The Philips AJL308 clock radio/photo frame is a tricky product to review. What makes it tough is that on one level the idea of combining a clock radio with a digital photo frame is a really cool concept -- and in many ways the AJL308 succeeds. But at the same time it's got some issues that make you wish that Philips would hurry up and make a new, improved version.
On the positive side, the AJL308 is cosmetically attractive, though the gloss black finish around the 7-inch (diagonal) widescreen display is a fingerprint magnet. The back of the frame is white and bulges out at the bottom, creating a sturdy stand that puts the frame at a good angle for viewing.
Philips also loaded the AJL308 with features. First and foremost, the LCD displays date and time, plus you get dual alarms as well as images stored on an optional SD/MMC memory card or thumbdrive that fit into slots on the side of the frame. You can choose to display the photos in a slide show format across the whole frame or have them appear in a smaller box next to the time and date in 'clock' mode.
If you choose the 'widescreen' option from the settings menu, your photos will be fit to the screen and end up being slightly cropped. If you go with standard 4:3 option, they'll appear as they were shot but with black bars on either side of the image.
On the clock radio front, there's an FM radio with 20 presets -- the presets are slightly painful to set, but 20 is a lot -- plus two alarms, a sleep timer with interval options between 15 and 60 minutes, and a dimmer/snooze bar conveniently placed at the top of the frame.
There are a few nice features buried in the menu system. For one, you can change the colour of the background display. You also get 16 slide-show transition effects to choose from -- we liked random, a few novelty alarms -- church bells, ocean wave, forest and rooster -- and three different "relaxation modes" for the sleep timer, including the sound of rain, ocean waves or a new-age-style riff that would be right at home in a massage room.
Beyond its photo capabilities, the AJL308 also plays back MP3 and WMA files and select video files from your SD/MMC card or thumbdrive. By select we mean limited -- we didn't have any luck with videos that we'd shot with a handful of cameras from leading manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, Olympus) and the one video that did start playing (from a Samsung camera) didn't have any sound.
You're supposed to be able to play back MPEG4 files, but the one we tested wasn't recognised, so we assume it plays back only certain flavors of MPEG-4. We had better luck with DivX. The "One: Space Odyssey" short we downloaded from the Stage6 Web site played fine, and DivX aficionados should be quite pleased with this feature. It's also worth noting that the frame is compatible with the DivX VOD service, which means it can be registered and used to play back DivX files you'd rent or buy (download) from an online DivX VOD service.
Unfortunately, the video and photos displayed on the device just don't look all that good. The frame is fairly low resolution (just 480x234 pixels), so images and video aren't exactly sharp -- to put it kindly. This is typical of budget photo frames, so we weren't surprised, but if you're expecting great image quality, look elsewhere. Also, images, especially those with larger file sizes, tend to load slowly, which is annoying.
The sound on photo frames with built-in speakers is always really tinny with scant bass, and the same holds true for the AJL308. That said, the Philips does play louder than your typical photo frame, so overall the sound quality is a slight notch up -- but again, keep your expectations low, and you won't be too disappointed.
We read of a couple of users complaining that the unit's dimmer doesn't dim the backlight enough, but the dimmer at its lowest setting wasn't too bright for our tastes. The AJL308 doesn't have the most easy-to-use interface, and it took a little tinkering to figure how to navigate and make adjustments to settings. One irritating quirk is that the up/down button doesn't actually control the volume level as you think it might. Instead, there's a separate wheel controller hidden on the right side that lowers and raises volume.
In the end, we had mixed feelings about the AJL308. There's a lot to like here in terms of features, but the mediocre picture and sound quality leaves a lot to be desired. If you can find it at a bargain price (£85 or less), it certainly makes a decent gift for someone looking for a basic clock radio with digital-imaging perks. Ideally, though, we'd like to see Philips create a version with a higher resolution screen and slightly improved sonics -- and we wouldn't mind paying more for it.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday