Digital photo frames are the best gift ever... These are my top picks for 2021

·13 min read

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It's time to free your photos from the tiny confines of your phone. Digital frames have come a long way since the early days. (Photos: Amazon, Aura, Facebook)
It's time to free your photos from the tiny confines of your phone. Digital frames have come a long way since the early days. (Photos: Amazon, Aura, Facebook)

Here's something I'll never understand: We all snap zillions of photos on our phones, but the only place we ever see most of those photos is...on our phones. Don't they deserve a showcase? A shrine, even? Shouldn't you get to see not just a few favorites once in a while but all the precious memories all the time?

Answer: Yes, yes you should. And that's why I'll go to my grave championing digital photo frames, which present a running slideshow on a spacious screen. I can't tell you how much joy my wife and I get from catching glimpses of friends and family, of past vacations and special events. Where a photo album must be hauled out and paged through, a photo frame is full-time. You might notice it as you pass by throughout the day; you might sit and look at it all through breakfast.

However it weaves itself into your life, I consider it an unrivaled source of happiness — and, consequently, a great gift, especially for parents and grandparents.

Read more: Lenovo's Smart Frame puts your digital photos on a 21.9-inch canvas

Let me pause here to note that modern digital photo frames are vastly superior to their first-generation counterparts, most of which were small and expensive and a pain to use. If you ever bought one of those, I understand if it left a bad taste in your mouth. But trust me: They're way better now, and way more affordable.

How to choose a digital photo frame

So which one to buy? There are lots of choices, with prices ranging from around $40 on up to nearly $300. (You can also get super-splurgy if you want something really big; see below.) I've rounded up what I consider the top picks in this category, and I like to think I know what I'm talking about: I've been a photo-frame user for years and have tried lots of different models.

First up, let's identify a few key features and what you'll want to look for:

  • Size: The average photo frame measures about 10 inches diagonally, roughly the same as an entry-level iPad. I'd consider that the minimum size; anything smaller will make it hard to see your photos from a distance. Indeed, when it comes to photo frames, bigger is always better.

  • Resolution: Similarly, the higher the frame's resolution, the sharper your pictures will look. Don't settle for anything lower than 1,280 x 800 pixels; do look for 1,920 x 1,080 or higher if it fits your budget.

  • Aspect ratio: Although most modern phones can snap 1:1 (square) or 16:9 (wide) photos, the default setting tends to be 4:3. Many frames, however, have 16:9 screens, meaning you'll end up with black bars or similar cropping on some pictures. If you want the best chance of filling the screen from edge to edge, look for a frame with a 4:3 aspect ratio.  

  • Wi-Fi: Sure, you can buy a frame for as little as $40, but it won't have Wi-Fi — meaning you'll have to manually add photos via your PC, a memory card or a USB drive. That's a huge hassle and just not worth it; definitely choose a frame that has Wi-Fi so you can easily add photos from your phone (which is where most of them are kept anyway, right?).

  • Storage: Most frames come with at least 16GB of storage, which is enough to hold a couple thousand photos. If you think you'll need more space, look for one that's expandable (usually in the form of an SD or microSD memory card) or offers cloud storage.

  • Dedicated e-mail address: I'm a big fan of this option, which makes it easy for friends and family to send their photos to your frame. Some models use an app for this instead, but then your peeps have to install that app, learn to use it, etc. I like the e-mail option better. Many frames can also directly import pictures from the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Google Photos, so look for that option if you have albums parked there.

  • Smart features: The best frames can be set to go on and off at certain times of day (no sense running them at night when you're sleeping), while others have sensors that detect motion: They'll switch into a low-power standby mode until there's movement nearby. I also recommend frames that will automatically detect if they're positioned vertically or horizontally and adjust the display accordingly.

  • Design: Nearly all these devices look like actual picture frames, which makes them a much nicer addition to your décor than, say, a tablet or smart display (see below). Thus you'll see color options like white, wood grain, stone and even metallic. If you have wall-mount aspirations, though, keep in mind the power cord that'll need to run down (or through) the wall.

  • Subscription: I'm strongly partial to frames that offer full functionality without any kind of subscription. Skylight, for example, makes a very popular model, but limits various features unless you pay for Skylight Plus ($39 per year). Nixplay also has a subscription model, though it feels a lot more optional, adding non-essential perks like extra storage, product discounts and support for multiple frames connected to a single account.

Before we move on to my top picks, let's address the rectangular elephant in the room: The screen you already have.

