External Media Players are Better Than Smart Displays, Right? Not So Fast

Guest Post: Curtis Campbell, Hughes

Virtually everywhere we look, we see divisions. Be it politics, how to raise children, dogs versus cats, there never seems to be a winner-take-all argument. And digital signage technology is no different. For a few years now, signage buyers have been presented with an alternative to external digital signage players – namely SoC (System On Chip) and digital signage running on SmartTV displays.

Curtis Campbell

Those technology providers & vendors deeply entrenched in the traditional will consistently, readily, and easily discount SoC as “less powerful.” To clarify, those buyers are looking for expansive UHD / 4K video walls, where traditional signage players are daisy-chained (a.k.a. networked together) to create an large, immersive video experience.

And let’s not forget interactive, HD touchscreen kiosks that “require the immense processing power of an external digital media player.”

And again, those entrenched in this way of thinking, will state the list goes on and on.

But let’s pause for a second, and think. Why do some believe that a SoC/Smart Signage solution can’t perform in those applications named above? And what about the virtually limitless other applications for digital signage? While three years ago, I might have sided with external players, I am definitely leaning in the opposite direction. Why? Because the technology continues to evolve, the costs keep decreasing, and the list of applications grows longer every day. But don’t worry. I will explain myself.

Dollars and Sense

Let’s start first with the financial side of SoC / smart signage.

Right out of the gate, with the price of Smart HD displays decreasing every day, add to that notion that removing an external signage player instantly removes what can be a several hundred dollar signage player. Instantly, you are now left with just a SmartTV versus a screen plus a player. Why does this matter? One, reduced cost. Two, reduced infrastructure (meaning all you need is a screen and an internet connection. Add to this fact that Smart screens have integrated WiFi, required infrastructure is further simplified. Additionally, with one less device to support, you have less maintenance costs, fewer chances for failure, and typically one vendor’s throat to choke. This immediately translates to a significantly reduced TCO (total cost of ownership).

But my affinity for SoC/smart signage runs deeper than the balance sheet. Looking back up to the top of this post, SoC’s inability to display an expansive video wall is no longer a solid argument. Because at the end of the day, it comes down to the brains behind the screen. If the content management system (a.k.a. the brains behind the display) is capable of splitting the image across multiple panels, in most cases, this becomes a mute point. What about touchscreen kiosks?

Since the inception of SoC displays, a number of 3rd party technology providers have brought touchscreen overlays to market, enabling virtually any screen to be made a touchscreen. And today, with LG and Samsung both offering smart signage solutions that feature integrated touch, the simplicity argument surfaces again.

Easy Management

And now, let’s look at the management aspect of SoC / Smart signage. When a traditional media player is deployed, setting up the display and tinkering with settings, etc., typically requires a keyboard and mouse. But with SoC / Smart signage solutions, a few vendors have stepped up to leverage the screen’s I/R remote. Now, users can simply pick up the remote, modify settings, increase volume, access additional features, etc. And then, for those SoC / Smart signage solutions that offer live TV integration, changing channels is even easier. Sure, everyone has experienced losing a remote in the couch, but with yet another reduction in the number of devices, your simplicity increases.

And to my final point, what about the limitless other applications that are made more simple through the use of SoC/Smart signage? Waiting room signage, conference / meeting room signage, employee-facing / corporate comms signage above time clocks, menu boards / promotional signage in already crowded grocery and c-stores? And what about signage mounted from the ceiling or ad hoc end cap displays in a retail store?  All of these deployments become easier as less technology is required.

Add back to this notion the reduction of prices of smart displays, virtually any business, which includes small businesses, dusty manufacturing / production / shop floors, crowded kitchens, and a million other environments / businesses can all leverage reduced complexity to ultimately create better customer experiences.

I am sure there will be some that will pick apart this argument, and still tell me that I am wrong. But I’ve seen enough, and continue to see the technology improve, to take a big step on the other side of the fence. This may be a little “tongue-in-cheek,” but I believe that innovation sides with SoC / smart signage.

Let’s not forget what happened to Kodak – a huge brand that faded away when it failed to innovate and adjust with the times.

Curtis Campbell

Curtis Campbell

Curtis Campbell is a senior marketing leader with Hughes' large enterprise digital media and training business.
Curtis Campbell

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13 thoughts on “External Media Players are Better Than Smart Displays, Right? Not So Fast

  1. I do agree with you. System on Chip is the way to go… but like you say: not so fast.

    Last week I was running testing on a SOC panel. Working beautifully for two weeks. I came in to work and I had a message on the screen. “There is an error, system needs to reset”.

    Note the “reset”, not reboot, not restart. No option to do anything other than “click ok”. I had no remote access, no mdc control, no web interface. Obviously after the reboot, lost IP and all configuration also.

    If that screen was 500 miles away it would have cost me more to get someone over to fix it than another panel. If that issue repeats on 1000 out of a 10000 panel network… 🙁

    Again, I do agree that it is the way to go… but I really don´t think they are ready for large corporate deployments.

  2. I firmly believe SoC has opened up a new addressable market in the digital signage industry. However, I think it’s shortsighted to conclude one is ultimately better than the other, based only on the ability of content playback.

