Raspberry Pi digital signage has been around for a few years. Because of the low price tag to Raspberry Pi, many think of it as the easiest, lowest barrier to entry hardware solution for their digital signage needs.

And if that were the assumption, I think you would be wrong.

Don’t get me wrong: there is definitely a time and a place for Raspberry Pi… but more on that in a minute.

But first… Chrome.

Google has been making splashes in the industry with Chrome for digital signage. With the Chromebox, Chromebit, and Chromebase, there are options at a couple different price points.

While the Chromebit is closer to the price tag of the Raspberry Pi 3, there are more data points with the Chromebox since it has a few years of digital signage experience under its belt, so I’ll be comparing the Asus Chromebox i3 to the Raspberry Pi 3.  

So, the question is: which hardware option is the best fit for my company?

If you’re looking for simple and inexpensive hardware to run digital signage, then you’re likely to come across Raspberry Pi and Chrome early on.

I’ll go into plenty of detail about both below, but here’s what you need to know upfront. 


Something to note:
 I put together a checklist of 6 questions you should be thinking over as you evaluate hardware/software options to gauge your digital signage readiness. 
You can download the PDF here and print out as a reference.

Background on Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny, simple computer that hooks up to a digital display. Though it was originally meant as a way to teach kids about simple programming, people soon realized the potential for creative use.

Digital signage companies and other developers quickly began creating platforms that can be used with Raspberry Pis. Some are polished; others you need to be a developer yourself to really use. Many are free or have a free version available for limited use.

Background on Chrome

The Chromebox, meanwhile, is essentially a small form-factor PC version of the Chromebook. Running Chrome OS, it centers on using cloud-based apps. You can hook it up to any display and use it like a computer. The native kiosk mode turns it into a digital display solution.

Typically, the cost of purchase includes a one-year subscription to Chrome’s Device Management Console, which makes managing a fleet of devices seamless (automatic software updates, rollout is fast and easy, and the ability to group devices).

While the Chromecast is a Chrome product that can be used for digital signage, it’s strictly a streaming device and is best paired with a single screen. It can still be useful in some applications and for some very small companies. We talk more about the Chromecast here.

Let’s get comparing!

Raspberry Pi 3

Price

$35 for the unit, plus case, SD card, HDMI and Ethernet cables, totaling about $60.

Stats for Nerds

1.2GHz 64-bit quad-core ARMv8 CPU

802.11n Wireless LAN

Bluetooth 4.1

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

1GB RAM

4 USB Ports

Full HDMI port

Ethernet port

Combined 3.5mm audio jack/composite video

Display interface (DSI)

Micro SD card slot

VideoCore IV 3D graphics core

How Raspberry Pi Digital Signage Works

After acquiring the necessary components in the bundle (SD cards, cables, etc…), the user downloads an operating system such as NOOBS (not a joke) onto their SD card, hooks the Raspberry Pi 3 up, then boots it and configures the operating system.

After that, the user can write their own programs—or load up a digital signage platform created by someone else, which is much more accessible for most users.

The content is uploaded to, cached on, and played from the Raspberry Pi 3. There are many ways to set the system up, depending on budget and tech-savviness.

Pros

  • Price: Good luck finding any hardware that costs less and offers the same functionality.
  • Customizability: If you know what you’re doing—and that’s definitely the key—it’s possible to do a lot with a Raspberry Pi. This could mean anything from writing your own programs for it, to letting it communicate with and gather data from other devices.
  • Form Factor: So tiny, you could fit it in an Altoids tin. Or Velcro it onto the back of your screen, which might be more practical and have less Altoid smell.
  • Energy efficiency: The stripped-down hardware has very low energy requirements compared to a traditional PC.
  • Community: Raspberry Pi’s forums are filled with other people exploring the Pi’s capabilities, and many are willing to help you troubleshoot your projects.

Cons

  • Manual update: Depending on your software, you may have to manually load updates to each individual device.
  • Limited memory: There’s no way to increase the Pi’s RAM above 1 GB. Relying on microSD cards for storage is also limiting.
  • Lag: Users report lag when displaying Java-heavy pages… and sometimes just when playing video.
  • Intimidation factor: If the “How it works” description above left your head spinning, the Raspberry Pi may not be for you. In fact, even after the initial setup, everyday users may find it difficult to perform common tasks like adding programs.
  • Security: The Pi lacks native security features that other solutions (like Chrome) have, though many of the digital signage platforms available offer their own security solutions.

Who Uses Raspberry Pi for Digital Signage?

Raspberry Pi digital signage is primarily an entry-level solution. The low cost and wide availability of inexpensive or free software gives it appeal for people like church IT volunteers and owners of small one-location stores.

The lack of a built-in central management system and the involved nature of programming a Raspberry Pi to work with digital signage means it’s not often implemented on a large scale.

However, there are exceptions. For our case study, let’s look at Compunet Automation.