Dedicated frames vs. tablets and smart screens

Why not use something like this as a digital photo frame? You absolutely can, though many smart displays are on the smaller side and don't make it easy to add new pictures. (Photo: Amazon)
Why not use something like this as a digital photo frame? You absolutely can, though many smart displays are on the smaller side and don't make it easy to add new pictures. (Photo: Amazon)

Yep, I get this question a lot. Why not just use a tablet for this? Or a smart screen? You absolutely can, though be aware of some considerations and limitations.

As noted above, dedicated frames look like real picture frames. A tablet looks like, well, a tablet — not something I'd enjoy seeing propped up on an end table — and it's going to have limited slideshow capabilities. There are apps that can help, so this is worth a try if you've got an old tablet lying around, but be prepared for some hoop-jumping.

Read more: Amazon's $250 Echo Show 15 is a smart display for your wall

As for smart screens, the Amazon Echo Show, Facebook Portal and Google Nest Hub all have photo-slideshow capabilities, and in fact you can set that to be the fallback mode when the screen is idle. For me, the challenge lies in choosing what photos you actually want to display (the default is usually "everything" or "everything in a particular album"), and then figuring out how best to add new photos. Looping in friends and family for the latter can be a struggle.

Still, if you already own one of these devices, by all means give this option a whirl. I remain a fan of the dedicated photo frame, but in the end the goal is to see your snapshots once in a while — and a tablet or smart screen can definitely help you do that.

Best budget photo frame: Jeemayswart 10-inch

You may have trouble pronouncing the brand name, but there's no denying the Jeemayswart photo frame is a solid value. (Photo: Amazon)
You may have trouble pronouncing the brand name, but there's no denying the Jeemayswart photo frame is a solid value. (Photo: Amazon)

Amazon is home to dozens of off-brand photo frames like this one, most of them priced in the $90-$130 range. I've chosen this one as representative of those "generics," the frames that all look pretty much the same and offer similar specs.

Here you've got decent resolution, auto-rotation and expandable storage. To add photos to the frame, you use an app called Frameo, which is available for Android and iOS and admirably easy to use. Invite friends and family to install the app so they can easily send their own photos.

At this writing, the frame was priced at $104.39 for Amazon Prime subscribers ($116 for non-subscribers), with an available $20-off coupon. That makes this one of the better deals I've seen for a frame of this size.

  • Screen size: 10 inches

  • Resolution: 1,200 x 800

  • Storage: 16GB

  • Touch screen: Yes

  • Motion sensor: No

  • Dedicated e-mail address: No

As low as $84.39 with coupon

Best photo frame to give as a gift: Aura Mason Luxe

For razor-sharp images from a decor-friendly frame, look to the Aura Mason Luxe. (Photo: Aura)
For razor-sharp images from a decor-friendly frame, look to the Aura Mason Luxe. (Photo: Aura)

With its 2K-resolution screen, eye-catching grooved frame and unlimited storage, the Aura Mason Luxe is for those who want something really close to a traditional photo frame — but with nearly all the benefits of a digital replacement.

Where it really stands out, however, is with the gifting option: If you're ordering one to give to someone else, you can preload photos and even set it up for use with the recipient's Wi-Fi network. All this works a little differently depending on whether you purchase from Aura proper or a retail partner like Amazon; be sure to read Aura's gifting page to learn more.

From there the Mason Luxe can sync with iCloud and Google Photos, or pull photos from the Aura app. Friends and family can use that app as well, or send photos directly to the frame via e-mail. I wish it had a motion-sensor, but at least you can set sleep timers for off hours. It will automatically shut off when it detects darkness, too.

Interestingly, this is the rare frame that doesn't have a touchscreen. All settings are managed in the app, though there are touch bars embedded on the top and side edges; you swipe these to page through your photos. I thought this weird at first, until I realized it keeps the screen completely free of fingerprints. Smart!

  • Screen size: 9.7 inches

  • Resolution: 2,048 x 1,536

  • Storage: Unlimited (cloud)

  • Touch screen: No

  • Motion sensor: No

  • Dedicated e-mail address: Yes

$249 at Amazon

Best portable photo frame: PhotoSpring 10 Premium

The PhotoSpring 10 Premium can be used without or without its wood frame, but it has one more trick up its sleeve as well: Battery power! (Photo: PhotoSpring)
The PhotoSpring 10 Premium can be used without or without its wood frame, but it has one more trick up its sleeve as well: Battery power! (Photo: PhotoSpring)

Every other frame here must be plugged into an AC outlet. That's true of the PhotoSpring 10 Premium as well, but it can also operate unplugged for three to four hours thanks to its rechargeable battery. That feature could prove handy if, say, you're holding a party somewhere and want a photo slideshow as part of the celebration.

