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In the past decade, with TV screen prices dropping and more digital marketing than ever, digital signage – using digital screens to display signs – has become more popular than ever. When jumping into digital signage for the first time, there’s a lot of questions about how the hardware works and what it does.
Digital signage mostly relies on two pieces of hardware: the screen and the media player. Both screens and media players come in a wide range of shapes and sizes that are suited to different purposes. When starting out with digital signage, you’ll want to pick the one that’s best for your needs.
In this guide, I’ll walk you through every aspect of selecting your digital signage hardware so that you can display awesome digital signs. Besides telling you about specs for screens and players, I’ll give you some recommendations and general tips for making the most out of your digital signage.
How Digital Signs Are Displayed
There are two key hardware components to digital signage: screens and media players. The screen is used to show the sign itself, providing a visual in the physical world. The player is a small chip or box that contains the data and the files that make up the sign.
Some popular types of screens are tablets, monitors, TVs, consumer screens, and commercial screens. I’ll come back to all of these in a moment and discuss their different strengths and weaknesses.
Media players vary, too, with different ranges of durability, processing power, and other hardware specs. Later on, I’ll guide you through what all of the nitty-gritty details mean so you can pick the best media player for your needs.
To display a digital sign, all you really need are the screen and the player. You’ll also need a source of power, and usually some sort of WiFi or ethernet capability. Let’s take a deep dive and discuss the many different possibilities for your digital signage screens and players, and then think about how to pick the best one for your purposes.
Digital Signage Screens
I mentioned before that a number of different screen types are popular, including TVs, monitors, tablets, consumer screens, and commercial screens. Each of these is unique, with certain capabilities that make them best suited to specific purposes and budgets. I’ll walk you through each of them.
Tablets and iPads
Tablets are an interesting way to go about digital signage because they are relatively small but almost always have touch screens. This makes them excellently suited for kiosk type applications, where the screen is available to a customer or visitor for browsing and viewing.
Tablets are all WiFi capable and contain computer processors, and they are the only type of digital screen that doesn’t necessarily need a separate media player. Instead of needing a separate device to stream the digital sign content to the screen, it’s all built into a tablet.
Tablets also have strong processors and can be used to run a variety of applications.
A tablet’s size and touch screen makes it versatile for kiosks. Just make sure that you have enabled some sort of “kiosk mode” so that viewers don’t have the option to close your applications and start using the tablet for their own devices.
Monitors, such as computer monitors, are a pretty old-fashioned way of doing digital signage, but nonetheless, provide a very low-budget option for your digital signage needs. The monitor can easily be hooked up to a computer or player chip to display the sign on the monitor.
Generally, monitors will be 17” screens and under, so keep in mind that they’ll only be great for smaller environments where viewers are close to the screen. They’ll also always need some sort of external player, which can make them bulky if you have to install additional media.
Like monitors, non-Smart TVs will need an additional media player to cast digital signs. However, once the player is hooked up to the screen, it behaves like a normal display.
Non-Smart TVs tend to be a lot cheaper than Smart ones, and in many cases, they’ll perform just as well. The difference between Non-Smart and Smart TVs is usually on the hardware side, rather than the screen display itself.
Smart TVs have the advantage of containing hardware like processors and WiFi, which allows them to be easily used for digital signage purposes.
Many users of Smart TVs still opt for an external player to cast their sign, rather than relying on the TV’s own hardware. While Smart TVs have some neat features, oftentimes, their processing power is lackluster, and they won’t be able to run digital signs effectively with their weak WiFi or processors.
Be sure to research the Smart TV you’re interested in before purchasing it for your digital signage needs. Make sure it has a decent processor and WiFi capability so that it can handle your sign.
Dedicated Digital Signage Display Screens: Consumer and Professional Screens
Since digital signage has been around for over a decade now, companies have started inventing and selling screens made specifically for digital signage purposes. Instead of just hooking up a normal old TV, get one of these to really up your digital signage game.
Consumer screens are much cheaper than professional screens but still can be perfectly suited to some applications. They work great in enterprise networks, such as within schools or office buildings.
