Why Digital Photo Frames Are Doomed to Failure and Why You Just Might Want One

Why Digital Photo Frames Are Doomed to Failure and Why You Just Might Want One

Digital photo frames were hailed as a leap forward for presenting your images, a technology to go hand in hand with digital cameras. So, what happened?

The future is bright. It's Back to the Future 2 and Marty McFly — the future Marty McFly — walks into his lounge where large display screens show an idyllic rural scene. Of course, the reality of Lyon Estates in 2015 was a little different, but the direction of travel of digital displays was clear. Photos and information were the items of choice, so it's a short step to a curated slideshow of your own images (although curiously, we never see Marty shoot stills, only video).

Why Are Digital Displays Unpopular?

Of course, large forty-inch digital displays are now mainstream, and you'll find them in many homes. But the curation of virtual photo albums for display in the living room? That appears to be sadly absent. Why is this?

Firstly, the hardware wasn't up to scratch, with the displays not particularly good. Actually, to be brutally honest, they were rubbish! I remember my first photo frame with a screen the size of an address label. That might have been quite a good idea for an iPod where you wanted the general gist of an album cover, but for viewing a person, they were poor, and for a group of people… well, just try recognizing an individual face from fifty-odd pixels. Yes, the resolution was also low at only 1 MP, and the color reproduction only really a ballpark figure.

I followed that viewer up with a seven-inch Kodak frame and while it was bigger, it made you realize that digital albums were more than just pixels. They involve a synergistic dance between hardware and software so that it does what it's meant to do (display photos) without getting in the way. Unfortunately, both the software (poorly designed and awkward to use) and hardware (cheap, plasticky, and, crucially, not networked) got in the way.

Secondly, you can't watch TV and view images at the same time. That seems pretty obvious, but if your main viewing device is your TV, then as soon as your daughter comes in to watch an episode of "The Next Step," or indeed "Game of Thrones," no more on-screen photos.

Perhaps this highlights the main problem — no one currently buys a forty-inch screen just to look at photos. Even a seven-inch frame can seem a little pricey, particularly when producing a ten-inch print is less than a cup of coffee, and it never turns off and doesn't cost anything to run!

Thirdly, people don't actually want to view images! Think back to those stereotypical dinner parties in the 70s and 80s when your family and friends were invited around to watch a slideshow of your latest holiday. When I say slideshow, not 85 slides in Powerpoint replete with every possible transition and sound effect, but one shot on Ektachrome and projected on to your living room wall. Uncle Jeffrey fell asleep back then, and it's not too different in today's Powerpoint version. It's plain and simple: nobody wants to sit and look at a stream of images they have little vested interest in.

The Future

So, how do people really want to consume images (because, deep down, they actually want to)? Let's look at those three problems I noted above. Firstly, size. You need a display that is at least 4"x6" and preferably bigger, in the same way you would mount a photo in a frame. Secondly, don't use your TV as a display. While it might be a multi-function device, it can't do two things at once, so don't try to shoehorn a photo frame into something that is designed for a different purpose. Finally, think of viewing the imagery as not too dissimilar to listening to music. You don't buy Coldplay's latest album and then invite friends around to sit in your living room and listen to it. So, don't do the same with photos! Rather, give yourself a gallery space where you can display your images for careful consumption and consideration. That might well be in your living room, but presenting them as a gallery would let people view them in their own time. It's more like a live performance where the individual can indulge themselves as much as they like.

What that means is a dedicated display in a dedicated space, and unsurprisingly, a number of manufacturers have developed products targeting this market. For example, there is Meural's Canvas II, which is a dedicated image viewer with a high-quality anti-glare screen, a subscription to artwork, and motion detection to allow interaction. If you want a digital frame that is also a TV, then there I Samsung's eye-wateringly expensive The Frame.

Or Just Maybe?

However, there is another way to consume images at home, which is similar to listening to the radio (or Spotify). You may actually be doing something else and have music, or imagery, on in the background. This more informal viewing is about mutual interest and serendipity, where you can stumble across something you find interesting. As a result, places where you listen to the radio may well also be good places to view photos.

