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Monday, May 13, 2024

A Digital Picture Frame Is My Favorite Way to Keep in Touch

We test a lot of tech here at WIRED. Once we're done testing a device, we send it back to the company that lent it to us. That's the ethical thing to do. Personally, I'm usually happy to see these things go back to the manufacturers, even if they're great. Otherwise, the clutter would become unmanageable. The Aura digital picture frame, however, I did not want to send back. I want one for me and everyone else I know. It's truly a standout gadget.

Digital picture frames connect to your home Wi-Fi network and display the photos you've added to their companion smartphone apps. The photos play like a slideshow, with images refreshing at whatever speed you choose. (I've found that a new photo every two to five minutes is the sweet spot.) You can also invite others to submit photos from afar; no matter where they live, their pictures will show up on your frame.

With the proliferation of smartphones and social media, there's no shortage of ways to stay connected to those who don't live close by. Thanks to Facebook and Instagram, you won't forget a birthday, your aunts and uncles can stay on top of your post-college moves, and your parents can share all your articles. (Hi, Mom.) But if you and your loved one each have a digital frame, the gadgets can keep you directly connected in a way that feels extra special. We especially need that right now, a time when our lives have been turned upside down, holidays were put on hold, and we don't know when we'll be able to see each other again.

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A Photo Viewing Experience

You probably have thousands of digital photos stored on your phone or online. Whether they're candids of friends, street photographs, or snaps of your lounging cats, you can't possibly print them all out and display them around your home. That's where a digital picture frame works its magic, displaying an endless stream of photos on a bright, clear screen that makes each image look uncannily close to a printed photograph. 

I first encountered Aura frames back in August, when we wrote about gear for keeping in touch over long distances. All the products were fun to use, and offered something unique for people who are far away from those they love. But they can also be expensive, especially since some of them felt a little gimmicky. Digital frames, though also quite expensive, feel much more practical.

Of course, devices like these have been around for a while. The first time I saw a digital picture frame in the early 2000s, it was frankly kind of tacky, with a pixely screen and obnoxious, PowerPoint style animated transitions between images. Even just five years ago, the tech hadn't improved much; in 2015, the Seattle Times called digital frames "bargain-bin jokes." They just weren't good. But as mobile screens have gotten better, the technology inside the digital picture frames has also improved dramatically. The latest models have been getting rave reviews, and they've been gaining in popularity—especially as gifts—for good reason.

The Aura frames are evidence of this huge improvement. The pictures on the Aura look vibrant, but the screen doesn't glow brightly like a computer display. A sensor also automatically adjusts the display brightness based on the available light, so it doesn't stay aglow in a dark room. (I set mine so the screen shuts down when all the lights are off.) There's not a jagged-edged pixel in sight; even scanned film photos look great. When you really look closely, you can see that it doesn't look exactly like a printed photo inside a glass frame, but the image doesn't really seem digital either. It's just nice. When my sister visited, she commented that she didn't realize it was a digital display until the picture suddenly changed. (I should note that I have only tried frames from Aura, but Nixplay is another popular brand you might consider.)

Stay Connected

The reason these make great gifts is because of the way photos can be shared. The frame owner can load photos onto their frame directly from their phone using Aura's mobile app. But they can also use the app to add “members” to the frame and invite others to drop photos into their library. So if you give one of these to your parents, you and all your siblings can easily add photos of your own families. They'll show up on mom and dad's frame, hundreds or thousands of miles away. Seeing a new picture pop up is heart-warming. The frame owner can tap the nearly hidden touch bar on the top of the frame to see who added each photo and when. They can also cycle through the album to see specific photos, and mark their favorite photos by giving them a heart. Aura's frames don't require much effort to set up, and the app is easy to navigate, so even the most novice techie can figure it out.

Now you might be thinking: "Why would I spend money on a digital picture frame when I could buy something cooler like a smart display that has more features?" Some of my colleagues asked the same question. It's true, these frames are more expensive than most smart displays. The two models I tried from Aura are $200, and Nixplay frames cost the same or more. Smart displays from Google and Amazon sell for around $100. But there are good reasons to get a dedicated frame, the biggest being aesthetics and privacy.

I have a Google Nest Hub Max display in my kitchen, and it's great for walking me through recipes or listening to music while I cook. I can, of course, also set it up to cycle through my Google Photos albums, or show pictures from photographers around the world. But it's bulky, with a fabric-coasted base, a thick bezel around the screen, and a camera lens on top. It looks like a piece of smart home tech. The Aura Carver sitting on my side table looks like a picture frame. You do have to plug a digital frame into a wall outlet to power it, but you also have to plug in smart displays—my biggest gripe with them, since they would be much more useful if you could carry one around the house. A dedicated picture frame doesn't need to be carried around. It's made to stay put.

Then there's the issue of privacy. I have family members who would love a way to display their digital photos on a countertop, but absolutely do not want to put a device stuffed with microphones and cameras in their homes. They also wouldn't take advantage of the smart features anyway, since they require talking to a voice assistant tied to a Google ID. Maybe they also don't want to be forced to use Google Photos since they already have all their photos stashed on their iPhone. Digital photo frames work with any phone—iPhone or Android—and they don't try to wiggle their way into other parts of your digital lives. Beyond a phone stuffed with photos, the only requirement is a Wi-Fi connection in the home. (And you can follow these tips to keep your network safe.)

The past year has been challenging, and you probably haven't spent quality time with all the important people in your life. Until we know it's safe to hug and squeeze each other again, here's a great way to keep your memories connected.

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