Sorting Out Media Players For Digital Signage

Report
Sorting Out Media Players
For Digital Signage
Presented by:
Alan C. Brawn & Jonathan Brawn
CTS, ISF, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE
Principals of Brawn Consulting
[email protected], [email protected]
Sorting Out Media Players For Digital Signage
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There is much confusion in the industry about the kind of “media player” needed for digital
signage deployments.
What exactly is a Media Player?
Many screen manufacturers such as Samsung, now have media players or 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 should the systems integrator or end user start to separate what is needed – and
what is available – in media players for digital signage?
What is a Media Player?
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When looking at digital signage solutions, we all hear the term “media player” used over and
over again.
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“What media player do you need?”
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“Does the display have a built in media player?”
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“Do you offer your own media player?”
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The term seems to be used to describe several different types of devices, each with it’s 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.
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What is a Media Player?
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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 it’s core, a media player is a device that is connected to an IP (computer) network,
that 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.
Where a Media Player Fits
Switch
Server
Displays
Media
Players
User Interface
Media Player Types
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That 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
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.
PC Based Media Players
PC Based Media Players
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PC based media players, 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:
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Passive cooling
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Larger numbers of video outputs
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Specialized mounting brackets
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More durable components
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Solid state storage
PC Based Media Players
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Of course, you can use any Windows based computer with most digital signage software
packages. However, the size of your average mini-tower PC from major manufacturers
poses a problem with installations inside a digital signage deployment.
PC form factors 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.
Digital signage media players have been optimized into several new form factors, utilizing
integrated and reduced size components:
• Single Board Computers
• Mini ITX
• Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) and Modular Add-ons
• Next Unit of Computing (NUC)
Single Board Computers
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A single board computer (SBC) is a specialized kind of computer device, where the entire
computer device is constructed onto a single circuit board, rather than having expansion
slots.
With the increasing availability of single chip solutions for computing, such as the integrated
graphics cores on Intel and AMD processors, single board computers have been getting
smaller and smaller.
It is now possible to have a computer the size of a deck of playing cards, using these
techniques.
Mini-ITX
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Mini-ITX is a (6.7” x 6.7”) low-power
motherboard form factor developed by VIA
Technologies in 2001.
They are commonly used in small form factor
(SFF) computer systems, such as home theater
PCs (HTPCs) and digital signage media players.
Mini-ITX boards can often be passively cooled
due to their low power consumption architecture.
The motherboard, as the main component in a
PC’s construction, typically defines the size of
the housing that can be built. Mini-ITX solutions
can be much more compact, especially when the
optical drive is removed, and spinning platter
based hard drives are replaced with solid state
storage.
Mini-ITX
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Nano-ITX (4.7” x 4.7”) and Pico-ITX (3.9” × 2.8”) solutions have also been developed,
reducing the size of motherboards considerably further.
These boards can be manufactured so much smaller because of reduced inputs and
outputs, fewer expansion slots onboard, and the use of integrated components.
Open Pluggable Specification
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Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) is an Intel developed
connectivity standard for interfacing a modular PC with a
display device, such as a flat panel or projector, in a seamless
manner.
The display device has a physical slot with an OPS connector
inside, that allows for a PC module to be inserted and
connected to the display without needing external video or
power cables.
This provides for easy and clean installation of the PC module,
and ease of maintenance and upgrades, as the device is
modular.
Add On PC Modules
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Some display device manufacturers are
now offering modular PC media player
options that are not based on any
particular standard, but offer the same
features and benefits of the OPS solutions.
Next Unit of Computing
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The next unit of computing
(NUC) is an Intel developed
and manufactured platform for
providing high power but
incredibly small PC units, that
are completely self contained.
The motherboard on a NUC is
3.9 x 3.9 in. square, and offers
Celeron, Core i3, and Core i5
options, with HDMI,
DisplayPort, USB, and
Thunderbolt options.
The finished Intel NUC kit is 4
x 4 x 2 in. in size.
Next Unit of Computing
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Other manufacturers are now building ultra small form factor PCs around the NUC
motherboard, with additional features over the Intel built NUC chassis kit.
