What’s Driving Your Content? Digital Signage Media Player Choices

By Angela Tang
Marketing Manager, AOPEN America

The different available choices in what can drive your digital signage content can be confusing. There are dozens and dozens of different media player manufacturers to choose from, offering everything from SoC (System-on-a-Chip) appliances, embedded PCs, small form factor systems, servers, standard PCs and even laptops.

The decision to choose one option over another is something that shouldn’t be taken lightly. There are many factors in determining which one is the best fit for your needs, and not every option is suitable for every situation. It is an investment that should last for years and be able to grow and adapt to your needs. We’ll look at a few things to help you make the right choice.

RDU-Airport-digital-signage-Richard-Lebovitz-photo-0713What’s Under the Hood? Figuring Out What Your Deployment Needs

Each media player option and has its own set of features suited for a specific application, which include some of the following:

  • Is it a networkable device? Is there going to be a network of devices?
  • What output is going to be needed (VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort)?
  • What software is going to be deployed with the media player?
  • Where is it going to be physically deployed? What kind of conditions?
  • Are there any physical space requirements?
  • What kind of thermal considerations are there?
  • What kind of media is going to be used? High definition video? Flash animations?
  • Is there going to be content scheduling? Interactive syncing? Multi-zoning? Playlist updates?

These are just a few of the questions designed to narrow the focus and help you determine which type of media player is right for your deployment.

Another crucial consideration is the type of content to be displayed. Will it be showing basic text, images and videos in predefined templates? Or will it need to be capable of displaying high-definition dynamic content?

Additionally, what kind of screens will be paired with the media players: multi-panel video walls, 42-inch LCD, 22-inch kiosks, 12-inch POS (Point of Sale)?

And what type of output do you need? The newer the output connector, the higher the level of backwards compatibility, meaning the latest DisplayPort connector (open, royalty-free, extensible standard designed for the IT industry) can be easily converted to any of the previous display technologies. Most vendors will tout their devices support for high-definition content, but actual performance level can differ broadly from device to device.

Given the above considerations, your choice will inevitably boil down to one of the following:

  • An SoC appliance is ideal for those looking for basic signage with low power requirements, but will most likely have trouble handling the requirements of multiple streams of HD video or new media content. This option also lacks the upgradability and scalability of the other media players.
  • Embedded players have the benefit of being built right into a display to save space and provide an all-in-one solution. This could also be a liability if a component within that player or the display itself needs to be serviced, as the entire system goes out of commission.
  • Small form factor media players don’t have the same performance-per-watt ratio as the SoC option, but they balance that with their flexibility and upgradability. They also tend to be manufactured with tougher-than-normal environments in mind. This can be a major factor in a deployment, especially when placed in less than ideal conditions.
  • Networked servers allow for a centralized control center to deliver content across multiple locations and devices. This type of solution shares the same problem as the embedded system, putting “all your eggs in one basket.” If your server goes down or your network connection fails, you could potentially be looking at many blank screens.
  • Lastly, there are regular desktop PCs and laptops. Although powerful enough to drive content to their destinations, their consumer grade materials and lack of standardized sizes could come into question in terms of their durability and longevity.

RDU-Airport-video-wall.-Richard-Lebovitz-photo-0713Who’s Running the Show? Choosing the Right Platform

The platform you choose is largely dependent on the hardware option selected. The Microsoft Windows and Windows Embedded environments allow for high flexibility, supporting a wide range of off-the-shelf content management software products and solutions on the market.

Embedded, small form factor media players, servers tend to utilize these platforms and can be integrated into existing networks with relative ease. With the Windows environment you’ll be able to run multiple applications in the background of your signage, such as capturing audience metrics with a webcam or even engaging with your customers through mobile interactive marketing.

If you’re going the SoC route, you will most likely be running a version of Linux or Android. The technical level required for such platforms could hinder some from getting “onboard,” so to speak. The learning curve is rather steep and most operators looking to save money will probably stick to environments they are familiar with rather than take the time to learn or hire someone to help manage their networks.

A digital signage media player should be preloaded with software to have scheduled content remotely pushed to it over a network. The content management system you decide on should be able to do this without a problem, as well as be capable of scaling to your needs.

Where in the World? Extreme Digital Signage

Digital signage media players aren’t sitting nicely in a temperature-controlled room. They are usually tucked away behind a display or locked in an enclosure or kiosk enduring extreme conditions. When making a decision, keep in mind how much the system will have to endure and how long it will last in that environment.

Being able to manage your equipment remotely should also be taken into consideration. There are hardware solutions available today, such as the Intel vPro with Active Management Technology, that are capable of managing, monitoring, diagnosing and even securing your deployed assets. Remotely managing your hardware will help you reduce your overall costs by eliminating onsite visits as well as reducing the number of times your IT guy needs to pull out the ladder.

Which One Is right for You? Decisions, Decisions

Whether your deployment needs one player to drive simple content, or you need an array of players to be deployed at your 50 different locations all while measuring, be sure to weigh all of the factors. Not all media players are created equally, nor will they give you the same benefits. Take the time to do some research, call up the manufacturers and ask them. There are many choices, making the right choice can only be achieved through educating yourself.

Angela Tang is the marketing manager for AOPEN America. She also serves as the at-large director of the Digital Signage Federation. She has worked closely for the past decade with manufacturers, distributors, system builders and VARs in bringing applied computing solutions to market. To contact her regarding, the information in this article, email: angelatang@aopen.com.

This column was reprinted with permission from the Digital Signage Connection and originally appeared here.