In part 1 of this series, we quickly named the elements of a digital signage system. We're ready to take a closer look at the graphics and multimedia capability a system needs.
"Signage" pretty much implies the graphics capability has to be good, because it's all the viewer really sees of a digital signage system, even though there is much more behind the scenes. The focus should be on content displayed crisply and vibrantly with rich media blending capability, but not necessarily at ultra high frame rates or polygonal fill rates found in say the latest video games. The media may include video, graphics, animation, text, and tickers displayed in different windows on a display. Also, we recall that size and power aren't unlimited - many of these systems are relatively compact and operate without a fan, so implementing a high end GPU on a standalone card with lots of memory and its own cooling often isn't feasible. Integrated graphics technology often fits the bill in digital signage apps.
There are also other considerations, such as:
- Interface: Many solutions aren't running an XGA LCD panel "computer monitor", but they are actually driving a large format LCD HDTV. Interfaces like HDMI, LVDS, and DVI are becoming more important.
- Codecs: We're talking about presenting both static images and multimedia with full motion video, and hardware assist for video is a must. MPEG-2 and H.264 are good examples of basic codecs needed, and higher end solutions can deal with codecs like VC-1 for higher quality HD video playback.
- Operating system drivers: The choice of Windows Embedded, embedded Linux, or an embedded RTOS can be interesting, and we'll look at that in a future installment, but the main consideration now is how available and how good are the available drivers for the graphics chipset.
- High-level programming: Support for DirectX, OpenGL, shader models and other features come at a price of hardware support and power consumption, but can increase the visual experience.
These are items well addressed by the range of integrated graphics technology offered by Intel. If you haven't investigated Intel Graphics Technology yet, you can see the full range of offerings at http://www.intel.com/products/graphics/index.htm . Rather than try to recap the entire range of chipset technology available which you can see, I thought we'd play this the other way and look at a couple examples of Intel® Embedded Alliance member company implementations in their latest digital signage system level solutions and how those selections address the challenge.
At the very low power end, the Intel Atom Z5xx processor can combine with the US15W chipset to make something tiny like the Portwell WEBS-1010. This system takes in an Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection and drives a DVI output.
With a bit more power and room, vendors are selecting the Intel 945GSE chipset with Intel Atom N270 processors. The 945GSE can do many graphics tasks at a low power consumption level of around 7 W. This graphics chipset family handles MPEG-2 in hardware but relies on software to handle more advanced codecs. This solution often appears on a COM Express module - one of the more recent ones I've seen is from ADLINK, the Express-ATR.
The 945GSE is also the core of a new Mini-ITX system from DFI-ITOX and Systium, the Model 132 "mini" . Based on the DFI-ITOX NP101-D16C board, the system presents an 18-bit LVDS interface and a VGA interface to drive an LCD panel. The Model 132 runs from a 12V wall AC adapter and consumes around 15W total.
Breaking out of the very low power space, and tossing some considerations of lifecycle aside to be able to select from the most advanced Intel Graphics Technology solutions available now, there are much higher performance solutions. Some of these are even directly integrated with a display, such as the Axiomtek DS01-46 . Driven by an Intel GM45 chipset and a Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor at 2.53 GHz, this is a fully integrated signage platform with a 46" display using what Axiomtek calls a "slot in PC" for easy system configuration and maintenance. The G45 is one of the latest chipsets and brings enhanced HD support in hardware along with Intel Clear Video Technology for sharper image playback, clarity, and color. While these are cutting edge now, the GM45 and G45 devices will be mainstream for digital signage apps shortly as they offer rich processing and blending of content.
Just from these samples, the range of digital signage hardware solutions using integrated graphics technology is seen to be significantly wide. Designers can go very compact, go with a bit more performance and still small, or go to very high performance consuming more power and space - all with graphics integrated directly on the chipset and closely coupled with the Intel Architecture processor.
Note: Portwell, Adlink, DFI-ITOX and Axiomtek are Associate members of the Alliance.
In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at the maintenance and security considerations for a digital signage system, but we'd like to hear your thoughts on this post. What's a novel digital signage solution powered by Intel processors and graphics that you've seen? What do you see as the pros and cons of integrated graphics over PCI Express add in graphics solutions? Discussion welcomed.
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance