Guest Post: Rob Côté, Broadsign
When it comes to choosing a digital signage player, most network operators will go with a PC running Windows or Linux, but it’s not the only choice out there. Android boxes, Chrome OS, and systems on a chip (Soc) have all come into their own as platforms in recent years. Each has found a following among digital signage network owners and operators.
Wondering which option is best for you? Here’s a breakdown to help you decide.
Windows or Linux-based PCs
Best applications: Digital signage networks with 25 screens+ | Ad-based & extensible networks | 4K & 8K signage content delivery
There are a few reasons for PCs being the standard choice for digital signage players.
First, and most importantly, PCs are as powerful as you want them to be. While many hardware companies offer pre-made, PC-based digital signage players, there’s nothing stopping a network owner from piecing together a custom solution with whatever specs they need to run their network.
Running an uncomplicated digital signage network? Pick less expensive components.
Need to be able to cycle through 4K creative, integrate external data feeds, or enable interactivity? Shell out a little extra for more power.
PCs also offer unmatched familiarity and extensibility. PC operating systems like Windows and Ubuntu are supported by most of the leading digital signage software companies. Likewise for supporting entities that offer cloud computing or audience measurement functionality that network owners may require. This is especially important for networks that intend to run advertising. Data tracking and reporting capabilities are vital to unlocking the true value of those networks’ inventories.
A crowd of people walking through an Italian train station. Overhead is a large digital sign displaying an ad.
Finally, an important plus for PC-driven networks is that they don’t lock owners into one particular platform. If a network operator doesn’t like the digital signage software they’ve chosen, it’s possible to switch to something different. Proprietary players running other operating systems don’t always allow this.
The main drawbacks to PCs are cost and complexity. High-end signage players require expensive components, a fact which makes large networks that require lots of computing power very expensive to build and maintain. Relatively speaking, it also takes more work to install and connect players to screens on a network as opposed to installing integrated systems.
Additionally, maintenance can be a little trickier with PCs. Network operators will need to devote attention to ensuring operating systems are kept up-to-date for the latest features and security fixes. On the hardware side, it’s not uncommon for manufacturers to cease producing older components. If one component of a PC player fails after a few years of use, it’s possible that it won’t be possible to find a compatible replacement. A substantial rebuild, or a full replacement, could be required.
As alternative offerings mature, they may offer a compelling solution for large or growing networks. Until that time, the flexibility and power of a PC-based ecosystem will net the best results for the most demanding signage projects.
System On Chip displays
Best applications: Simplified signage setups | Minimal extensibility requirements | Any network size
What if a digital signage network didn’t need players at all? That’s the thinking behind “systems on a chip” displays, a term which in this context is effectively synonymous with IoT digital signage. With this technology, a chipset included within the digital sign itself plays host to the digital signage software that will deliver content to the screen.
This is a streamlined, elegant solution. It allows network owners to buy one device and have their screen and player taken care of at the same time. This could reduce hardware costs and installation time and cost all at once. It could even reduce the complexity of troubleshooting problems that arise, as the hardware within an SoC signage line will be standardized.
A chip on a circuit board. This chip represents an idea of what SoC chips might look like inside of an SoC digital signage display
The main knock against SoC is that this option is less flexible than an external player would be. A system on a chip may work fine for most digital signage projects, but could struggle when with some of the demands common of the larger networks. Before purchasing, network owners should ensure that SoC signage supports all of the functionality they need.
With Samsung offering SoC digital signage running their Tizen OS, LG offering screens running WebOS, and other competitors entering the space besides, there is an increasing pool of options for network owners interested in buying SoC signage.
Ultimately, this offering can be expected to perform at or around the level of other inexpensive players, like boxes that run Chrome OS or Android. Its main advantage is greater support by signage manufacturers and software companies for SoC. Consider these systems to be appropriate for relatively simple networks, but likely underpowered for networks that need to deliver a lot of advertising or complex content.
Best applications: Digital signage networks with less than 25 screens | Basic image or video content (1080p or lower) | Budget digital signage projects
There’s a reason why Chromebits and Chromeboxes have become a hot story in the digital signage world. Chromebits and boxes are cheap—costing anywhere from $100 to $400—and offer native support for HTML5 media, which supports animation, responsive sizing, and other benefits for digital signage.
Chromebits and Chromeboxes are computers that run Chrome OS, the rapidly growing browser-centric operating system maintained by Google. Chromebits cram the OS into a stick that looks like an oversized USB drive, while Chromeboxes use a more standard media player form factor.
A Chromebit on a white background. It looks a lot like a black USB stick, only larger and with a USB port and power port included. These devices are popular among network operators looking for inexpensive digital signage.
Chromebits are popular choices for running digital signage displays on Chrome OS
Key to their usefulness for digital signage is Chrome OS’ “single app kiosk mode.” This opens a window that fills the display and locks away access to the OS menus and options. It represents ready-made signage functionality that is sorely missing in platforms like Android. It means you can build a signage network on Chrome OS and enjoy regular updates, better security, and new features over time.
Note that to access this feature requires paying a licensing fee of $35 or more. An additional licensing fee is required to access remote management features. These allow users to control their internet-connected Chrome OS devices from anywhere in the world.
The main downside of Chrome OS for signage, again, is hardware limitation. Chrome devices often have just 2GB of memory and 16GB of storage, which is nowhere near enough to power the most ambitious signage projects. You’ll also find that some of the best digital signage platforms do not currently support Chrome OS, meaning your software options are a little more limited in this space.
Despite those flaws, Chrome OS is quite capable of running a good, small digital signage network. If your needs are not complex, but you do need to be able to manage and update your network remotely, this may be your best choice.
Best applications: Small, very simple digital signage networks | Content with resolution of 1080p or below | Budget digital signage projects
Android players tend to be inexpensive, consume little power, and often have pretty decent specs. In terms of cost per player, a network owner would likely save money by opting for Android over PC-based players with similar specs. Their ease of use, meanwhile, makes it simple for owners to just plug in, load their digital signage software of choice, and start delivering their content.
A small black media box with a remote on top. Android boxes used to power digital signage often look similar to this.
Android boxes are inexpensive options for powering digital signage
On the negative side, the Android operating system is not really designed for use with digital signage, and has nothing comparable to Chrome’s kiosk mode. Existing digital signage players based upon Android have to make custom modifications to the OS to make it work for signage. This takes extra time and resources, and most manufacturers therefore don’t bother updating their products. Look online for available Android-based players and you’re likely to find that they’re 3-4 versions of Android behind the latest operating system release. This could mean higher security risk for the players.
Android players also tend to be nothing more than rebranded consumer products running modified OSs and applications. They tend to be more prone to failure, potentially resulting in greater maintenance costs over time as compared to other player options. Their hardware is also not at the pinnacle of computing power, meaning they won’t be right for demanding networks.
A good Android player will be most appropriate for those networks with simpler content demands—like restaurant menus or digital signage on a small school campus. If you could run your networks with USB sticks plugged into low-power computers, you will likely be quite happy choosing Android. For complex or ad-based networks, a different choice will be best.