Digital picture frames cluttered with add-ons

Digital picture frames have quickly gone from expensive technological baubles to cut-rate commodities that you grab on your way out of the store. For not much more than the price of a professionally framed 8-by-10 print, one of these compact LCD screens can show off hundreds of vacation photos.

They can provide an elegant solution to the problem of sharing all the shots you accumulate with a digital camera. But, as I found while testing new models — made by Ceiva Logic, Kodak, Smartparts and Westinghouse Digital — they also can combine the worst traits of computers and electronic gadgets.

Gawking at your latest photos ought to be a vacation from everyday computing, not an addition to it.

As the prices of digital frames have plunged, the devices also have grown more complex as each manufacturer reaches for ways to make its product stand out. The frames read photos saved on a memory card or USB flash drive plugged into the back. Most also can store photos in built-in memory and play music and video. Many come with remote controls and can connect to a home network.

Not all of the add-on features are worth using. A digital picture frame's innards may hide some of the same ingredients as a personal computer, but that doesn't mean it should act like one on the outside.

Consider one of the most common bonus functions on digital frames, the ability to play video. It makes sense: Digital cameras can record short video clips as well as take still pictures. But watching these mini-movies on these frames can be distinctly unpleasant.

Only Kodak's $199.95, 8-inch EX811 acted as you might expect, correctly playing the short clips stored on a USB flash drive and a memory card plugged into the device. On Westinghouse's $199, 10-inch DPF-1021, the clips played back without any sound and at a small fraction of their original speed.

Smartparts' $299.99, 12-inch SPX12 stalled at a screen announcing that its SyncPix software had detected the drive and the card. And Ceiva's $224.99, 8-inch Ceiva Life frame couldn't play video at all.

Music seems almost as important. After all, what's a slide show without a soundtrack? But although both the Kodak and Smartparts frames could play MP3 files, there was no simple way to shuffle the playback of music files accompanying a group of pictures. Result: After hearing U2's "Beautiful Day" repeatedly accompanying every slide show, I'm going to need to take a break from that song.

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