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Two systems - one choice

In the digital signage market, there is currently a mix of media players and system-on-a-chip displays. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages.

When it comes to digital signage hardware for displaying content, users have a choice between two different systems: Media players or displays with a system-on-a-chip, or ScC for short. Both systems are mainly used to display multimedia and HTML content and to provide interfaces. While media players are connected externally to a display, SoCs are already integrated into a screen. Media players were the first players for content display. "SoC is an AII-in-one option for digital signage. External media players or a PC are not needed to display content - a USB stick is enough. As this was not possible in the form in earlier years, there were external players at first. The SoC followed later," explains Christoph Emde, Senior Product Manager Smart Signage at Samsung. Dirk Koke, Managing Director of Koke, adds: "For many years, the resources of the SoC were not sufficient for a signage system. Especially in the area of smooth HTML 5 animations, there are only now systems that could be seriously used." Thus, the display manufacturers have done a lot in this area in recent years. According to Mike Finckh, managing director of Concept International, the distribution of both systems is similar: "Currently, there are a little more mini PCs than SoC displays on the market. SoC displays are used more in small networks or as stand-alone devices, while system integrators running large networks rely exclusively on dedicated players." This is due, among other things, to the fact that system integrators usually have specific requirements for the operating system and need large quantities. Nevertheless, according to Christoph Emde, SoC displays are also becoming increasingly popular.

What is more customisable?

While in most cases external media players are more powerful and can control multiple displays separately, SoC displays are mostly proprietary systems over which software manufacturers have little influence. "Media players are flexible in their choice of hardware and software and can thus be used in a variety of ways. On the other hand, a system runs on the SoC and the installed hardware cannot be replaced," describes Rainer Bloch, Business Director at Philips Professional Display Solutions. For this reason, SoCs are dependent on updates from the manufacturer, whereas media players are equipped with an operating system to which software manufacturers have full access. Thus, updates can be provided for a long time, and remote access is also possible. "A media player is the most flexible due to different configurations, such as memory space or CPU performance. With an SoC, the application is limited because there is only one technical configuration and you quickly reach the limits of CPU or memory, for example. With a media player, this can be adapted depending on the application," explains Erik Elbert, Product Manager at NEC Display Solutions. Thus, with media players, the operating system can be selected according to the customer's wishes, whereas with an SoC, the manufacturer's operating system is always installed, which is why it can only be adapted with difficulty or after consultation with the manufacturer. "With SoC displays, you have to work with what the manufacturer offers, so you also have to work with the given operating system and, if necessary, with the manufacturer's content management system. For playing out the content, this means that the digital signage service provider must either be familiar with the manufacturer's own content management system or install its player software on the Android SoC used by the display manufacturer," explains Mike Finckh. Nevertheless, Christoph Emde emphasises that an SoC is usually optimally matched to the hardware and thus offers the highest degree of integration and reliability in the playback of various contents. In addition, an SoC offers reduced maintenance effort, since software updates, settings and maintenance work can be carried out centrally on several devices at the same time.

Advantages and disadvantages of an integrated system

An SoC has advantages in terms of monitoring and control. "The SoC enables direct control over all display settings such as brightness, energy settings and so on," mentions Michael Roth, authorised signatory and head of IT & software development at Wedeko. In this way, it enables complete control and diagnostics of the entire system, according to Stefan Kröll, Digital Signage at Aldisplays. Since no additional player hardware is required, the SoC is also cheaper to purchase than a media player and saves space, since no additional devices and cable connections are necessary for video or control signals, for example. The installation effort is also lower, as the connections are directly integrated in the display. "In terms of on-site installation, an SoC is easier to install because you don't have to do any additional cabling between the feed player and the display," explains Michael Roth. At the same time, SoC displays have lower power consumption because no external media player has to be operated.

But integrating the system into a display also offers certain disadvantages in terms of possible repairs. While an external media player can be easily replaced, the entire display may have to be replaced with the SoC. "The external media player is replaceable. This means that short response times can be maintained in the event of a service. With SoC, you have to dismantle the display and have it repaired by a company certified by the manufacturer. In the worst case, you even have to replace the entire display, which usually takes about five to ten days," explains Michael Roth. Nevertheless, repairing media players is not as easy as it first appears. In this context, Rainer Bloch emphasises that media players are a self-sufficient component: "That means we have another source of error that can fail. Service becomes more complex because it is not always clear where the fault lies: in the display, in the player or possibly in the cable." In contrast, he says, with SoC displays it can be easier to replace the display.

Data about data

According to Rainer Bloch, media players and SoC can be operated in the same way, although he also sees advantages for the SoC: "The preparation for the SoC is less time-consuming and the work takes place directly on the display. So you always have a first-hand system status and not via a query as with the media player." Nevertheless, according to Mike Finckh, both types of player can be loaded via a web-based content management system and thus operated from a web-based interface. There are hardly any differences with regard to the uploading of content: the customer chooses the CMS depending on the ease of use and the functional coverage of the needs. In case of a change, the media player is more flexible and the system can be changed without changing the hardware. Erik Elbert sees it similarly: "With a media player, the choice of CMS partners is greater and the operation is different due to the higher flexibility of the operating system. Mostly there is a stream that is played out from the CMS server to the displays." In addition, media players can process larger files than Soc due to the stronger hardware, according to Rainer Bloch. "However, one usually avoids large amounts of data because a transfer to a cloud takes a lot of time," the expert mentions. Michael Roth states that the maximum data size that a media player or SoC can play depends on the display model used. However, tests have shown that HTML 5 content that is built live and not rendered cannot always be displayed completely smoothly and identically than when it is displayed on an external media player. As far as memory is concerned, SoC displays are usually limited to a certain capacity by the respective manufacturer. "As a rule, this is between eight and 16 gigabytes and cannot be expanded in most cases," mentions Michael Roth. External media players, on the other hand, are individually designed, with a capacity of 160 gigabytes being sufficient for most industries. "The only factor here with the media player is the operating system, which requires extra storage space," adds Rainer Bloch.

Depending on the project

For particularly computationally intensive applications, such as an interactive wayfinding system with many animations like 3D representations in real time, a well-equipped media player or mini PC is therefore usually suitable. For simple applications such as the playback of full HD content, on the other hand, an SoC is sufficient. Nevertheless, Tom Seiffert, Head of Marketing & PR Europe at Shuttle, advises to consider the goals and the future of the project before using a media player or an SoC: "With typical SoC displays, one moves within a narrow framework in terms of CMS functionality, media support and compatibility with devices from other manufacturers, often even individual model series. Media players allow much more freedom in the choice of screens and player hardware. Each of the components can be replaced and upgraded more easily. New creative ideas and industry trends that have much higher requirements can be realised more easily by separating the screen, hardware and software." The decision for one of the two systems should therefore be made depending on the project requirements.

Coexistence of both systems

As far as the future of the two systems is concerned, the experts are almost unanimous. "In my opinion, both systems will remain due to the diverse purposes and installation types," Michael Roth predicts, echoing the basic sentiment of most experts. Stefan Kröll, however, brings in that both systems, but especially SoC displays, will continue to specialise: "SoC displays will become even more powerful and find even greater acceptance." On the other hand, Mike Finckh can also imagine SoC displays as a backup, where one stores universal content that can be launched or shown if the other system should fail. No matter how the two systems develop, it is clear that both systems have their raison d'être and offer different advantages in the playback of digital signage content. Thus, both variants will certainly remain with us for a long time to come.

Source reference: Published with our participation in the magazine Werbetechnik 6/2020