One location in my house where people are always buzzing around in the kitchen. I, therefore, have a digital photo frame that sits on the worktop, constantly displaying images. These aren't curated, competition-winning photos, but a lifetime of family living. The photo frame randomly cycles through the images, and what I love is that it starts conversations and fires memories. Family and friends ask where who and what questions I may or may not be able to answer. It's everything and more that I hoped a photo frame would offer.

So, what photo frame do I use? Actually, it's not a bespoke photo frame at all, but an old tablet. There were three considerations when it came to devising a solution: screen, presentation, and software. The screen ideally needs to be a reasonable quality unit that's bright, with good color accuracy and gamut. Alternatively, any screen that you can re-use makes for an economical option, and there's nothing better than an old tablet. Mine is an aging Google Nexus 7 (2012), which is now painfully slow at running most apps. However, it is a solid piece of hardware that, in its day, had a great screen.

Secondly, how will the tablet actually be mounted? The simplest solution is to use a stand, and while many tablet cases come with a pop-out foot, I opted to go for something a little more substantial in the form of this Amazon Basics model. For a near-constantly running device, being battery-powered isn't an option. To keep cabling neat, I used right-angled micro USB connectors and a velcro cable tie to secure the loose wire. Obviously, you also need a charging socket as well.

The final part of the setup is software. I tried a few different products, but settled on Fotoo (Android only), which is highly customizable, has active development, and the developer is responsive to support. I exported around 8,000 photos from my family Lightroom catalog, resizing the images to 1,280×800 (the screen resolution) before uploading to a photo folder on Dropbox (Fotoo also supports Google Photos, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Samba shares). I've linked Fotoo to my Dropbox account, and it syncs in the background if I choose to upload new photos. In addition, the app is set to star tup 7-9 am and 6-11 pm every day. Outside of those times, the app shuts down, and then the device Sleep setting kicks in, shutting down the screen.

Fotoo has a number of settings for overlay information and transitions. I've kept mine simple, having the date and time permanently displayed so the tablet can act as a clock. In addition, it overlays the image capture date, which provides context (particularly when you can't remember when a photo was taken), but can often trigger linked memories.

For me, the ad hoc display of photos in this manner has allowed the digital photo frame to come of age. We have a time and place where people can view photos, as well as a social context where they want to. What the tablet is providing is a convergent device that can handle a number of tasks in this manner. We've seen Amazon's Echo take up a similar role for audio, so it's fascinating to see the JBL Link View being reviewed so positively. Manufacturers have realized that the key to a device that can successfully handle convergent information is ubiquity. Not something you carry everywhere, but something that is everywhere. Maybe, just maybe, the digital photo frame will have a second breath of life.

Body image courtesy of Luis Villasmil via Unsplash, used under Creative Commons.

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27 Comments

JACK MCCAFFREY's picture

What a refreshing change to read a well-written article instead of looking at yet another video.
A few of us still prefer to read intelligent comment.

Rick Boden's picture

One of the biggest disadvantages I see over conventional photos in say, a boardroom setting, is where do you plug it in? You'd either have to retrofit the walls with electrical outlets where the photos should be or have unsightly cords hanging from each "picture/"

dean wilson's picture

If it's going to be displayed in a boardroom setting then I would hope someone would have enough brains to hire a profession for the installation and not do themselves. Why, yes...I am a professional and have done this for a living.

Rick Boden's picture

Just curious, what profession as I imagine this is a relatively new field? Who would an office manager look for if he or she were searching for someone to put a dozen of these in a boardroom?

M M's picture

Probably an electrician. they do this stuff all the time.

Rick Boden's picture

Yeah, that's the obvious answer I guess. Just thought I'd ask in case there was a specialty where picture hanging knowledge (interior decoration) also came into play.

dean wilson's picture

Yes, Electrical trade. Projectors, Screens, Big Screen TV's, Sound Systems...anything electrical you would see in a boardroom...and done right.

Rick Boden's picture

Thanks Dean, yes of course. I was a bit single minded thinking only about these photo frame displays.

dean wilson's picture

You wouldn't believe some of the stuff I've seen customers do just to save a couple dollars....to start with. 🤣

Rick Boden's picture

Wouldn't surprise me but certainly should never happen in a commercial space.

