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Andrew Pollock


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Sunday, 29 November 2009

Review: iGala digital picture frame

Now that I'm not letting the cat out of the bag (I bought these as gifts) I can write a review.

The use case was pretty simple: I thought it'd be a cool Christmas present for our parents to give them something Internet-enabled that would give them regular updates on their grandchild (when he/she arrives). I was thinking a picture a day type of thing.

So I hunted around for a WiFi-enabled digital picture frame, and found the iGala being sold pretty much exclusively by ThinkGeek.

The reviews seemed pretty good. I know WiFi-capable frames have been around for a few years, but they always seemed to be pretty lacking in terms of WiFi functionality. Like they wouldn't do any security, or they'd only do WEP. This particular product claimed to do the whole gamut, including WPA2. The fact that it was a touch screen and ran Linux also made it appealing.

So I ordered a couple of them for a few weeks before we headed to Australia, with the intention of making sure that they'd work. Here's the highlights.

WPA2 didn't work (nor did WPA)

Despite the software on the frames claiming to be able to talk WPA2, the frame would not associate with my Linksys WRTU54G-TM. I had to drop it all the way back to WEP to get it to connect. For me, this was the most disappointing failure. I bought the product specifically on the strength of its claim that it supported WPA2, and it just didn't work. It was also pretty impossible to debug the failure.

I downloaded the latest firmware update, and that added additional settings for TKIP or AES when selecting WPA2, but neither option helped.

The automatic updates are brain-dead

Speaking of downloading firmware updates, the latest firmware that I downloaded and installed on the frames added automatic over-the-air firmware updates. Nice enough feature, except for the implementation. The frame tried to make an HTTP GET request for a non-existent file, every 6 seconds.

So the frequency of checking alone is totally ridiculous, but couple with this the fact that it's making a GET request (this is what $DEITY invented the HEAD request for, people!) and the website has a "friendly" 404 Not Found page that weighs in at a little over 10 Kb. By my calculations, that's nearly 150 Mb of failed update checking traffic a day. Taking these frames to a backward country like Australia, where ISP users still have monthly quotas, gives the frame a pretty horrendous running cost in terms of traffic. Not to mention the outbound bandwidth requirements for the server hosting the updates. Crikey, the mind boggles.

I'd have thought checking once a day and on power on would be perfectly sufficient.

Transitions are unavoidable

It may be just me, but I hate cheezy transitions. Digital picture frames tend to come with a myriad of them, but they all look cheap. It's impossible to tell the frame to just change the picture, it has to use at least one transition effect all the time. It defaults to randomly choosing from all the available ones. At least you can tone it down to just one.

Automatic on/off time

I liked that it was possible to configure operating times. No need to have the thing chewing power 24x7. It just seems to turn off the backlight outside of the programmed operating hours, so it's still doing the lame uber-frequent and bandwidth-intensive checking for updates even when it's "off".

Photo check frequency is configurable

Another nice feature was the ability to check for new photos at varying intervals. What I wanted for my parents was to just update once a day, so they'd get a new photo every day (assuming we put a new one in the Picasa web album that it's checking). This was very doable, and coupled with the automatic on/off time, means they should wake up to a new photo every day (that we change it).

Built in photos are a bit too sticky

There's 3 or 4 in-built photos as part of the firmware. If there's nothing accessible or available online, it'll cycle through these. Somewhat annoyingly, you need to have at least two photos in your online source for it to stop wanting to incorporate the stock photos in the mix. The workaround is to put the same photo in the online album twice, so you don't realise it's switching between two images. Lame, but it works...

Touch screen UI was adequate

Given the alternative user interface for digital picture frames is a little IR remote control and some dinky menus, the iGala was nice to configure. A full on-screen QWERTY keyboard pops up for entering WEP/WPA/WPA2 keys and configuring the Picasa/Flickr connections.

Fairly responsive support

The main near-showstopper for me was the lack of advertised WPA2 support. I emailed the Aequitech support folks quite a bit during my "evaluation" period. They got back to me fairly quickly most of the time and wanted to know exact details of my setup so they could reproduce it in the lab. They'd be well served having an actual ticketing system, instead of hiding behind an email address, as it made it hard to keep track of the multiple issues I was raising with them.

It's written in Lua?!

I have no familiarity with Lua, other than I know of its existence as a programming language. I'm curious as to what their motivation was for this language choice. All of the Lua code shipped in the complete firmware refresh ZIP files is bytecode. I have no idea if it's possible to decompile it. The CPU architecture would appear to be a Blackfin based on the few compiled binaries included in the full firmware.

Easy to update

Prior to the new update "functionality" I've already railed against, it was pretty easy to update. Download a ZIP file and a shell script, put them in the root directory of a USB key, and plug it into the frame and stand back. The updates don't seem to cryptographically verified (even the over-the-air ones), so I wonder if it's possible to break into the frame by way of a cleverly crafted "update". I have no idea what breaking into the frame would buy you. I don't know what sort of computing power they have.


I still think the iGala is a reasonable, if somewhat immature product. If the software is going to be actively worked on, and the support people continue to be responsive, then I think it's got good potential. For the price, I expected a more polished product, though.

I received an email from their support people shortly after returning from Australia saying that they'd fixed the WPA2 problem. Unfortunately I had no intention of trying to remotely talk my parents through how to reconfigure their access point or the frame (interestingly WPA2 didn't work with their Linksys WAG54G2 either, so I'd love to know what WPA2 devices it was tested with), so it's 128-bit WEP until I next go to Australia.

[22:57] [tech] [permalink]

When it looks too good to be true...

Yesterday, we managed to inspect the property that was for sale that we'd discovered.

I think you could best describe it as a renovator's delight that's had a bit of work done on it. The kitchen is pretty new. The bathrooms are pretty good. There's some cracking around the place, and the floating floor looks like it's a bit of a dodgy job.

That said, it definitely had potential, and for the asking price, assuming it wasn't structurally unsound, was something we could see ourselves doing up and flipping when we finally move back to Australia.

So our agent told us we needed to get pre-approved for finance as the next step, and hooked us up with a mortgage broker, who was able to see us today.

She said that pre-approval would be no problem, and we got what seemed to be a ridiculously good rate for a 5 year adjustable rate mortgage.

Our agent called us back tonight and told us that there was another offer on the table for less than the asking price, and that the property had been red-tagged. It would appear that none of the modifications had permits.

He's going to check with the city tomorrow to find out exactly what the nature of the red-tagging is all about, and what would be involved to get the property un-red-tagged, but I've got that feeling that it's going to be better to just walk away from it at this stage.

So that's how we've spent our weekend. Speculating on real estate.

[18:17] [life] [permalink]