This story has been updated. It was originally featured in the May 2006 issue of Popular Science magazine and involves outdated technologies and services. For current advice, consider setting up a shared iCloud photo library, investigating other ways to share your digital photos (including a shared Google Photos folder), or taking the easy option and just buying one of the best digital photo frames.
My mom loves seeing my digital photos, whether they’re of far-off places or my latest culinary creations, so I’ve long thought about building her a digital-photo frame that would show a new shot every time she walked by. But instead of loading 1,000 images onto a hard drive, I wanted to be able to update the library remotely, adding new pics as I shot them, so she could always see what I’d whipped up that night or where I’d traveled that weekend. I also wanted the whole project to be cheap, because, well, I’m cheap.
Mission accomplished. The hardware: a 4-year-old IBM laptop donated by PopSci’s IT department. Ask around and you’ll probably find a similar castoff machine, but if not, there are hundreds of suitable notebooks on eBay for less than $200—just about anything running Windows 2000 or better will suffice. You’ll also want to add WiFi, either through a USB adapter or a PCMCIA card, so your mom can set the frame anywhere. (If the folks don’t have WiFi, you can pick up a wireless router for about $20 online). To fit the screen’s nonstandard dimensions, I ordered a custom-made frame from americanframe.com, which offers hundreds of styles and materials and lets you visualize the matte and frame together before you hit “buy.”
But the real star of this project is Slickr (free; download here), a screensaver that displays a constantly updated slideshow of images from my account on Flickr.com, a free photo-sharing site. I can even set it to show only shots that I’ve tagged “formom,” so any time I upload a photo with that tag, it appears on Mom’s mantle. See the basic steps and parts and details on the build. Mom will thank you for it.
- IBM ThinkPad T21, 800-megahertz Pentium III processor, 10GB hard drive, 14.1-inch LCD: free (donated)
- Custom 15 1/4-by-12 3/4-inch polished zinc frame with mat and mounting boards: $50; americanframe.com
- Cnet WiFi card: $30; newegg.com
1. Before you start disassembling the laptop, download the Slickr screensaver from cellardoorsw.com and enter your Flickr account information. Then check our web exclusive article “Windows Rehab 101” for steps to protect the laptop from viruses and malware.
2. Take apart just enough of the laptop to get at the ribbon cable that connects the LCD (usually under the keyboard), and carefully unplug it.
3. Remove the plastic housing from the LCD. Measure the bare screen and order your frame. Skip the glass, but order two self-adhesive foamcore mounting boards—one to strengthen the mat and one on which to mount the laptop bottom.
4. Assemble the frame pieces—mat, LCD, mounting board, and laptop bottom—using tape. Make sure everything works, then hot glue it all together.
5. Reattach the LCD cable to the laptop and reassemble the keyboard. Attach a piece of foamcore to make a stand.
6. Give to Mom. Start it up. Add shots to your Flickr account for Mom to see.
More assembly details
- Laptop Bottom: I planned to pull all the laptop guts out of the plastic shell so I could mount just the motherboard and hard drive onto the foamcore, but the power button was on the keyboard, and removing the bottom of the case looked like a pain. So I kept it simple and disassembled only enough of the laptop to disconnect the screen. Then I reattached the keyboard and glued the whole thing to the foamcore mounting board.
- Foamcore: This came with the frame but can also be found in any art-supply store. I punched several ventilation holes through the foamcore under the laptop bottom and then hot-glued it to the outside edge of the frame back. This created a small pocket of space between the foamcore and the LCD to allow for cooling airflow.
- LCD: The screen attaches to the mat with hot glue. Be very careful removing the plastic border from the screen—there are several thin cables, and if you rip one, the LCD is useless.
- Mat: I trimmed a piece of self-adhesive foamcore and stuck it to the back of the paper mat to provide extra support for the heavy LCD.
- Frame: My frame is polished nickel, but wood would work as well. Just get one that’s at least an inch deep to allow for ventilation space behind the LCD.
- Clips: American Frame included several of these, and I used as many as I could fit to keep the LCD and mat wedged securely in the frame.
The easy option
If building a digital frame seems too daunting, you can still give Mom a direct line to your Flickr shots with the eStarling photo frame ($250; thinkgeek.com). The 5.6-inch display pulls shots over WiFi from email or a Flickr RSS feed and rotates through the most recent 30 photos.