What is the best digital signage hardware? It is a trick question— and a question impossible to give a short answer to unless cost is not a factor. But let’s try to answer it anyway because it’ll save you headaches, money and increase your chances of success in the long run.
In this blog post, I will try to explain what is important when choosing a player for your digital signage installation. We’ll cover subjects like Reliability and Uptime, Content Complexity, Environment Conditions, and see if they matter when choosing a digital signage player.
Reliability and Uptime
For many of us, the purpose of signage is to educate, inform, or advertise. We also want to spend as little time as possible on hardware issues at a reasonable price. So how can we fulfill our signage purpose without paying out a fortune? For starters, let’s try to think about it in terms of reliability and uptime.
What is “uptime”?
Very roughly, when it comes to digital signage hardware, 99% uptime means that your scheduled content is shown without problems 99% of the time. 100% means there are no problems at all.
For some organizations, uptime is critical and for others, having a frozen screen or glitches once in a while doesn’t really matter. For example, let’s say you have a fast-food restaurant, would you really want your screens to go black in rush hour? I don’t think so. On the other hand, if you’re a barbershop owner, would it be the end of the world if your screens had glitches once in a while? Again, I don’t think so.
Question: can I accept some hardware issues at a lower device price or do I absolutely have to have the best possible uptime?
Answer 1: uptime is very important to me — I’m willing to pay more for less headache.
Answer 2: I‘m on a tight budget — uptime is secondary to me.
If uptime is secondary, you should consider buying a consumer device like Amazon FireTV Stick, ChromeBit, Intel Compute Stick, Raspberry PI 4, or similar. Those player devices are cheaper in price and work well for a lot of people. But they are not designed for digital signage and maximum uptime.
Complexity: How demanding is your signage content on hardware?
Are you playing HD Videos and animations on each slide or are you more focused on good old text information? Is it something in between? You don’t have to answer this question perfectly but if you spend a bit of time thinking about this, you’re going to be more informed than most.
Here’s a simplified rule of thumb: the more animations, plugins, and videos you want to display on the screen, the harder your device will have to work to display it without problems. So if the work is very hard, you need a very capable piece of hardware. On the other hand, if the work is easy then cheaper and less capable hardware can do it.
Let’s say you have a FireTV Stick and you are running slides with weather, images, video, text, clock, and the date and it works great. But as soon as you add animations to multiple slides, you start seeing that graphics are not so smooth anymore. This can mean that you are pushing your hardware to its limits and should either consider upgrading the hardware or downgrading the content.
So is your main concern the price or content richness? Anything in between? If you prioritize content, get a high-end player and if you’re on a very tight budget then you can save yourself some headache by designing your content accordingly.
Environment conditions: where are you going to keep your signage hardware and does it matter?
The placement also has an impact on what players you can get. Is the player going to be placed outside, inside, behind a TV, or in a drawer?
More experienced users know how big of an impact the environment has on signage hardware. If you place a consumer device like Chromebit in a closed environment (like a drawer) where the temperature gets high, it’s likely going to break down sooner rather than later if you don’t ventilate the place properly.
You will always need to take into consideration what the hardware is designed and manufactured for.
Less talk, tell me what to do!
I will go through different players that I have been working with over time. I will try to categorize them and put out some guidelines.
Budget option: Media and TV players
Media players are hardware for home multimedia playback. They are designed to plug into a TV and to display movies, games, and many more apps; they were not manufactured for playing content 24/7/365 (though they can handle that). These are usually sticks or boxes. In this category, you’ll find Amazon FireTV Stick, Amazon FireTV 4K, MXQ Pro, Mi Box, Chromebit, and Compute Stick.
They are cheaper in price and they work pretty well with most digital signage software on the market. The biggest challenge with these players is rendering graphics, so if your content is complex you might experience slow rendering of your content and/or players crashing.
General Purpose Consumer Devices
These players are simply hardware with enough power to handle even the most complex signage designs, but not intended or designed for digital signage. These are mid- to high-end devices with adequate RAM, CPU, and GPU resources. They include Laptops or PCs with Windows, OSX, Linux, and Android OS. If you want to re-purpose hardware that you already own or simply found a good deal on a laptop, this may be an option for you.
Industrial Digital Signage Players
High-end players are designed and manufactured to do really well with digital signage networks. They are very stable, most of them have low consumption of power and they have resources to keep everything running smoothly.
These players can be found for any purpose: indoor, outdoor, low-consumption, and so forth. Among them, you will find manufacturers like Aopen, iBase, Advantech, Nexcom, and many more.
With that said, you are not guaranteed a safe journey when searching for players designed for digital signage. The manufacturers don’t just manufacturer one kind of player, they now offer different categories of players too.
TVs with Built-in Media Players
Lastly, we have a much more interesting segment of players or more specific TV with built-in player resources. You’ll find manufacturers like Samsung, LG, and lots more promoting these as the future of digital signage. Lately, we also find multiple unknown manufacturers offering their TV with built-in Amazon, ROKU, Android, etc.
No doubt that we are going to see more and more manufacturers with built-in support for digital signage and soon also with the option to choose whatever resources you need.
If you want to make a better choice of digital signage hardware, ask yourself one or more of the following questions:
1. Reliability and Uptime: Do I need the best possible uptime or can I accept something less for a better price?
2. Content Complexity: How complex is my content? In other words, how hard your hardware would have to work to display it smoothly without glitches?
3. Environment Conditions: Where is your hardware going to be placed? Is it usually hot there? Very cold?
I hope this article sheds some light on the notorious question “What is the best player?”. What determines the best player for you is the content you want to display, your and your budget for player hardware.