It’s probably no coincidence that digital photo frames started to feel like junk around 2010. That’s the same year that Apple introduced the iPad, which kicked off a revolution in tablet computers.

Share story

AUSTIN, Texas — The panic had amped up as Christmas got closer and I was far, far away from finishing shopping. So I browsed the online sale emails and clicked like a drowning swimmer reaching for a life preserver on email promos that promised mind-blowing sales.

And that’s when I saw it. A deal for an $85 digital photo frame.

I blinked. I squinted. I adjusted the settings on my computer monitor. Digital picture frames, which seemed like they might be the future of displaying photos back in, oh, say 2009, are still a thing?

I checked into the matter. It turns out my first instinct was right. They are no longer a thing, as confirmed by a Consumers Digest article from last year (“Digital Photo Frames: Fading from View”) that succinctly nailed the coffin on a technology that today sounds more like a punchline than a good gift idea.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Why did this once-promising technology turn into a bargain-bin relic?

I have some thoughts:

Digital photo frames were before their time.

People were using digital cameras and snapping photos with their phones back in 2008-2010, but they were typically low-res photos that didn’t look great blown up for picture frames and were not easy to transfer. Remember, this was before Facebook was a popular place to store photos, before wirelessly syncing photos across all devices was possible, and before social networks like Instagram turned everyone into artsy digital photographers.

Digital photo frames were a hassle to set up.

The generation of digital photo frames available at the peak of their popularity often looked lovely on the outside, but had terrible software. I say that as someone who gave digital photo frames as gifts, then watched relatives struggle to get photos loaded or to get them to display properly. Based on a Wall Street Journal story this year detailing how to fix common digital photo-frame problems, they’re still far from perfect to operate.

There were no photo frames from Apple, Instagram or Google.

Design and consistency matter in consumer tech. With menus designed by companies such as Kodak and Viewsonic instead of, say, Apple, it’s no wonder photo frames were hard to operate. And there’s never been any kind of standard operating system across photo frames, so buying a new photo frame different from ones you already owned would mean learning a whole new set up for operating them.

The Instacube fiasco.

One of the best Kickstarter ideas I’ve ever seen was Instacube, a dead-simple cube frame that would display your Instagram feed. The problem is the Kickstarter campaign, which happened in 2012, still hasn’t generated products promised for its backers. It has become a Kickstarter cautionary tale. And what could have popularized a new generation of slick, easy-to-use digital photo frames has instead become an industry joke. The company behind it is selling a $150 product called Cube. Given the track record, it’s hard to recommend that.

A glut of products ruined the market.

The digital photo-frame craze happened so quickly and prices dropped so fast around 2009-2010 that what could have become a mainstream product instead became dominated by unfamiliar brands — Kodak and Polaroid were exceptions — putting out cheap products at cut-rate prices. Digital photo frames didn’t get much better and more sophisticated. And their days were numbered when other products emerged that would serve the same purpose.

Tablets and TV streaming ate their lunch.

It’s probably no coincidence that digital photo frames started to feel like junk around 2010. That’s the same year Apple introduced the iPad, which kicked off a revolution in tablet computers. Tablets could easily display photos, were much more portable than digital frames (which typically required being plugged in or standard batteries), and had Internet capabilities for sharing and downloading. Since then, devices like Apple TV and Chromecast have also made it easier to display photos on a big, HD screen. Why settle for a 5-by-7 photo frame when you can show family snapshots on a 55-inch TV?

Bad timing. They’re still around, but if you’re considering buying one, give it some serious thought. And maybe keep shopping.