Samsung's premium digital photo frame offering tries to be everything to everybody but falls short of our recommendation. The top-notch screen and feature set are let down by an unrefined user interface, overly sensitive touch controls, and lack of video and Mac support.
Possessing the largest LCD of any digital photo frame in its class, the widescreen Samsung SPF-105P 10" Photo Frame is truly a gorgeous gadget for shutterbugs or photo buffs. From the high contrast, high resolution screen with bezel mounted touch controls to the extremely long feature set including USB monitor functionality and 1GB of built-in memory, this beast packs a ton of tech into its sleek and stylish case. Read on to find out if the Samsung photo frame can live up to its promises.
The Samsung SPF-105P 10" Photo Frame is simply a gorgeous piece of kit. Lifting the photo frame out of its stylish box gives the immediate impression of heft and quality. My review sample had the glossy black bezel with 1024x600 widescreen, high contrast LCD. On closer inspection, the front bezel contains faint circular patterns silkscreened in a matte black paint for a really attractive shiny but glare-free LCD surround. The stand, a simple single leg that attaches to by pressing its ball-joint end into the rubber socket on the back of the frame, provides a solid and adjustable support for the device in either a vertical or landscape orientation (landscape recommended).
The Samsung SPF-105P 10" Photo Frame.
Perhaps the only questionable design element of the product is the back of the frame itself - with floral patterns molded into the plastic casing, one wonders why the design team went to the trouble. Plugging in the power adapter and pressing the power button on the back of the unit brings instant gratification. The "Starlight" touch panel gradually appears on the right bezel, and the frame starts playing its preloaded slide show with music.
Here's the back of the Samsung photo frame and its detachable stand.
A headphone jack and one of the stereo speakers are on the right side of the Samsung photo frame.
One can't help but be struck by the quality of the Samsung LCD panel contained within that shiny frame. Those of you who have been turned off by the washed out look of competitor's photo frames at your local electronics retailers, rejoice. This screen compares well with any modern desktop LCD in color, viewing angle, brightness and contrast. It's simply the best screen I've seen in a photo frame. By default, the frame ships with the brightness cranked up to 70 - probably to make images "pop", but I found it was a bit high. Blacks, as typical for LCD panels, were not perfectly black, but in comparing the photo frame to my Samsung 22 inch SyncMaster LCD, I found the color reproduction very comparable. The photo frame has a matte coating on the surface of its LCD for good anti-glare performance. In my opinion, this combines well with the glossy bezel to give the impression of sharpness and clarity, while actually delivering in real world use.
The Starlight touch panel falls easily to hand and appears out of nowhere with the lightest touch of the right side of the frame.
While attractively backlit in white LEDs, the touch panel is an ergonomic disaster. It is supposed to be touch sensitive, but is actually far too sensitive, so any finger hovering over the controls results in errant button presses. Even worse, the act of moving your finger to press a button triggers the press as your finger approaches the bezel, then as you actually touch the button, a second press occurs. If you move your finger away too slowly, or again hover close after you press the button, you get a third press! I found the most reliable way to get only one press was to act as though the buttons were on fire: a quick "poking" action to avoid being burned.
Once you are able to work the buttons to navigate the menus, you come to eventually figure out the important icons: Menu, Enter, Back and Play. The button icons don't make their function immediately obvious. The problem is further compounded by a useless user manual. You'll need to install the included software to get the detailed electronic version of the manual which helps a bit in understanding what each button does.
After you insert a flash card and agree to the prompt that appears on the display, you'll be able to browse the photos on your card.
Memory Memory Everywhere
The majority of digital camera users will be satisfied to find a CompactFlash, SD and Memory Stick slot on the side of the SPF-105P 10" Photo Frame. Inserting a memory card brings up a prompt to either copy the photos to internal memory, or to play the photos directly from the memory card. There is also a Type-A USB port, for connecting flash drives or other USB mass storage devices loaded with pictures.
Here's the CompactFlash slot.
