Usually, digital photo frames available in the market are either too small or too expensive. We will help you build a decent sized digital photo frame all by yourself and within a budget of only four or five thousand rupees. All you would need to make one at home are a few old, but working electronic gadgets which you might have lying around the house or which you can even buy secondhand from the local market.

We have built our example using old computer parts and a few wooden scraps which were lying around our office. You can improvise on our method using your technical and artistic skills to build one even better.

What you need?
To build your very own digital picture frame here is a small checklist.

  • An old 15-inch LCD monitor—either you can upgrade your present LCD and use the older one here or buy a secondhand but working one. (Rs 2,000 – 2,500 approx)
  • A DVD player which can handle DivX movie files and photo slideshows via USB storage. (Chinese –  Rs 900 – 1,000 approx)
  • An external TV tuner box with VGA output—usually used to watch TV on a computer monitor. (Rs 1000 approx)
  • A small speaker—can be ripped out from an old computer cabinet or a discarded desktop speaker set.
  • A few planks of wood, plexiglass, or whatever material you want to build the body out of. (Rs 150 approx)
  • A few lengths of shielded and two-core wires—for audio/video cabling and supplying power respectively.
  • A USB pen drive to store and play your video or photos from. (Rs 1,000 approx)
  • Tools to put the above together—this would include a soldering iron, solder flux, woodsaw, hammer, nails, screws, PCB spacers for mounting, a power connector, USB connector, sandpaper, wood file, paint, moulded wood strips ,and any decorative material of your choice.

Make sure you have a stretch of time available and nothing distracts you, since mistakes could cause damage to the circuits.

All set? Move on to step 1 on the next page.

Step 1: Getting ready

Get ready with all the necessary items required for the workshop. At this stage, you will require the LCD monitor, the TV tuner box and the DVD player. First, connect the DVD player's outputs and plug the monitor into the tuner with their regular wires to ensure they are all working properly—especially playing your digital photos, videos, etc.

Step 2: Take them apart

Once you have tested the equipment, it is time to disassemble each box. Let’s begin with the DVD player. Carefully unscrew the cover. Save all the screws that are extracted from the unit as they could come in handy at any time.

Step 3: Study the circuit

Study the circuitry carefully. Take photos of the insides of the box or draw the diagram on a piece of paper to remember the connections. This is crucial as you will need to reconnect them with their internal ribbon cables which will most probably be unmarked.

The DVD player contains three or four main stages for functioning. You will need to detach each one carefully. The first stage is the main decoder board which converts the digital data from a USB port or a DVD/CD into analog audio and video signals. The second stage is the power supply which provides all the necessary power to the unit. The third stage is the front panel which contains the playback controls. This circuit is not required as you can control the player via the remote. You will only have to extract the IR sensor from this circuit board.

Note: If you are not comfortable with dealing with electronic equipment or have very little knowledge of the same, we recommend contacting a trained friend or professional to help you with this workshop.

The fourth stage is the mechanical optical drive which handles the optical media. This can be dismantled and discarded completely as we will not be using it in our workshop (though you could find your own use for it). In some cases you will need to find the sensor switches which inform the unit when the drive tray is open or closed, and override them by short circuiting them, so that the codec panel will sense that the optical drive is empty (even though there won't be one in the final project). If the logic panel senses an error with the drive tray, it might not be able to function till that is addressed.

Step 4: Discard unnecessary bits

Once all the circuitry is carefully studied and separated, we will use only two stages—the decoder board and the power supply. A few more parts that will come in handy at a later stage are the power switch, a few wires, the amplifier unit and some connectors.

Step 5: The monitor

Time to separate the LCD monitor from its stand. In our case, we have just separated the main unit from the stand and kept the rest intact so we can reassemble the monitor and use it again if the photo frame is ever taken apart, but this will increase the depth of the picture frame by a few inches depending on the LCD monitor model. If you need, you can also extract the actual LCD panel itself from the monitor casing along with the necessary circuitry and power supply and discard the plastic shell to reduce the weight and size of the final product. Parts of an LCD monitor are very delicate; therefore we would recommend that you handle them with extreme care if you choose to do this.     

Step 6: The TV Tuner

Now disassemble the TV tuner box. Unscrew the plastic lid and a single circuit board will be visible. There is not much to worry about here as the connections are pretty straightforward. There is generally no internal wiring, only connectors.
Step 7: Interconnection

The fun starts here! Carefully bring all the necessary components together and connect the wires to each other. You will need to connect the salvaged power supply unit to all the circuit boards that will be used—the decoder from the DVD, the TV tuner, and the amplifier (if required). If you have kept the LCD housing intact, it will require mains power, but if you have used just the panel, you can give it power from this circuit board as well.

