HP's Dandy DreamScreen

Though I have little data to back this up, I've often joked that manufacturers of digital photo frames have the world's moms to thank for their booming market. The electronic gadgets seem to make great gifts for Mother's Day or other occasions when a gift to Mom is called for. If Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has its way, the appeal of digital photo frames will soon widen.

Worldwide shipments of all digital photo frames will reach 50 million units by 2013, from 25 million in 2009, researcher In-Stat predicts. But prices and margins on these devices are expected to fall sharply in the coming years as competition accelerates and the market becomes more saturated. So HP along with a host of other manufacturers, including Samsung, Pandigital, and Ceiva, are being forced to think of new ways to expand the market and get people of all ages to buy one.

More Than Just Photo Display Enter HP's new DreamScreen, introduced Sept. 17. A digital frame that goes far beyond letting users simply stream an array of photos from a home network, the DreamScreen is at the forefront of a new breed of multipurpose frames that also let users enjoy Internet radio, keep track of social media friends, and download pictures from photo-sharing sites such as Yahoo's (YHOO) Flickr.

For two weeks, I put the $249 HP DreamScreen 100 through its paces, and quickly became impressed with the potential for these devices to morph from a pictorial chronicle into a more comprehensive compendium of a person's social life. Forget all the talk about three screens—the PC, TV, and mobile phone. Make way for No. 4. And HP plans to introduce a larger, $299 13-in. model later this year.

For lack of a better term, HP calls the 10.2-in. glossy black DreamScreen a PC companion. It could even be marketed to people who are looking for a PC-lite experience because it provides you access to many social tasks that until now required reaching for a keyboard and mouse. (Mac owners are out of luck; the device doesn't offer support to connect to any of Apple's (AAPL) products.)

Enjoyable Experience Like with HP's TouchSmart PC, the DreamScreen lets users choose from feature icons displayed prominently on the screen. But unlike its predecessor, DreamScreen doesn't offer the same touchscreen control, which would have made navigation far simpler. Instead, you'll need to point with an included remote control. The device's project manager said adding touchscreen capabilities would have made it too expensive to be a mainstream holiday gadget.

Even so, the DreamScreen is a mostly enjoyable experience. I'm betting one of the most popular features will be HP's well-thought-out integration of the Facebook social networking service. Once users set their log-in credentials, the DreamScreen pulls down pictures and the most recent status updates from friends. Since I'm someone who doesn't keep my computer on all the time at home, using DreamScreen is a great way to quickly see what friends are thinking or saying.

Mind you that DreamScreen is a consumption-only implementation; you can't update your own status or send to the Web photos that are saved on memory cards or the machine's own 2GB memory. I didn't mind, since the accompanying remote control makes inputting long bits of text with the on-screen keyboard a time-consuming task.

Complete with Pandora Music Service The DreamScreen also includes the free Pandora streaming-tunes service. It's popular with millions of users because it helps you find new music based on your old and current favorite genres or artists. Once you input and store user information, the DreamScreen's Pandora service pulls up the customized Internet radio stations you've already saved on a PC, iPhone, or other device, or it lets you create new ones. And it has the thumbs-up and thumbs-down feature to help the service better pick similar-sounding tracks. CD cover art also looks great on the 800 by 480-resolution widescreen display.

I have to admit, I was quite surprised by the relatively good quality of sound coming from the rear-mounted speakers. It's not the same caliber I get from my Bose Wave radio, of course, but I could pick out individual instruments and chords while listening to my Mozart station on Pandora. There's also a jack for headphones and connections to add higher-caliber external PC speakers.

For people who are less concerned with the customization Pandora offers, HP offers a widget, called SmartRadio, for users to connect to more than 10,000 Internet radio stations. And HP integrates its Snapfish photo-sharing service well, letting users download and view their own or friends' digital pics. You can play a slide show with music stored on the DreamScreen or streamed from a PC connection.

Good Digital Organizer Besides being entertaining, the DreamScreen makes for a good digital organizer. Users can view five-day weather forecasts of cities around the world or view a calendar that HP says later may be able to sync with online planners. I liked using the big screen's built-in clock, which can show time in digital or analog format and can spotlight two different time zones. There's also an alarm function that lets you wake to music or several tones.

For all its advantages, the DreamScreen had a few glitches. On occasion, the clock would disappear and revert to the home screen showing all the widgets. I also found the photo-streaming feature to be the most complicated part of the setup; it should have been the most simple, considering that's a digital frame's raison d'etre. First, you have to give your Windows computer permission to stream photos and video to the DreamScreen. You also need to install software on the computer to drag and drop particular photos in the right orientation for streaming to the DreamScreen.

Otherwise, setup was easy. I'd recommend using a wired Ethernet connection if you have one available. The built-in 802.11b/g Wi-Fi is perfectly capable of streaming music and photos, but can hit snags if you choose to stream video or are in an area where multiple wireless networks result in radio interference.

There's an included stand to put the DreamScreen on a kitchen countertop, bedroom dresser, or in a dorm room. It can also be wall-mounted, and there's a nice slot in the back to store the tiny remote.

DreamScreen has piqued my interest in digital frames. I've never been a fan of previous iterations since they struck me as too one-note to be useful. HP says it's considering opening the DreamScreen software to developers, and may begin offering access to Twitter, Google's (GOOG) YouTube, and other popular online destinations. As that happens, I'm betting these devices will indeed move from Mom to mainstream.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.