When the photo frame is plugged into the PC using its mini USB port and included cable, the photo frame is mounted as a mass storage device with 1GB memory. Memory Stick and USB devices also mount and are accessible to read/write as regular flash memory devices. Strangely, when I plugged in a Memory Stick, CompactFlash card and USB flash drive, the CompactFlash drive did not show up in Windows. Thus, the "card reader" functionality seems a bit compromised, or at least inconsistent.
Rest of the ports including USB is located along with one of the stereo speakers on the left recessed side of the frame.
The frame allows a limited amount of file management with its connected flash media - copying files to and from internal memory, and deleting images one by one or all at once.
Functionality & User Experience
It's hard to write on too long about this product without mentioning the excellent 10" LCD panel inside. Resolution at 1024 x 600 is about as good as it gets at this price range - plenty of pixels for detailed images. But what most folks will want to know after hearing that photos look good is how does the slideshow feature work, and is this flagship Samsung photo frame easy to use?
The slideshow function can be activated at any time by pressing the bottom "Play" button. Slideshow options are pretty standard - choose your transitions, slideshow speed, whether you want the photos shuffled or played in order, and whether the clock should be visible or not.
While the slideshow is playing, pressing the "Menu" button brings up a varity of Slideshow options. Here you can see the various effects you can choose for transitions between photos. Watching the transitions is pretty annoying, as a matter of fact, because you can just tell that the photo frame has some pretty weak graphics display hardware inside, and the transitions themselves are pretty elementary and cheesy.
Of great importance is the "Aspect Ratio" submenu. Here, you can select the manner in which the images are scaled (resized) to fit the fixed resolution display. Samsung's descriptions are very confusing, but here I will attempt to explain each function.
Original Fit will scale the image to fit the screen (only if the image is of higher resolution). If the image is not a widescreen image, there will be black bars to the left and right of the image.
Auto Fit will scale the image up or down to best fit the screen (works with images smaller and larger than the photo frame's resolution). If the image is not a widescreen image, there will be black bars on the left and right, same as above.
Fit to Width will scale the image to a width of exactly 1024 pixels. If the image being scaled is a 4:3 or 3:2 image, the top and bottom will be cut off. This option is best if you want to avoid black bars, but you will risk cutting off portions of the picture you may have wanted to keep. I used this option to make my 4:3 images use the entire widescreen without distortion.
Fit to Screen will distort the image to show all of the image within the available photo frame screen resolution. This means a 4:3 image will get stretched to fit the widescreen format. Faces and people will end up looking widened and strange. No black bars will be present.
The aspect ratio menu...
It would have been nice for Samsung to put some additional smarts into the frame so that all photos don't get treated equally. For example, Fit to Width works well in most cases, except for portrait orientation images, where so much of the picture gets cut off. And for a mix of widescreen and standard aspect ratio photos, there could be a better option available for maximizing the use of the screen.
The real problem I have with all of these options for scaling and sizing the photos is the aspect ratio of the screen. 1024 x 600 pixels sounds luxurious, and it is, but it's a strange 15:9 ratio similar to other widescreen photo frames. 16:9 or 16:10 would have been nice, Samsung. 16:9 wide images will still have a black bar above and below - the only way to maximize the use of the screen is to custom crop your images.
16:9 photos have a thick black border top and bottom.
4:3 photos have a big chunk of black border left and right.
Samsung should bundle software that would provide an easy way for users to crop their images to match the aspect ratio of the photo frame. For true photo buffs, this may not be a problem because they would have the tools anyway, but for everyone else, it means that photos from their digital camera will always be presented with black bars on the sides of the photo frame. In order to truly maximize the screen resolution, users would have to manually crop and scale their images to 1024 x 600 before copying to the photo frame. I suspect not many users will have the patience to do this. Photo frames really need to be a standard aspect ratio until more digital cameras support wide format photographs.
The inconsistency between the attractiveness of the main screen or the clock and calendar display and the retro, hierarchical menu system that appears when flash media is inserted, or in slideshow mode makes using the photo frame feel somewhat awkward. Some menus even have grammatical errors that are probably the result of poor translation. It looks like two totally different software teams wrote the code and some third party hastily merged them together to rush the product out the door.
A Calendar and Clock function are included, along with a basic Alarm. Clock and Calendar are shown above.
