The Buyer's Guide to Digital Signage Hardware: Pros, Cons and Potential

The master guide to digital signage options to help you make an informed decision.

Jul 2020

The Buyer's Guide to Digital Signage Hardware: Pros, Cons and Potential

Digital signage is everywhere. 

From the advertising billboard you see in your shopping mall, to the screens organizations use to surface crucial company information. If you’re looking to build your own digital signage network, you may be wondering how companies get from the point of deciding “let’s do it” to beautiful displays that seamlessly integrate with the tools and systems they already use.

In this guide we’ll show you how to choose the best digital signage hardware for your needs. 

Through six key sections, we’ll talk you through all of the components that make up a digital signage network like screens and media devices. We’ll share the pros, cons, and potential of each hardware option depending on content requirements, size of network, pricing, and limitations. 

If you don’t need an in-depth look at each hardware option and just want to find something quickly, use our hardware selector tool instead.

1. How to choose a digital signage screen

choosing a digital signage screen

There are many things to consider when choosing the best TV screen for your digital signage. What works for one person may not work for someone else. 

Your needs will be shaped by multiple factors, particularly your content and your location characteristics.

  • Are you setting up digital signage in a school with an enterprise level network, both large and small screen sizes, image, 4K video, and app content? Then you will need one type of solution. 
  • Are you setting up an advertisement network with screens in multiple out-of-office locations with the need for theft protection, remote device management, and the ability to play simple image and 1080p video content? Then you will need something quite different.
  • Will you be showing content for 8 hours or less a day? Then maybe you should buy a consumer display. Or Perhaps you want to show content 24/7, then maybe you should buy a professional display.

The better you understand your needs, the better you’ll be able to choose the correct screen size and type.

For more information on which screen will suit your digital signage needs best, check out this article here for our full list of recommended Consumer screen displays, or check out this article here for our recommended Professional screen displays.

Different screen types for digital signage 

When you think of digital signage, you might think of giant screens in Times Square or large screens showing information at an airport. But these aren’t your only options. Here are a couple of different screen types, and the best scenario for each: 

Tablets or iPads - best for scenarios that require a touch screen or kiosk setup or where the viewer is not far from the screen. For example, outside meeting rooms, in elevators, or next to products in supermarkets.

Monitors - best for a cost-effective way to show content on a screen. If you’re looking for anything 17-32 inches, it’s more economical to get a monitor. If you need a screen that’s 32 inches or more, you’re better off getting a TV.

Non-smart TVs - best for a budget-friendly large screen option. A non-smart TV is a bit like a dumb PC monitor in that it doesn’t have much power on its own and needs to be “made smart” by a media device, like a plugged in Amazon Fire TV Stick. But on the outside, these generally look as good as any other screen.

Smart TVs - best for an all-in-one solution, or where you don’t have the space or ability to hide away media devices. A smart TV is essentially a TV with built in computing capabilities and software. Operating systems might include Android TVs, Tizen TVs from Samsung, webOS TVs from LG and even some based on Windows or Linux.  However, when choosing a smart TV, it’s important to look at the specifications and performance. Many stunning smart TVs are surprisingly low performance or run on older versions of Android, like 4.4 KitKat which is more than five years old.

Consumer TVs - Consumer TVs are displays designed for personal use, meaning they are designed for less display time, more or less 8 hours per day at most, as you probably won't be watching TV for more time than that in one day. If you use a consumer TV for 24/7 digital signage usage you will find that the TV will lose quality over time, with things like edge burn-in and color distortion.

Professional TVs -  Professional display also known as Commercial grade TVs, are specifically designed for digital signage and are designed for longer display times, usually 16 hours a day 7 days a week or 24 hours a day 7 days a week (you'll often see a 16/7 or 24/7 display time rating on professional displays' spec sheets). Professional displays have advantages over consumer TVs in terms of build quality, durability, brightness, and outdoor use.

Do you need a commercial grade TV to run digital signage? 