M M's picture

I just bought a Meural frame on sale and I love it. For a while I had a TV as picture frame but the Meural looks better and the display is also way better for pictures. I would love to see one at 60" or bigger.

Tony Northrup's picture

My biggest gripe is that all the current screens are 16:9. The Memento screens were 3:2 (like most photos) but Memento seems to be out of business.

C E's picture

I've been using Nixplay Frames for grandparents and they've worked great. After throwing them on the wifi you can update them remotely, which makes it really easy when relatives live out of state and such.

pariah's picture

Bought an inexpensive notebook for a particular purpose and then found that it was inexpensive because it didn't have enough memory to run it's native Windows 10. So I loaded my imagery resized to 16:9, turned on 'airplane' mode so it wouldn't try and unsuccessfully update itself (again) and plugged it into a signal splitter that then throws it's resident screen saver to all the TVs in the house (4), set to my image file. I then leave my TVs running and my imagery floats by in the kitchen, living room and both bedrooms with the time and date on the lower left. Want to watch TV instead of my work? Change the TV's input and there you go. Otherwise, who looks at wall art when the TV is playing something insipid?

Deleted Account's picture

I would never use a digital photo frame, but I got one for my parents (a Memento 35") so that I can upload photos of their grandkids and they love it.

Wolfgang Maennel's picture

I have been into digital picture frames for over 15 years and I absolutely love them. Started buying a PhotoVu 17'' back in 2005 and ended up building a 24'' with a Raspberry Pi. Most of the models were just too complicated and not user friendly at all. Also, cheap "China" models with crappy designs ruined the market. I compiled a list of criteria that I look at when reviewing a frame. Maybe it's helpful for some people: https://www.thedigitalpictureframe.com/the-ultimate-10-point-checklist-f...

Paul Scharff's picture

You should write all reviews. I loved the simplicity and clarity of your language and your layout (e.g., points vs. paragraphs), and the just-the-right-amount use of the highlighter. Well done!

Jørn Tv's picture

Interesting article, but I have to disagree with the statement about TVs not being suitable devices as they aren’t photo frames anymore when in use. When the TV is in use, people don’t watch everything else in the room. It is great to be able to transform a picture into a TV and then hide the TV in plain view when not in use. Some like to have TVs and sounds systems as a “show off” in the living room, I honestly think that’s getting a bit out of date. When not watching TV, my living room doesn’t have a single visible cable, screen or speaker, and it feels so much better with a clean look. Of course each to their own taste, it for me a combined TV and digital photo frame has been a much better solution than I thought.

Toby Seb's picture

Digital frames will be great when we can get big ones cheap, then everyone will want one. Iframe... also why wouldnt they be battery operated ? cant take that much juice to flip some photos around.

Jeff Wingo's picture

I took an old iMac G4 (the one called the iLamp) and loaded a folder of photos for the screen saver that pops on after 1 minute. It is really cool.

P K's picture

Note to author.

The Marty McFly of 2015 in Back to the Future II doesn't live in Lyon Estates, he lives in Hilldale - "a breeding ground for tranks, lo-bos, and zipheads."

Or if you want to believe the sign at the entrance to Hilldale - The Address of Success

Mike Smith's picture

Thanks for spotting the mistake... slap head moment!!

P K's picture

The article is very well written and gave me much food for thought, I just enjoy being a pedant so couldn't resist!

I mostly stick with prints as I get easily distracted with digital image cycling, but the technology is amazing nowadays and only getting better so it's wonderful to have options.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Which of these require "online accounts"? I am guessing Amazon, Samsung, Google do. Are there any that don't?

Jon Kellett's picture

If you use Fotoo, you could set up a samba share on your NAS or Windows PC... Or just have a mem card with your images...

I'm guessing that most here would have a NAS...

Online... Yeah, not a huge fan of that either.

Gregory Scott's picture

I think he left out an important digital display mode. Most homes have several, or more computers. Setting photos to display on your photos on the screen saver is easy.