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Switched On: The Tao of the Photo Trinket

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Every Wednesday Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a weekly column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Versatile, intelligent, sticky – those were the adjectives used by a fake Saturday Night Live commercial in 1993 extolling disposable "McIntosh Post-It Notes" that mocked the perceived frivolity of the recently released Newton. The parody proved prescient. Today, companies such as Logitech with its IO Writing System and Selwyn Electronics with its DigiMemo A501 continue a tradition of competing with the plain old legal pad; PDAs that sell for hundreds of dollars vie with inexpensive paper organizers; and millions of consumers will have spent $100 or more on flash players that have less capacity than a $30 portable MP3-CD player.

Unfortunately for LCD manufacturers, though, the digital picture frame has not fared as well against its ubiquitous competition. So, following the lead of the MP3 hardware crowd that has seen far greater success outside the home than within it, at least three companies have released consumer products that are used almost exclusively to display pictures. Unlike devices intended for professional photographers, such as those from Epson or SmartDisk, these are all available for less than $150.


Offered under the brand-name Spectare, the $59 Tao Electronics� KeyPix Digital Picture Key Chain comes in square, diamond, and circle shapes; a variant intended to be worn as a pendant is also available. Each has a miniscule 1-inch screen with a resolution of just 96 X 64, making it what may be the world�s tiniest widescreen consumer product. Its 512K of flash memory holds 56 12-bit (4096 colors) pictures. These must be transferred to the device with its sparse Windows-only software, which at least offers the ability to crop for the PSP-like aspect ratio and, of course, downscales the photo.

Not surprisingly, the product has a cheap plastic feel; it doesn�t seem as if it is actually intended to withstand the rough life of heat, pressure, and sharp screen-cracking keys in a pocket. Remarkably given its low price, the product has a rechargeable battery that lasts up to two hours and has very good standby time. It�s quickly charged via a bundled mini-USB cable but Tao also provides an AC adapter for gift recipients who may lack a PC.

Two tiny side-mounted buttons let you cycle through photos in two directions, while a center button turns the unit on and off and activates the slide show. Somewhat reminiscent of the �McIntosh Post-It Note�, there�s a gratuitous startup screen as it turns on. The key chain actually has a nice swipe transition between pictures which, perhaps owing to the LCD�s poor responsiveness, provides a bit of a dissolve illusion. You can also delete pictures on the fly, which seemed to be the only way to get rid of the pictures that Tao preloads onto the unit.

The KeyPix� biggest problems are its low resolution and limited color support, which prevent the product from being considered as anything but a novelty. If you know people (don�t try including photos of more than two side-by-side) in the photographs, the KeyPix will help jog your memory of them and perhaps the time at which the picture was taken, but it is simply not up to the task of accurately conveying what a subject looks like. It doesn�t do justice to kids or pets and your lovingly pencil-drawn map of the Floridian aquifer system is right out.

The Digital Picture Key Chain is an overpriced toy, but overall the case for a portable photo album is stronger than a digital picture frame. For years, handhelds have been able to display photos, but they�re simply overkill for the casual grandmother who wants to pass around a digital brag book. Like the digital Post-It Note, the Tao product makes the wrong tradeoffs. Future columns will look at two other portable products that offer bigger screens and more features at a higher price.



Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis at NPD Techworld, a division of market research and analysis provider The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On, however, are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.
In this article: features, switched on, SwitchedOn
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