Despite what many manufacturers tell you, you don’t have to buy a commercial grade screen (one that you buy from a reseller or specialist partner) to be able to run digital signage. But there are reasons why you might choose one over a consumer grade screen (one you can buy from your local hardware store or on Amazon). One key reason being, they are specifically designed for longer use periods. A consumer display warranty is much shorter than a commercial grade display, and only covers you for a maximum of 1-2 years, whereas a commercial display warranty can cover you for up to 5-10 years. A consumer warranty may be voided if you use it for 24 hours seven days a week and results in a burn out, whereas a commercial panel is designed for that and almost expected to be “always on”. Commercial options are also often brighter, sharper, can handle more rigorous use cases, and won’t fade or burn from a few months of use.

Saying that, the world is changing and, just like you might use an iPhone or a Windows PC at work (both consumer-grade devices), you can also build a very professional digital signage setup on a consumer grade TV. As we’ve seen firsthand, many enterprises are choosing to do this rather than forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars on hardware that has little additional benefit.

Choosing a screen summary

Choosing a digital signage screen comparison table

2. Choosing a digital signage media device

Amazon Fire TV Stick

When we talk about digital signage hardware, we’re usually talking about one of the following:

  • A media player device or “signage” device connected to a TV or monitor, turning what would otherwise be a regular TV or monitor into a smart, connected device, capable of being used for digital signage
  • A smart TV all-in-one device or tablet that has both a screen, the computing power, and operating system needed to be used for digital signage

The different types of media players include:

Consumer Media Players -  When it comes to consumer grade media players, they are designed for home use and are not designed for consistent 24/7 use. If used in a commercial setting, it could damage the device as the build quality is not as high or robust. The average consumer media player is one you’d purchase at your local electronic store which is designed for residential environments. Consumer media players typically are made from plastic which allows them to be cheaper, but making the plastic material sensitive and cannot withstand heat as well as commercial grade media players. Mounting options are also limited as they don’t need to be hidden behind a display like other digital signage devices. An example of a consumer media player is a streaming media player used to watch movies or play games for a short period of time. 

Commercial Media Players - Commercial media players are designed to operate for longer periods of time without causing damage to any components internally. They are far more robust and can stand extensive use in the toughest conditions because the majority of them are constructed with metal. However, above all, the main differences from consumers to commercial media players is computing power. Commercial media players have faster processing power and can handle more demanding content such as 4K videos and zones. 

Industrial Media Players - As well as having the same level of computing power, the key difference between commercial and industrial media players is the extra features that help the device maintain a consistent output of content regardless of the environment. So what does that mean? Well, Industrial media players also are built with metal chassis to dissipate heat like commercial media players, but they also come with shock-absorbing features, moisture protection, dust protection, and the ability to operate in very high or very low temperatures. The physical chassis are designed much stronger to withstand any environment that has vibrations, smoke, or even grease. Environments with high pollutants such as fast-food restaurants, bus terminals, factories, ski resorts, hot weather, cold weather, you name it these displays can handle it.

Unless you have bought a smart TV where you know you can download your digital signage software directly (double check, this isn’t a given), you’ll need to add a media device to your package. 

Different digital signage screen requirements table

We looked at over 250 media devices from various major manufacturers to determine which ones are best suited to digital signage and why. We then split them up according to budget and categorized what we consider a consumer, commercial, and industrial media player. We hope this helps you make a more informed decision when it comes to selecting your media player and have the correct hardware to effectively communicate and engage your audience for your digital signage.   

Note: While there may be times that discontinued devices can be good value via refurbished deals, we didn’t list any here, focusing instead on new devices with full warranties.

Budget consumer digital signage media devices (under $100)

Our first recommendation is the budget consumer option. If you are looking for a device that will accomplish simple digital signage tasks in a more consumer setting and has a shorter warranty period then this is the best option for you. There are some fantastic consumer devices under $100 that can transform your display into a connected, smart TV capable of playing content up to 4K. The obvious advantage of devices in this category is price and easy plug and play capability. However, being a consumer media player you may not be able to display complicated content or even use the device for long periods of time. For more information on what a consumer media player is check out section two.

