By Dan Moren
March 31, 2023 7:00 AM PT
Review: Aura’s digital photo frame is solid, if not quite picture perfect
Of all the standalone devices that I couldn’t imagine I’d need in the year 2023, I would have put a digital picture frame near the top. To me, they’re a device that seems to belong in that mid-2000s era where people switched to digital cameras, one of those weird bits of translation that supposes that every analog device needs an exact digital counterpart, rather than acknowledging that we simply treat our photos differently now.
But then I had a kid.
Suddenly I found that, despite the thousands of photos I’ve already taken of this child in the first eight months of their life, I had no easy way to display them around the house. I could, of course, always have some digital photos printed out and hung in various places, but that would only allow for a subset of all the great pictures I’d taken.
Suddenly a digital photo frame didn’t seem like such a wild idea, so when the opportunity arose for me to check one out, I didn’t hesitate. What I discovered is that there is definitely a niche for this digital spin on an old favorite, but that even a good entry falls short in a few ways.
The photo frame I tested is made by Aura, a company that specializes in smart digital photo frames. They offer a variety of models in several different sizes and finishes, some of which also offer different capabilities. A few of their models are top picks in The Wirecutter’s digital photo frame review, including the model I received, the $249 Aura Mason Luxe. The Mason Luxe has the highest resolution display amongst Aura’s lineup: a 9.7-inch “2K” screen with a resolution of 2048-by-1536 pixels and a dark gray speckled plastic frame that Aura describes as “Pebble”; it’s also available in a lighter gray called “Sandstone”.
One thing that may not be immediately apparent about Aura’s frames, however, is their thickness. I was surprised to find when I pulled it out of the box that it extends back around two inches, though that is largely so that it can rest solidly on the bottom edge—in either landscape or portrait orientation—with no fear that it’ll tip over.
Aside from the power plug (it uses an included 5V DC adapter with a nice braided fabric cord), and a small speaker on the back, there are no other obvious ports or controls. But two edges of the frame, which are the tops in portrait and landscape respectively, do have a smooth “touch bar”, which is the only hardware interface for interacting with the device. Most of the management of the frame is done via the Aura iOS app, which lets you choose which photos to add and manage the rest of the device’s features.
Pretty as a picture
Appropriately, the best feature of the Aura Mason Luxe is the screen. It’s big, bright, and sufficiently high resolution that, while you won’t mistake it for an analog photo frame, it does a fantastic job of showcasing your photos.
I also appreciate that, like the Google Nest Hub I’ve been using as a makeshift digital photo frame, the Aura features ambient light detection, so when I turn the lights in my office out for the night, the Aura’s screen automatically turns off as well. That’s a big plus, because not only do I not want to have a bright light shining in my office all night, I also don’t want to waste the energy when nobody’s around to look at the pictures. (The app also allows you to manually schedule on/off times, which is nice, and you can manually turn it on and off using the touch bar.)
On the software side, the Aura frame nails my particular use case for showing photos. What I didn’t want was a high overhead system where I had to constantly manage which photos show up on the frame; knowing me, it would just languish with the same pictures I loaded onto it at the start. But this is a digital photo frame, after all: it should be smart enough to do the heavy lifting for me.
Aura gets this. It allows you to choose from among a few sources for your photos, including Google Photos or an iCloud Shared Album. The latter was perfect for me, as it let me sync with the shared album of pictures of my kid, having new photos automatically added to the frame as they appear in the album. You can also add photos via a web interface, or even via email. The slideshow can be cycled through at a variety of intervals, from 15 seconds to 24 hours. I also appreciate that the scrolling through the collection of photos in the app and selecting one gives you an option to show that photo on the frame immediately.
There’s also a collaborative angle that allows you to invite multiple people to submit photos, as well as some rudimentary social features like comments and reactions; I didn’t get a chance to test this out, as it’s something we already use our Shared Album for, but I can see how it might be useful for families.
