When designing a digital signage system, businesses are frequently attracted to System on a Chip (SoC) displays, simply because they can provide a cost advantage over external media players. But there are drawbacks and advantages of each approach to hardware.
- What is System on a Chip (SoC)
- Comparing SoC to dedicated media players
- OS support
- When to use SoCs / when to use Media Players for digital signage
What Is a System on a Chip (SoC)?
System on a chip (SoC) is just a buzzword to describe a type of hardware that is fairly common.
In fact, almost everything is SoC these days, outside of “real” PCs. That is, desktops and workstations. SoCs are chipsets where all of the functional circuit blocks have been integrated into one piece of Silicon. Smartphones, tablets and even most laptops today, are SoC.
It wasn’t always like it is today.
A $3,000 PC from 20 years ago would have approximately 30 or 40 chips on the motherboard plus Random Access Memory (RAM) and everything else added. Maybe 10% of the cost for that motherboard was the processor.
Nowadays, 60% of the cost of that motherboard goes to Intel. So Intel went from five to 10% of the bill of materials to 30 to 40% of the bill of materials. Nice move for them. And everybody else who made all the other little plumbing on the motherboards? They don’t make money on those components anymore because they’ve been squeezed out.
What we are really discussing is more specifically System on a Chip displays. These bake into the display itself the central processing unit (CPU) and graphic processing unit (GPU), all the basic elements that you would find in an external media player. Without the Intel power play, and when you do have a choice, the pertinent question is: Which would you prefer — the cost advantage of an SoC display, or a display and media player?
When to Use System on a Chip for Digital Signage
Clearly, there are plenty of cases that call for a SoC. And digital signage, general applications anyway, are no exception. Tablets and digital shelf edge are two great examples because the space restrictions in these applications demand SoC.
However, once we have the space to devote to a dedicated media player, the decision leans away from SoCs for two primary reasons.
Long-term hardware agility
Dedicated media players tend to have better storage and processing capabilities, but that is not the key reason to use them. Many digital signage projects do not know their specifications upfront anyway, so SoCs tend to have enough power to at least satisfy the near-term “needs” of a project.
The issue comes in the future, when businesses begin to scale and expand their digital signage to allow for smarter features, such as personalized content or suggestive sell. These added features, especially when powered by AI technology, can require more power than the project initially called for.
When SoC is used, the entire display becomes the bottleneck. In order to change out the processing power of an SoC display, you need to buy a new display! Whereas if you had used a media player, you could easily keep the display and buy a new media player for significant cost savings on your expanded digital signage project.
That bottleneck is a problem in case of any problem with that SoC. If the CPU has a problem, then instead of replacing the CPU, now you need to replace the entire display. Tying the CPU, GPU and display together provides advantage in size and in some cases efficiency, but a large drawback in maintenance and agility.
It’s the same reason why you want your car to have removable tires. You can replace the tires easily without replacing the vehicle itself.
If you want a system that will last, then you would prefer a media player.
Operating Systems for Digital Signage
The other primary consideration for digital signage is the operating system (OS). As we all know, the OS matters. This is why we see monthly updates to major systems like iOS and Windows. These updates are made for the sake of security, as well as new features that allow developers and users to get increasing value from their IT resources with decreasing vulnerabilities.
Let’s take a look at the major SoC vendors and see how they stack up to digital signage media player OS. Apple is immediately thrown out because, typically, the primary reason for wanting an SoC for Digital Signage is cost. And Apple SoCs do not provide the same cost advantage as the other three.
We have three vendors remaining:
In each case, the vendor is no longer supporting updates to the SoC OS. Digital signage is not their primary, or even secondary business. They just realized they could do it. The OS is like an after-dinner mint, and they have very little stake in ensuring that mint does what it should.
For many businesses, that after-dinner mint is enough. Think of all the digital signage deployments out there that use a USB-keys to display a recurring slideshow.
If you’re running a dry cleaner, it’s no big deal for you to load up a set of pictures onto a USB key. And when you want to put something else on, you take that USB key, hook it up to your laptop and upload new pictures.
That same infrastructure doesn’t meet the needs of anyone who has a business with multiple venues and multiple geographic locations who wants coordinated messaging and changing of prices.
If you’re going to use digital signage as an enterprise, you want a STRATACACHE or Scala because we have an interest in supporting you and ensuring that your digital signage systems look good today, and continue to look good tomorrow. That is how we justify your continued business; that is why we are the best.
When we choose SoC components - for a digital shelf edge solution or a LINQ tablet, we are sure to provision them appropriately.
About John Schilling, Sr. Technical Architect, Scala, a STRATACACHE Family Company
A senior-level System Integration and Embedded Operating Systems Engineer with a great deal of hands on experience in the development and deployment of high-reliability public information display systems and kiosks. A Principal technical contributor in the design, development, operational management, and customer support of 24x7x365 Digital Signage networks comprising over 450,000 Players deployed world-wide.
A Software R&D/Electrical Engineering/Electronics Manufacturing/Systems Integration “Jack of all Trades” Engineer at firms which typically developed their own internal software and hardware technology stacks. “DevOps” two decades before the trade press realized that the software and hardware industries had a need for a special class of multifaceted systems engineer.
Experience in the development and debugging of MPEG decoders going back to the C^3/3DO/Philips CDI/and the Commodore CDTV. A wide range of experience with both Analog and Digital Video production issues.
Extensive electronics Manufacturing/Manufacturing QA experience in Asia/Pac-Rim; Europe; and North America.