Friends and Family Have a New Way to Just Drop In

Digital-picture frames have started to take off as a way for people to show off their stashes of digital photos in rotating slide shows. A growing number of frames even connect to wireless home networks so they can easily be refreshed with photos stored online and on PCs.

But keeping those types of digital-photo frames up-to-date with new pictures demands more technical skill than many parents and grandparents are likely to have. It requires, for example, rudimentary knowledge of how to configure a home Wi-Fi network or shuttle storage cards between a frame and a digital camera. Still, digital frames are a great way to keep generations in touch with, say, a far-flung child’s latest ballet recital or a football game.

Just in time for the holidays, the wireless carrier T-Mobile is selling a digital-photo frame that makes it easy to set up and to keep fresh. While I found the Cameo excels in its simplicity, it comes with a number of annoying drawbacks and a pricing model that will limit its appeal. It sells for a reasonable $99.99 in T-Mobile stores, but carries a hefty $9.99 monthly fee.

Still, Cameo is an exciting first edition of a product.

First, its strengths. The picture frame is as easy to operate as a cellphone, containing some of the same technical innards of a wireless handset. And each Cameo has a unique phone number, just like a cellphone, that lets anyone who knows the number to “dial” it up — sending messages containing digital photographs instead of voice calls.

Setting up Cameo is as easy as taking it out of a box, screwing a stick into the back to prop up the frame and plugging it into an electrical outlet. The Cameo has a seven-inch color display and one of the more attractive borders I’ve seen on a digital photo frame: imitation black leather with white stitching.

Users themselves can manually load images onto the frame from a PC by connecting it through a USB cable or by inserting a miniature storage card from a digital camera.

Cameo can receive pictures wirelessly two ways. The owner of the frame hands out the Cameo’s phone number to friends and family members, who then send pictures to the frame that were taken with the cameras standard on most modern cellphones. This method uses MMS, or multimedia messaging service, a communications standard normally used to share pictures and other media between cellphones.

Cameo owners also can give out an email address for their picture frames that is based on their Cameo’s phone number, allowing people to email images that they’ve downloaded to their computers from digital cameras.

The first time the frame receives a picture from an email address or phone number, Cameo asks the frame owner to push a button on the back of the frame to place the sender on an approved list. After that, all images from the approved source appear automatically on the frame — a method that at least keeps random people’s photos from popping up in grandma’s living room.

There’s a wonderful unpredictability to how Cameo works. Imagine all of the kids and grandkids in a sprawling family room in different locations being able to send snapshots to each other. This is possible now with photo-sharing sites like Flickr, but those typically require going to a Web site. Images on a Cameo just show up without warning on your kitchen countertop, living room or office desk.

I handed out my Cameo number to some colleagues and was delighted when their cameraphone pictures began trickling into my frame, including a shot of the New York neighborhood in which one of them lives, and an image of another colleague ice skating.

The Cameo’s screen, featuring 720×480 pixels, isn’t the highest-resolution digital photo frame on the market, but the pictures looked fine to me. You can do a slide show for any number of images, chose a fade-out or other transition, change the order of the photos and alter the display speed — holding a single image for up to an hour.

Unfortunately, the frame has a skimpy 64 megabytes of memory, and storage capacity isn’t expandable. There is enough room for only about 200 photos at maximum size. Once it’s full, you have to make room by manually deleting photos.

Another problem is that the frame currently is available only to existing T-Mobile cellular subscribers.

By far, the biggest turnoff is the monthly fee for the cellular service that delivers the pictures to the frame. There’s no limit on how many pictures can be sent to a Cameo under T-Mobile’s cellular plan, but $120 a year is a steep price.

The carrier says it will consider other pricing options in the future. Until it does, it’s going to be tough for most people to buy the Cameo, even for a beloved family member.

Walt Mossberg is on vacation.

Write to Nick Wingfield at nick.wingfield@wsj.com


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