As noted, we were impressed by how our pictures looked on the frame. The display had a little trouble resolving darker gray backgrounds (we noticed some false contouring), but that's a minor flaw. All in all, the images were very sharp with vibrant, accurate colors. Naturally, the quality of the image onscreen will depend on how good the source photo is.
Turning back to features, aside from the increased number of transition effects, Philips has also thrown in some basic editing capabilities that include image cropping, rotating, and the ability to give your images a black-and-white or sepia tint. There's also a collage mode that allows you to display the same photo on the screen in a variety of sizes with various layouts to choose from. We can understand making a collage out of several images, but we didn't see the appeal in a collage made of single image. However, we liked that we can create labeled albums on the frame that you can then select for slide-show viewing. The built-in clock is also a nice touch--the numbers are nice and big--and we also appreciate that you can set the frame to display reminders, as well as to turn on and off at selected times. One feature that's missing is video support, which would allow you to playback the MPEG-4 videos you shoot with your digital still camera. We're starting to see this feature--along with audio playback--in more frames.
Like the 7FF, the 9FF2M4 has a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery that allows you to place the frame wherever you like--or pass it around--for a little while without being concerned whether it's within reach of a power outlet. Of course, if you want, you can leave it plugged in at all times and not worry about having to recharge it. Depending on the brightness setting--yes, it's adjustable--a fully charged battery offers as much as 60 minutes of operation, which makes the feature less practical.
Our biggest complaint about the 7FF was that the unit wasn't a little more intuitive to navigate right out of the box. Although it didn't take us that long to figure things out, the unit's internal GUI (graphical user interface) could have been a little more user-friendly. Philips seems to have gone out of its way to fix that problem in this next-generation model with a totally redesigned interface. While you'll certainly find some things to nitpick--for example, we did have some trouble going forward and back in the menu at certain points--but the new three-button interface (one is a four-way directional button) is a lot easier to deal with than the multibutton scheme of the 7FF. That said, we suspect that, down the road, Philips may issue a firmware upgrade to correct a couple of bugs--yes, the frame is also firmware-upgradeable--that will make navigation even smoother.
Fans of Ceiva photo frames, which allow you to automatically "push" photos to them via the Internet--a good options for those who want to send regular photo updates to a grandparent or other family members--will note that this model doesn't offer that feature. On the other hand, you won't have to pay a monthly fee to actually use your frame.
In the final analysis, Philips has taken another step forward in the emerging digital frame category with its 9FF2M4 Digital Photo Display. With prices dropping on the older 7FF model, this model won't seem like a bargain, but its improved interface and additional features make it the better choice if you can afford it. As it stands, it's one of best digital photo displays we've encountered, though we do expect to see the competition heat up in 2007 as more established consumer electronics companies jump into the frame fray.
Editor's note: Philips also makes the 7-inch 7FF1M4, which offers many of the features of 9FF2M4 but won't automatically rotate your images and doesn't have as many options for albums and effects.