Digital Picture Frame Comparison

After having taking 20,000 digital photos over the last five years, my wife and I decided that it might be time to look into digital picture frames. These frames are essentially a small portion of a laptop-like LCD display wrapped in a decorative frame. They store photos (and sometimes videos and music) either on an external memory card (like CompactFlash or SD) or in internal memory (if so equipped). They then display these photos in a slide show. Certain frames provide various capabilities beyond these that make them more versatile.

They're a nice idea that will certainly become more popular, but they still have some drawbacks. First, they need a constant power source. Some can run off AA batteries, but they'll run through them pretty quickly, so you really need to keep them plugged into a wall outlet for long-term use. The biggest drawback, though, is the price. Non-sale prices start at about $100 for tiny, 5.6" screens. The price jumps to $200 for 8" screens, with 10" screens on the market for those willing to spend the cash. You can print a whole lot of digital pictures and put them in a normal frame for the cost of even a low end digital frame. They'll have to come down in price quite a bit before they become terribly popular.

I figured that if I was going to spend that kind of cash, I wanted to get the best one I could for the money, so I bought four small frames locally and did a head to head comparison. The differences are outlined below, but first I'll discuss some of their common features.

First is the screen resolution. These screens have approximately the same dots per inch resolution as a low end laptop. That means a 5.6" screen is about half of VGA, or roughly 320x240. While all of the frames I tested were able to automatically scale larger photos down to fit the screen, they all used a very simple sampling algorithm that apparently just displayed every 4th (for example) line or column. This results in very choppy images, an effect which is especially obvious on diagonal lines. By comparison, most computer photo editing programs like Photoshop or The Gimp will downsize images by averaging all the neighboring pixels together to form the one pixel that gets displayed. This provides a much more pleasing representation of the original image. What this means for the user is that you're much better off downsizing the images on your computer before you upload them rather than lazily letting the frame resize them for you. Downsizing them before uploading also makes smaller files so you can fit many more photos on the card. One would think that you'd get the best results by downsizing the photos to match the screen resolution. I tried several different resolutions in my experiments, and I found that I got the best results when I sized the images to 640x480, or double the published LCD resolution. Aliasing was still apparent on diagonal lines, but this resolution produced much sharper images overall. 320x240 images seemed blurrier than I expected them to be. On the Matsunichi frame, 320x240 images actually only filled the middle quarter of the screen, which seemed to indicate that the actual LCD resolution was closer to 640x480. This doesn't jive with the published specs, but I call 'em like I see 'em.

All of the frames I tested have built in card readers that accept all the major flash card formats, including Compact Flash, SD, MMC, MC, etc. Some frames don't support all formats, so be sure to check whether the frame and your digital camera can use the same card before you buy a fame. Many frames also have USB ports on them that allow you to connect them directly to your PC to upload photos. In those cases, the internal memory and any occupied card reader slots will show up as new drives on your PC. This means that in addition to uploading pictures, you can also use your picture frame as a generic card reader in a pinch.

All of these frames will cycle through their photos in an endlessly repeating slide show. You can change the length of time each photo is displayed, as well as the special effect used to transition to the next photo. They all will also allow you to manually cycle through the photos one at a time and leave one photo displayed permanently (although I'd worry about burn in). The Matsunichi allows you to jump fore and aft within a slide show, while the others require you to exit the slide show mode and re-enter the manual mode. It's not all that bad, but that is a nice feature of the Matsunichi. For those frames that have internal speakers, you can also play AVI videos or upload MP3 songs to play as background music to your slide shows. While background music may sound fun at first, I think it would quickly become annoying.

But enough of the commonalities. You're probably reading this to learn about the differences between these frames. Here they are, in the order that I purchased them.

Matsunichi Photoblitz 5.6" PF560

This was the first frame I bought. It was on sale the day after Thanksgiving at a local home improvement center (Menards), of all places. I had to ask three employees before somebody finally knew where they were located. I didn't really plan on buying several different frames until after I played with this one for a while at home and didn't care for what I saw. It's about what you'd expect from a brand name like "Matsunichi," but at $67, it was just over half what I paid for the Pandigital.

This frame is physically larger than any of the other frames I got, including the 7" Polaroid, because the LCD screen sits inside a black housing that looks like a matte inside the wooden frame. All the other frames have the LCD edge-to-edge with the outer frame, which looks much better with a screen this small. There's a little bit of play between the outer frame and the housing which allows the LCD to get slightly cockeyed in the frame. It's easy to move back, but it looks cheap.