These may add wireless, additional ports (like RS232) and onboard power supplies.
They are also built to commercial grade standards, vs. the consumer Intel unit.
Appliance Based Media Players
Appliance Based Media Players
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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.
Instead, they 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:
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Custom Software Based
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Android Based
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Display Embedded
Custom Software Based
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Custom software based media players are designed around a specific digital signage
software solution.
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. They will only to run a specific
software program, and present that to the user.
Custom software based media players can be very small, due to the integration of
components.
Android Based
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Android based media players are built around
an Android set top box, using similar
components to an Android smartphone or tablet.
These will run the Google Android operating
system, offering the flexibility to run a variety of
applications designed for that platform, not unlike
a PC based media player.
Like custom software based media players,
Android based media players can be very
compact.
These are becoming popular due to 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.
Display Embedded
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Some manufacturers are offering
display embedded media players, built
right into the display devices you are
purchasing.
This can simplify the digital signage
system, if the media player and it’s
software are able to meet the needs of
the application.
These embedded media player options
are typically either Android based, or
custom software based media players.
Embedded media players may be very
basic and offer USB ports for local
playback, have LAN ports for network
use, or both.
CPU
Memory
Video Processor
Storage
What to Look For in a Media Player
Getting to the Media Player…
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When 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 how will that
be judged?
That will lead into a discussion about the types of content and the message to achieve those
objectives.
One we establish the objectives and the content, 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.
Once we know what content and software will be run on the media player, this will
actually tell us exactly what type of media player is needed, and what specifications it
needs to have.
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.
Hardware Specifications
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Just as when you select a computer for your own personal needs, you have to consider
several specifications on the media player, and ensure that they meet or exceed the needs
of your chosen software package.
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CPU: The processor has to be powerful enough to run the OS, and provide ample
horsepower to the digital signage software. Intel Core processors (i3, i5, i7) are very
common due to speed and efficiency, but AMD processors are worth considering due to cost
versus performance. Always leave overhead for future expansion. CPU choices may be
limited due to thermal considerations.
Hardware Specifications
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RAM: You need enough memory to provide smooth playback of all types of content. RAM
has become quite inexpensive, so there is no excuse for not providing enough.
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Storage: Enough storage has to be provided to ensure the content can be stored on the
media player without running out of space. Solid state storage has become more popular,
due to reliability and speed, but size may be limited, and cost per GB is relatively high.
Platter based drives offer higher capacities and lower cost, but because they have moving
parts, are more prone to failure.
Hardware Specifications
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GPU: The graphics card can limit the rendering of video content in hardware, as well as 3D
rendering. This chip must be robust enough to provide the rendering capacity the software
requires. Some integrated boards inside the smallest form factor or lowest cost media
players may have limited graphics processing, due to integration with other components.
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Physical Size: Of course the physical size of the media player is a consideration. It dictates
location, mounting, and in some cases can limit the capabilities of a media player. The
smaller the unit, the more restricted the specifications will be, and the fewer IO ports you will
have. This is a balancing act, between selecting the smallest form factor, and getting the
specifications required for your software package. Also, consider the power supply, smaller
form factor players may have an outboard power supply in a wall wart or power brick, like a
laptop. This can be both a benefit, and a problem.
Media Player Interfaces
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Video
• Media player devices of any type, will offer the standard video
outputs found on most computers.
• HDMI is now typically standard, and you will also frequently
find VGA.
• DVI is occasionally present, especially if separate graphics
cards are used.
• You may also encounter TV video outputs like component
video, or composite video.
• Some models of media player may offer multiple video outputs
that can be used simultaneously. This allows a single media
player to address multiple displays, or a small videowall. This
can be used to send the same video to more than one monitor,
or if the software supports it, multiple channels of video to
separate monitors. This can also be a cost savings measure,
using fewer media players.
• This will be dependent on the software package, so consult the
manufacturer BEFORE using multiple video outputs in this
fashion.
Media Player Interfaces
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Audio
• With HDMI including audio, most media players cover audio in that fashion. However,
many will also have a separate audio output in case the application requires it.