Beyond that, the PhotoSpring is pretty basic — nothing fancy on the resolution or storage side, but notable for making it easy to add photos via e-mail, app or web browser. I also like the three-year warranty; most frames are covered for just one.

  • Screen size: 10 inches

  • Resolution: 1,200 x 800

  • Storage: 16GB

  • Touch screen: Yes

  • Motion sensor: No

  • Dedicated e-mail address: Yes

$169 at Amazon

Best big photo frame: Pix-Star FotoConnect XD

The big kahuna here is Pix-Star's 15-inch frame, which has all the important features (and a reasonable price tag to boot). Only the resolution disappoints. (Photo: Pix-Star)
The big kahuna here is Pix-Star's 15-inch frame, which has all the important features (and a reasonable price tag to boot). Only the resolution disappoints. (Photo: Pix-Star)

Pix-Star's been in the frame game for a long time, and it shows: This model has just about every feature you could want, to say nothing of its expansive, 15-inch display. That's considerably larger than most frames, and I can't overstate how nice it is to have those extra inches.

The FotoConnect XD is also notable for its ability to absorb photos from a huge range of sources: e-mail and your phone, yes, but also Google Photos, Facebook, Instagram, OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox, Flickr and more.

My only issue with this model is screen resolution, which is definitely on the low side at 1,024 x 768. A frame this size should have more pixels, not fewer. But unless you're viewing it up close, you probably won't notice the slightly grainy nature of the photos. (I say that because, as it happens, I own an older 13-inch Pix-Star frame with the same resolution. While I do appreciate the sharpness of higher-resolution frames, I get just as much enjoyment from the Pix-Star.)

  • Screen size: 15 inches

  • Resolution: 1,024 x 768

  • Storage: Unlimited (cloud)

  • Touch screen: Yes

  • Motion sensor: Yes

  • Dedicated e-mail address: Yes

$200 at Amazon

Best photo frame that's also a smart screen: Facebook Portal

If you want a device that's equal parts smart screen and photo frame, the Facebook Portal is a solid choice -- especially when it's on sale for $79. (Photo: Facebook)
If you want a device that's equal parts smart screen and photo frame, the Facebook Portal is a solid choice — especially when it's on sale for $79. (Photo: Facebook)

This was a tough pick, in part because Facebook has made some decidedly icky business decisions in recent years, and in part because I think the Echo Show and Google Nest Hub are better products overall. But the previous-generation Portal has two key points in its favor.

First, it's on sale right now for just $79, an incredibly low price for any 10-inch smart screen. Even if you miss the sale and end up paying more, it's still cheaper than the Echo Show 10 ($249) or Nest Hub Max ($229).

Second, the Portal links directly to your Facebook and Instagram accounts. If you already have lots of photos there, you've got instant access to them. And you can add more from your phone via the Portal app. Meanwhile, the device has Alexa built in, so it integrates nicely with any compatible smart-home gear you might already have.

  • Screen size: 10 inches

  • Resolution: 1,280 x 800

  • Storage: Unlimited (cloud)

  • Touch screen: Yes

  • Motion sensor: Yes

  • Dedicated e-mail address: No

$79 $179 at Amazon

Best splurge frame: Samsung The Frame TV

Samsung's super-popular The Frame TVs are designed to blend seamlessly with your décor, to mount on a wall much like a framed work of art. In fact, when they're not pulling TV duty, they can display world-famous paintings, photography and even — you guessed it — your kids or grandkids. 

That makes these arguably the fanciest photo frames around. And because the screens are so large (The Frame ranges from 32 to 75 inches), you can show multiple pictures at once on a virtual mat background. The effect here is shockingly realistic, and surprisingly cost-effective when you think about it: Instead of paying a framing store hundreds of dollars for a single framed mat-photo collage, here you can swap between dozens of them.

The current-generation models start at $600, but watch for Black Friday sales at Samsung and elsewhere, where there are already discounts as high as $800. Just take note that the actual TV is typically sold with a basic black bezel; if you want a different color or a larger, fancier wood frame, it'll cost you extra.

  • Screen size: 32 inches and up

  • Resolution: 4K

  • Storage: 16GB

  • Touch screen: No

  • Motion sensor: Yes

  • Dedicated e-mail address: No

Starting at $600

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