The user interface -- an on-screen display navigated by up/down/left/right buttons on the top of the housing behind the frame or on the credit card sized remote control -- provides a very comprehensive array of settings and options, but is unfortunately very unintuitive and hard to navigate even after you figure out how it's supposed to work. On the bright side, this is the only frame of the four I tested that allows you to pause a running slide show or skip back and forth between images without first popping back into the menu and re-entering in single image mode. This frame also has a headphone jack and an A/V output jack in case you want to listen to videos privately or share the frame's contents with everyone via your TV. Good ideas; poor implementation.

Visually, I found the color to be a little on the bluish side compared to my color-calibrated computer monitor, and far bluer than the default settings on the other frames. The pixel definition on this frame is the sharpest of the four, but they took it too far, IMHO. Hard edges looked good in some photos, but grated on your eyes in others. Requiring the frame to scale-down high res images rather than providing it with smaller images (resized on the computer) only made this worse.

In the end, the poor user interface, lack of USB support or internal memory (requiring you to buy an extra card to use in the frame), and overly sharp picture quality were deal breakers.

Westinghouse 5.6" LCD DPF-0561

After deciding that the Matsunichi wasn't something that we wanted to give people we loved, we picked up its Westinghouse counterpart at Best Buy. The 5.6" frame appeared to have better image quality than what we remembered the Matsunichi having. The 8" frame sitting next to it on display looked much nicer, but at $200 was well beyond what we wanted to spend.

This frame is very similar to the Pandigital and Polaroid frames. They're obviously made by the same manufacturer and tweaked to the specs of the vendor. The on-screen menu system is much more intuitive than the Matsunichi's (even without a remote control), but its feature set is somewhat restrictive. The colors were truer than the Matsunichi's, but looked oversaturated. There is no way to alter the colors other than a brightness dial on the back of the housing (which the three related frames all possess). The oversaturation is probably what made the pixels look considerably fuzzier than those of the Matsunichi or Pandigital. With a published LCD resolution of only 320x234, one thing you don't need is added fuzziness.

The 8MB internal memory is a nice token, and should allow 100 or more photos to be uploaded if you properly down size them on your computer first. Videos and MP3's would eat up that 8MB quickly, but since there is no speaker on this frame, most people will probably stick with just photos. There is a USB port to allow the frame to be connected directly to the computer if you don't want to transfer images via an external memory card. However, there is no USB cable included, so you'll have to buy one if you need one.

Pandigital 5.6" DPF56-2

After seeing the difference between the Matsunichi and Westinghouse frames, I set out to buy every frame in Lincoln under $120 so I could determine which one was best. I was too late to get the Pandigital frame at Office Depot during their Black Friday sale, but bought one at regular price after they restocked. At $109, this was the most expensive frame I bought, and was pushing the upper limit of what I was willing to spend. Fortunately, when I went back to buy a second one as a gift, they were on sale for only $70 after rebate, making it the second cheapest of the four.

This frame is very similar to the Westinghouse and Polaroid frames. They're obviously made by the same manufacturer and tweaked to the specs of the vendor. Like the Westinghouse, the on-screen menu system is much more intuitive than the Matsunichi's. The feature set is the most comprehensive of the three related frames, allowing color tuning (tint / color / brightness / contrast), volume control, video options, and other conveniences. It includes a credit card remote control which is required to access certain features like volume control and color tuning. I suspect most people will adjust these once when they first buy the frame, then leave them alone so they can safely throw the remote in a drawer. The one exception might be the 2X image zoom, which is also available only from the remote.

Like the Westinghouse, the colors were a bit oversaturated out of the box, but some minor tuning gave the best results of the four. The pixels are not quite as sharp as the Matsunichi, but are noticeably sharper than the Westinghouse and Pandigital, producing the best overall image quality of the four frames. Of course, some photos looked better on the Matsunichi or Polaroid frames, but overall, the Pandigital was the winner.

Unlike the other frames, the Pandigital comes with a piece of standard glass between the frame and the LCD. This protects the LCD, but provides more glare and reflection in the photo than I'd like to see. Some low-gloss glass (available at any custom picture framing shop) may be in order. With the glass removed, the LCD has the same non-reflective, matte finish as the other frames.

