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TV Slide Shows Can Be Easy, but Fuzzy

Microsoft and Iomega photo viewers are limited by television screens' resolution.


Television and digital photography ought to be a perfect match.

TV, after all, is the modern hearth--the comfortable, comforting center of family life. So what better way to share electronic images of vacations and birthdays than on the living room tube?

Microsoft and Iomega sell photo viewers that make it easy to display digital pictures on television screens. Think of them as successors to the slide projector as a way to show photos to a group of friends without the hassle of passing snapshots around the room.

Costing between $125 and $150, the viewers promise convenience and portability by allowing users to organize their photos into slide shows that can be shown on any TV. So it's possible to share last spring's Grand Canyon snaps with Aunt Fern even if she doesn't have a computer.

Essentially, the Microsoft TV Photo Viewer and the Iomega FotoShow Digital Image Center are disk drives that hook up in minutes to any television with standard RCA inputs. The Microsoft version uses run-of-the-mill 1.44-megabyte floppy disks; the Iomega product stores images on the company's proprietary Zip disks.

Both are designed to sit among the standard audio-visual accoutrements in the living room and are controlled with wireless remotes, making them a much more convenient way to show digital pictures than crowding everyone around a computer screen.

Despite their powerful allure, neither device can completely overcome the inherent limitations of television screens, which have painfully low resolutions. That means even the best, sharpest, most dramatic pictures look grainy and indistinct when displayed on a standard television screen.

Digital images are made up of thousands of tiny dots, called pixels. The more pixels, the sharper the image and the larger the picture can be. For instance, low-end digital cameras are capable of shooting pictures with 1 million pixels, --or 1 megapixel. At that resolution, a standard 4-by-6-inch print looks almost as if it came from film. Any bigger, and the individual dots start to show.

But televisions have a resolution of just 640 -by -480 pixels. So individual elements within pictures--your cousin Fred's face, for instance--are made up of far fewer pixels. From a distance, it looks all right. Up close, though, the image is fuzzy.

Consequently, both Microsoft's TV Photo Viewer and Iomega's FotoShow Digital Image Center are best for casual pictures that don't require a lot of refinement. Professionals or seriously artistic amateurs will blanche at the way their work appears on the television.

Most others, though, will find the products perfectly adequate for showing off pictures. Each product has its strengths and weaknesses, but the Iomega FotoShow offers far more power and versatility than the Microsoft TV Photo Viewer--for essentially the same price.

Whereas the TV Photo Viewer is just a viewer, the FotoShow offers a simple suite of editing tools that allows users to manipulate photos right on the TV screen. Microsoft's device requires virtually all editing to be done on a computer. Plus, the FotoShow has ports that accepts direct plug-in of SmartMedia and CompactFlash memory cards commonly used in digital cameras.

Microsoft TV Photo Viewer: The company powering most PCs has its eye on the living room. Microsoft in recent months has launched an aggressive campaign to expand its reach beyond computers into everyday consumer electronics. Products such as Ultimate TV, Xbox and the TV Photo Viewer are part of that strategy.

The TV Photo Viewer is idiot-simple and stores digital pictures on cheap 1.44-MB floppy disks. Each disk holds as many asup to 40 photos. But because the box can show images only in 640-by-480 resolution, most users must convert their pictures on a PC before exporting them over to the TV Photo Viewer.

Cameras that record directly onto floppy disks--Sony's Mavica, for instance--can be set to shoot at 640-by-480 resolution so users can cut out a stop at the PC and load directly onto the viewer. Because most cameras rely on some sort of flash memory, though, the TV Photo Viewer is pretty much useless without a computer.

The system comes with a CD-ROM that includes software to compress and arrange pictures so the TV Photo Viewer can display them, plus a version of Microsoft's Picture It Express photo editor. The Photo Viewer software is easy to use, and slide shows can be arranged in minutes by dragging and dropping photos onto a grid.

That's it.

The box itself is just as simple. It has five buttons that cover the basic functions: "power," "forward" and "back" to move through a show, "auto" to make the pictures cycle on their own and "rotate" to turn photos on their side. The remote has the same five buttons.

The upshot of such simplicity is that very little can go wrong. And very little did. In our tests, which included making half a dozen slide shows of varying lengths, the TV Photo Viewer never once hiccuped or froze.

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