No, digital picture frames are not dead -- in fact, this one is insanely cool

We look at a surprisingly excellent cloud-enabled picture frame, and as a bonus, a robotic vacuum cleaner.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

The Meural Canvas. Image: Meural.

I'm about to tell you about a product that's much cooler than I ever expected. Here's how it all started.

A few months ago, I got a call from a Discovery Series supporter at Wellbots, with whom I've been working for awhile. Wellbots is the company who has kindly been supplying me with drones for my new Drone and Robotics Discovery Series.

Anyway, he calls me and tells me he's got this digital picture frame he thinks I might like. I'm not sold. I am also surprised, because this has nothing to do with drones or robots. I said, "Seriously, a picture frame? What am I going to do with a picture frame?"

He says, "You put it on your wall."

"Yeah," I say, "Weren't digital picture frames a thing for about a minute in 1997? There's nothing to write about here. No one, including me, cares."

He responds, "Trust me. It's cool. Try it."

I didn't agree, but I promised to ask my wife. If it's going up on a wall in the house, its only fair that she sign off on it. I asked her, and she asked questions I hadn't thought to ask. Things like how big is it, and what does it do? Why does he think it's cool?

That's when I started to look into the Meural Canvas. It's basically a picture frame with a 27-inch LCD monitor inside. But it's very much more than that. The key is that it's app- and internet-enabled.

Here's what caught my wife's eye. The Meural has its own art library with a whole lot of beautiful images, both from classic artists and modern designers. The idea of having ever-changing art on the wall -- that's not just from our own collection of snapshots -- really intrigued her.

So, fine. I agreed to let the company send me one of their frames. And, okay, well, it's awesome. Seriously. This is cool.

It can hang either in portrait or landscape mode. You can switch the orientation, but that does entail lifting the 20 pound frame off the wall, turning it, and setting it back down on the mounting bracket. Not much work, but not something you'd do each day just because the mood strikes you.

We hung ours in landscape mode. The frame is attractive. We got a white one, called the Canvas. The image quality is very good on the screen. It's clear and crisp, but not shiny. You can see it from a relatively wide angle.

It has an automatic brightness setting, so as the room gets dimmer, so does the image. This makes it feel much more like art, and much less like you're hanging a monitor on the wall. It also has a very welcome setting that shuts the screen off when the room goes dark.

You connect the frame to your Wi-Fi network and to an app on the phone. There's also a Web site. Here's where things get interesting.

Meural has an excellent library of images. You can create playlists, or just load one image at a time onto the frame. We found ourselves really grooving on using Meural's library and changing up our art style on a daily basis.

After about a month, we had created a bunch of different playlists, and set the Meural to play one or another playlist, changing images every fifteen minutes or so.

I do have one criticism of the Meural: the power cord. For some reason, the power cord is just barely long enough to reach the floor from the frame, and it has a big brick at the end.

That means that even if you decided to run the cord behind the wall to hide it, managing the power connection is a pain. Meural needs to make the cord longer. It's my only criticism.

The short cord doesn't defeat the the benefits of the product by any means, but it's one of those product management bafflements we sometimes run into with tech products.

Being able to change art means you can almost instantly change the mood of a room. I can't stress enough how cool it is to have ever-changing art on your wall. I had no idea. I thought I'd completely not care, and, instead, it's become a favorite feature in our house.

At $600-700 (depending on frame style), the Meural is not inexpensive. But it's less expensive than many art pieces you might buy, and it provides a nearly infinite array of possibilities. If you want to give yourself or your family a really special gift, this would be something worth giving.

The one about the vacuum cleaner

To understand the odd plot twist this story is about to take, you need to know that my wife and I recently moved to Oregon. For the month of October, she was back in Florida packing our old house, while I was working here in Oregon. My little dog and I were bacheloring it without adult supervision for the entire month.

That meant a month of cheese steaks, pizza, authoring white papers, creating PowerPoints, writing articles, and binge-watching Stargate Atlantis. Yep, I'm that exciting when left to my own devices.

About two weeks into the month, the same guy sends me an email: "I'm sending you a vacuum cleaner to review."

Okay. That's not a sentence I expected to read. "Why are you sending me a vacuum cleaner?" I write back.

"Well, you told me your wife was away. This way, when your wife gets back, your place doesn't look like it probably looks right now," he says.

I washed my... well, I threw out my paper plates... at least once a week. The floors were fine. Yeah, there was some dog hair and maybe some dirt got tracked in from my walks with puppy, but... Oh, who the heck am I kidding? I didn't even notice the floors.

He's probably right. I probably should vacuum. "We have a vacuum," I email back.

He replies right away with, "Are you going to use it? The one I'm sending is robotic and does it automatically."

I'm quite familiar with the Roomba. I recently covered their data gathering practices and their CEO's promise that Roomba would never spy on customers. But I didn't want to set up a Roomba. Besides, we had a vacuum cleaner.

Which I was certainly planning to use. Really, I was. Whether that would ever happen was... unclear. I admitted that to him.

"Just use the one I've sent you. Plug it in. Push the button," was his reply. "Besides, it's a robot. Consider it for your drones and robots series."

The next day, a box arrives from Wellbots. This is the Ecovacs Deebot M88. ZDNet's Matthew Miller reviewed the higher-end cousin of the M88, the R95 here this summer. That machine could be controlled by Alexa, allowed you to define cleaning zones and more. It also had smartphone app control.


Deebot M88. Image: David Gewirtz

The one I received doesn't have zones. While it has smartphone control, I didn't bother with it. All I did was plug the 'bot into its charging station, wait for it to charge up, and hit the Auto button on the included remote control.

This was cool. After all the hard work my wife did packing our house all by herself, I wanted her to walk in the door to our new home feeling welcomed and relaxed. The last thing I wanted her to see after a long plane flight was a mess.

The little round robot (think of it as a slice of a BB-8), did its thing, cleaning my rugs and floors. Meanwhile, I watched another Stargate episode on Hulu, and my dog barked at it, hid, chased it, and barked again.

After about an hour, I heard a beeping sound. I thought it might have had an altercation with the dog. It had, in fact, gotten caught up in the six-leg base of one of my lights. I picked it up, moved it about three inches, and let it loose again.

At some point, it must have stopped. After freeing it from the light base, I ignored it. Sometime during its cycle, it rolled itself back on the charger and went to sleep. No longer of any interest (my dog doesn't like plastic or electronic things), the dog ignored it, too.

Frankly, I forgot all about it until a few minutes after getting home, having just picked up my wife from the Portland airport. "Wow, this place looks good."

So, yeah, the guy at Wellbots was right. The M88 has more features, including something for washing floors. I didn't do any of that. I just pushed a button and the result was clean floors when she arrived. #BIGWIN.

When I told Wellbots that I'm writing up this story (as well as the Meural review), they offered a couple of discount codes. Neither I nor ZDNet get paid anything if you buy from them, but we always like sharing good deals with our readers when we hear about them.

Use the code ART100 for a $100 discount off the Meural frame. And, marking the first time a discount code was named after me because I'm messy, you can get 10 percent off the Deebot robot vacuum with the discount code GEWIRTZ10.

That's it. I'm done for today. Have a great holiday. My wife and I are going back to unpacking. At least, this time, we're both making a bit of a mess.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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