Digital signage has come a long way from the simple setups of yesteryear that endlessly repeated a series of three or four static images. Today’s digital signage solutions are intelligent systems that offer a wide range of capabilities. You can buy solutions that:
- Display high definition and even glasses-free 3D (auto-sterescopic) images and video
- Run two or three displays, each serving up different content
- Provide touch-screen interfaces for easy navigation
- Use anonymous video analytics (AVA) to tailor content to the viewer and record dwell time and other important metrics for determining content effectiveness and return on investment (ROI)
- Offer advanced connectivity features
- Include innovative security and manageability features
Obviously, to reach this level of performance and capabilities, the technology behind digital signage players has radically improved. Many of today’s advanced digital signage players come equipped with processors from either the Intel® Atom™ processor N2000 and D2000 series (formerly codenamed “Cedar Trail) or 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processors (formerly codenamed “Ivy Bridge”). Both these processor families feature integrated graphics that save the cost and power drain of a separate graphics card. Where they differ is in performance and Intel® technologies.
Which processor is best suited for which applications? This is an important question for digital system designers. After all, you don’t want to buy more processor than you need. Nor do you want to miss out on performance and features that could set your solution apart from the competition.
One way to decide that is to look at the players themselves and compare the capabilities they’re able to provide based on the processor they use. We’ll look at a few of these players later in this post. But there are simple differences that can help a digital signage system designer narrow their search right from the start based on processor performance and capabilities.
This is obviously the place to start for digital signage where graphics performance is king. For mid- to high-end digital signage systems, the answer is clearly 3rd generation Intel Core processors. The upgraded graphics engine offers an up to 2X boost in 3D performance over the previous generation and support for 3 displays. Other advantages include:
- Integrated Intel® HD Graphics 4000 provides for up to 60 percent faster graphics performance, along with support for DirectX* 11, OpenGL* 3.1, and OpenCL* 1.1.
- Intel® Quick Sync Video delivers native support for all mainstream codecs and the ability to handle multiple 1080p streams simultaneously.
- Intel® Clear Video HD Technology providesdvanced video technologies that remove jitter, create crisper visuals, plus enable adaptive contrast and skin-tone enhancements that create vivid, rich colors on the display.
For low-end or power-constrained applications, the Intel Atom processor N2000 and D2000 series are an economical choice. They feature the integrated Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator 3600/3650 graphics engine which provides a 4x boost in 3D graphics performance over the previous generation, along with high definition 1080p video playback and streaming at a fraction of the power consumption of their predecessors. The Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 3600/3650 supports two hardware decoders (H.264, VC-1, MPEG-2) for dual independent displays, plus platform delivers multiple digital display and output options including LVDS, HDMI, VGA, and DisplayPort.
In digital signage systems, processing performance comes into play for multiple zone displays and handling intense workloads like anonymous viewer analytics. For such workloads, the 3rd generation Intel Core processors clearly excel (see Figure 1). With up to 20% better performance in the same thermal envelope as the previous generation, these processors make it easier to achieve performance goals in a fanless design. What’s more, they include Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel® AVX) which can speed up processing of some algorithms used in demanding image processing and graphical applications like AVA.
Figure 1. Graphics performance comparison between 2nd and 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processors measuring the average time per frame required to perform audience measurement on three video streams using Intel® Audience Impression Metrics Suite (Intel® AIM Suite) software that performs video analytics: 1) Highest compute: 1280 x 1024 video with high motion near the camera; 2) Middle compute: 640 x 480 video with medium motion near the camera; and 3) Lowest compute: 640 x 480 video of assorted crossings from 7-20 feet—light motion. For more details, see “Improved Graphics Performance changes the Cost Equation in Digital Signage.”
For less processing-intensive applications, the Intel Atom processor N2000 and D2000 series provide new levels of performance-per-watt compared to previous generations. This makes them ideal for power-efficient signage designs. Like Intel Core processors, they use Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology so each core is seen as two logical processors, executing parallel threads simultaneously for increased system responsiveness.