A huge variety of large and small screens are available for relatively inexpensive purchase. However, these screens are not always meant for the full extent of digital signage needs. They aren’t meant to be left on for more than 8 hours per day, or else the screen can burn out and lose brightness.
They also are much less durable than professional screens, and should really only be used for personal use, digital signage, or otherwise.
Professional screens are the most expensive of the options I’ve mentioned, but they’re without a doubt the best screens for meeting all of your digital signage needs.
Unlike consumer screens, which can only run for up to 8 hours per day, professional screens are designed to be on up to 16, 18, or even 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Their hardware is much more durable and heat resistant, and the screen won’t burn out over time.
Professional screens generally have higher-quality displays, which can get much brighter and have higher definition. They can be used much more successfully outdoors, and some are designed to survive extreme temperatures or moisture.
Since professional screens are made specifically to be used for long periods of time in harsher conditions, they’ll usually come with a much better warranty than consumer screens. Because of their improved durability, they’ll often provide a much better return on your investment than a cheaper screen might have.
Digital Signage Media Players
Now that we’ve gone over the different screen options to consider let’s talk about the other hardware that is essential to digital signage: the media player.
The media player can be used to cast the digital sign onto a screen through an HDMI or USB port. The player itself can contain the sign in its memory cache, or it can stream it through a WiFi connection.
Like screens, media players come in many different shapes and sizes, and all of them are suited for different purposes and budgets. I’ll break the players down into three categories.
Consumer Media Players
The cheapest media players that you can buy are consumer media players. Like consumer screens, these are meant for consumer purposes rather than the heavy usage of professional industries.
Consumer media players usually are made of plastic and aren’t very durable. They also have somewhat limited options for mounting with your screen – either they’ll plug right in the back (like Amazon’s Fire TV Stick), or they’ll need to be connected via cables.
Consumer media players also don’t usually have excellent processing power and can struggle to run complex digital signs. They usually cannot provide a resolution greater than Full HD (1080p), and they can’t handle multiple screen zones streaming different types of content.
If the sign is going in a public place, it’s generally recommended that you use a better player so that passers-by don’t have the option to alter the settings on your digital sign by tampering with the connected media player. For that, you’ll want a commercial grade media player.
Commercial Media Players
Commercial media players, like commercial screens, are made of metal and are much more durable and are suited to rigorous environments more than consumer media players. Commercial media players have much better computing power and will have no problem streaming 4K video in multiple zones.
Some commercial players can also be used to cast to several screens at once, which allows for a simpler, consolidated deployment of your digital signs.
Most commercial players will have decent WiFi capabilities. This allows them to be accessed, controlled, and updated remotely if you ever want to change your sign.
Industrial Media Players
To take a step beyond commercial media players, industrial media players are used to ensure consistent output of a digital sign under the most extreme conditions.
While commercial media players are decently durable, industrial media players are indestructible in comparison. They’ll manage to keep your sign displayed no matter what the environment exerts on it.
For example, in a fast-food restaurant or bus terminal, a lot of particulate can float about in the air. This would be a great environment to use an industrial media player that is dust-proof.
Alternatively, industrial media players can be used in extreme temperatures. You’ll occasionally see them used at ski mountains or in extremely hot and dry climates like deserts.
What To Look For In Digital Signage Players
Digital signage players come with a variety of different capabilities for a range of uses. Here are a few different things to look out for when selecting the player that is right for you.
System On Chip And Central Processing Unit
Small players often come with system on chip (SOC) processors. This small chip contains all the RAM, graphics, and memory. While it is quite convenient, their consolidated size can compromise their quality – many SOC chips will struggle to display more complex content.
Generally, to understand how powerful a digital signage player is, you’ll want to have a look at what processor it’s running. Besides SOC units, many players are equipped with central processing units (CPUs), much like desktop computers. The strongest players use CPUs as complex as the Intel i5, which is strong enough to run a laptop!
A Celeron processor is a more middle-of-the-road, affordable option that still has great capabilities to show complex content.
When considering what processor you need, think about your digital sign. What’s the resolution? Are you streaming 4K video, or is 1080p alright? Are you using zones on your screen, with different content appearing in different locations? If your content is more complex, you’ll want a better processor.