• This audio output is typically a 3.5mm “headphone” style stereo audio output. Some
devices may have a set of stereo RCA connectors, in place of this audio output.
• Some computer based players may even support surround sound output, but it’s
applications in digital signage are limited.
Media Player Interfaces
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Control
• Some media player devices may offer a RS232 serial or “com port” output for display or
other hardware control.
• This port may be used by the software, if supported, to monitor the display’s function,
and to control the display, for power on/off, input changes, volume, etc.
• Different software packages will offer varying levels of control integration, so make sure
to verify not only that the player offers a control output, but that the software supports
the functions you wish to use, and that it supports the specified brand and model of
display.
• Some displays and players may also offer control over IP, to further simplify installation.
• Control may also be handled via the HDMI connection, using CEC.
Media Player Interfaces
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Network
• Network interfaces are a key part of any digital signage system. Without a network, how
will the device communicate to it’s server and receive content?
• A standard Ethernet port has become commonplace on all players. This will allow
connection to any LAN.
• Some player devices may offer wireless networking built in, or as an upgrade.
Media Player Interfaces
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Peripherals
• Some players will have one or more USB ports to add extra peripherals to the system.
These additional peripherals can be used to provide extra functions such as a touch
overlay for interactivity or cameras and sensors for metrics.
• Devices such as touch screen overlays, cameras, additional speakers, extra storage,
printers, or keyboards and input devices, may be added.
• However, it is important to verify that the software package will support these
peripherals, and in the case of hardware players, that the system itself can operate
them.
Warranty and Durability
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Durability
• Any device with moving parts will require
service, and will eventually wear out. Many
media players are moving towards a fanless
configuration, and replacing platter based drives
with solid state flash storage.
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Warranty
• Media players typically come with a one year
warranty. Additional years of warranty coverage
may be purchased from some manufacturers.
Maintenance and Upgrades
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Maintenance
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Upgrades
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Any media player that has moving parts will require physical maintenance. Fans will need to be
dusted out, to maintain proper cooling.
Updates to the operating system are also an issue for PC based media players. Since most run on a
Windows platform, OS updates are released on a regular basis. These may or may not need to be
installed, based on end user requirements on their network.
Upgrades to hardware may need to be performed to keep media players current.
Android and custom software based media players are not usually able to be upgraded in terms of
hardware.
PC based media players may be able to be upgraded, with CPU replacements, RAM increases, and
hard drive swaps.
A general note on updates and maintenance; always consider version 2.0! Meaning
that you need to consider that as digital signage software improves, hardware
requirements will increase.
When to Use Each Type
Types of Suppliers
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There are four types of providers in the digital signage universe:
Software Only: companies that only sell digital signage software packages. They will often
have recommendations on preferred media player vendors, and will always have listed
specifications on media player requirements.
Software + Media Players: companies that will sell both software AND media players. They
will typically sell just software by itself, with listed specifications, or software bundled with
their own branded media players.
Software + Dedicated Media Player: companies that will sell both software and media
players as a bundle. The media players they sell are typically customized just to run their
specific software solution.
Media Player Only: companies that sell just media players, and not software at all. They
manufacture a range of media players that fit different specifications and requirements.
Words to the Wise…
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PC based media players
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High performance
Upgradeable and expandable
Can be used with multiple software packages
Comes in a variety of sizes
Requires more power to operate
OS may require updates
Moving parts reduces reliability
Can be more expensive
More available options can lead to confusion
Words to the Wise…
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Appliance based media players
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Lower cost
Optimized and bundled with a specific software package
Can be extremely compact
No moving parts, higher reliability
No need (typically!) for updates
Low power consumption
Lower performance
Not upgradeable
Only compatible with a specific software package
For More Information
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If you would like more information, please contact the Digital Signage Experts Group:
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http://www.brawnconsulting.com
http://www.dseg.org
http://www.isfcommercial.com
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Alan C. Brawn, CTS, ISF, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME
• [email protected]
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Jonathan Brawn, CTS, ISF, ISF-C, DSCE, DSDE, DSNE, DCME
• [email protected]

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