Office Automation

Choosing between a Dedicated PC or Media Player appliance in Digital Signage

This article analyses the advantages and disadvantages of using PC as a media player and proprietary media players (hardware based) for controlling the display devices (like Plasma/LCD) in a Digital Signage solution.

There are four main components of a Digital Signage solution – The Content server (where the content is created, organized and distributed centrally), the media players which receive the content at the local site and provide playback features (they can also control what is being played at individual display units), the display units like LCD screens or Plasma terminals which accept an input from the media players and display the same and the network which carries the content and helps in the communications between the various elements of a Digital Signage solution. You could refer to this article if you want a detailed analysis of each of the components of Digital Signage Solution.

In this article, we look at only the media player component (Please note that the media player can be totally discarded in case of small digital signage networks or if same content needs to be broadcast to multiple screens at all times in a medium sized network). But in larger networks, it becomes inevitable. There are two choices for the customers as far as the media players are concerned: They can use a standard PC as a media player (along with the media player software provided by the company) or they can use a hardware based media player appliance made specifically for playback. There are advantages and disadvantages of both, and we will look at some of them below:

¤ A PC is a computer and it is more of a general purpose device that can handle multiple operations other than the playback required for digital signage (For example, it can include administration and network management capabilities and even other tasks) but a dedicated media player appliance includes only the necessary features like playback of MPEG, MP3, VGA, DVI, Live TV, Streaming Video, transitions, scrolling ticker, multiple area layout, real time info. Basically, it has limited media support.

¤ Dedicated appliance based media players is more cost effective than having PC’s near each display device. Especially considering the operating system licensing costs etc, the price reduction could be considerable for a big project. But the cost depends on the vendor too.

¤ Appliance based media players are smaller and easily mountable near a display device. They don’t take up all the space of a CPU, for example.

¤ Appliance based media players are simple to install, configure and maintain. They also have a lower power requirement, when compared to PC’s. The maintenance costs and efforts in a PC are generally higher.

¤ An appliance based media player has limited screen segmentation and sizing options. They also have limited content aggregation from external sources. But PC’s can handle multi-zone, high resolution, dynamic content. They can even aggregate data from Internet sources like RSS etc.

¤ The storage capacity in an appliance based media player is limited, but in a PC, it is quite high and can be extended if required. This would be useful in situations where the connectivity to the central server is lost and content needs to be played back from the local storage.

¤ Both are proprietary – the appliance based media players and the media player software in the PC. But the PC hardware is generic. So, if ever the digital signage vendor needs to be changed, all the appliance based media players are not going to be of much use – as they are proprietary and work with only one vendor, at least right now. There is also no control on the prices for upgrades, additional add-ons, maintenance etc, as the reliance is on one vendor.

¤ PC’s can be hacked. But the appliance based media players generally don’t come with any external interfaces and hence it is harder to hack or take control over them.

¤ With appliance based media players, there is limited scope for adding interactive features. But with PC’s, the expansion and the addition of features and functionalities (like touchscreens which might need a local interface) is going to be easier.

¤ One PC can stream the content to multiple display units if all of them are nearby and would play the same content.

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