Graphics Processing Unit
Much like the CPU, you’ll want to make sure that your graphics processing unit (GPU) is up to the task of displaying your sign. The GPU will determine what quality image you can display. If you’re displaying 4K videos, you’ll need a much better GPU than if you’re only showing full HD.
Especially if you’re using a large screen, I believe it’s usually a good idea to get a good GPU so that you can display clear, vivid images with great resolution. If the images are simple and static, then you could get away with a lower quality GPU.
Players can display signs in one of two ways: they can store a cache of data/files and display this on the screen, or they can stream with WiFi without holding any files. In fact, most players will do some combination of the two.
If you don’t plan on streaming content, but rather you’d like to make the sign design on your computer and then just upload it as a file to your player, make sure your player has enough storage to hold it.
Especially high-resolution images and videos tend to require more storage. Most players will have 8 GB of storage or more, which should be more than enough for most purposes.
If your sign will be streaming from the cloud, you don’t need as much storage, but you will absolutely need a player with a good WiFi connection. I’d recommend a player that is capable of connecting to 802.11ac, n, or g WiFi sources, which will allow fast speeds and a strong connection.
You’ll also want to think about the type of internet security that your player has. I’d recommend using a WPA2-PSK or WPA2-Enterprise network, as these are harder for uninvited guests to connect to or hack.
Alternatively, some players have ethernet ports, which is another way to provide high-speed, large bandwidth internet.
Random Access Memory
Random-access memory (RAM) determines how much your player can handle at once. If your sign has a lot going on, then you’ll need more RAM for the player to keep track of all of it. Alternatively, if your player is hosting the sign to multiple screens, you’ll want a better RAM capability too.
If your sign has multiple zones, then you should definitely get a player with decent RAM, at least 2 or 3 GB. Otherwise, you may experience the content stuttering and shaking.
Things To Consider When Purchasing Digital Signage Hardware
Now that we’ve covered screens, players, and their characteristics, I’ll give you some suggestions to consider before purchasing your next digital signage hardware.
There are three main questions that you should think about before purchasing digital signage hardware.
What Is Your Budget?
As we’ve seen, the capabilities of screens and players vary immensely. The most capable gear will cost a lot more, but if you can afford it, it’s usually worth the cost. The most expensive screens and players tend to be much more durable, have longer warranties, and will last a lot longer.
However, if your budget is lower, there are plenty of alternatives. You don’t need to shell out $1,000 for a commercial screen just because it has extra features, especially if you won’t need half of those features anyway.
With so many screens and players on the market, you should be able to find one in your price range that has everything you need.
What Content Do You Want To Display?
As I mentioned above about the different types of computing power, different content will require different hardware. If you want to display 4K videos or use zones, you’ll want to pick out a player that has better processing power so that it can handle the additional data.
The end use of your digital signage is important for deciding what hardware to buy. If the sign is only for personal use, turned on less than 8 hours per day, then I’d recommend buying a consumer screen. If you’re displaying content 24/7, then you’ll want a commercial screen.
The content you want to display can also help you determine what size screen you want. You don’t need a huge screen to display a directory in an elevator, nor would you want to use a table or small monitor screen to display a subway map. Make sure the screen size is suited to what content your sign is presenting.
What Is The Installation Environment?
This is arguably the most important question to ask yourself because it will greatly affect some of your hardware choices.
Is the screen going to be installed in public as an advertisement, for example, or will it be in a more private place like a school or office? If the screen will be in public, you need to make sure that it is secure and won’t be tampered with. Most commercial screens have great safety precautions for these purposes.
Furthermore, many media players can be tucked away so that they won’t be tampered with. This becomes an important consideration if the sign is going in a public place.
The installation environment will also determine the durability requirements of your sign. Is it extremely hot or cold? Is it dusty or moist? Are there polluting fumes in the air that could mess up your electronics? In more extreme conditions, you’ll need commercial screens and industrial players.
Does your installation environment have a stable WiFi connection? This will determine whether you opt for a player with greater RAM and WiFi or if you’ll rely on storage and cached media.
If you decide to use WiFi to stream your signs, you’ll have greater control and flexibility. Just make sure that your WiFi connection is unmetered/unlimited, because otherwise, your sign will use up a ton of data, and you’ll receive a huge internet bill at the end of the month.
