Kodak EasyShare EX-811 (Black)
We've had high expectations for Kodak's EX-811 8-inch digital photo frame ever since we got wind that the frame would have built-in wireless connectivity that would allow you to tap into your Windows PC, and more importantly, the Kodak's EasyShare Gallery online photo-sharing service. While the EX-811 is also loaded with features such as MP3 and video playback support, the real key feature is its Kodak Gallery integration, because that takes away the main competitive advantage of Ceiva's photo frames, which incorporate an online component to automatically push images onto your frame. The big difference is that Ceiva's service costs money, while Kodak's is free.
With some wireless photo frames, setup has been arduous, and we've run into trouble trying to connect them to our wireless network. We're happy to report that the setup for the EX-811 went smoothly. You first install the company's EasyShare Gallery software (it's a special version designed for Kodak's wireless photo frames) on your Windows PC, enable Windows Media Player 11 to share media, sign up for a Gallery account if you don't have one already, then fire up the photo frame, and run through the setup for wireless networks. The frame automatically detects nearby available networks and asks you for a security key if you're trying to connect to a secure network. You input the code via a virtual keyboard (we navigated the virtual buttons using the included remote control), and while it's a little tedious, it is a one-time setup.
After you've hooked into your wireless network, the frame will go out and look for compatible streaming devices and find your PC on the network. We tested the frame with a PC running Windows Vista, and everything worked quite well, but you can also run it with Windows XP so long as you've installed Windows Media Player 11. Streaming photos from our test PC to the frame worked flawlessly, and you also have the option of copying photos from your PC to the frame's 128MB of internal memory.
There are 12 slideshow transitions to choose from, and you can create slideshows from specific folders (albums) on your PC or from within the EasyShare Gallery. Additionally, you can share your online Gallery albums with other friends or family members who own one of Kodak's Wi-Fi-enabled frames. In this way, the frame offers similar functionality to Ceiva's subscription-based model. For example, you can designate one online album for sharing with friends and family, continually updating it with photos. After a short setup process, friends and family can then view that album on their frames and choose to copy the images to the frame's internal memory. Those images could then be printed out (you can connect the frame directly to a PictBridge-enabled printer) or transferred to a computer for storage.
You can also stream music (MP3 files) and select video file types from your computer to the frame. Files can be viewed or copied from all major memory card formats, as well as thumbdrives when using the included mini-to-normal-size USB adapter. A couple notes for Mac owners: currently, Kodak doesn't provide an application that allows you to stream photos from your Mac to the frame. However, the frame works on the UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) network protocol, and there are third-party UPnP Mac apps out there such as Twonkyvision MediaServer that are compatible with the frame (the same goes for third-party Windows and Linux-based UPnP media server apps). That said, if all you're interested in doing is streaming your EasyShare Photo Gallery to the frame, you don't have to worry what computer you have, because that functionality only requires an online connection, not a PC.
While wireless connectivity is the EX-811's key feature, it would have a solid feature set even without it (indeed, Kodak makes the step-down SV-811 if you don't need the built-in Wi-Fi). True, there are other frames out there with similar-size screens that offer playback of video and audio files. However, Kodak's done a nice job making the frame's interface easy to use, and while the frame isn't ultraslick looking, it comes in a simple, understated interchangeable black outer frame with a glossy black inner frame, which surrounds the 8-inch diagonal, 7.0 x 4.0-inch wide-screen LCD. Kodak says it will offer a selection of optional faceplates (outer frames) in various colors and textures, but at the time of this writing, pricing hadn't been set.
On the back, you'll find keyhole slots for mounting the frame on a wall, and a tripod mount if you want to set it up on a small tripod stand. The flip-out stand on the back allows you to prop the frame up horizontally--but not vertically--but one of the keyhole slots gives you the option of mounting the frame vertically on a wall with a single screw or picture hook (not included).
The 800x480 display has 128MB of memory built into it. On the side, you'll find slots for Compact Flash, SD, MMC, xD, and Memory Stick memory cards, which gives you the ability to display hundreds or even thousands of photos, as well as play back AVI, MOV, MPEG 1, and MPEG 4 video files, and MP3 audio files. As noted, you can choose to leave the images (or video) on the card or transfer however many will fit into the display's remaining internal memory. Another option is to upload photos from your camera or computer to the display via a USB cable.
When transferring photos to the display's internal memory, some photo frames, including the Philips 9FF2M4, automatically resize the images to the size of the display, reducing their file sizes in the process. However, this model doesn't do that--yet--so if you've shot images at a high resolution, you're going to eat the internal memory up pretty fast (with even snapshot cameras producing images in excess of 3MB per image, you're looking at only storing 40 photos or so on the frame). Of course, if you know you're shooting photos to store on the frame, you could reduce the resolution setting on your camera or, better yet, crop the images yourself before transferring them to the frame.
To test the frame's file playback capabilities, we loaded up an SD card with audio, video, and image files. We had no problem locating the various types using the included small remote control to navigate the menu system. The frame was able to play back the majority of AVI and MPEG 4 files we threw at it, and Kodak says it tried to make sure the frame was able to support video output from most major still cameras (many camera phone video formats are supported as well). Just don't expect the built-in stereo speakers' sound quality to blow you away. It's passable, but the EX-811 isn't designed to be a tabletop stereo.
As for the remote, it's one of the better ones we've seen ship with a photo frame, with clearly labeled buttons that activate key functions (there's a set of buttons on the top of the frame itself, but it's much more convenient to control the frame with the remote). We also appreciated that Kodak includes a plastic remote holder that snaps into the keyhole slots on the back of the frame (so long as you aren't using them for mounting purposes). Since the remote is small, it's good to have a place to store it when you're not using it so you won't misplace it. We should note that you have to point the remote directly at the IR sensor on the frame at fairly close range (within five feet or so) to get it to respond to your button pushes.
As for picture quality, we didn't have any major complaints. Images appear sharp and detailed with accurate colors and only a little stair-stepping in images where there are curved lines, such as the outline of a person's shoulder. In other words, those lines may not be totally smooth curves, but they aren't clearly jagged either (the "jaggie" phenomenon is due to lack of pixel density).
As noted, the display is a wide-screen LCD, with a resolution of 800 x 480. While some cameras can now offer a setting that allows you to take wide-screen pictures, most cameras still serve up 4:3 images that would fit perfectly on a 640 x 480 display. When you go up to 800 x 480, the display ends up cropping some of the image. Kodak claims its frame does this with utmost care to preserve as much of your original photo as possible, but inevitably some of it will be missing. You can choose to display your photo in native 4:3 aspect ratio with black bars on either side of the photo, but most people will find it preferable to fill the screen with their images, even if it means losing a little bit of the image (sometimes, of course, a little cropping is good).
In the final analysis, we were pretty impressed with the EX-811. While it may not be ultrastylish looking and may have a few minor flaws, it's got a strong feature set and offers good image quality. Obviously, its key competitive advantage is its online integration with EasyShare Gallery, but it also doesn't hurt that Kodak's done a good job making it easy to set up the frame to work with your wireless network and interact with your PC--as well as your EasyShare Gallery. Hopefully, with its next firmware update (yes, the frame is firmware-upgradable), the company will fix the issue of automatically resizing the images to fit the frame when copying photos to internal memory. If Kodak adds this feature, we'd feel comfortable awarding the frame an Editors' Choice.
Editor's note: Along with this 8-inch model, Kodak also makes a 10-inch Wi-Fi-enabled frame, the EX-1011 model, as well as two models without wireless connectivity, the 8-inch SV-811, and 7-inch SV-710