A budget device might not be for you if:

  • You need a device capable of playing up 4K, as some devices only support 1080p.
  • You need a device that can store cached media content locally, as some devices are not designed to and do not come with much storage space.
  • You need enough power to support advanced apps or zoning (where a digital signage display is divided into multiple sections all showing different types of content), as some devices are not designed to.
  • Also check to see if the device you want is available in your region, as some devices are not available in all markets. 
  • You need a device that can play in demanding environments.
  • You need remote device management capabilities.

The best devices in this category are Amazon’s Fire TV Sticks running the Android based Fire OS and Android media boxes.

Amazon Fire TV Devices

Amazon Fire TV devices

Amazon’s Fire TV Stick devices include the 2nd Generation Fire TV Stick  ($39.99), the 3rd Generation Fire TV Stick ($39.99), the 1st Generation Fire TV Stick Lite ($29.99), and the Fire TV Stick 4K ($49.99).

Let’s take a closer look at the differences:

Fire TV Stick versions comparison table

Overall, Fire TV devices are easy to set up, have fast WiFi and official Ethernet adapters, connect via HDMI, and come with a one-year warranty. They work offline and support advanced apps, zones and kiosk mode but still aren’t really designed to store a lot of cached content. Amazon’s Manage Your Device features are also much more limited than Google’s Chrome Device Management platform (more on this later). 

When deciding which Fire TV Stick to upgrade to, the only two devices you should be looking at is the Amazon Fire TV Stick Gen 3 and the Fire TV Stick 4K. Both devices are fairly similar in terms of specs as they both have Quad-Core 1.7Ghz processor, 8GB of storage, and similar ports. However for digital signage usage we only recommend purchasing the Fire TV Stick 4K as it hits the right balance of price and performance. This is the only Fire TV Stick that supports 4K content which is very important for digital signage. Compared to the other Fire TV Stick this is the only device that has .5GB more RAM which will provide smoother playback when trying to load apps and videos. The Fire TV Stick 4K is also the only device that has dolby support, so if that is important to you the 4K stick is your best bet. 

We love this device as it's under $50 and its stick form factor makes for an easy quick set up. It can cache fast Wi-Fi, and if you want to use an Ethernet connection there is a nice officially supported Ethernet adapter that you can purchase here.  If you aren’t in one of the six countries that the Fire TV Stick 4K is available in, then we recommend the Chromecast with Google TV. 

Choose a Fire TV device if you want a high quality, affordable device that can stream all types of content in various configurations on your screen.

Android-powered Chromecast with Google TV

There are also some good Android powered devices that are less than $150.

The Chromecast with Google TV is powered by Google TV  and makes for a powerful and affordable device for digital signage, with great value for money, only costing about $49.99. It is a small “puck” like device that you plug into your TV to make it smart. It can handle playing various types of content with ease and it’s easy to cast to your device with Chromecast built-in. This media player is in the Consumer category as it does not have hardware protective capabilities as well as no remote device management capabilities.

Specs:

  • Quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage,
  • Support for Dolby Vision, HDR10 and HDR10+ (gives richer colors and depth with a higher brightness - when compared to previous Chromecasts).
  • A small dongle like its predecessor Chromecast, so it is fairly easy to conceal it behind a display if you are using it in public places.
  •  6.4 x 2.4 x 0.5 inches.
  • Comes with one HDMI port and USB-C port.

The Chromecast with Google TV released by Google in late 2020 is a big step up compared to previous Chromecasts; it runs the latest version of the Google TV so it comes with a full operating system and is equipped with a remote control to navigate through your screen. 

Like the Amazon Stick 4K, it also pushes 4K content and has fast Wi-Fi. The Chromecast with Google TV comes with only one HDMI port, supports advanced apps, and zoning. And if you need Ethernet support the Chromecast with Google TV supports a great Ethernet adapter you can easily purchase. 

