Digital Frames: A Rebirth for a Display Once On Its Deathbed?

Before Apple released the iPad, digital photo frames were one of the hottest holiday gift items in the consumer electronics market. As digital camera sales soared, consumers in the pre-iPad era struggled to find ways to bring those images into the living room, where traditional prints often held pride of place on walls and mantle pieces. Digital frames solved that problem and brands from Sony to Samsung and Kodak (remember them) flooded the market with tiny displays.

For all their initial popularity, digital photo frames always suffered from some glaring liabilities. Relative to their paper and wood counterparts, digital frames were difficult to set up. Their small sizes made them difficult to see unless you were directly on top of them, where low resolution LCD displays often showed telltale pixels. You couldn’t hang digital frames on walls, like a traditional frame, because unsightly power cables would snake their way ostentatiously down a wall toward an outlet. Once the iPad and tablets in general provided an easy way to view digital images in the living room, much of the wind was knocked out of the digital frame’s sails (and sales).

But several factors have converged to make frames appealing again, including the introduction of 4K resolution displays and the proliferation of mobile devices. 4K displays not only enable digital photos to appear crisp when you get close, but also ensure that those photos stay sharp even as you increase frame sizes. The same argument used against 4K TVs—that most consumers won’t actually notice the quality improvement unless they sit right on top of it—is an argument in favor of a 4K frame. Consumers will, in fact, want to view those images up close.

Early digital frames rarely topped 800×600 pixels—well below an HD TV and many millions of pixels behind what even low-end digital cameras could resolve. And they were also almost always 10 inches or smaller in size. Today, a company called Memento Electronics successfully Kickstarted two 4K frames with 25-inch and 35-inch screen sizes with a power cord that’s so thin (.004 inches) it can be easily painted over to blend in with room decor.

Mobile devices, meanwhile, provide an easy way of wirelessly transferring images to frames via apps. Companies like Meural have used Internet connectivity on their frame to deliver not just consumer images but licensed artwork from museums around the world. With Wi-Fi ubiquitous in homes, digital frames can be managed almost entirely by mobile device apps.

Large screens, ultra sharp, ultra thin displays all connected to an Internet’s worth of incredible content are a winning formula for a revival, however modest, of a category once consigned to the ash heap of tech history—and the best may be yet to come.

At the recently concluded Canon Expo, we were treated to a look at a prototype of an 8K reference monitor. While the monitor is targeted at broadcast professionals on set, it showed the promise of what 8K resolution can deliver for the imaging market. The resolution was so sharp that you could stand with your nose mere centimeters from the monitor and not detect pixels. In fact, Canon provided magnifying glasses to attendees daring them to spot the pixels. We couldn’t.