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Unsatisfying Displays on Widget Frames From H.P. and Toshiba

Don’t look now, but the world is being taken over by widgets.

HP Dreamscreen
HP
HP Dreamscreen

Widgets are compact, single-purpose programs. One shows the weather. Another, stocks. One might display David Letterman’s daily Top 10 list, or Times headlines, or Twitter updates.

Widgets began life on computer screens (as shareware programs like Konfabulator, then as a built-in feature of Mac OS X and Windows Vista). Then came the Chumby, a cute desktop beanbag with a screen that shows widgets all day. Then Yahoo teamed up with manufacturers to build widgets into TV sets. When you get right down to it, even those 75,000 iPhone apps are widgets.

It didn’t take long for someone to think: “Hey, that Chumby’s a neat idea — but why a bean bag? Why not something people already put on their desks — like a picture frame?”

That’s all the introduction you need for today’s lesson: a case study of two companies’ approaches to the same problem.

In this corner, the DreamScreen from Hewlett-Packard . It’s available in 10- and 13-inch versions for $250 and $300. In that corner, Toshiba’s less attractively named DMF82XKU (8 inches, $180) and DMF102XKU (10 inches, $230). Each can play music, display photos and present widgets — radio, scores, headlines and other Web goodies — wirelessly grabbed from the Internet.

Both are sleek wide-screen displays with a one-inch margin of glossy black; the Toshiba, with its fine transparent acrylic border, looks slightly classier. Each comes with a tiny, cheap plastic remote control whose buttons require considerable force, but you can also summon hidden illuminated touch controls by tapping on either frame. They come in handy when you lose the remote.

Each frame is meant to sit on a desk, but the H.P. can also hang on a wall.

You can load up either frame with photos, videos and unprotected music files by inserting a memory card, a U.S.B. flash drive or a U.S.B. cable connected to a Mac or PC.

Photos look terrific; both frames easily fulfill the primary mission of a digital photo frame, gracefully changing the image once every few seconds, every few hours or every day. (You can even rotate the Toshiba 90 degrees; the image rotates to match.)

But that’s where the similarities end.

Toshiba’s frame lets you subscribe to any of 1,000 widgets at Framechannel.com. It’s a fantastic variety: BBC. Facebook updates. Twitter posts. Favorite sports teams. Concert info. Cartoons. Trivia. Horoscopes. Local traffic. Channel after channel of gorgeous photography. Both the Toshiba frame and the Framechannel.com site, where you load it up, are challenging to figure out. (Incidentally, many other companies sell Framechannel-enabled frames, but the new Toshiba is a good representative of the genre.)

The Toshiba’s software design over all, in fact, is somewhat baffling. It consists of simple lists of text commands, but at least it’s quick and efficient.

The DreamScreen from H.P., on the other hand, has a lush, colorful, icon-driven software design. The company thinks it’s really onto something; a public relations person calls it “a breakthrough new platform.”

Well, that might be pushing it.

The widgets are far more limited than the Toshiba’s; each represents an individual deal made by H.P. (as opposed to Framechannel’s public-bazaar approach). They include Clock, Facebook, Weather and, for Web photos, Snapfish. (Snapfish? Not Flickr?) You can’t add any new ones, although H.P. says that it will, through software updates.

Some of them are handy — especially the Pandora radio widget, which tailors its music selections according to your tastes (you rate each song as it plays). The clock options are beautiful: analog or digital, clock with photo, clock with calendar, clock with foreign-city time and so on.

Others are less impressive. The Calendar, for example, shows a handsome month-view — with nothing on it, and no way to add anything to it. Guess it’s useful if you want to know what day of the week the 23rd falls on.

The speakers are stereo and sound better and richer than the Toshiba’s. The H.P. has a slot on top for the remote; the Toshiba does not. There’s a jack for a wired network, which the Toshiba lacks.

Unfortunately, in terms of polish and design finesse, the DreamScreen might better be called the NightmareScreen.

Over and over again, the software gets in your way. You can’t hear the different alarm sounds as you scroll through them. There’s no indication on the frame that the alarm has been set. The audio and video get out of sync during the frame’s tutorial videos.

On options screens, like the one where you set up your clock, the settings appear in a tall column. If you want to adjust only one of them — Clock Style, the first option — you would think that pressing O.K. on the remote would mean “I’m finished, take me back.” But no. You have to walk all the way down the screen, using the remote’s arrow buttons, past all of the other options, to highlight the O.K. button on the screen, and then press the O.K. button on the remote to “click” that. It’s exhausting.

There’s a dedicated Slideshow button on the remote, so that when a guest drops by, you can get those pictures flowing with one button press, no matter what you’re doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work if what you were doing is the Calendar, the Settings screen, the Clock, and certain other random places.

Meanwhile, there’s no Home button. You either have to hit Back-Back-Back, or stumble upon the tip, in the tutorial videos, that pressing-and-holding the Back button takes you Home. H.P. agrees, in retrospect, that a button for the most frequently visited screen might have been useful.

My favorite bug: you can choose Internet radio stations either by nation of origin or by genre. But the two lists have gotten mixed up in the software. So your choices of music genre are Algeria, Alternative, Ambient, American Samoa and so on.

The frame is dog slow, too. Ten seconds to start up the Clock. Eleven seconds to open Settings. Five seconds every time you want to change widgets, which requires going to the Home screen.

(“We’ve learned that we’ve taxed the processor too much,” says the product manager, Ameerd Karim. He says the company is readying a software patch that may help.)

According to the company, those big, bright, elegant onscreen graphics are what bogs the thing down. Frames like the Toshiba, with its straight-ahead, boring all-text menus, don’t have the speed problem.

But in the end, I finally realized what bugged me most about the DreamScreen. You’re standing directly in front of a beautiful glass screen with a Home screen, inch-tall icons, and finger-size buttons — and then you’re supposed to operate it all using a remote six inches away? It just feels wrong.

H.P. won’t confirm or deny it, but I’ll bet a hundred bucks that the DreamScreen was originally intended to have a touch screen. That theory would also explain those bizarre software designs, like having to walk down a screen full of options to reach the O.K. button. In the touch-screen conception, of course, you’d just tap O.K. with your finger, one step instead of seven.

Somewhere along the line — maybe when the economy crashed? — I’ll bet those plans got shelved to keep the price down. But if the DreamScreen truly is a “platform,” as H.P. says, then maybe there’s hope yet for the Touch DreamScreen.

So there it is: a study in contrasts. One frame where almost no thought was put into the software design, resulting in an infinitely flexible, crude but less expensive machine. And another frame where, in fact, the software design was overthought — resulting in a more limited, sluggish machine with glitches.

Maybe someone should get those two sets of designers together for coffee someday. Yeah — coffee and widgets.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.