Shopping for a digital photo frame with Wifi and RSS

I’ve been on the prowl for a digital photo frame for years but have held back bimage ecause of some very fundamental shortcomings.  The two most fundamental being poor screen size (display quality and size) and wifi connectivity.

The past few years, there have been quite a few advancements in digital photo frames features and a dramatic drop in price.  I was really optimistic when shopping for one to give to my parents as a gift for Christmas.  They are always interested in new photos I’ve posted, but aren’t the sorts to keep tabs on Flickr, so I figured a digital photo frame would be perfect for them.

However, in order to truly meet their needs, it would have to be able to subscribe to Flickr directly or to a photo RSS feed.  Since the latter was more likely to find, I was on the prowl for the perfect photo frame for my parents.

I came across the Samsung SPF-85V and based on the specs and reviews I read, I thought I found the perfect photo frame.  It’s touted features:

  1. 8” screen
  2. Windows Live Spaces integration
  3. RSS feed support
  4. Wifi

I had a hell of a time finding one in stock online, and after a few hiccups with backorders at a few merchants (including Amazon), I managed to find one at a local retailer back home in Vancouver.  So I purchased it online, and arranged to have my sister pick it up for me.

Christmas rolled around, and my parents were excited by the gift.  I immediately opened it and started to setup it up for them, and that’s where all the problems started.  However, first a recap of the good stuff.

The packaging and frame build quality were very good.  I was impressed with how solid it felt, and when I first turned it on, I was also impressed with the quality of the screen.  The reviews were spot on – high pixel density, rich colors and the display was reasonably glare resistant without a significant loss in contrast.  All in all, I was happy with the unboxing and build quality of the frame.

The photo frame itself runs some form of Windows, probably Windows CE, and the UI looked like it was just rendering the UI in a web browser control.  While the setup wizard on the frame was straightforward, I struggled a lot with the controls on the frame.  It uses touch sensing buttons located on the bezel instead of physical buttons, and as a result, there is a noticeable lag between button “presses” and a response in the UI.

The frame software enables you to setup the wifi connectivity, which I expected to be imagereally straightforward.  I was mostly right until I found out that while it supports WPA encryption, it amazingly does not support spaces in the WPA passphrase/key! I was left dumbfounded when I encountered this, and refused to believe it.  I spent 15-20 mins on  the web trying to figure out if this was a bug or if there was something else I was missing.  Turns out that this is indeed a shortcoming of the frame, and I was forced to change my parent’s WPA passphrase to remove all the spaces.  Samsung, thanks for reducing the security of my parent’s wireless setup!  Hopefully Samsung releases a firmware update that will fix this horrible bug.

After finally getting wifi setup, I found out I had to finish the configuration on the computer.  It would have been far easier if I was just plugging in physical media like an SD card as the photo source since my setup would have been finished. Plug in the SD card, and bingo, photos would have shown on the frame.  However, since I was planning on using a Flickr RSS photo feed, I would have to use a computer to finish the setup.

Instead of traditional client software that runs on the PC, Samsung actually runs a mini webserver on the photo frame itself which was quite a surprise.  The frame gives you the exact URL to use which includes a specific port number to connect to in order to see the web configuration UI (just it’s IP address and specific port).   At first I couldn’t connect to it despite the frame telling me it had an IP address.  I had to power cycle the frame twice, essentially rebooting it, in order to successfully load the web config.

In the web config, you are given a few different options, but the ones I was most interested in was specifying an web feed. I specifically setup a Flickr photo set to source the frame, and Flickr conveniently provides an RSS feed for every set you create.  I copied and pasted the long URL into the frame’s web config, and after 5 seconds the frame showed the RSS feed as a possible display source.  Cool — Or so I thought.

When I chose the Flickr web feed to be the source on the frame, nothing showed. I got no error, no message and no photos being shown.  I double checked the accuracy of the feed URL and even loaded the feed on my computer to see that it was correct.  Yup, it sure was. (Update (2/3/2009): Bruce pointed out in the comments that the Samsung feed supports RSS feeds, but not ATOM feeds.  Flickr uses the latter).

I quickly realized that the reason the photos weren’t being shown was because Flickr includes more than just the photo in feed.  It includes title and description of the photos, which turns out isn’t compatible with most photo frames.  I expected photo frames that image supported RSS to be smarter about this and be able to parse the RSS feed for the actual XML node containing only the photo. But alas, this isn’t the case.

