Is the $200 digital signage PC finally here?

January 6, 2010 by Dave Haynes

Small, fast, very affordable.

That’s a nice set of words if you are building out a screen network to hundreds of locations and shaving off capital costs makes the business plan much more workable.

I was speaking to a CTO this afternoon who I would consider both smart and practical, and he said his team has been toying around with a $200 micro-PC from Acer, called the Acer Aspire Revo. That’s $200, from an e-commerce site, WITH Windows XP loaded, and a keyboard and mouse. Single quantity. The thing is only 7 inches square and a little more than an inch high.

That might ordinarily make for a nice little entry-level, small form factor device to stick in a campus dorm room. But the thing has Nvidia’s Ion graphics on it, and it therefore runs nice, smooth 1080P HD video. My CTO friend said on the lab bench, even with the skimpy Atom CPU and limited RAM, it only taxed the CPU to about 20 percent running 1080 HD video.

So … load Windows 7 on there instead, do a deal to skip the keyboard and mouse, develop an image, and this is the sort of $200-ish, high capability box the industry has been looking around for the last few years. Aopen’s little digital engine is roughly the same size, but a lot more costly and does not have the Ion graphics.

I mention this because the conversation with CTO guy started on all these little set-top box and media center devices, like the Boxee and Popcorn Hour, turning up this week at CES. They have the HD playback capability to drive video digital signage screens, and cost anywhere from $125 and up. BUT, someone would still have to develop or tweak software to run on the things, because they’re not PCs. That’s far more easily said that done, and is a running project

If it is possible to buy a PC and take advantage of ALL the development and drivers already out there, to build out an low requirements digital sign network, why would you bother with a set-top box if the cost gap is no longer much of an issue?  

CAVEAT – I am not a propellerhead. I THINK it has a fan, therefore something that can gum up or break. And it is a consumer, NOT industrial, product. There are many places where I would not put this sort of thing. But there are lots of other environments where it would probably do no better or worse than lots of other consumer-grade PCs being used for screen networks. When I got into digital signage almost 11 years ago, the PC and software for one site cost $24,000 – and as you might expect, the $200 unit does much more.  

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