Then wire up the USB connector and IR receivers to the decoder board following the same wiring pattern as the original DVD player had. Similarly, connect the audio and video outputs to the TV tuner's input connectors (use good quality shielded wires to avoid any power interferences from the surrounding PCBs) and the outputs of the TV tuner to the LCD panel (since we need to turn the component/composite video output of the DVD player to a VGA input that the monitor can handle) as well as the amplifier board and speaker.

Many TV tuner boxes have little speakers inside them, so you can salvage one from yours. Otherwise any low profile speaker will do.  For our project we have used the amplifier unit of the DVD player itself and a single speaker from an old desktop multimedia set.

At this point you can even power up the whole contraption and see that it works.

Step 8: The carpentry

Now comes in the carpentry, where we turn our invention into a giftable box. Take a plank of plywood according to the dimensions of the LCD panel. With the help of a carpenter (unless you can do it yourself), cut out and assemble the frame for the final product. Ensure that the panel has enough room for air circulation and that all the circuit boards sit comfortably with their connectors not stretched out). You'll notice that we have arranged our boards around the edges, to leave space for mounting our monitor using its original VESA mount holes.

Carefully clean the plank using sandpaper to ensure no specks of wood interfere with the electronics later. You can paint, polish or varnish the plywood too if required. Place the circuits carefully on the plywood and mark placeholders on which each one will be fixed. You can use wooden strips or plastic spacers for holding the boards to the plywood. Don’t use metal, this could cause short-circuits. Then simply drill holes on the plywood where each screw will need to go, before mounting the boards into position.

Step 9: Placement

Once the plywood is ready for assembling the circuit boards, wiring and other parts, place the boards where they need to be and carefully screw each one into place. Do not screw the circuit boards to the plywood too tightly to avoid damaging them.

Step 10: Wiring and neatness

Once the logic circuits are seated comfortably, you can add in the power to each board. You would also require spacers for routing the wires neatly. Use good quality heat resistant double-sided tape if needed, to make things simpler. Routing the wires neatly is necessary to avoid clutter and any sort of electrical interference. Using proper wire clips would be preferred, though. At this stage we would recommend testing the entire assembly again to make sure everything's working properly.

Step 11: The exterior frame

Now it is time to build the rest of the frame which will enclose the circuit boards and panel. Here again, a carpenter would be required to drill holes and gaps for the IR receivers, USB connector, power switch and power connector. Make sure that the frame has a few ventilation holes to let out any heat generated. This will keep the internal components cool so that they last longer. We have used wooden strips to hold the panel in place as well.

Step 12: Enclosing the back panel

Finally, enclose the frame around the plywood circuit base and either nail it permanently or use thin screws to allow you to open and maintain it once in a while.

Step 13: Final connections

Finally solder all the final connections. This will include the power connector, power switch, USB connectors and any other input/output connectors that you may have added in to build your picture frame. Make sure all exposed connectors are covered using electrical tape to avoid any hazards, especially where the mains power enters the casing.

Step 14: Important touches

Make a bit of space for both, the DVD player and the TV tuner's IR sensors. These sensors should be placed facing the front of the frame as the unit will be completely remote operated. In our case, there are two IR sensors involved—one from the DVD player to control the playback and the other from the TV tuner box to control the inputs—the DVD player, VGA input or TV. The IR sensors were originally mounted on circuit boards and so we de-soldered them and connected longer wires to reach the front panel.

Step 15: The grand finale

Once all of the above is finalized, it is time to finally add the LCD monitor and make the necessary VGA and power connections. Place the panel on the frame and carefully attach it using either screws or spacers.

Step 16: Time to show off!

This is the absolute final stage of the picture frame—decorating it. We have used moulded wooden strips for the borders, but this is entirely up to you now. We wanted to hide the LCD panel’s frame and front controls completely. You can use plastic strips or anything else as per your tastes and desires. You can even use ribbons, paper, spraypaint, glitter, lacquer, etc for a final finish. Finally, use varnish or spray-on laquer to give it a finished look. After all is complete, you can customize it with rubber or plastic stands to have a tabletop version, fashion a wall mount, or have both.

Once the project is complete, the final product will be able to play movies, photo slideshows, music and even cable TV. The project can be customized further to also accommodate playback from a computer by adding a VGA input connector, enabling you to use the panel as a computer display and stream photos and video from the Internet. The USB connection can be customized further to accommodate an SD card reader… or if you're really feeling adventurous, you can stuff an old laptop's motherboard and components in there!

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