Another plus of the Aura photo frame is that the company realizes it’s the kind of product for whom the target audience might be less tech-savvy: say, grandparents who want to see photos of their grandkids, but probably wouldn’t buy a digital photo frame for themselves. So Aura allows you to set up the device for someone else as a gift, preparing it in advance so that all the recipient needs to do is plug it in and get it on Wi-Fi. That’s a savvy move, and while I didn’t get a chance to put that process through its paces, it’s a much appreciated option.
Finally, one advantage of a digital photo frame is that it can handle more than just still pictures. The Aura can play both Live Photos and videos—by default, it autoplays the latter silently, though you can use the touch bar to tell it to replay with sound. (In my tests, I couldn’t get it to play audio from Live Photos, just videos.) It’s a nice feature that perks up the frame, but I’m glad that the option exists to disable autoplay if you prefer just static photos.
Not quite picture perfect
All of that said, there are a few things about the Aura frame that I don’t love.
For one, I found the setup process to be a bit on the fussy side. At first I struggled to get it configured the way I wanted it: uploads would stall out, new photos added to my Shared Album wouldn’t appear, and so on. However, after talking with the support team at Aura, it turned out that there was a bug with this process. It was subsequently resolved in a software update for the Aura app and, since then, has worked just fine.
But my biggest gripe with the Aura is the way it displays photos—or, more appropriately, the way it doesn’t display them. While you can choose to put the Aura in either portrait or landscape orientation, the photos that aren’t in the matching orientation show up letterboxed (either with black bars or, if you prefer, a blurred version of the photo behind it). While you can re-crop photos via the Remote Control feature in the app, it has to be done on a photo-by-photo basis—time-consuming if you have hundreds of pictures. For whatever reason, I much prefer having the photo frame in landscape orientation, though given that the vast majority of my iPhone pictures are taken in portrait probably means that I should put the frame that way. There also doesn’t seem to be any way that I could find to limit it to showing only photos in the matching orientation.
What I’d love is an option for the Aura to handle this the way the Google Nest Hub does, by using a 2-up display that puts two narrower photos side-by-side while in landscape mode (or two landscape photos one above the other in portrait). That seems to be available on some Aura frames (specifically the Carver, Buddy, and Gallerie), in a feature called Photo Match, but isn’t available on the Mason Luxe model I was testing, for reasons I’m not entirely clear about.
Similarly, the Aura offers only a single transition between photos, a swipe from left to right. An option for another animation, like a crossfade or a Ken Burns effect or, really, anything—or, heck, no transition at all—would be welcome. I don’t need super flashy transitions, and honestly I even find the swiping a little ostentatious.
Finally, I’m glad you don’t end up having to use the Aura’s hardware interface that much because it is very weird. The Aura’s screen is not a touchscreen, so while you can swipe between photos manually, you have to either use the remote control section of the app, or rely on the touch bar, which brings up a menu of options that you can select by swiping back and forth on the strip and then tapping to select it. It’s extremely unintuitive and almost every time I used it—even for something as simple as shutting the frame down—I found myself triggering the wrong action by accident. While adding a touchscreen to the frames is probably more expensive and not an easy upgrade, it would probably benefit Aura in the long run, since that’s how most of us are used to interacting with technology these days.
The kid stays in the picture frame
Despite those nitpicks, I have to concede that the Aura frame is pretty nice. In an age of multipurpose technology devices, a device that exists for just one reason can feel like a luxury, and the Aura Frame model that I was testing isn’t cheap at $249 (other models with lower screen quality and an inability to swap from portrait to landscape can be had for as little as $149).
You could, of course, buy a device like the Google Nest Hub, which can do a lot of things in addition to showing off your digital photos, but that may be overkill—plus, I’ve yet to find a really good way to have it get photos from my iCloud Shared Album.1
But if your priority is to have a way to show off your digital photos someplace beyond just the lock screen of your smartphone and to have them look great—or to share photos with family members who aren’t as technically inclined—the Aura frames definitely fit that bill, and do it well.
Updated on 3/31 with information about the Photo Match feature.
- Yes, there do exist ways, but they generally require using Google Photos as an intermediary or making your shared album publicly accessible, neither of which I want. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]
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