Can you use a Chromecast for digital signage?

Google has been making waves in the digital signage market for about two years. They’ve made it clear that “Google is here” in terms of digital signage.

The Google ecosystem has compelling hardware and software available to drive your digital signs.

There’s frequent discussion about Google-based digital signage using Chromecast as a player. But Google has other products like the Chromebit and Chromebox that also work for digital signage.

So, which one should you use?

The true answer (like with many things) is: it depends.

For our purposes, I’m going to compare Chromecast to the Chromebit to use as a measuring stick for what’s possible.

Both the Chromecast and Chromebit devices have the ability to deliver content to a high-resolution display – a key requirement for digital signage. Both devices are relatively inexpensive, $35 and $85 respectively for the Chromecast and Chromebit.  

Both have a number of software solutions enabled through third parties that help you to manage the content.

They operate, however, very differently.

If you want a quick answer: Chromecasts are can be good for single digital display in one location (depending on how you want to use it). If you try to use Chromecast for multiple displays in multiple locations, it gets difficult to manage since there’s no central management solution. This can be good for one location stores.

With the Chromebit (or Chromebox), they use the Chrome Management Console, so you can manage a handful, or thousands of devices and remotely control the content showing on every display with ease. This is an enterprise-grade digital signage player.

They’re both very different, but both have valid uses. So here’s some information to de-mystify the differences between the devices if you’re exploring them for your digital signage solution.

Intended Use

The first approach to understanding both devices is to understand their intended use.

The Chromecast, as it’s name implies, is intended to “cast” content from one location such as a computer, tablet or smartphone, onto a display.  You can “cast” your screen from one of these devices and have what you see on your local device be presented on a large screen so that many may view it.  

The Chromecast includes apps that can cast content streamed from the internet onto the same display.  These are apps like Netflix and others – The Chromecast provides a streaming link your online content account (e.g. Netflix) and relays or “plays” that content on a single display.

While the Chromecast does have some on-board intelligence in terms of operation, the one thing it is not is a general purpose computing tool.

The Chromebit is seemingly similar to the Chromecast, but in fact, it is in a completely different class of machines – it IS a general purpose computing tool. The Chromebit is functionally equivalent to a Chromebook, without the display. So you can think of it as a $85 computer on a stick. The Chromebit is more functionality aligned with a Google Chromebox, but without the ethernet port or multiple peripheral ports.

The Chromebit is designed to turn any display into a Chrome-based computer. Because of this, the Chromebit provides more functional capabilities, complexity and flexibility.  

To understand why the above are important, let’s consider a metaphor: fishing. There are many tools you can use to catch fish. Which tools are best for you?

Well, it depends…

You can use your hand to catch fish. You can use a piece of string and fashion a hook from a piece of wire and add bait – more complex but you might catch more fish. Do you like to fish for bass as a weekend pastime? Maybe you need to invest in more specialized equipment and perhaps a boat. Do you supply a seafood restaurant with their fresh fish? This is a whole new level of specialization and tools.

Following the above metaphor, if your digital signage objective is to learn about digital signage and maybe experiment with a single sign, then the Chromecast might be a good place to start.  

If you run a business that relies upon digital signage to communicate with your customers and/or employees – this is an extension of your brand image – then maybe you need to invest in more specialized equipment – the Chromebit.

If you run digital signs for your customers, who entrust you to manage their brand and communication with their employees and customers, that is another “whole new level of specialization” and the Chromebit can work well here too.

As the business needs progress and become more specialized, one can further help to determine which device is best by considering the following categories of functional needs:

  • Usability
  • Manageability
  • Scalability
  • Security
  • Fault Resilience

Usability

How easy is the device to use in a digital signage scenario?

While the concepts are similar – getting content to a screen – you have the added complexity with the Chromecast device in that you are projecting something from somewhere else to your digital display.  

The intended use is to take something personal from one device and present it on one display that helps communicate the content to a group of people, such as in a meeting / conference room.

The content will always be presented “by reference” – one-to-one – to some other device or service. Functionally it can present the content. That’s where it stops.

