With a main menu that touts features such as Facebook, Pandora, videos, music, Internet radio, and more, the DreamScreen looks like an antidote to the plague of boring digital photo frames. We applaud the effort, but unfortunately, most of the features aren't worth your time.
Take the videos feature, for example. With today's digital cameras equally adept at shooting both photos and high resolution video, viewing home movies on a capable device with a nice screen seems like a slam dunk. Unfortunately, the DreamScreen supports only MPEG1, MPEG2, MPEG4 (H.264) formats, forsaking the AVI and MOV containers used by many digital cameras, as well as Microsoft's WMV format. The video player is also sensitive to resolution, so any HD files you've transferred from your Flip or similar camcorders are a bust. In short, the DreamScreen doesn't play friendly with many important video formats, and the likelihood of it working with your home movies is slim.
Think you can content yourself with streaming video from your computer over the local network? Think again, because the DreamScreen offers absolutely zero streaming video capabilities. At best, you're watching local video content stored on the 2GB of internal memory or from an attached memory card or USB stick.
Music playback fares better, thanks to support for most popular formats (MP3, AAC, WMA, and WAV) and network-streaming capability. If your music files are stored on the internal memory and include album artwork and other metadata, the DreamScreen will offer a useful view of your music collection sorted by album, artist, or genre, along with artwork thumbnails. If you're loading music from a thumbdrive, however, all files will be shown with generic artwork and sorted strictly by folder/file.
Our favorite way to experience music on the DreamScreen is to use the Pandora Internet radio application. Existing Pandora users can link their accounts to have their favorite personalized stations quickly migrate over, and new users can start from scratch--adding and deleting stations directly on the device. Relatively large album artwork is shown during playback, and you can rate songs with a thumbs-up or -down, or skip songs. The option key offers additional capabilities, such as bookmarking the current song or artist, or pulling up an explanation for why Pandora selected the track. Aside from the fact that track skips take an unusually long 5 seconds before taking effect, the Pandora app is one of the standout features of the DreamScreen.
HP's own SmartRadio Internet radio application is also available, offering a way to tune in a broad range of Internet broadcasts from around the globe. After searching for stations using criteria such as location, genre, keyword, or popularity, you have the option of saving preferred stations to a quick list for easy access. Because of the awkward text input methods outlined in the design section, searching for stations using SmartRadio requires some patience, but the results can be worthwhile if there's a particular Internet broadcast you're fond of. That said, if you have a very specific broadcast that's important for you, the DreamScreen doesn't offer a way to directly input stream URLs (though, if it did, the frustrating onscreen keyboard would probably discourage you from taking advantage of the feature). It's also worth mentioning that podcast support is not offered.
Widgets, such as weather, clock, and calendar, mostly work as you expect, but they still require some patience. The weather app, for example, offers the current conditions along with a four-day outlook, however, it takes a full 13 seconds to load. In the grand scheme of things 13 seconds doesn't sound like much, but it's too long a wait for information you can acquire just as quickly by cracking open a window. The clock app takes only 7 seconds to launch, but doesn't offer much beyond the time and some basic alarms. The same story goes for the calendar, which will tell you the date, but lacks any sort of planner or appointment capabilities.
If you've ever ordered prints of your digital photos using HP's Snapfish service, you can browse those uploaded images using the DreamScreen's Snapfish application. Considering that Snapfish is HP's own service, it's disappointing to see how limited the application is. You can browse images, but there's no option for presenting them as a slideshow, downloading images to local memory, or using photos from Snapfish as part of the DreamScreen's screensaver. It's just a photo browser. Putting aside our opinion that an online browser for Flickr or Picasa would offer a better value to most users, we will note that at least the application works.
The same cannot be said for the DreamScreen's Facebook application, which has apparently been crippled by a change in Facebook's API. We tried logging into our Facebook account directly on the device, as well as using the included HP desktop software, but received only an "Unable to Connect to Facebook" error message. HP has acknowledged the bug, but at the time of this writing, no fix has been offered.
Finally, there's the DreamScreen's photo app. Photos can be loaded onto the DreamScreen one of three ways: connecting the device to your PC using the included USB cable and transferring files manually; inserting memory cards and copying files to the device; or using the included desktop software to transfer files from your computer to the DreamScreen over your local network. Of course, with only 2GB of built-in memory, there's only so many photos the DreamScreen can hold (not to mention music and video). Fortunately, just as with music, you have the option of streaming your collections from any PC on your home network.
Photos can be browsed by Date, Folder, or alphabetically by image name. A slideshow feature allows you to adjust the timing between images (from 5 seconds to 24 hours), the transition effect (16 of them), the image scaling options, and has repeat modes. An option not included, oddly, is the capability of limiting slideshows to specific folders or galleries.
We're sold on the idea of having an inexpensive "third screen" in our home where we can glance weather updates, showcase family photos and videos, listen to music, and check up on our Facebook friends. The HP DreamScreen aspires to fill this niche, but it is a disappointment because of its limited features and sluggish performance.