its width to its height – and the ability to adjust the aspect ratio from traditional, 4:3, to widescreen, 16:9, and back again. This means that all digital photographs, including panoramic photographs taken in 16:9 mode, can be correctly displayed, without stretching, or distortion. Look, too, for a high contrast ratio – at least 300:1, or, better still 500:1 – which will guarantee rich, deep, black levels rather than muddy greys, and a wide viewing angle, in both the vertical, and horizontal, planes, so that the screen can be viewed from as many different positions as possible.

Style & Design

On a slightly less technical note, the aesthetics of a digital photo frame – its outward appearance, and the way it fits in with the existing décor in your home, or office – may also be important to you. Digital photo frames are available in a wide range of traditional, and modern, styles, and numerous colours, materials and finishes.

If you want a traditional look, for example, you may like to choose a digital photo frame in rich natural, or stained, wood, or leather, while more contemporary materials include brushed aluminium, vinyl, or acrylic – in a variety of colours, and motifs – and clear, or frosted, glass. Indeed, many digital photo frames are supplied with interchangeable fascia, so that they can be customised to suit any style. Wooden, aluminium and other metal frames do tend to be more expensive than some other materials, but it is probably fair to say that a digital photo frame is available to suit every taste, and budget. The Nextbase Gallery 15 digital photo frame, for example, comes with a choice of interchangeable faceplates, in white plastic, faux leather, and black rubber.

Supported Formats

Another important consideration is the type, and format, of the digital content that you wish to display in a digital photo frame. Most digital photographs are taken in JPEG format, and all digital photo frames, understandably, support this format as standard. Other less common picture formats include BMP, GIF, PNG and TIFF, but if you want to display photographs in these formats, do make sure that they are actually supported by your chosen digital photo frame. Remember, too, that a digital photo frame may not be limited to displaying still photographs, and that moving pictures, and sound, may also be possibilities. Supported video formats, for example, may include MPEG 1, MPEG 2, MPEG 4, AVI and DivX, but do, once again, check that your favourite video format is supported. Support for sound, on the other hand, usually includes MP3, as standard, and may include WMA (“Windows Media Audio”) – another common sound format – and WAV.

You also need to make sure, of course, that the type of memory expansion card used in your digital camera is actually compatible with your chosen digital photo frame. Most frames, nowadays, support most, if not all, of the popular memory expansion card formats – including CF (“Compact Flash”), SD (“Secure Digital”), MMC (“MultiMedia Card”), Memory Stick, and Memory Stick Pro – so this should not really be an issue. If you do have your heart set on a particular digital photo frame that does not include a slot for your memory card brand, as standard, the chances are that you will be able to find a memory card reader as an accessory, or you may be able to transfer photographs to the frame, wirelessly, from your PC.


Many digital photo frames – and certainly those designated as “portable” – offer the option of running the frame from mains electricity, via an AC adaptor, or from standard, AAA, alkaline batteries, or rechargeable batteries. The rechargeable battery option is the most flexible, and means that a digital photo frame can be positioned, or carried, just about anywhere, and can be plugged into the mains, periodically, to recharge its battery.

The length of time that a digital photo frame can operate on rechargeable battery power varies from model to model – although a typical, 7 inch, frame should be capable of, at least, 2 or 3 hours of operation on a single charge – and is dependent upon the nature of the content played back, and the type of rechargeable battery employed. Newer battery technologies based on lithium – a highly reactive metal, capable of storing large amounts of energy – are gradually replacing older technologies based on nickel, NiMH, or “Nickel Metal Hydride”, rechargeable batteries, for example. Lithium ion (“Li-Ion”) and lithium polymer (“Li-Po”) rechargeable batteries are not only lighter, but, weight for weight, are capable of storing up to 50% more energy, in a single charge, than other types of rechargeable battery.

It may be possible to programme a digital photo frame so that it automatically switches on, and off, at various times of the day, to preserve the life of its battery. The Mustek PF-E150 digital photo frame, for example, which incorporates a digital alarm clock, and a digital thermometer, is capable of operation from mains power, two standard, AAA, batteries, or a single, 3-volt, lithium ion rechargeable battery. 

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