There are many digital signage solutions on the market. Some are purpose-built for very unique, niche requirements (for example think of the many unique digital displays that can be found on the Las Vegas strip and in their casinos).

Others are general purpose and are becoming more ubiquitous with respect to their use in everyday messaging.

Content management systems provide the ability to manage the content. Think: videos, images, or other media types you use that get delivered from HQ to all of your digital displays.

Players, or devices that integrate with each TV display, are where the rubber meets the road. The player delivers the message to the display and translates all of your business rules codified within the content management systems (CMS) into the messages you want to deliver to your audience.

Many times the player itself is overlooked, or minimized in terms of consideration when evaluating the selection of an overall digital signage solution. We tend to go for the things that look good from a user interface perspective, like the Content Management System. And it’s vital to have a good CMS.

But the best CMS in the world is worthless if the players fail to deliver your message to the targeted audience. In the end, selection of a digital signage solution is a balance across all components with respect to the solution requirements.

There are many players on the market for digital signage. We wanted to review some of the more popular devices within the following categories: Chrome-based, PC-based (Mac/Windows), embedded within a display, and proprietary.

The following digital signage players representative of these categories were selected for review: Blackbox iCompel and Cisco Edge (proprietary), LG 55LX (embedded within a TV/Display), Mac Mini and Dell Precision (Mac and Windows PC, respectively), and Asus’ Chromebox and Chromebit (Chrome-based).  

The review focuses on the device attributes needed for an effective, secure, scalable solution:

  • Operating system maintainability
  • Operating system security
  • Resolution
  • Processing capability
  • Connectivity
  • Device management approach
  • Green tech
  • Form factor
  • Price point

Natively Secure Operating System

Is the operating system inherently or “natively” secure? This goes to the design methodology and approach to how the operating system is maintained and updated.

Chrome OS wins hands down in terms of known issues (lack thereof), rapidity and approach to patching and updating (all automatically controlled by Google). From its inception, Google designed the commercial version of Chrome OS to be enterprise grade by providing the capabilities needed by large organizations in terms of security, scalability and maintainability.  

Cisco comes in second place. The others? It’s Windows, Linux and Mac, all of which require extra effort in terms of tools, people power, and time to maintain and keep secure.

Security

The above “Natively Secure” category is more about the mindset of how the operating system is developed and maintained, but also drives this Security Category.

Chrome and the Chrome Device Management (CDM) Console win again. All patching and updates are managed by Google. The Administrator has an ability to stage patches and updates but once the decision is made to push the changes live, it’s all automatic. Or, you can leave automatic updates turned fully on and Google will manage it completely on your behalf. Google has an army of security team members that continuously evaluate security threats and rapidly provide updates when threats are identified.

Chrome has been billed as “the most secure commercial operating system in the world.”

Operating System Support for Kiosk Mode

Can the device be locked down from a software perspective and run in “Kiosk Mode.”  

This is more that just an auto-boot feature to the digital signage function and treads somewhat into the security category. By “Kiosk Mode,” can the device be configured from an administrative perspective to boot into the digital signage application – and only the digital signage application – protecting it from (miss)use for other applications?

Chrome OS wins from a general purpose computing device perspective over Windows/Mac. As for the proprietary units, they come in a three-way tie for first as they are dedicated digital signage devices.

Resolution

Display resolution (and screen size) will always get better. 1080p is today’s norm and 4k is already making inroads, but still on horizon in terms of pervasive use.

It’s important that the player be able to play in a resolution appropriate for general purpose digital signage applications across the wide variety of available displays, and that means 1080p.  

The Mac wins here as it already natively supports both 1080p and 4k in the base unit. All others support 1080p today in the base unit with premium units either available or in development to support 4k.

CPU / Processing Capability

All of the players implement CPU/GPU combinations enabling them to successfully support complex content requirements – full motion video and animation, crisp and clear.

Included Connectivity

The Chromebox and Mac Mini tie for the win here as they both provide WiFi, Bluetooth and Ethernet connectivity in their base unit.

The Chromebit is hindered by its small size and therefore does not provide an ethernet port but it does also include Bluetooth where the remaining devices do not. All of the other units either require an upgraded version to support WiFi or in the case of the embedded display, do not support WiFi connectivity.

All of the reviewed devices provide USB connectivity.

Device / Player Management

This category is important for scaling and ease of maintenance of your digital signage solution.   Ease of maintenance is just as important for one device as it is many.

Scaling the maintenance process means being able to support many players easily. This is another category where Chrome devices win across the board. The Chrome Management Console provided by Google means that you can remotely manage one device through policy management and those policies can automatically be pushed to thousands of devices.  There’s not a limit to how many you can include.

Statistics on player operation, remote reset, remote screenshots, it’s all there. Cisco is a close second because of its robust network management lineage.

Green Tech

Do the reviewed devices represent an opportunity to reduce power utilization as a result of how they are built?

Just measuring the size of the included power supplies makes it easy to assess. The Chrome devices, Cisco, and Black Box devices are the most green.

Form Factor

How easy is it to physically hide the player/device?

Form factor helps to determine and can limit the aesthetics of your sign. It’s humorous to see a really high-end digital sign on an expensive, impressive stand and see a large tower computer standing next to it. That kind of ruins the brand impression.

Smaller is better and from that perspective the Chromebit cannot be beaten as it can fit easily in one’s pocket. Next best are the Chromebox and Mac Mini.

Price Point

Like any purchase, price is always important. Given the other features, at what price point are they available to you?  There is a 10:1 difference between the least and most expensive devices reviewed. You can purchase 10 Chromebits for the price of one Black Box player. The Chromebox is the next least expensive.

Chrome represents the least expensive of the reviewed solutions and leads at that price point from a feature/function comparison too.

Summary

All of these reviewed devices are effective digital signage players. Some have been around awhile, others are new to the market. Some are dedicated, others are general purpose computing devices cast into application-specific roles.

Evaluate your solution from the perspective of your unique application requirements, and your organization’s ability to support the player devices themselves.

Here are some questions to consider when making your purchase:

  • Are you deploying one or hundreds/thousands of devices?
  • Where do you spend most of the time managing the player/device itself? Is it the operating system of the player (patching, etc.) or more digital signage application-focused?
  • How easily and well does this player management process integrate with the digital signage application?  
  • How does the player management process integrate with your existing support infrastructure?
  • Do you have to physically “remote-in” to manage each player or can you do so “en masse” (or singularly) from a centralized, cloud-based management console?
  • Can you manage the player or players from your phone or tablet while “on the go?”
  • Can you adjust the volume of audio playback remotely or do you have to log-into the player or be at the player with a remote control?
  • Can you control the display (e.g. input) remotely through the player or do you have to be physically at the display with a remote control?
  • Does the player require additional software in order to ensure reliability and security (e.g. Anti-Virus, enterprise management software, etc.)?
  • Can the player use standard off-the-shelf components to enhance its capabilities or are they proprietary?
  • Does the player automatically provide remote diagnostic and support information as a part of its base configuration allowing a low cost, centralized, scalable support model?
  • Does the player’s form factor fit with your vision of how the digital sign will be presented to the target audience (can it be easily hidden from view, yet remain easily installed and maintained).

As one customer stated, “We’re deploying 1,500 digital signs, we don’t want 1,500 problems.”

Which device works best for your digital signage deployment? Can you do better for the given cost?

This reviewer finds that the chrome-based devices, given their price point, operating cost and remote management/support capabilities, are very hard to beat as general purpose digital signage players, be it a one-unit deployment or a network of thousands of digital signs.