Cheap digital signage – Is it possibly? “Buy cheap and you buy twice!” Surely, everyone has had to put up with this platitude. Although it is based on a kernel of truth, like all “wisdom” it has the disadvantage of degenerating into a mere “bullshit quote” when applied globally without reflection.
Let's not fool ourselves: Nobody wants to spend more money than necessary. Especially not when it comes to projects with hundreds of devices at different locations and central administration. In this article, you'll learn what to consider when it comes to digital signage hardware and software to make sure it's cost-effective, not cheap.
Cheap Digital Signage Hardware
Marketplaces like Alibaba, Amazon, AliExpress, eBay, Gearbest and also local distributors often sell seemingly unbeatable cheap media players from Asian no-name suppliers. As a rule, the devices run a more or less up-to-date Android with a video player and web browser installed.
The devices may be fine from a technical perspective. For the operators of a single store or restaurant, this may be a viable alternative. With a web browser, digital signage can be operated inexpensively.
You should avoid this for projects that claim to display more than a YouTube playlist. Because these devices usually lack four elementary things:
Today's bargain will most likely no longer exist in a few months. It comes with a different Android version, has different components or uses a different SoC.
Long-term oriented projects require a stable environment. From a business perspective, it is inefficient to use different computer hardware. Digital Signage Software is typically specially adapted to the hardware and its obligatory quirks. The new player may behave completely differently and come with different bugs. This means continuous extra work for communication, testing, and adaptation.
Many of the larger digital signage installations are not necessarily rolled out overnight, but over a period of years. Presumably, everyone can imagine the chaos when device specifications change every few weeks.
Media players also break occasionally. The alternative, theoretically, to buy and store more devices, ties up capital unnecessarily.
Therefore, pay explicit attention to long-term availability. For industrial hardware, by the way, this is one of the most important features.
Support is like data backups: Both are only noticed when they are actually needed. There is no support for cheap devices, and if there is, it is only for a very short time. I noted above that software is often first extensively tested on devices and possibly adapted. Bugs are the rule for software projects, not an exception.
A few weeks ago, I was working on a media player whose Digital Signage API did not signal that certain videos had ended. A complete no-go for our intended use. I informed the project manager, who informed the distributor, who informed the Asian vendor, who checked it out and communicated to the chip manufacturer, Rockchip. After Rockchip's fix, the manufacturer again had to implement it into the operating system image.
As you can see from the practical example, it was a long chain. It's not just about communication, but also about dependencies. If one link in this chain doesn't work because it was calculated down to the last penny, you're stuck with hundreds of devices that don't perform their actual task, or only to a limited level.
Therefore, make sure you have at least two years of hardware support. If there are problems, they usually appear in the first year. After two years, the risk of encountering an undiscovered bug is significantly lower. Better, of course, would be over the entire lifetime of the device, but that is illusory with most hardware manufacturers or becomes costly.
Keep in mind when evaluating: advertising monitors are designed for 24/7 continuous operation – smart TVs or tablets are not!
Calculate it out: Replace your monitor once or twice a year, or would you rather use a supposedly expensive public display for several years?
Of course, the above-mentioned features reflect in an increased hardware price. At the end of the day, this is a more or less complex calculation, which constellation is more favorable. From my experience, it boils down often to the fact that the glitches and drawbacks of supposedly cheap hardware cost more effort than you save by buying it.
Which hardware you should avoid at all costs
There are types of devices that you should avoid at all costs, even though they seem suitable at first glance.
I used to get many requests regarding so-called HDMI sticks that get their power via USB. Theoretically, a fantastic idea because this way you avoid cables and save space. The reality: Don't waste your time with this!
HDMI-Sticks crash easily because USB 2.0 does not provide enough performance, especially in the cheap variants, to continuously display 4K content and animated web pages.
The sticks quickly overheat in continuous operation. The operating system then clocks down the CPU and your videos start to stutter.
There are often problems with the Wi-Fi connection.
A digital signage player performs more tasks than just playing back content. It logs itself, provides playback reports and periodically scans for new content. These background activities boost overheating. It's not uncommon for an HDMI stick to break down after six months.
At SmilControl, we temporarily searched for inexpensive HDMI sticks ourselves without the previously mentioned issues. My partner and I now each have a box of tech junk in our basements.
Android TV is a feature-reduced Android, optimized for efficient movie playback with inexpensive hardware. What initially sounds like the perfect low-cost solution, unfortunately proves to be unsuitable for us. The reduced functions of Android TV are exactly those that enable remote administration, which is essential for digital signage.
With an Amazon Fire Stick or a Xiaomi Mi Tv, you can watch Netflix perfectly, but you can't operate a larger digital signage network securely over the long term.
Cheap Digital Signage Software
Support is the most important aspect of digital signage software. Many people make the mistake of treating software like a static physical product with a price tag. Think of it more as an ongoing service. Years of operation represent greater cost than acquisition or initial development.
Insist on Maintenance Contracts
As far as I know, there is no finished, error-free application part from TeX and the ZIP format. Our industry is subject to constant change, requirements sometimes change even during the lifetime of a project. Bugs or security vulnerabilities may remain undiscovered for years. Serious digital signage does not work without a maintenance contract.
A so-called SaaS solution in the Digital Signage Cloud is a kind of maintenance contract with monthly license fees per device.
As mentioned earlier, software development is a continuous process. Even if an application does not get new features, it needs continuous maintenance during its lifetime. It definitely has bugs and security vulnerabilities that you need to fix promptly, especially for software running on the Internet.
If the developer firm doesn't go along with that or can't afford it because they agreed to a cutthroat bid, you and your customers are the ones who suffer.
A Web browser is not a Media Player
However, just ask yourself the following questions:
Is it possible to update or restart the browser remotely?
Can the browser display device-specific information, dim the monitor, or turn the device on and off?
Is the browser able to create and send playback reports or other logs?
Can a REST API be implemented in a browser?
Does the browser communicate with the hardware or is expandable with any external sensors?
E.g., face recognition, temperature measurement, light barrier, EAN codes, etc.
Usually all the answers are no or “it gets complicated”.
Furthermore, web browsers have some concrete disadvantages
Almost all player solutions can download their content locally and work without the Internet. A web browser requires an Internet connection.
A good Player can display websites or third-party Widgetsoverlapped zone over a video. With a web browser, this becomes problematic.
You are at the mercy of the browser manufacturers. They decide which features to add, change, or remove. Keep in mind: Their product is a web browser, not a media player for digital signage.
For the reasons mentioned above, I decided to develop software that is as portable as possible, but still native. Native applications get control over operating system functions – browser applications get control over browser functions only.
Digital signage open-source software increases transparency and creates independence as well as investment security. In the linked article, you will find a list of free digital signage applications from companies and individuals.
Open-source offers several freedoms, but equally incurs operating costs. Without support, knowledge, or maintenance contract you get the same problems as with the other products.
Pay attention to long-term availability of DS hardware and, just as with software, to support. Support is essential for secure and stable operation of your digital signage solution. Always question prices in both directions. There is such a thing as too expensive, but also too cheap.
Furthermore, avoid HDMI sticks and devices with Android TV.