Sorting out Media Players for Digital Signage

By Jonathan Brawn, CTS, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME

Jonathan Brawn, Principal Brawn Consulting

Jonathan Brawn, Principal
Brawn Consulting

Media player! The words can strike fear into the hearts of integrators and end users everywhere! Okay, perhaps that is a bit melodramatic, but the term will generally bring at least some confusion, and more than a few questions when it comes to determining what kind of “media player” is needed for digital signage deployments. This begs the question… “What exactly is a media player?” Even a cursory look at products available today can leave one’s head spinning with all of the different models, sizes, shapes, types… and add to the confusion that many screen manufacturers such as Samsung and NEC, now have media players or optional PCs embedded into the display itself. Can an embedded PC be a good choice for a media player, or is it generally better to utilize a separate appliance type of media player? How can the systems integrator or end user start to separate what should is needed – and what is available – in media players for digital signage? Let’s explore this very vital, but oftentimes cloudy topic.

When looking at digital signage solutions, we all hear the term “media player” used over and over again.

  • “What media player do you need?”
  • “Does the display have a built in media player?”
  • “Do you offer your own media player?”

The term seems to be used to describe several different types of devices, each with its own capabilities, from many different manufacturers, in all sorts of sizes, shapes and configurations. This can lead to all sorts of confusion about what EXACTLY a media player is, and which one to use for a given project. With as many types of media players as there are, they all share a common function, regardless of who manufactured them, and what configuration they assume. At its core, a media player is a device that is connected to an IP (computer) network, which receives data from a digital signage software’s server component, and processes that data into a video signal that can be shown by a display device. All media players that exist will perform this basic function. Regardless of what any manufacturer or solutions provider may tell you, any digital signage system you design, install, and activate will HAVE to have a media player connected to the display in some fashion. Now, I completely understand that this definition is very broad, so in order to begin sorting through all of the different types of media player, we need to break them down into two main categories; PC based media players, meaning they are essentially Windows computers, and appliance based media players, which are specialized devices made to run specific software packages. Each type can take several forms, and will vary in size and configuration, so let’s examine both in more detail.

Minicom Sports Club1The most common type of device used in digital signage today is the PC based media player, which as the name implies, are essentially PCs customized to fit digital signage applications. This typically involves reducing the form factor of the PC, making it smaller. That allows it to be mounted in a larger variety of ways, and thus easier to install. Additional features may be designed into the device, making it more specific to digital signage. These may include passive cooling, larger numbers of video outputs, specialized mounting brackets, more durable components, and solid state storage. Essentially they are built to be the most durable devices possible, and ready for the sometimes harsh environments we put digital signage into. There are a number of different manufacturers in the industry who provide PCs as media players in reduced size. However, the size of your average mini-tower PC from major manufacturers poses a problem with installations inside a digital signage deployment. Of course, you can often use any Windows based computer with most digital signage software packages. Standard “off the shelf” PC form factors found at big box stores have reduced in size considerably over the last several years, but despite this trend, they are still somewhat bulky for our purposes. Large PCs are difficult to conceal, making them difficult if not impossible to install at the display itself. The need for many of them in most installations would require an enormous amount of space in the equipment room, if they are not located at the display. Also, they are not built to be as durable as we may desire for our purposes here. So let’s recommend sticking to industrial grade products, shall we?

In addition to the traditional PC based media players, a new breed of media player has emerged in recent years, aiming to replace traditional PC based units in digital signage deployments. These appliance based media players are customized devices that don’t run a Windows operating system, which instead will run a mobile operating system like Android, or a custom software environment, dedicated to a single application. These new appliances are generating considerable market buzz and interest, and have several advantages, but also have limitations that must be considered. Appliance based media players fall into the following categories: custom software based, Android based, and finally, display embedded solutions.

