The other day at a trade show, a reader accosted me. "I can’t believe you gave speech-recognition software a good review," he scolded. "I had an awful experience with it! I wound up sticking it in a drawer."
I was surprised. "You’re kidding," I said. "When was this?"
"Around 1994," he replied.
The point, dear anecdote aficionados, is that in technology, things change. Every fast, slick and successful product today has a crude, expensive and annoying ancestor.
Take digital picture frames. A few years ago, they were novelty items: small, expensive, with coarse screens. To load pictures onto one, you had to insert your camera’s memory card and fiddle with menus. Today, a lot of those early frames lie in gadget drawers — right beside the speech-recognition headsets.
But over the years, those frames have dropped in price, grown in pixels and evolved in looks. More intriguingly, some have gained wireless antennas, Web connections and even built-in printers. Herewith, a look at seven frames that do a lot more than just show photos.
Each has a remote control, memory-card slots and a USB port (for a USB flash drive or camera); most can play videos as well as slide shows with music. You can wall-mount most of them, but remember that their electronics add a couple of inches to the back panel, so they won’t sit flush. And they have to be plugged to a power source. (For tech specs like resolution, see the table at nytmes.com/tech.)
EMotion with Bluetooth (7 inches, $160, Mediastreet.com). Digital frames measure up to 32 inches diagonally these days, so seven inches isn’t much. But the twist here is this frame’s Bluetooth wireless feature. Open your cell phone or laptop, select its Search for Bluetooth Devices command, and "pair" the phone with the frame.
At this point, you can beam photos to the frame; they’re no longer trapped on your cell phone's tiny 2-inch screen — unless you use Verizon, of course; most of its phones are set to prevent Bluetooth photo-sending.)
The dark wood of the frame is handsome indeed. But the software, the manual and the Web site seem hacked together; unfortunately, that seems to be a consistent failing among the small-time digital-frame operators.
Parrot DF7220 (7 inches, $170, Parrot.com). Good news: this Bluetooth frame is so thin, it hangs flat on the wall. Bad news: the resolution is so coarse (410 x 234 pixels), it’s not such a big improvement over your cell phone's screen.
Kodak EasyShare EX1011 (10 inches, $250, Kodak.com). Now here’s a thought: add Wi-Fi to a frame.
Once it’s on your wireless network, Kodak’s beautiful two-toned black frame can display pictures that sit on a Windows computer elsewhere in the house, provided it’s running Windows Media Player 11. Unfortunately, Macs need not apply.
But here’s the best part: Once you’ve signed up for a free account at Kodakgallery.com and set up some photo albums there, the frame "sees" them immediately and begins a slide show of the albums you select.
This is huge. It means that you can give the frame to a technophobic relative and send photos to the frame from thousands of miles away. The lucky recipients wake up each morning and enjoy the updated photos from your life. (If they’re a bit more ambitious, they can copy their favorites to the frame’s memory, or even connect a printer to the frame.)
All of this is free. That fact will certainly cause teeth-gnashing among those of us who bought Ceiva frames, which offer the same feature for $100 a year.
The one mystifying Kodak quirk is its widescreen display, meaning it’s wider than the squarish shape of most digital photos. At your option, the frame either crops such pictures or adds black letterbox bands; neither is ideal.
EStarling Digital Wireless (8 inches, $250, Seeframe.com). This black acrylic frame not only has Wi-Fi, but also its own e-mail address. As a result, you or your friends can send it pictures from cellphones or computers, any time, anywhere, no charge — a mind-blowing, game-changing feature.
From a dedicated Web site, you can send messages directly to the eStarling’s screen from the road — a good way to catch the eye of a spouse who’s not checking e-mail back home. You can specify when you want it to turn on and off each day to save power.
In addition, you can sign up for "photo feeds"— themed slide shows like New Yorker cartoons, city skyscapes, nature shots and so on — from popular photo sites like Flickr, Picasa, AOL and Photobucket. This frame is not so much a family-photo knickknack as a portal to an external web of visual delights.
Unfortunately, even though this frame is much better than its disastrous first model last year, it’s still flakier than a croissant. Sometimes pictures and messages take forever to show up; sometimes the Web site is unavailable.
My favorite, though, is a message it produced when I tried to send it photos by e-mail: "Snowman.jpg is not a image file, so it had been ingored." Four errors in one sentence: one spelling, two grammar, one factual. That’s quite a feat.
Momento 100 (10.2 inches, $280, Momentolive.com). This frame has a white matte and clear acrylic border, but otherwise, it has a lot in common with the Kodak: Wi-Fi, photo display from a Windows PC, widescreen shape and photo auto-downloading from the Web.
And like the eStarling, it has a Web setup page (formerly $40 a year, now free), a unique e-mail address and the option to subscribe to photo feeds from Flickr, Picasa and so on.
So it’s got the size and reliability of the Kodak, plus the mind-bending online flexibility of the eStarling. The best of both worlds?
Not quite. Photos from the Web arrive on the frame at half size, bizarrely floating in the center surrounded by fat black margins. Why make a 10-inch frame if it displays only 5-inch photos?
Furthermore, the frame has no buttons at all. If you lose the remote (or its battery dies), you have yourself a $280 doorstop. Amazon buyer reviews moan about Wi-Fi networking woes and poor tech support (there is no phone help at all).
PanDigital Wi-Fi Picture Frame (8 inches, $150, pandigital.net). This screen offers both Bluetooth (a dangling external transmitter) and Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, all the Wi-Fi lets you do is download images from Picasa.com — no e-mail, no accessing photos from your PC. Still, the price is right and the photos look great.
SmartParts SP8PRT (8 inches, $280, Smarpartsproducts.com). This baby won’t be available until March, and there’s nothing wireless about it — but wow, will it sell. Hiding behind its dark cherrywood frame is a claim to fame no other frame can name: a tiny built-in dye-sublimation printer.
During a slide show, you can press Stop and then Print on the remote. A 4-x-6 photo sheet rolls into the three-inch-deep back panel four times: once for each primary color, and once for a protective clear coat. The print is ready in 30 seconds, and it looks spectacular.
Each tiny $20 cartridge contains 36 sheets of 4-x-6 paper and enough colored film to print them.
Yes, that’s more expensive for each print than online developers or drugstores. Yes, many inkjet printers also have pop-up screens.
But in electronics, it’s all about convenience and proportions. This frame makes prints without a computer, and unlike regular printers, it’s a frame first; the printing portion is almost invisible.
It’s a shame that these frames are so hampered by slapdash design and terrible tech support, because the ideas behind them are enticing. The standouts are the Kodak, if only because it works right every time; the eStarling and Momento frames, imperfect though they may be; and the SmartParts printer-frame, which is in a category by itself. Compared with its wireless rivals, it’s a one-trick pony — but man, what a trick.
David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: email@example.com.