Unfortunately, this device does not have remote management options as good as Chrome devices or more advanced media players. And similar to the Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K, there's no option for bulk purchases.

This is a great option for users who do not have the Amazon Fire TV Stick available in their country.

Choose the Chromecast with Google TV if you want an affordable device with a lot of power and you’re willing to research shipping, warranty, and other manufacturer-specific quirks.

To summarize

An Amazon Fire TV Stick 4K and Chromecast with Google TV are affordable devices and are great if they are available in the country you are in. They are both under $50 and are a great start to your digital signage journey. But, if you are looking for a more business ready device you probably don't want to use an Android TV-like device. In this case we recommend choosing something like an entry level commercial digital signage media player like the option we listed below.

Budget commercial digital signage media devices (under $100)

Ugoos X3 Cube

Consumer media players are great if you just need to set up a few Digital Signage screens in your store or office, but if you want to get more business-ready while still staying inside your budget, we recommend purchasing a budget commercial grade media player such as the Ugoos X3 Cube media player.

The Ugoos X3 Cube is a powerful Android-powered industrial media player designed specifically for digital signage  business use cases, starting at around $60.00. Unlike Amazon or other Android TV devices, the X3 Cube runs a more complete version of Android, like what you would find on a phone or tablet, so it's much easier for you to use more business apps and services like remote device management options. It is also available to purchase in bulk, which is important for larger businesses. 

The Ugoos X3 Cube is very easy to set up and comes with more connectivity options out of the box such as an Ethernet port. It runs Android 9.0 and has a Amlogic S905X3 Quad Core CPU and Mali G31 750Mhz GPU. This media player has 2GB DDR4 of memory which is great for digital signage and is seen on more powerful Android boxes. 

The design of the Ugoos X3 Cube is a small but sleek rectangle black plastic box that can easily fit behind any TV. There are some slight downsides to consider when purchasing this device as it is a budget friendly option, such as the remote control is not the highest quality. Although this isn't a deal breaker as it has never got in the way of any usage. Secondly, you also need root access in order to set up remote device management to have a more secure set up.

To summarize, the Ugoos X3 cube is a great device if you want more business features like remote device management and have the option to buy in bulk for larger businesses. Although this box is lightweight, it performs extremely well and is manufactured with quality. We suggest not to judge a book by its cover with this one as it truly gives you your money's worth.

Entry level commercial digital signage media players ($100-$200)

An entry-level device is perfect for getting started as these typically come at a much more affordable price and have a lower processing power but still have commercial capabilities!

When choosing an Entry-Level commercial media player, you'll want to take the following into consideration:

  • These lower cost media players are a reliable option but within their own limits as they can only stream to a single or dual display, so when purchasing an entry-level device it is important to have realistic expectations. If you would like to stream to multiple screens, perhaps a medium to high end media player will suit you better.
  • These devices have less power so if you are pushing content that has animations, scrolling tickers or widgets, your screen might not look as crisp and images will be jittery.
  • Entry-level devices have less storage capacity. Storing your content in the local cache ensures your content will play smoothly and ensures content will continue playing without internet connection. 
  • Great recommendation for menu boards, directories, and other displays with a lighter content load.

Android-powered Ugoos AM6

If you are looking for a much stronger media player with additional control features we suggest purchasing the Ugoos AM6. Likewise, the Ugoos is an Android powered media player costing about $139.00. The Ugoos AM6 is equipped with a slightly fast processor such as the Amlogic S922X SoC, compared to the Ugoos X3 Cube running Amlogic S905X3, so you can rest assured that it's more than capable of running your digital signage content with minimal interruptions.

This box runs on the Android 9.0 operating system and has a very user-friendly interface. Its clean launch screen contains all of the necessary applications such as file manager and the Google Play Store, so you can easily install any business app or tools onto the device like remote device management. This media player also receives over the air updates ensuring your device is always up to date with the latest software and security patches. 