Manageability, Security, Connectivity and Other Features
Third generation Intel Core processor include Intel® vPro™ technology, which enables remote management, advanced security, energy savings, and lower TCO. A lot has been written on the benefits of Intel vPro technology, so I won’t go into here. But I highly recommend a post by my colleague Kenton Williston, “Cutting Costs with Intel® vPro™ Technology.” In the connectivity department, these processors deliver next-Generation I/O with support for integrated PCI Express Gen 3 and USB 3.0.
While the Intel® Atom™ processors don’t include Intel vPro technology, they do share Intel® Rapid Start Technology with 3rd generation Intel Core processors. This feature speeds up resume time from deep sleep for an “always-on” feel. The latest Intel Atom processors also include the Intel® Boot Loader Development Kit which allows designers to create customized initialization firmware to reduce boot-up times to less than a second. This can be an important differentiator in the retail market where digital signage users want signs that start up right away.
Off-the-Shelf Digital Signage Players
Good examples of signage players using these processors to enable the right performance for the right application are plentiful from the Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance. Which should be no surprise—the 200-plus members of the Alliance collaborate closely with Intel to create hardware, software, tools, and services to speed such solutions to market. I have space to highlight just a few examples.
The NEXCOM NDiS 167 (see Figure 2) is a powerful digital signage player based on 3rd generation Intel® Core™ processors. It offers impressive performance on full HD videos with support for smooth 1080P video playback on three independent displays. Its tough steel chassis uses an aluminum top cover for heat exchange. Connectivity options include two RJ45s for 10/100/1000Mbs Ethernet and a Mini-PCIe for an optional WLAN module. Storage includes a SATA 2.5” hard drive and a SATA disk on module (DOM).
Figure 2. NEXCOM NDiS 167
NEXCOM also offers a low power digital signage player, the NDiS 126 (see Figure 3), based on the Intel® Atom™ processor D2700 . It provides a variety of outputs for video (1 HDMI, 2 HDMI, or 1 HDMI and 1 VGA), audio outputs, dual GbE Ethernet with optional wireless connectivity, and a SIM Card slot for 3.5G radio connectivity.
Figure 3. NEXCOM NDiS 126
Another good example of a digital signage player based on the Intel Atom processor N2000 and D2000 series is the DFI DS910-CD (see Figure 4). Featuring two display outputs (HDMI and DVI-I), this economical unit provides 1920 x 1200 resolution, smooth video playback at full HD 1080P video, and supports both Microsoft Windows* 7 and Windows 7 Embedded.
Figure 4. DFI DS910-CD
Getting back to 3rd generation Intel Core processor-based systems, Kontron has recently debuted the KOPS800 series player (Figure 5) that is available as an evaluation kit optimized for speedy time to market. It comes pre-validated for use with a Microsoft Windows Embedded operating system and Intel® Audience Impression Metric (Intel® AIM) Suite based on Anonymous Video Analytics (AVA) software. Add a content management system, display and sensors, and this open pluggable specification (OPS)-based modular solution is ready to simultaneously play high-definition video while gathering valuable viewer demographics. Enable its Intel® vPro technology, and you can design a system of hundreds of digital signage players that can be managed and updated remotely while maintaining a high level of security.
Figure 5. Kontron KOPS800 series
Many more examples of digital signage players using both Intel® Atom™ and Core™ processors can be found by using the Intel Intelligent Systems Alliance Solutions Directory. What I hope I’ve shown you is that whether you’re designing retail digital systems for the low-end or high-end, the place to start is by looking for solutions using the latest Intel processors. That’s always the way to get the best performance and performance per watt, as well as the newest bells and whistles that will make your solutions stand out in the marketplace.
For more on managing and securing intelligent devices, see intel.com/p/en_US/embedded/innovation.
To learn more about bringing intelligence to digital signage and other retail devices, see Digital Signage - Top Picks
Kontron is a Premier member of the Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance. NEXCOM and DFI are Associate members of the Alliance.
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor), Intel® Intelligent Systems Alliance
Associate Editor, Embedded Innovator magazine