Getting the Chromecast running as a digital sign requires it to be paired with some other device in order to get it connected to your WiFi network, then using that same device, determine what to play.  

While not complex, it will suffice for one or a small handful of displays. It is a different experience – not one to easily support more specialized needs.

The Chromebit is a computer with 16 GB of onboard storage. You can actually cache content locally on the device. There are also Chrome Apps that can be added to the device to stream other content – you can stream Netflix on the Chromebit too, using it as a relay to your internet-based Netflix account, but that is not really its intended use.   

The Chromebit can take on many roles, general and specialized. Connecting it is really easy: plug it into your display, and connect a keyboard and mouse (either via bluetooth or USB) and from there forward, it’s pretty much like connecting any other computer to the internet.  

Everything you work with is displayed on the digital display because that is the Chromebit computer’s display.

Manageability

The Chromecast is pretty much WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). If you have to manage multiple displays, you have to visit the device at each display to get it connected and each Chromecast has to be paired with another intelligent device or service from which it receives content.  

Change your WiFi security code or SSID and you’ll have have to do it all again, at every display.

The Chromebit can be enterprise enrolled via Google’s Chrome Management Console (an extra $24 per year subscription). For the example of changing your WifI security code, all you’d need to do is login to Google and add a new policy before you make the WiFi switch.

Then, when the switch is made, every device you have managed will automatically pick up the new policy and connection. Change once and update many.

The ability to manage the Chromebit via Chrome Management means that this device can participate very effectively and efficiently in ever-more specialized digital signage scenarios.

It is this capability that gives it even more differentiation in the following categories.

Scalability

Scalability comes back to the device’s intended use.

The Chromebit is not designed to function as a specialized network of players for a digital signage deployment. It’s chiefly designed as a consumer or business device to project your personal content from another device or location to a single screen.

Because of this, it’s hard to scale support for this with content for multiple signs because you have to have another device at each and every location that is pushing content to the Chromecast.

Do you have 10 signs? You need 10 Chromecast devices and 10 sources for content (computers, tablets, phones, etc..) That becomes expensive really quickly, and more difficult to manage. If you need to make a change, you have to make 10 changes on each of the source devices (assuming all signs are playing the same content).

The Chromebit, with its centralized management capabilities via Chrome Management, can be configured to function as an intelligent yet independent device. You can tell it and nine other devices what they should be playing from a central location and they will continue to function with those commands independently.

This means that if you add 500 more digital signs overnight, it wouldn’t be a headache at all, and updating content / managing the players wouldn’t take any more time than it would with 5.

Security

Are you concerned about having sensitive / private content suddenly show up on your signs? The security for the Chromecast is light at best. What if some accidentally logs-in to one of your content source computers and starts browsing the web.

How would that affect your business?  

The Chromebit can be configured to where it will only function in “kiosk mode” meaning it’s dedicated to the digital signage app you select and cannot be used for other purposes.  If you are playing content from other locations, you can actually configure the Chromebit so that only specific URLs are accessible. You have an ability to lock down the Chromebit.

Fault Resilience

Because the Chromecast device is a relay, what happens to your digital display if the content from the source computer or account is no longer available. What happens if the network goes down? Your display changes to a default image slideshow or shuts down completely.

If your business wants to minimize the probability of a display fail, then the Chromebit is a better choice. Because the Chromebit includes local storage, the content to be displayed can actually be cached at the device itself and if the internet connection is lost, the sign will continue to play your content.  

Because of this local storage capability, digital signage software solutions can provide even more capabilities for you to keep the signs up. Further, in the event of a device failure, the Chromebit can be preconfigured, shipped to a remote display and simply plugged-in and it starts to play.

Summary

Both the Chromecast and Chromebit are wonderful devices.

They have been designed for very different intended uses. You can use a Chromecast at $39 apiece to power a digital sign (not including the price of the dedicated computer/tablet/phone to stream the content).

And with a Chromebit at $85 and a Chrome Management license at $24 you gain the ability to scale from a single sign to a truly enterprise-class digital signage player.  

They’re so different, they never compete with each other. It’s not comparing apples to apples here. I hope this helped educate you as to how each device can be used.

So… given the two devices, which would you choose?