The AM6 has an Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI port, TF card slot, and much more. The benefits of having an abundance of ports is that there’s no need for external adaptors or connections. This device also has 2G of DDR4 RAM and 16 GB of internal storage which is enough to cache content and playback with ease. It runs the latest high-efficiency video coding, most commonly known as HEVC or H.265. This next level video processor allows for 4K videos to be easily compressed and streamed to your display without compromising any picture quality, so images look great!

Thanks to its metal chassis and quality build, you don't have to worry about the device overheating and you can play content for extensive periods of time and the device will not degrade. The Ugoos AM6 is great for any business activity and we highly recommend it if you are looking for a low cost entry level commercial media player.

Mid-range commercial digital signage media devices ($200-$400)

There are a lot of great options in the $200-$400 price range, but only a few specific devices stand out when it comes to each operating system. You’ll find that devices at this price range have fewer missing features than budget devices and are generally more powerful, come with 4K support, and have a good amount of space for storage cached media.

When choosing a mid-range device, you’ll want to consider the following things:

  • With four different operating systems available in this price range, make sure to choose the OS that has support for the things you need, like remote device management features and network standards.
  • How much media do you want to store on your device’s cache? Devices in this range have between 8 and 32 GB of storage space, so pick the device that suits your needs. And bear in mind that you can’t use all of that storage space either. Usually only up to 50% of that space is available to use for media cache purposes. Check out this guide to get a better idea of what’s possible on different devices.
  • Check if the device you want is available in your region, as some devices are not available in all markets.
  • When buying an Android box in this price range, we recommend getting one with the Amlogic S912 chipset, as we’ve found it offers the most consistent performance.

If you are looking for an alternative, the Intel Nuc 8 Celeron has a more powerful CPU and runs on an Intel Core i3 processor which has a total cost of $300. If you prefer something a bit more within your budget, an Asus Chromebox 4 Celeron or Azulle Byte 4 will provide you with the support you need for your digital signage and costs around $260-299.

Chrome OS Devices

There are many manufacturers who’ve made a Chromebox at some point but currently Acer, AOpen, Asus, and HP are the companies who seem the most committed to creating Chrome OS based PC boxes and have the most up-to-date offerings. You’ll find similar configurations across the board with your choice of dual core and quad core Celeron, Core i3 and Core i5 SOCs, HDMI, 32-64GB of storage space, 4-8GB of RAM, Ethernet, and support for fast AC WiFi. They can of course also handle 4K output.

Pricing varies, but expect to pay between $200 and $250 for Celeron options, around $425 for Core i3 options, and between $500 and $575 for Core i5 options. One-year warranty is provided with all these devices and feature support is as good as you’d expect.

With all these factors considered, we suggest the Asus Chromebox 4 is the best choice for this category, costing about $290. This Chromebox comes with Intel's latest 10th generation Intel Celeron processor which has plenty of power to run intensive visual content smoothly without hiccups. It is also equipped with 4GB of DDR4-2666 RAM, and 32 GB up to 128GB of storage. The Asus Chromebox 4 device is well known for its commercial grade qualities as it can process various content simultaneously and boasts three 4K HDMI outputs making it the perfect option for a two to three screen video wall or interactive kiosk. 

It is important to note that while using the Asus Chromebox 4, unlike the Intel Nuc or the Azulle Bye 4, you can only stream one app at a time. This entry level model does not have the fastest processor, if you would like a more powerful device, consider taking a look at the Core i3 or i5 models.

Once you have all of your Chrome licenses set up, deployment is very easy. You can set up a single app kiosk mode as a default which is great for secure public setups. Choose an Asus Chrome OS device if you want a quick easy to use commercial device designed for digital signage with the features, support and warranty to match. If you want more powerful features, multiple display support, and the ability to play apps side by side, then another good alternative is the Azulle Byte 4 with the Intel Core i3 or i5 processor.