This threw a wrench into my whole plan, since managing the photos through a Flickr set would have been the most convenient way for me to share photos since Flickr is the way I share photos, period.  Since the photo frame also claimed to have “Windows Live Spaces Integration”, I decided that I would just create a photo album on my Windows Live Space.  Since switching to wordpress nearly a year ago, I only use my Windows Live Space as a mirror for my blog and don’t frequent it that much.  However, updating a single photo album wouldn’t be that much work, and it was for my parents after all.

I went to my Space, and uploaded the 17 photos that I had on Flickr.  During the imageupload, I realized that it was using Windows Live Skydrive for the data store, which could have been confusing if I didn’t already know what SkyDrive was.  Once the upload was complete, I was confused because they didn’t show up in any album. I searched around for it, and the photos appeared to have uploaded, but I couldn’t find any album with the name  I specified at the end of the upload.

I uploaded all the photos for a second time, and this time it worked.  I could see an album now with the name I specified “Photo Frame” (how creative!).  I went back to the Samsung web config and specified the URL to my Space where it told me to enter it.  I went back to the frame, and it showed “Trevin Chow” as a display choice.    After trying to show photos from this newly offered choice, I was foiled again.  No photos were showing and I still had no idea why.  I figured it was due to some changes in how photo albums worked since their last big update.  By this point, I was frustrated like hell, and about to give up.

After a few minutes, I vaguely remembered a conversation I had with a friend and formerWindows Live FrameIt colleague, Cynthia Hagan, about a service she helped build called Windows Live FrameIt.  This service was intended to stream photos to digital photo frames, but at that time, I didn’t dig into the service that deep because I didn’t have any use for it.

I went over to the site, and after signing in with my Windows Live ID, it gave me an option to create a “Collection”.  A Windows Live FrameIt collection is photo set that is an aggregation of photos from any number of sources, including Windows Live Spaces albums and RSS photo feeds.  I specified the RSS feed from the Flickr set I previously created and it was accepted. Okay, so far so good. It also gave me some advanced options in how my collection behaved like how many photos to show and what photos to show (most recent, random, etc). It was cool to see these options at the service level, since this removes any need for the photo frames themselves from having these options natively and allows the Windows Live FrameIt service to add new features (or even fix bugs if they find them).

After finalizing the configuration, I grabbed the RSS URL for my newly created collection and entered it the Samsung web config (yes, again).  I saw the new photo source appear in the frame UI like on my previous attempts with Windows Live Spaces and using the Flickr RSS feed directly.  Keeping my fingers crossed, I selected it as the new display source.  TADA! It worked and images started to show nearly immediately.

Big thumbs up to the Windows Live FrameIt team for creating a relatively obscure service that definitely met my needs.  It might not even be a stretch to say they saved Christmas 🙂

Some conclusions and predictions come out of this stupid ordeal:

  1. Digital photo frames have come a long way, but still have a bit further to go to become a mainstream option for non-techies that want to source photos from something other than a media card you plug directly into the frame.
  2. There needs to be a standard for how photo frames consume web feeds.  It would be nice to get both title and description in the feeds, and photo frames to show it if the user presses a button on the frame.  My parents are now always asking “Where was that photo taken?” when they see photos appear on the frame.
  3. Update 2/3/2009: The Samsung SPF photo frames do not support ATOM feeds, but will only support RSS 2.0 feeds.
  4. Windows Live FrameIt rocks.  If you have a photo frame that supports web feeds, it’s likely that service will hit a homerun for you. Be warned though, the UX won’t be winning any design awards.
  5. With more media being shared on the web, and consumed by non-techies, the demand for wireless photo frames will sky rocket over the next 24 months.
  6. I won’t be buying a photo frame for my own use for at least another 12 months.  While I’d still recommend the Samsung frames, I want something even larger than the largest model they offer (10”).

If you’re in immediate need of a digital photo frame with Wifi and RSS support, I would still recommend the Samsung SPF-85V, or it’s bigger brother the SPF-105V.   Coupled with the Windows Live FrameIt service, you should be able to avoid the same problems I encountered and easily get your frame setup in no time.

Hit me up with any questions in the comments.