Over the last 6-12 months, a wave of digital signage players has arrived that combines HD video capabilities with low cost, low power, and small size. These new players all leverage the Intel® Atom™ platform, but there are important differences among them. From a chipset-level perspective, you have four main options, each with its own pros and cons:
1. Use the standard Intel® Atom™ N270 or Intel® Atom™ N450 chipset.
The Intel Atom N270 and Intel Atom N450 are viable solutions for resolutions up to 720p. If that’s all you need, these solutions are likely to be your lowest-cost options. However, these solutions burn more power than our other options because they run video codecs in software. (The Intel Atom N270 and Intel Atom N450 have MPEG-2 decoding hardware built into their chipsets, but all other codecs run in software.)
One example of this approach is the Nexcom NDiS 120, shown in Figure 1. This fanless digital signage player is powered by Intel Atom N270 and includes a dual-display DVI-D port, four USB 2.0 ports, a 2.5" SATA HDD Bay and a Mini-PCIe slot for optional TV tuner or WLAN module.
Figure 1. The Nexcom NDiS 120 measures 272mm x 195mm x 44mm (10.7" x 7.7" x 1.7").
2. Use an Intel Atom with a companion HD hardware decoder.
The obvious benefit of this approach is that it lets you step up to full-HD video. Running the video codecs in hardware also cuts power. The main downside of this approach is the higher cost compared to the Intel Atom chipset alone.
One popular HD hardware decoder is the Broadcom BCM70012 “Crystal HD”, which can accelerate H.264 AVC, VC-1, and MPEG-2 at up to 1080p and 40Mb/second. The Broadcom decoder is typically provided on a Mini PCIe module. For example, Nexcom added a Broadcom module to the Nexcom NDiS 120 to create the HD-capable Nexcom NDiS 120-A.
To get a sense of how Broadcom-powered solutions perform, consider the Advantech ARK-DS303. RuggedPCReview.com recently tested this Intel Atom N270-based machine and found that it provided high quality playback with only minor glitches. Here’s a video of their test comparing the ARK-DS303 against an Apple iMac27:
Look inside ARK-DS303 and you will immediately notice the blue Broadcom Mini PCIe module (see Figure 2). You will also find a dual-display HDMI port, two USB 2.0 ports, and a SIM slot for an optional GPRS/EDGE/3G cellular data card. The cellular data card is an unusual option—I haven’t seen it anywhere else.
Figure 2. The Advantech ARK-DS303 includes a Broadcom Crystal HD module, shown at the lower right.
The NORCO BIS-6550HD illustrates the power savings you can achieve by adding a Broadcom module. (NORCO products are sold under the Habey name in North America.) NORCO reports that decoding 1080p H.264 video requires less than 15\% of the Intel Atom N270 CPU, and that 1080p WMV requires even fewer cycles. Power consumption for the entire solution is less than 15W, a remarkable feat considering that HD graphics cards often consume far more than 15W on their own.
The NORCO solution is also notable for its unusual I/O. As shown in Figure 3, it offers TV and S-Video outputs, SD and CF card slots, and a host of other I/O options.
Figure 3. The NORCO BIS-6550HD offers a number of unusual I/O options.
3. Use an Intel Atom paired with an HD-capable integrated graphics processor (IGP) or discrete GPU.
In addition to bringing in HD video capabilities, this approach can increase overall graphics performance. The main downsides to this approach are higher cost and power compared to the Intel Atom+Broadcom approach.
The Lanner LUGE LEC-7500 illustrates what you can achieve by adding a discrete GPU. This digital signage player combines an Intel Atom N270 with a VIA S3 4300E GPU with 512MB DDR2 graphics memory, resulting in a system that supports 1080p video at an impressive 50 frames per second. The system supports a wide range of video codecs, including WMV-9 HD, MPEG-2 HD, VC-1, H.264, DivX and AVS.
The LUGE LEC-7500 feature set includes VGA, DVI-D, and HDMI outputs, four USB 2.0 ports, and a Mini PCIe socket for a Wireless module. Storage options include a CompactFlash socket and an SATA port for an internal 2.5″ HDD.
One risk of adding a separate GPU is that most GPUs are designed for consumer markets and have short life cycles. The S3 4300E is a notable exception. It is designed specifically for embedded markets and offers long-life support.
4. Use the Intel Atom Z5xx.
This approach gets you a solution with the lowest power and size, yet it doesn’t sacrifice performance. The Intel Atom Z5xx has dual-channel 1080p hardware decoders built into the chipset, letting you do uncompromised full-HD signage.
The Portwell WEBS-1012 exemplifies this approach. Its features include an Intel Atom Z510 or Z530 processor, DVI-D display, four USB ports, Compact Flash and 2.5” SATA bays, and optional WiFi, all in a tiny 5.125” x 5.75” x 1.32” (130mm x 146mm x 34mm) package.
For an even smaller solution, check out the NORCO BIS-6620III. This digital signage player measures only 4.5” x 4.5” x 1.5” (114mm x 114mm x 38mm) yet comes with an Intel Atom Z510, HDMI output, five USB 2.0 ports, a PS/2 port, CF and SD slots, and a 1.8” SATA drive bay with micro-SATA connection. Just as impressive, the full system consumes 10W while playing full HD video. Here’s a clip that demonstrates the system’s capabilities:
A few tips on selecting the right option:
First, make your solution has the right software support, including the appropriate drivers. For example, Adobe Flash 10.1 supports hardware decoding on the Intel Z5xx and the Broadcom Crystal HD chipset, but not on the VIA S3 4300E. You should also verify that the solution supports your preferred version of Linux or Microsoft Windows*.
Also take a close look at the networking and storage options. If you need WiFi, make sure you can get it in combination with the other features you need. Some of the systems mentioned in this blog offer a single Mini PCIe slot. If you’ve already filled the slot with a HD decoder module, you won’t have anywhere to put a WiFi card! I also want to draw your attention to the cellular data card on the Advantech ARK-DS303. This is a great option for signage in locations without WLAN access.
Finally, check the outputs to make sure they meet your needs. For example, some of the models here come with DVI-D outputs, but most come with HDMI. You can always get a DVI-HDMI convertor, but it’s better not to need any extra parts.
Advantech is a Premier member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance. Nexcom, Lanner, and Portwell are Associate members of the Alliance. NORCO is an Affiliate member of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
Embedded Innovator magazine