Windows Devices

One of the best entry level Windows media player we recommended under $300 is the Azzule Byte 4. The Azulle Byte 4 is a perfect mid-tier solution designed for digital signage that can handle demanding content with ease and is powerful enough to power one display up to 4K resolution. With Windows 10 Pro included, it supports a wide range of remote device management apps and other systems that can be used alongside ScreenCloud. The Azulle Byte 4 comes with a 64-bit Quad-Core Intel Gemini Lake Series processor and has three display outputs with one being an HDMI port, one Ethernet port, a Type-C port, and some USB ports. If you want to spend a little extra, you have the option to purchase a POE-equipped version if you have a POE switch. 

The only slight disadvantage here is that we think the build quality could be improved, and although this device has three output ports, from our testing we don’t think this device is capable of pushing more than one display at a time. So if this is the use case you are looking for, we suggest taking a look at our second recommendation, the Intel Nuc 8 Celeron. 

The Intel Nuc 8 Celeron (NUCCHKR) is a mini PC kit that is equipped with a more powerful and more recent version of Intel’s dual-core Apollo Lake Celeron processor. The main advantage is its support for multiple zone layouts and is powerful enough to support two 2K displays or one 4K display. It comes with fast Wi-Fi and Ethernet, 4 GB of RAM, and 32 GB of storage, making it easy to display difficult content such as live streams or keep surveillance cameras running around the clock with minimal interruptions. And like the Azulle Byte 4, it supports the same advanced business apps and can also run other apps alongside your ScreenCloud player app.  This device supports Windows 10 pro, Windows IOT enterprise, and has a 3 year warranty so no need to worry about the investment risk.

It features a fanless and ventless design so no noise is emitted from the device. Not only is that a benefit, but this specific design minimizes particle intrusion so it is able to survive the toughest environments most PC’s can't stand, such as busy factory floors or other dusty locations. The Intel Nuc 8 Celeron is able to operate in temperatures far below 0 celsius. Its rugged but small chassis is slim enough to fit almost anywhere and can be easily integrated into your digital signage solutions. Although this device is more powerful than the Azulle Byte 4, it's still an entry level device and does not have the most powerful processor, for that you will have to spend a little bit more and purchase either the core i3 or i5 versions.

Summary

If you want a future proof Chrome OS device that is easy to set up and deploy, you’ll want to get an Asus Chromebox 4 Celeron. But if you want more powerful features like multiple display support and the ability to run apps side by side, then we suggest you get a Windows powered device such as the Azulle Byte 4 and Intel Nuc 8 NUCCHKR both running Intel’s Celeron processors.These two are one of the best options for someone who wants full featured digital signage devices that can run advanced business apps.

High-end digital signage devices ($400+)

As you get into more high-end devices that cost $400 and up, you’ll find that the key differentiator is processing power. The only reason we think you may want to purchase a device at this price and power, is to power more than two displays in a video wall configuration from one digital signage media player. Devices in this range will come with desktop class processors that are markedly better than the processors found in low and mid range devices. This ensures you can handle a wide range of use cases that require high levels of processing power and that your devices are more future proof. However unless you want to perform any other heavy task along the ScreenCloud player app, on the same machine at the same time, the devices we recommend in the mid range category should be able to do the job just fine.

When choosing a high-range digital signage device, you’ll want to consider the following things:

  • Check support options. A big reason for buying a commercial device is getting support from the manufacturer on issues related to digital signage, so research and check if the device manufacturer has good support options.
  • Amount of processing power. When it comes to Windows devices in this category, majority of them are powered by Intel processors, with Celeron, Core i3 and Core i5 processors all available for PC boxes and the mobile equivalent Core m3 and Core m5 processors available. Choose a Celeron or Core i3 processor if you’re more price conscious and a Core i5 processor if you want the most powerful and future proof device. Chrome OS requires less operating power and RAM than Windows, so the rules are different there, but always shoot for a device that has up-to-date processors.
  • Type of operating system. Each has specific pros and cons – like license costs, remote device management features and network standards – so your choice may very well come down to which OS is best for you.
  • As devices in this range are more expensive, you may want theft protection features, secure mounts, and warranty options. For theft protection and secure mounting, check if your device has a Kensington lock slot and if it’s Vesa mount compatible or has other official or 3rd party mount options. As for warranty, see if it has more than the standard one-year warranty available. Some devices include a three-year warranty or provide the option to buy it.
  • Check to see if the device you want is available in your region, as some devices are not available in all markets.