Digital Signage Player Recommendations
There’s a lot more complexity to picking digital signage players than screens, and picking the right player feels a lot more overwhelming. In this last section, I’ll give you some of my favorite player choices for a range of different budgets and uses.
Budget Consumer Use Player: Amazon Fire TV Stick
If you’re just getting into digital signage for the first time, the Amazon Fire TV Stick is a hard product to beat. Different models range around the $50 cost range, making it an impressively cheap option.
The Fire TV Stick is easy to use – just plug and play. For such a small, inexpensive device, the Fire TV Stick is incredibly powerful. The Fire TV Stick 4K can show up to 4K video and has a fast, stable internet connection.
I wouldn’t recommend using the Fire TV Stick for more than 8 hours a day, as it’s not designed for commercial purposes. Nonetheless, it’s a great way to get started with your first digital sign.
Budget Commercial Use Player: Ugoos AM6
The Ugoos AM6 is a big step up from the Fire TV Stick and is great for commercial purposes. It runs an Android operating system with a powerful Amlogic S922X System on Chip processor, which contains 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage. This makes it perfectly capable for all but the most complex digital signs.
The AM6 also has high-efficiency video coding (also known as HEVC), which lets it effortlessly stream and show 4K videos.
The Ugoos AM6 only costs $139, making it an inexpensive, powerful digital signage player.
Entry-Level Digital Signage Commercial Players: CTL Chromebox CBX1C
The CTL Chromebox is a fantastic low-cost digital signage player that is perfect for even some of the most complex uses.
It’s Intel processor can handle complex content without any interruptions or stuttering. It also has 32 GB of storage and 4 GB of RAM. It’s dual-band AC WiFi ensures good connectivity to networks, and it can stream content with good speed.
At just $219, it would be hard to find a better player for nearly as low of a price. The only drawback to this Chromebox is that it only supports one HDMI output, so it can only be used for one screen at a time.
Middle of the Road Digital Signage Commercial Players: AOpen Chromebox Commercial 2 Celeron
For a great mid-range option, consider the AOpen Chromebox Commercial. The Chromebox Commercial’s Celeron (or i3, with an upgrade) processor can handle almost anything, and the Chromebox has two HDMI outputs for you to stream to two screens at the same time.
This Chromebox can handle pretty intense, complex signs. It can stream 4K to two screens at 30 frames per second, which is a pretty huge amount of data. It also has great cache and RAM capabilities.
The Chromebox Commercial is also rugged and durable. It has no moving parts inside and has no problem operating in moving environments. It can also operate in a large range of temperatures from under 30 to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many variations can be applied, like switching to different levels of storage or processing power, but generally, this player will cost you in the $300-$400 range.
High-End Digital Signage Commercial Players
If your budget allows you to spend $500 or more on a digital signage player, you’re going to want to pick the one that’s perfect for you. In this range, the key differentiators are operating system and processing power. Because of this, you’ll want to go with some personal preferences.
If you love Mac OS, for example, you could purchase a Mac Mini. This little box is as powerful as a Mac computer and contains most of the same hardware. It is an extremely powerful digital signage player capable of running just about anything. That’ll cost you $799 or more, depending on processor preference.
If you’re more of a Windows person, I’d recommend picking up one of Intel’s NUC PC boxes, such as the NUC8i5INHPA. It’s got everything you could ever ask for: a high power processor, tons of storage, great WiFi and RAM, and plenty of ports for video outputs. The NUC8i5INHPA costs around $727.
If you prefer Chrome OS, pick up one of the high-end Chromeboxes from AOpen or Acer. These can be pretty customizable, so pick a processor, storage, and RAM based on your needs. For the best processors, expect to pay around $600.
Digital signage is everywhere, and manufacturers are making sure that the technology is available for it to continue expanding. If you’re interested in digital signage, you’ll want to get the right hardware to support your sign.
You’ll need a screen that is suited to your environment and purposes, and also a digital player powerful enough to host your sign without any issue.
Beyond the screen and the player, it’s really quite simple: just design your sign, upload it, and you’re ready to go!