Review: Digital frame shows pictures from phones

NEW YORK - Digital picture frames were a big item last Christmas. This holiday season, there will be an innovation on store shelves: a frame that can receive and display pictures straight from cell phones, (almost) no matter where they are.

It's called the Cameo, and T-Mobile USA is going to sell it for $100. In testing, it worked pretty much as advertised, but there were some hiccups that hopefully will be straightened out before it goes on sale in mid-November.

The usual way to get photos to a digital frame is to copy them to a memory card, then walk over to the frame and insert the card in a slot. Computer geeks call this "Sneakernet," because the information travels as fast as your shoes. You can do this with the Cameo. The cool thing is that it also has a built-in cellular modem, which talks to T-Mobile's wireless network. It even has its own phone number.

That means you can snap a picture on your camera phone, then send it as a picture message straight to the frame. This works, or at least should work, even if you're in Hawaii and the frame is in New Jersey. You can also send pictures to other people's frames, if they've told the frame to allow that.

Though it's the first frame sold in the U.S. that has a cellular modem, it isn't exactly the first one that can receive pictures straight from phones. Some others can connect to the Internet, usually through Wi-Fi. Once connected to your home wireless network, they can receive pictures via e-mail. And many phones can send e-mail with attached pictures.

I also tested one of these Wi-Fi-enabled frames, the $160 CeivaLife from Ceiva Logic Inc. The Cameo was much easier to use. You can feel comfortable sending it off as a present to people who don't use the Internet and don't have a computer. All they need to do is plug it in to a power outlet. They can hang it on the wall or stand it on a table in landscape (wide) or portrait (tall) orientation. The frame figures out which is which and displays the pictures correctly. Then you can send them pictures of the grandkids straight from the phone. As a bonus, the frame has an e-mail address as well, so you can send pictures from a computer.

Despite the convenience, the frame isn't expensive, at least if you look at the upfront cost. At $100, it's cheaper than most photo frames with comparable screens: a 7-inch diagonal and a resolution of 720 by 480 pixels. A lot of frames with those dimensions cost $160, and that's without any connection options expect for Sneakernet.

So let's tackle the downsides, and see how far they tip the scale the other way.

First of all, the cellular connection costs $10 per month. It's billed through T-Mobile, and you need a monthly voice plan with the company to buy the frame (for this reason, the frames will be sold only in T-Mobile's stores). If you're buying the frame for other people, the monthly charge will still show up on your bill, unless your gift recipients are T-Mobile customers, in which case they can transfer the charge to their own bills.

But don't be too discouraged by this monthly fee: it costs almost as much — $100 per year — to keep the rival CeivaLife connected to the Internet, and that appears to be typical for Wi-Fi frames.

On the other hand, if you tire of T-Mobile and want to jump to another carrier, poof goes the Cameo's wireless connection. You can still supply it with new images from the memory card slot.

Then there's the issue of figuring out whether the network has coverage where you want to use the frame. This should be a problem only for a small number of users. The frame doesn't use a sophisticated data network, so anywhere you have voice coverage on T-Mobile should work. But it won't work where your T-Mobile phone roams on another network. If you can't test coverage with a T-Mobile phone before buying, the best way to tackle this will be to buy the frame, then return it if it doesn't work.

Lastly, I had problems sending photos to the frame wirelessly.

Wireless carriers haven't quite worked out how to transfer picture messages between themselves. In my case, this meant that people in Sweden were unable to send pictures to my Cameo frame. This probably applies in other countries as well.

The frame had no problem receiving pictures sent from phones on other U.S. carriers — I tested AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. Surprisingly, it initially wouldn't take pictures from T-Mobile's flagship phone, the brand-new G1, or "Google phone." Also, some photos sent by e-mail to the frame disappeared, or were rejected because they were too big.

According to Parrot SA, the French manufacturer that supplied me with the frame, these problems are not with the frame, but come from the way T-Mobile's network converts the pictures before sending them to the frame, and should be fixable. The problem with the G1 went away after I pointed it out.

Provided the remaining transmission problems are straightened out, the Cameo is a fine product, and should be the top choice if you're a T-Mobile customer shopping for a digital frame. Next year, we'll probably see similar products from other carriers.


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