This system integrator was tasked by clients in the automotive industry with developing a way to display build performance, data, and cycle times. Seeing this data would help the production managers and operators increase efficiency.

Compunet chose to use Raspberry Pis to power the displays, 3D-printing their own industrial-grade enclosures for the devices, and developing their own application to display the necessary data and allow the units to be controlled and updated remotely.

Asus Chromebox i3 Digital Signage

Price

$180+

Stats for Nerds

Chrome OS

Intel® Celeron, Core i5, or Core i7 Processor

Intel® HD Graphics                      

2-4 GB RAM                                                            

Wireless data network: 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth V4.0

16 GB SSD

LAN 10/100/1000 Mbps                             

Card Reader                                                   

USB 3.0, HDMI, DC-in, RJ45 LAN, and display ports                                 

Audio jack

2 -in-1: SD/ MMC

                       

How the Chromebox Works

The user hooks up their Chromebox to the visual display and connects to the Internet.

After that, if working with a digital signage CMS, once they’re connected to the network, the visual display shows the content.

The Chromebox syncs and locally caches the content (so it can still run if the connection is choppy).

Instead of tasking someone to code something, it’s just a matter of using your preferred CMS to push the desired content to the appropriate devices.

Pros

  • Chrome Management Console: This is perhaps the Chrome’s best feature. After subscribing to the Chrome Management Console service ($50/year for full use, or $24 for a Single App Kiosk license), all the administrator has to do is enroll each new device in the system, which takes just seconds to do.
  • Performance: The Chromebox has enough CPU/GPU to handle even 4K video with ease.
  • Automatic Software Updates: All enrolled devices will download and install updates automatically at your appointed regularly scheduled time. The cost-savings on this point alone is massive, especially once you consider sheer scale of enterprise deployments (not even considering internal resources to manage the device at each location which is null with Chrome).
  • Security: The Chromebox encrypts all data, and Google’s security team is constantly seeking out vulnerabilities to patch and sending out automatic updates. It’s been hailed by many as the most secure operating system you can get.
  • Energy efficiency: The lack of bulky fans and spinning disks means Chromeboxes are lean, green machines, at least compared to traditional PCs.
  • Memory: In addition to the built-in 16 GB solid state drive, the Chromebox comes with 100 GB of memory in the Google Cloud for two years.

Cons

  • Cost: The cost is only a con if you’re comparing it to the Raspberry Pi. While still one of the more inexpensive pieces on the market, they do cost more than a Raspberry Pi unit. If the price tag is truly prohibitive, however, don’t forget to consider the Chromebit. The $85 stick-PC by Google has the same high-quality performance and powerful Chrome OS as the Chromebox, but lacks an Ethernet port or peripheral ports.

Who Uses Chromeboxes for digital signage?

Because of the Chrome Management Console, it’s easy to use Chromeboxes to control many screens on a large scale. You’ll find Chromeboxes behind digital signage everywhere from retail stores to universities.

For our case study, let’s turn to The University of Toronto Mississauga.

This university chose the Chromebox to power their digital signage after realizing their previous solution was both expensive (at $1,300 a unit) and time-consuming. Each time they wanted to update and configure the software, it took hours of IT work. Chromebox’s ability to update automatically was definitely appealing, as did its price tag.

They now have 25 Chromebox-powered displays, which they use to alert their 12,500 students to events, shine the spotlight on exemplary professors, and feature exciting research projects.

Conclusion

The Raspberry Pi 3 definitely has some advantages as a digital signage hardware solution. $35 per unit is an unbeatable price, and there are many free software options to explore as well. It appeals to those who have one visual display and who are very hands-on with hardware.  DIY-loving, super-tech-savvy among us with its high potential for customizability.

In fact, there’s very few functions you can’t make it perform, if you have enough time and are determined enough.

When it comes to digital signage for more than one location (an enterprise setting), it’s far outshone by many other options for user-friendliness and performance. Its limited RAM and use of failure-prone SD cards for storage means it struggles to smoothly display anything but static images. Plus, programming and upgrading the Pi can be difficult for someone with only average technical knowledge.

On the other hand, the Chromebox (and the closely related Chromebit) are hardware that come out of the box ready to be hooked up to your display. And when you leverage good digital signage software, it’s seamless.

The Chrome Management Console makes it easy to control every aspect of your signage from anywhere, at any time. Plus, there’s the convenience of built-in security features and automatic updates.

As a kid, I loved the Swiss Family Robinson. I admired their ingenuity in rigging up a bamboo-based plumbing system. But that system had limitations and required some serious engineering to work.

The Chromebox is the modern plumbing system to the Raspberry Pi’s treehouse pipes. While the latter can work, and work well, at low costs, the former is much sleeker, more efficient, and more useable for enterprises (and for multiple screens).

Does your business use Chromebox or Raspberry Pi? Tell us about your experience in the comments.