Friday, July 4, 2008

Merkury Wireless Digital Photo Frame

For my father-in-law's 60th birthday, my wife and I wanted to get him a digital photo frame, but because we wanted to be able to update the pictures remotely, in real time, we wanted a wireless frame as well. Our preference would have been one of the Momento frames, but because we'd procrastinated, ordering from Amazon would have taken too long, so we stopped by the local Fry's instead. Fry's had at least three dozen different frames to choose from, but only one supported wireless, a 15" frame from Merkury Innovations, for a little less than $300. So that's the one we picked.

We unpacked it today and set it up, and I've got mixed reviews.

The picture quality in the LCD is certainly reasonable, though it's not what I'd call wonderful. Once nice feature is that you can get photos onto the frame in a variety of ways. It supports five different kinds of memory cards (SD, MMC, MS, XD, CF), USB to your PC, wireless to your PC (it appears as a Windows Media Output Device through Windows Media Player), and wireless to either Flickr or Picasa. We tested all of these modes, and after some troubleshooting managed to get them all to actually work. The frame will play both video and audio files. You can control the delay between pictures in the slide show, the transition effect between each picture, and how photos that don't quite fit the proportions of the frame should be displayed.

The flaws in the device aren't fatal, but they are annoying. We didn't run into any show-stoppers, but some quirks in how the frame is implemented cost us an hour or two of troubleshooting.

The frame's WiFi is implemented in a dirt-cheap fashion, through a USB wifi card (included) that you plug into the frame through a host USB connector at the top. This has the unpleasant side-effect of ruining the frame's aesthetics, as the USB card then sticks out several inches above the frame itself.

I also ran into a number of problems trying to get the frame to connect either to my father-in-law's wi-fi network, or to my laptop. It turns out that (a) the frame can only deal with talking to or being one USB device at a time (you can't have it plugged into your PC and have the wifi USB card active simultaneously), and (b) you have to connect the memory card or USB wifi card to the frame before you turn the frame on. To Merkury's credit, both of these caveats are mentioned in the documentation, but both limitations are still a little odd these days. I believe that if you have to read the documentation for a consumer product, something has gone wrong. After downloading a bunch of pictures from my laptop to a card in the device, I also had to reboot the frame before it would see the new pictures. Apparently it scans the cards at startup, and never again.

Being able to access photo feeds through, say, Picasa is pretty cool, and it does work: but it would be nice if the frame supported generic RSS feeds as well, instead of just Picasa or Flickr. So far as I can tell, the frame loads Picasa's RSS once, and then doesn't touch it again until you manually tell the frame to refresh: it would be nice to have the frame reflect changes in a Picasa album in something like real time. In addition, if the frame loses power, it doesn't automatically reconnect to the RSS feed: you have to tell it to do so, and then wait while it does: about a five minute process. It would also be nice if Merkury had a website (like Momento supposedly does) which would allow you to combine RSS feeds from multiple locations, and control the pictures through that site. It would be much easier than navigating through the Picasa RSS feeds on the frame itself.

This leads me to my next point: as you'd have to imagine, the UI on Merkury's frame is pretty clunky: you control it through a tiny little remote that you'd better make sure to never lose. You can navigate through picture folders, etc., but even though the pictures are stacked in rows and columns, you can only navigate left and right from a given picture, not up to the one above it or down to the one below it, and you also can't move from page to page, except by moving right, right, right, right… to the last picture on the page, and then click "right" one more time to move to the next picture/page. Uggh. Ideally, you should also have a UI to control the frame from your local computer, perhaps implemented as an admin web site on the frame itself (kind of like how all routers these days come with web-based admin tools).

Merkury's website is hopeless. It doesn't even have this product listed, and doesn't have, say, firmware updates or anything else that would be helpful. The documentation that comes with the frame is acceptable, but it's written in the techno-Japanese English that we're all familiar with; a typical example looks something like this (all the misplaced commas, etc. are in the original):

On Computer, in the submenu of Library ,click "Add to Library",a window of "Add to Library" will display ,click "Advanced Option", then click "Add" to add picture/music/video files to Windows Media Player ,after adding the desired files ,click "Ok".

On the whole, it works. On the whole, Merkury has more work to do.

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