Pricey if you just want to show off your photos, but a fantastic choice for art lovers when combined with the Meural subscription service.
The Meural Canvas might look like a beautifully framed art print, but with a swish of your hand or Alexa command, the artwork changes. The subscription service is what really sets it apart from the competition, giving you access to world of diverse art and curated discovery playlists.
Let’s take a closer look, and at the end of this review we’re giving one away.
Meural Canvas Specifications and Design
Meural is massive with a 27-inch 1080p screen, and beautifully framed with natural American-grown hardwood. Our review unit was black poplar, but natural walnut and white are also available to match any decor. A 2-inch thick white frame surrounds the IPS display panel, enhancing the illusion of a photographic or art print. The entire piece is very hefty: it weighs 20 pounds, and measures 19.2 x 1.6 x 29.5 inches. The natural wood model has a slightly different frame size.
Designed to be hung on the wall, heavy duty wall plugs and a steel fixing plate are supplied. There’s also a small rubber pad to rest the frame on when it’s not on the wall. However, the frame is tapered so it can’t just rest upright on a table, and will need to be tilted against something. It would have been nice if we could set it up freestanding on a shelf in a more stable manner.
While the resolution is disappointing–4K would be preferable–it isn’t really necessary at this size. This isn’t something you’ll be sitting a foot away from for long periods. You’ll pass it in the corridor, or stand a few feet away at best. For a screen of this size, the full benefits of 4K resolution can only be seen when viewing within 12 inches or so. Beyond that, you won’t be able to see the difference. As it is, it looks beautiful.
We should also mention the price: Meural retails at $600 including free US shipping, though you may find seasonal discounts.
So It’s a Digital Photo Frame, Then?
Calling the Meural Canvas a digital photo frame really doesn’t do it justice. The screen technology is IPS-based with a special matt anti-glare coating, such that to anyone who didn’t know it was actually a digital frame, it would just look like a really good art print. In low light situations it has more of lightbox look to it. In either case, it looks stunning and really displays the nuances and range of colors fantastically for any art or photos you put on it. The ideal viewing angle is about 45 degrees, after which the display gets a little dimmer and glares can begin to appear in bright sunlight, but it still maintains accurate color reproduction. Again, that’s fine for the distances at which it’s going to be viewed.
On-device storage is provided by 8GB of memory, but of that you can only use 4GB for your own images. The other 4GB is reserved for firmware and OS updates. That’s astonishingly small compared to what we’re used to on our mobile devices. But to put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of 200 photos at 20MB each. If you need more space, there’s a micro-SD card slot round the back, but once on the wall it’s going to be awkward to swap it out often. You’re also required to use a specific folder naming convention when putting your own images onto a micro-SD card. If you need thumbnail files you’ll need to generate those yourself, too. It’s clear that displaying your own photography is really not the intended purpose of the Meural Canvas, even if it is possible. To be clear: uploading a photo from your mobile device is very simple.
Supported image formats are JPG, PNG, GIF, BMP, and SVG, up to 20MB; as well as movies in MP4 and MOV format up to 200MB. That’s right: it can display short, Harry Potter-esque animated images, too. However, there is no audio output, so they’ll need to be silent.
Curiously, there’s also an HDMI port around the back too. The Meural FAQ explains this this is currently for dual output mode, but will be removed and disabled in future firmware, so you probably shouldn’t plan on using it.
Gesture, App, Scheduling and Voice Control
There’s three main ways to interact with the Meural Canvas, plus a scheduling system.
The first is on-device gesture controls using the sensor located at the bottom of the frame. Just swish your hand left or right to cycle through images. Wave up to access the info panel, which displays any meta information for the current piece, like artist and description. Wave down to access the menu system, which you’ll mostly use for switching playlists.
The second method of interaction is via the website and mobile app. You can upload photos from your device, manage current playlists, and adjust settings. But the app is also your complete art discovery platform. The homepage is a dynamic stream of curated playlists, so there’ll always something new to discover. Or you can delve into subject matter, movement and style, or art from particular museums.
The most recent control method added is Alexa integration, but it’s about as functional as a smart lightbulb. You get on, off, next, and previous commands, plus brightness control. To be honest, it’s the least useful control method for your Meural. Aside from testing to see if the Alexa features worked, I found myself entirely interacting via gestures or the mobile app. I’d really like to see a custom Alexa app developed, with the ability to find out more about the current artwork, and load more art by that artist.
More useful was the scheduler, which curiously is only available through the website, not the mobile app. This lets you specific sleep and wake times for better power management (the default is just to sleep when it’s dark). You can also set playlists to come on at specific times and days. Mondays could be your modern pop art playlist; Tuesdays for landscapes; while Fridays show your family photos setting you up for a fun family weekend.
Despite the presence of basic Alexa integration, there’s no other Smart Home integration on offer. Google Home, SmartThings, and IFTT are all notably absent.
Art Subscription Service
The Meural Canvas is itself a work of art, but it’s primarily designed to showcase artwork through it’s subscription service. This gives you access to their full library of classic and modern art graphics for $4.95 / month, or $39.95 / year. Of that, 60% goes directly to the artists. There’s a broad selection of classics from across the cultural spectrum, as well as more eclectic modern pieces like Banksy, or vintage maps and posters. There’s even some short animations mixed into the modern playlists. You’re encouraged to explore at every stage, and change the way you think of art.
You’re sure to find something you enjoy, but unlikely to find every specific piece you go looking for. I found the whole experience quite fascinating, and learnt a lot in the process.
Getting art from the app to your Meural Canvas couldn’t be simpler: just browse to a playlist you like, and hit the “send to Canvas” button. You should see a notification on your canvas that it’s downloading, then after a few minutes, the playlist will be fully loaded.
If you don’t take out a subscription, you can still browse the library and read the curated playlists and artist spotlights, but you won’t be able to send them to your device. You will however have very limited access to some samplers of the top playlists and featured artists. I counted 15 different sample playlists, each with 3 to 14 works on art in them. Basically, you’re going to want the subscription, so factor the cost of that into your own value judgement.
The Canvas can be mounted either horizontal or portrait, with gestures sensors on two sides such that you can use the gesture system on the bottom in either orientation. The library is full of art for both portrait or landscape, but you can choose “orientation locked” mode to display only pieces in the correct format, or display them cropped, or with black bars. Re-orienting the device if you get bored is easy enough and doesn’t require changing the mounting bracket that’s screwed to your wall.
Should You Buy the Meural Canvas?
If the Meural were simply a 1080p 27-inch monitor or basic photo frame, it would be overpriced. For $600 nowadays you can buy an entry level 50 inch 4K HDR TV. But as a canvas for digital art, it’s actually priced at the lower end of the market. The closest competition is the Depict frame, which is a ludicrously large 50-inch 4K digital canvas at $975; though the monthly subscription is four times the cost of Meural’s service.
Put simply: If you want a dynamic display of art for your wall, Meural is a fantastic to do it, and the monthly subscription cost is quite reasonable.
While you could just use the Meural Canvas as just a really fancy digital photo frame, we don’t think it’s worth it just for that. The real strength lies in art discovery: the daily curated playlists, the huge archive of art spanning cultures and time periods, and the learning experience. Of course, that also needs the art subscription, but if you can justify spending $5/month for Spotify, we suspect you could do the same for Meural.
It’s obvious that the creators of the Meural Canvas started their design with passion for art, and want to share that with the world. It’s a living piece of art for the home, and it looks beautiful. I hesitate to use some cliché that it’ll open your eyes to a world of art, but it has done for me. The app encourages you to explore, to discover new styles or artists, in the same way that Spotify does for music.