Background music can be played through either the photo frame's built-in stereo speakers, which sound surprisingly good, or Samsung has thoughtfully provided a headphone jack for connection to a headset or audio system. MP3 support is included, so you can play them off the internal memory, or flash media. However, at its premium price point, there should be more support for different file formats: AAC and WMA are not supported, nor is video playback of any kind. In my opinion, a gorgeous multimedia device such as this should really be the ultimate (portable) display for the content that is normally available from your computer, mobile phone, or digital camera.
The photo frame has a built-in Li-Ion battery, good for up to 60 minutes of slideshow use with music. I was not able to get that much runtime out of my eval unit. 45 minutes was tops before the screen blinked the low battery warning, and a few minutes later turned off.
If wireless access to your picture files is most important to you, Samsung makes a model called the SPF-105V that substitutes 802.11b/g wireless for the 1GB of internal memory, and makes do with only 64MB of internal storage. The SPF-105V also supports steaming access to weather, news, sports and hundreds of other content subjects over Wi-Fi. With its large 1GB internal memory, Samsung claims that 10,000 images can be stored in the frame. I did not test this claim, but that would mean each image would be around 100K. The frame does provide the option to resize images as they are copied from your flash media to the frame's memory.
Photo Frame as UbiSync USB Monitor
One of the more innovative features of this latest generation photo frame from Samsung is the UbiSync feature, which allows the photo frame to act as a secondary monitor. Once the simple installation is performed from the included CD, the Display Properties control panel allows you to arrange the monitors as you would any normal multiple display configuration. Resolution scaling is not supported, so only the native 1024 x 600 is available.
See how clean my desktop is without MSN, Yahoo! widgets, stock tickers cluttering up my 22" widescreen.
Having a small secondary (or third) monitor to expand your workspace is a surprisingly good way to increase productivity. With so many apps that run in the background all day long, your screen real estate can really get eaten up with messenger windows, widgets for stock prices or weather, etc, leaving precious little space left for your real work. While you have probably learned to minimize windows not often used, it's far more productive to be able to glance over to get a quick status rather than moving windows around all the time.
Because Windows treats the UbiSync-enabled photo frame as any regular monitor, specific windows, such as a photo slideshow, can be fed straight to the photo frame and serve as a dedicated slide show display. Or, it could be used to display full-screen video. I was impressed that video played seamlessly, and looked as good on the photo frame as it did on a regular LCD monitor (albeit a tad smaller). The video driver must know that the delay for a UbiSync screen and a normal monitor is not the same, as a video window located to span half in the photo frame and half in the main monitor shows only black, no video.
If you aren't familiar with multi-monitor setup, you can drag the secondary monitor icon (labelled '2' in this case) to a position that represents how you want to move items from the main screen to the Samsung photo frame.
There's one caveat: UbiSync USB monitor only works on Windows. Although it is likely based on DisplayLink video technology, the Mac drivers available from DisplayLink did not work, but then nowhere on DisplayLink's website did it say that the Samsung photo frames with UbiSync were supported. Mac support would likely allow iPhoto slideshows on the sidekick display, along with being an excellent place to put the Mac Widgets that take up precious desktop on the main monitor.
Large, high resolution LCD
Excellent viewing angle, color, and contrast
Sleek, attractive design with touch panel
1GB on-board memory
Includes built-in Li-Ion battery for cordless operation
Built-in speakers for music playback
USB monitor feature
Reasonable price for the high-end features
Can't play videos
Only MP3 support, no WMA nor AAC
Clunky user interface
Touch panel controls far too sensitive
USB monitor function Windows-only
No ambient light sensor
Auto orientation would be desirable
Sparse user manual
All in all, the Samsung SPF-105P 10" Photo Frame is worthy of its asking price and place at the top of the premium digital photo frame market. While the beautiful widescreen LCD will draw you in and the vast feature set will keep you interested, we just wish that Samsung could have paid as much attention to the user experience as it did with the product styling. This gem requires patience to operate and set up just so. But if you take the time to learn the menus, and can tolerate its quirky nature, this beauty will dazzle you and your friends - just keep them away from the fancy Starlight touch controls and menu system - their ornary nature and poor grammar should stay your little secret.