About fifteen years ago I bought my Mum a digital photo frame for Mother’s Day. I loaded it up with a bunch of photos from family holidays transferring them onto a compact flash card that would spend the rest of its days randomly throwing up images to a pitiful 8″ LCD that was barely visible if not being stared at dead-on.
It was garbage, cool for the time and full of promise, but mostly garbage and the lofty promise of digital photos replacing their printed counterparts has largely been laughed out of existence.
Despite everything digital frames have forged on. And whilst many remain small and cheap, the top-end of the market has evolved, none more so than Netgear’s Meural.
Acquired by the router manufacturer in 2018, Meural started as an independent project to develop a high quality digital display for up-market artwork. The device would open a portal into the art world for its owner, unlocking thousands of renowned artworks that would be rendered on a near canvas-like display.
At its heart the Meural is nothing more than a computer running a single application that displays a selection of curated artwork.
Inside is a 1.8GHz quad-core ARM processor with 8GB of storage that runs the Meural’s OS and allows it to download art over Wi-Fi (a/b/g/n/ac) either from Netgear’s vast selection or your own that you upload via the Meural companion app.
In Australia we only have the 27″ model, which is available in three different frame colours: white, black & walnut. A smaller 21″ model is available in the US, but there’s no word on if and when we might see that here.
The unit is largely comprised of a hardy plastic shell measuring 48.7cm in height by 74.9cm wide, or vice versa when displayed in portrait. The display is beveled into the frame, not unlike a regular professionally framed piece and has a solid 5cm border surrounding it.
For the most part it looks quite realist when compared to a normal frame, but its 4cm depth is easily double that of a regular piece and can appear quite chunky if mounted on a wall.
A hidden cost
Whilst the Meural does come loaded with a few well known pieces of artwork on it, the wider Meural library of a few thousand pieces isn’t available without paying extra for it.
To access Meural’s full catalogue you’ll need to fork out A$13/month or A$100/year if you pay annually. Thankfully 3 years is generally included with purchase (at the time of writing), which makes the Merual’s eye popping A$1k price-tag slightly more palatable.
Obviously the first thing you’ll need to do is plug the Merual into a power point and that’s fine, but it does mean if you’re going to “hang” it you’re going to have to deal with one hell of an ugly cord hanging out of it. All the things required to hang the Meural on a wall are included in the box so they’re obviously expecting you to do it, but to do it right is going to be akin to mounting a TV and not something a lot of people are comfortable with.
Power concerns aside the Meural is remarkably straight forward to get going. Like every IoT device today, the Meural has you dance the dance of: join ad-hoc WiFi network, launch app & configure, rejoin regular WiFi and away we go!
After it’s connected you’re greeted with an intro on how to use the screen’s questionable gesture controls before flicking through an array of complimentary pre-loaded art and realising to do anything of use you’re going to have to do it via the app.
The companion app
The Meural app is your virtual curator. It allows you to browse art, buy more, upload your own and organise playlists of artworks that you have access to.
The majority of the app was unfortunately wasted on me. Without a subscription to the Meural catalogue I flicked through a few of their categories before jumping into uploading my own. This revealed what was probably my biggest annoyance with the Meural canvas. Every image I uploaded had to be cropped in one way or another. That’s because the Meural’s display has a 16:9 ratio, forgoing what would’ve been a much better option of 3:2, which is what every camera on the market produces.
Another quirk is that when you upload artwork to your Meural it appears to send it to Netgear’s cloud and then back down again to your device that’s sitting literally a metre away from me. I assume this is so you can mix it in with artwork from their network and produce playlists that combine the two, but when your upload speed is 1.5Mbps and you’re transmitting a 50MB image you can tell it’s not just directly transferring to the device over your WiFi.
You can also use the app as a remote to control the canvas, which even with a lag is far better than the gesture control system built into the frame. I never had much luck with the gestures and would end up waving my hands in circles like a crazy person just to get it to do anything.
How real does it look?
In the three weeks that I’ve had the Meural running in my lounge room there have been times I’ve glanced over and gone, “Hmmm, that could be real.”
For the most part though, that’s not the case. Despite Meural’s patented “TrueArt” technology the images displayed looked exactly like that: images, displayed.
The auto-sensing and adaptive brightness controls are probably the Meural’s best feature. They’re what make it appear close to real. Like anything in your home it gets darker or brighter based on the light coming into it and the Meural does a valiant effort to adjust the screen’s brightness to reflect the environment. It’s not perfect though and despite the ability to fine tune things via the app it hasn’t quite nailed it with the display mostly having a sort of backlit movie poster feel to it.
For a thousand bones I need something more than a standard IPS LCD display that’s built into a semi-real looking picture frame.
With wallpaper thin OLEDs in wide circulation and Samsung incorporating similar ideas into their “Frame” TV series Netgear have their work cut out for them to make the Meural series stand apart.
Depending on where you plan on installing the Meural, issues with screen reflection, colour washing and unsightly power cords mean that you’d want to be sure it was a perfect fit given what you’re paying.