    Luis brings up a good point around remote management (I’m aware TeamViewer recently being added to a display SoC is helpful). The right product for the right application, after considering the project in its entirety. As data capture, aggregation, and insights at the edge become more important, increased compute power follows. Where security, manageability, network friendliness, longevity, and life-cycle are considered, it may sway the components used.

    Many organizations will only consider a Windows based solution for the above mentioned reasons, specifically Retailers, Higher Education, Corporate, and/or Government/Transit)

    Again, all things considered, SoC was an inevitable introduction into our industry, and has increased our industry as a whole. However, It’s a bold move to stack the two against each-other, and objectively say one is better than the other for the whole nearly $20b industry.

    My 2 cents.

  3. My experience is that HTML based signage is still a little bit of a challenge for the SoC options. That and firmware/software updates have been known to knock out signage software on occasion. It is definitely the most popular option for signage since in most cases it is the cheapest, most convenient and still at least as reliable as any Windows based option.

  4. I too agree that SoC is evolving in both departments of cost and technology. But my question for the in screen player smart signage solution is that is it robust?
    When we compare it with the external player system will it give that same hardware functionality?

  5. @Luis – You make a compelling argument. That said, as I stated in my post, it comes down to the brains behind the screen. To clarify, without self-promoting, there are content management systems, including Hughes MediaSignage, where the issue you experienced could have been resolved remotely (without team viewer). If your toolkit is such, remote powering and rebooting capabilities, as well the ability to update connections and and content could have saved you.

  6. Does anyone have experience with this? I really do like the reduced infrastructure aspect. Going from having to use a screen and a device to only having a screen.

    How a set up like this handle the following scenarios?
    1) Screen goes out?
    2) Internet goes out?
    3) Power goes out?

  7. A few quick comments.

    First, Luis, as usual is correct.

    Let’s have a discussion about cost of acquisition versus cost of ownership. While we are talking, let’s also discuss the wisdom of putting your strategic network in the hands of a display vendor, and their track record or success in software. Let’s also discuss the projected life of your new display (long) versus the time-to-obsolescence of the embedded “player” (much shorter). Let’s talk about servicing a player that is inside a hung display. Let’s discuss the differences between a mobile device and a digital signage media player. Let’s make software the issue. So many topics, so little space.

    There has been, and will continue to be innovation on the media player side of the equation. Not every use case calls for the same chipset or capabilities. The time will come when embedded players will make more sense…. but they will be accessible, swappable, upgradable, and not whatever they are using on the consumer television manufacturing line.

    For now, put down the free cocktails at the display vendor reception and understand that you need to start with content and software.

  8. Ken,

    I love the discussion points you bring up. Given that SoC historically has required players to be soldered inside the TV, my original post also discusses the very cool things that LG and Samsung and their extended partner network are doing with regards to 100% cloud-based content management. Therefore, there is no player to go EOL, but rather two committed vendors who are continually tasked with OS enhancements. No more dusty players.

  9. For small scale, simple applications with undemanding customers, SoC may be the way to go. But as was previously mentioned putting lots of these displays out in the “wild” is still a very scary place to be. In addition, buying displays is already a cut throat business, if you commit a deployment to an SoC display you and your customer and forever married to that manufacture. Oh and if you have a problem (“one throat to choke”) have fun getting your hands on that one “throat”!

  10. @Curtis Campbell – Great post!

    @Tom – The days of being married to a single display manufacturer are over. Companies like signageOS, cover integrations for all major SoC manufacturers so CMS companies and end-users can choose whatever device type they prefer.

  11. A major issue that certainly is not a moot point is storage capacity of SoC. Most DS media players have significantly higher built-in, let alone expandable, storage for those of us deploying a store-and-forward network methodology. Storage is critical for any screen with greater content demands, or low to unpredictable connectivity. The last thing we want is buffering or stalled content play due to bandwidth constraints or dropouts – which happen fairly frequently for many reasons. I’ve yet to find SoC with sufficient storage to handle an uninterrupted 20-40 minute playlist. Does anyone have an answer for that issue?

  12. @Tom – I am going to politely disagree with your thoughts. Two years ago, I believe your argument had merit. But there are now enterprise-grade vendors of signage, that have been successful in converting even larger enterprises to a full replacement of traditional signage solutions to SoC / SmartTV signage. And your closing point of “one throat to choke,” and having difficulty reaching them, it is critical that those vendors committing to this model have 24/7/365 support as well as fully managed services.

  13. I’d like to address Jude’s questions. While I’m not sure how the Samsung or LG SoC’s will respond in these scenarios, I can answer the questions for a case where the BrightSign Built-In SoC or an external BrightSign media player is in use.
    1) If the screen is powered down or turned off, a networked BrightSign SoC or player can send a command to turn it on. If the screen fails, and you’re using any kind of SoC, obviously you need to replace the whole solution – a big reason to consider using an external player or OPS player.
    2) If the internet goes out, any BrightSign (SoC displays and players) will continue to play the content they have and then when the internet connection is restored it will check for new content updates, download them (if applicable) and then play the new content. This applies to any BrightSign regardless of form factor, but is CMS dependent.
    3) If power goes out, the BrightSign SoC or players will restart automatically when the power comes back on and content will play as scheduled. If power outages are a concern, we recommend using a BrightSign player that can be powered over Ethernet (PoE+) because network infrastructure is often on a power backup since it is considered critical and may continue to provide PoE for a time during a power outage.

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