Our first type we will examine can be very attractive due to the simplicity of the solution (in most cases!) and lower cost versus many other solutions. Custom software based media players are designed around a specific digital signage software solution, and that is all they are capable of running. They will generally be sold as a single “product” combined with the software they are designed to run. These may be based on PC type components, such as a single board computer, a system on a chip, or mobile type components, like a tablet or smartphone. Some custom software based media players are built using a PC OS, such as Linux, but are designed not to provide access to an operating system, rather only providing the user access to the software’s specific user interface. Due to the design, custom software based media players can be very small, because they will frequently use something like an SoC (System on a Chip) or SBC (Single Board Computer) to integrate components into a smaller package. Great technique, as it can also reduce quite a bit of the cost of the product, custom software devices like this (BrightSign being a great example, down to the vibrant shade of purple helping make the boxes memorable!) can be a few hundred dollars, including the software. Not a bad thought, over all.

Moving swiftly on, the next big wave of media player buzz has been the emergence of quite capable Android based devices. As the name implies, Android based media players are built around Google’s popular Android operating system, in a set top box, or even a tablet. This provides a LOT of the functionality of a full PC based solution, while offering the flexibility of an open operating system that can run a variety of applications. They can be preferable to many IT departments, as they are not going to suffer from the traditional “Windows Issues” so many can become tired of dealing with, from updates to security. Android is, at least at this time, a more “safe” choice for a lot of IT departments who don’t want to manage yet another PC on the network! Like custom software based media players, Android based media players can be very compact due to integrated components. Another reason they are becoming more popular is the lower cost, and relatively high performance per dollar spent. Typically, Android based media players are sold bundled with a specific software solution, but generic ones can be found that will run any Android application, and there are indeed different Android based signage software solutions out there that can run on a generic device.

One final concept under the discussion of appliance based devices… some manufacturers are offering display embedded media players, built right into the display devices you are purchasing. Please don’t confuse these for PC based devices that may be embedded or added on to the display. In this case, I mean a true custom device, or Android device, that is totally included with the display. In this case, think Smart TV, not PC. This can radically simplify the installation and reduce the cost of the hardware, provided the media player and its software are able to meet the needs of the application. These devices are typically based on SoC (System on a Chip) platforms, where all functions like CPU, video, RAM, and storage are all embedded in a single piece of silicon. This technology is what led to the tiny sizes of smartphones today, as well. These embedded players can offer a lot of functions that may be found on other appliance based devices, but being built in will often limit the expansion, ports, and upgrade potential. After all, it is installed within the display!

Now that we have discussed the types of players out there, you are hopefully feeling better equipped to answer the all-important question: What one do I pick? Let’s go over the process, and see if we can give you some guidance on how to answer that question. When you are designing and specifying a digital signage system, you will start with the overall objective of the system; what are its goals, what is it going to accomplish, and understand how will that be judged. Trust me, I’m getting to media players! Answering those questions about the objective will inevitably lead into a discussion about the types of content and the message to achieve those objectives. After all, content is the way we deliver the message, and our message is how we achieve our objective, is it not? Still not convinced this has anything to do with media players? This isn’t technology, but business? Stay with me here, I promise we will get there. One we establish the objectives and the content, since we know what the content is, and how we intend to use it… that will guide us into what software solution needs to be used for the system, because if the software does not meet those criteria, the system will fail. See a trend here? Once we know what content file types, distribution strategy, general idea of scheduling, and what specific software we will need to make it all work, we can refer to the software for guidance on exactly what type of media player is needed, and what specifications it needs to have to run that software. Told you we were getting to it! You need to always carefully consider the requirements of the software and the content selected before finalizing a media player choice. Software providers will typically list the specific hardware requirements for their products, and that tells you what you will need for your particular system.

In the end, there is no single, simple answer. There are a lot of PC based media players out there, and as long as your PC has enough horsepower (you must be at least this tall to ride) you can run your software on it. Make sure your device fits your installation strategy, and is durable enough to last. Appliance based devices can be incredibly attractive due to cost, and they definitely can be a great option, one well worth considering. Today they offer many of the same capabilities as PC based solutions, and less security and IT hassles. Android is really moving in as a viable option, and Google is now positioning its ChromeOS and Chromebox devices as low cost digital signage solutions. They may not be quite as powerful, or upgradeable as a PC, but they are definitely making waves! Either route you go, hopefully we have helped you better understand your choices available to you, and you can get down to picking out a player, plugging in a display, and logging in to the world of dynamic messaging!

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