Taken as a whole, this is the best frame of the four. The 64MB internal memory is more than enough for a lengthy slide show, even if you don't bother downsizing the photos from your camera. Of the three frames that include a USB port, this is the only one that comes with the necessary cable to connect it to your computer. This frame also has a rectangular "host" USB port like the ones on your computer, and when I plugged in my thumb drive, it worked just like any other flash card. The design of the wooden frame surrounding the LCD makes it the easiest of the bunch to replace with the standard frame of your choice, although it is a custom size.

Polaroid 7" widescreen IDF-0720

This frame's 7" screen is of the widescreen format, like a movie screen. Why? Nobody shoots digital photos in that aspect ratio. You have the option of either viewing your photos in a letterbox format, resulting in images approximately 5.6" diagonal (like the other frames reviewed), or displaying the image at the full width, but with the top and bottom cropped. Even Polaroid's example photo montage includes a family photo where the kid on his dad's shoulders is missing half his head. Let's leave the widescreen LCD's to those device where we're likely to watch feature length movies, please. Alas, this format is very common for 7" frames, judging from a quick look around Amazon.com's offerings.

Aside from the aspect ratio, this frame is very similar to the Westinghouse and Pandigital frames. They're obviously made by the same manufacturer and tweaked to the specs of the vendor. The rear body of the frame, the layout of the controls, and the OSD (on-screen display) are all nearly identical to its brethren. Like the others, its menu system is intuitive, but lacks some features found in the Pandigital (like color adjustment). The colors as shipped were good, but the brightness was less than adequate, even with the dial on the back of the frame turned up all the way. I found the pixel definition to be a little worse than that of the Matsunichi or Pandigital frames, yielding somewhat fuzzier images.

This frame has no internal memory, which requires you to buy a separate memory card to store your images. Curiously, it still has a USB port (cable sold separately) so that you can upload pictures to your card without having to plug the card into a separate card reader in your computer. It wouldn't surprise me if a separate card reader cost less than a cable, though.

Head to Head Comparison

  Matsunichi
PF560
Westinghouse
DPF-0561
Pandigital
DPF56-2
Polaroid
IDF-0720
Source $67, Menards (Black Friday) $99, Best Buy $70, Office Depot (sale/rebate) $99, Wal-Mart
Screen Size 5.6", 4:3 5.6", 4:3 5.6", 4:3 7", widescreen
Pixel Dimensions 320x234 unspecified, probably 320x234 320x234 480x234
Image Scaling 320x240 photos only fill half the screen Smaller photos/videos scaled to fill screen, aspect maintained Smaller photos/videos scaled to fill screen, aspect maintained Smaller photos scaled to fill screen, aspect maintained (see notes)
Flash Card
Slots
CF, SD, MMC, MS, SMC CF, SD, MMC, MS, XD, MD CF, SD, MMC, MS, XD, USB flash CF, SD, MMC, MS
Internal Memory none 8MB 64MB none
USB Support none mini port, cable not included host & mini ports, cable included host & mini ports, cable not included
Frame Dimensions 7.75x9.5" 6.125x7.25" 5.75x7.25" 7.25x9.75"
Available Frames standard replaceable frame (brown & black included, 4.5x6.5" opening) black, silver & brown frames included, proprietary bracket prohibits custom standard replaceable frame (clear & black included, 4x5.5" opening) fixed black
Image Formats JPEG, GIF, BMP, & PNG JPEG JPEG JPEG
Video Support MPEG & AVI videos & MP3's w/ dial-adjustable volume AVI, but w/o sound (no speaker) MPEG/AVI videos & MP3's, volume adjustable only via remote no video/music support
Remote Control yes no yes yes
Amazon.com  

Of these four frames that I tested, the Pandigital is the best. The screen is almost as sharp as the Matsunichi's and has better color. It has almost as many features as the Matsunichi. It has the most user friendly and comprehensive user interface. It has user-customizable frames. It has enough internal memory to avoid buying a separate card. Alas, it's normally the most expensive of the four, so watch for sales. It's still the one I ended up keeping.

If money weren't an option, I may have opted for a Philips brand frame (or more likely, an 8" LCD). In window shopping on Amazon.com, the Philips frames consistently get the best reviews. You pay for quality, though. Of the cheaper brands, Digital Spectrum also seems to be well liked. Still, with as much variance as I've seen in these four frames, I don't know that I'd trust buying something this expensive site unseen. It's just too much hassle to return something you bought mail order, and you're still stuck paying shipping both ways.
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last updated 14 Dec 2006
Obi-Wan (obiwan@jedi.com)




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