The $100 Wintel Digital Signage PC
July 5, 2016 by Dave Haynes
A lot of traffic on this site continues to be generated by readers looking for low-cost digital signage player solutions – as in 100s of page views a day just for a round-up of Raspberry Pi options.
I also see a lot of interest in posts involving Chrome devices and PC sticks.
So a post I spied on Rise Vision’s very active community forum got me curious about something called the Kangaroo PC, which is an Intel/Windows-based little device that’s a lot bigger than a stick, but smaller than a micro PC. Think something like a portable, external hard drive. It’s marketed not as a signage player, but a mobile desktop PC and home theater device.
It costs $100, with Windows 10 installed, and according to Rise users, works pretty serviceably as a signage player. A Montreal company likes it enough that it is developing a system around it, to start marketing by end of summer.
It’s interesting for a few reasons:
- It’s made and marketed by a company I’ve actually heard of – InFocus;
- It’s got some power and decent storage;
- It has a user that’s beat the hell out of the thing and made some revisions, with signage in mind.
The Kangaroo PC runs Windows 10 Home, has 2 GB Ram and 32 GB storage and uses an Intel Atom x5-Z8500 running at 1.44 GHz, with Burst mode to 2.23 GHz. It’s small and flat and fits behind a flat panel, and has an HDMI port, 1xUSB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0 and a power supply jack. WiFi and Bluetooth are integrated. It also has a battery built in that gives it 2-4 hours of moderate use. So it kinda has its own free UPS, which means unplanned power cuts don’t clobber the thing and power would tend to be back before the juice runs out.
The Montreal-area company, RPT Motion Inc., specializes in flat panel mount solutions, but has the clients and likes the product enough that it is building an bolt-on fan and mount system to optimize the Kangaroo for signage usage.
“We’re definitely going to produce and sell this fan system,” says President Peter Ratcliffe in an email, “within the next 60-90 days because the Kangaroo PC is such a phenomenal form factor and performance at a rock-bottom price. Especially once you add sufficient cooling. Our company roots (35 years) are in the industrial automation and motion control markets where reliability is an absolute need, so we tend to overthink heat and performance to ensure reliability.”
This product came about from a series of questions on the Rise Vision blog surrounding the Intel Sticks, and then one participant asked about the Kangaroo PC, which I had not seen. So at US$99 cheap, I bought one and set it up in our demo shop where we use Rise Vision. Fabulous little PC, great digital signage player, except for the cooling issues.
To be fair, the Kangaroo PC will do what it was designed for and act as a low-end PC, or play Netflix and YouTube all day long in a moderately cool home environment, and most users won’t think badly on the occasional video stutter. But with 100% load on the CPU, the passively cooled unit’s CPU Throttles in a few seconds and heat soaks fully in about 6-10 minutes, and then Atom Processor throttles down from 1.44 GHz to as low as 308Khz, so about 20-25% of the rated speed. Even without significant load, if the environment gets a bit warm then the Burst mode becomes unavailable almost immediately.
The magic happens when we add fan cooling and then the 150% CPU burst mode (2.24 GHz) becomes available 100% of the time, so we have essentially overclocked the Kangaroo PC by 50% with only cooling and no internal modifications. Our mount and fan unit (preliminary prototype picture attached) mounts the Kangaroo PC dock, our fan and the power block into a single easy to mount module.
In lightly loaded applications with the fan, we get about 16C CPU temperature drop from and uncooled Kangaroo, which will add significant reliability and higher available burst mode. In heavy loads we maintain maximum available CPU speed to reasonably high ambient temperatures.
The downside, if there is one, is that the fan and mount will cost approximately US$150, which is more than the Kangaroo PC. At $250 for the mounted, cooled Kangaroo PC, it will be a solid and reliable mid-range performance, easy-to-mount signage player for significantly less than an Intel NUC that is probably overkill, or an Intel Stick, which has a tiny fan and still suffers downgraded performance in warm to hot environments.
The Kangaroo PC module also has an internal battery (estimated 4 hour life), so it can be undocked and moved to another monitor without shutting down or disconnecting cables. That makes it really easy and low cost to have a spare, or to configure at a desktop and pop it into a sign or kiosk. It’s something no other signage player can do.
There are solid arguments against using consumer product and trying to cut as much cost as possible out of player hardware. I totally get it. But there is a big market out there that doesn’t have the budget or inclination to spend $400, $500, $600 or more on a full Intel player, and my analytics keep telling me they’re looking for Pi and Chrome and sticks and whatever.
The same arguments exist for commercial displays vs TVs, but I know systems integrators I highly respect who sometimes just use TVs to trim budget, knowing they need to bake in some replacement contingencies.
What’s interesting about this is that RPT is not a company focused on software or player hardware, but has clients to service for mounts, who then ask about players. They tested the hell out of the Kangaroo, found the flaws and developed a solution that’s still pretty cost effective. Keep in mind part of that $150 extra is for the mount, which any small box will need, so maybe it’s really $100-$125 more if you assume a mount is needed no matter what’s used (except sticks, which are generally dodgy).
There’s almost certainly some licensing issue with using Windows Home 10 for “commercial” applications, but I’m not sure the licensing police are after little fish like schools and churches who are using Rise Vision’s solid and free CMS.