One of the top-selling computer products of 2007 wasprepare for a shockthe digital photo frame. Market researchers estimate about 6 million were sold last year, a huge leap from 1.7 million in 2006. They predict sales of 9 million this year.

Why are millions of people flocking to them?

Mainly because they make great presents. The majority of digital frames are purchased as gifts, according to market research firm Parks Associates.

That doesn’t surprise me. My wife and I were among the millions who bought one for this very reason last Christmas. We purchased it as a joint gift with her brother and sister-in-law, who came up with the idea of getting one for my wife’s parents. A photo frame is one of those products you don’t want too badly for yourself, but think your parents or grandparents will love.

I bet the conversation that took place in our home last fall was echoed in millions of others. “Hey, why don’t we get your mom and dad one of those picture frame things that show digital pictures? That way they can look at pictures of their grandkids all the time!” If the exploding sales of digital frames proves anything, it’s that there’s no shortage of parents who believe grandma and grandpa will never tire of gazing at a rotating assortment of their kids’ photos.

This may be true, but the frames themselves don’t always live up to expectations.

My father-in-law tried to hide his disappointment on Christmas Day when we hooked up his new 7-inch digital frame next to my 24-inch flat-panel computer monitor. Other than the obvious size difference, the resolution wasn’t even close. His frame had a paltry 480 x 234 display, making photos appear grainy and fuzzy. It was no match for the 1900 x 1200 razor-sharp pixels on my screen.

I later learned my in-laws quietly returned the photo frame we bought them, trading it in for a higher-resolution model that cost twice as much. (Being the techie in the family, I wanted to buy them a more expensive model to begin with, but was outvoted.)

The contrast and brightness of their little frame also left a lot to be desired, demonstrating that it pays to look at a model’s specs before you buy. Most digital frames have a contrast ratio of 400:1 or 500:1. Don’t settle for less. As for resolution, forget anything below 640 x 480. High-resolution is especially important if you buy a large frame, say 10-inches or bigger. If the box doesn’t specify a resolution, move on. (To sample the variety of models now available, check out all 83 frames sold on Newegg.com.)

But trust your eyes more than the specs. Find a store that has its floor models turned on and loaded with images so you can judge screen quality before you buy. The price tag will also tell you something. Don’t expect greatness from a $75 frame.

One promising trend: digital frames are getting bigger. One company, PhotoVu, offers three models ranging from 19 to 22 inches. But with prices for larger frames in the $800 to $1000 range, they cost far more than most people (read: I) want to spend. You can buy a same-sized computer display for two to three times less.

Until digital photo frames improve and prices drop, I’m sticking with my 24-inch LCD monitor for showing off family photos at home. I can’t put it in my living room, but no electronic frame can hold a candle to a high-end computer display. <John Swenson>

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