There are a lot of manufacturers and devices in this category. From our experience and testing, we recommend AOpen’s Chrome OS devices and Intel’s Windows powered NUC boxes. Let’s take a look at them.

Chrome OS Devices

There are many manufacturers who’ve made a Chromebox at some point but currently Acer, AOpen, Asus, and HP are the companies who seem the most committed to creating Chrome OS based PC boxes and have the most up-to-date offerings. You’ll find similar configurations across the board with your choice of dual core and quad core Celeron, Core i3 and Core i5 SOCs, HDMI, 32-64GB of storage space, 4-8GB of RAM, Ethernet, and support for fast AC WiFi. They can of course also handle 4K output.

Pricing varies, but expect to pay  between $200 and $250 for Celeron options, around $425 for Core i3 options, and between $500 and $575 for Core i5 options. One-year warranty is provided with all these devices and feature support is as good as you’d expect.

With all things considered, we suggest the AOpen Chromebox Commercial 2 Core i3 is the best choice for this price category. This Chromebox comes with a core i3 processor which has plenty of power to run intensive visual content smoothly without hiccups. It is also equipped with 4GB of DDR4 RAM, and 32 GB of storage. The AOpen device is well known for its commercial grade qualities as it can process various content simultaneously and boasts two 4K HDMI outputs making it the perfect option for a two screen video wall or interactive kiosk.  Availability is also good, just contact AOpen for a quotation for the amount you need, or buy them online from one of numerous partners.

Choose an AOpen Chrome OS device if you want a commercial device designed for digital signage with the features, support and warranty to match and you prefer the Chrome OS operating system with the options it provides for digital signage to other operating systems.

Another alternative is the Acer’s Chromebox CXI4 with the Intel Core i5 processor. The Chromebox CX14 is a very powerful device as it comes with Intel’s latest 10th generation core processor and its USB type-C port and dual HDMI 2.0 ports allow content to be streamed  up to three displays. Besides having a Kensington lock slot and being Vesa mount compatible, they also come with a built-in stand that allows for multiple placements. The Core i5 version also comes with a newer and more powerful i5 processor than the other options while still being affordable in comparison. While being one of the top Chrome OS devices in the market, it isn't exactly a budget friendly option, costing around $600. If you are looking for something cheaper, the Asus Chromebox 3 should suffice.

MacOS Devices

Apple Mac Mini

A Mac mini is a 19.7cm device which has all of the power of a Mac PC inside it. The idea of a Mac mini is that you can hook it up to a regular PC screen, TV screen or other device to make it “smart”.

In 2018, Apple has finally released a much needed updated version of their Mac Mini and introduced an entirely new model which is 5 times faster than its previous 2014 generation model. The cost starts at $799 which is a significant jump in price from their last model which costs $499. The latest model released in 2020, the Mac Mini Silicon M1, is probably the cheapest way to start using a Mac computer with this level of processing power. It offers great value for money as it's priced at the same amount as the previous 2018 models but has three times the processing power. Apple's new M1 processor is Apple's way of transitioning away from the Intel chip set normally seen in other devices with Core i3 or Core i5 processors, and is the fastest processor Apple has released today. 

The biggest differences between the 2020 Mac Mini M1 and the 2018 Mac Mini is price, storage capacity and processing power. As briefly stated before, the M1 has a lower starting point compared to previous Mac Minis, starting at 256GB whereas the 2018 model starts at 128GB. What's interesting is that Apple actually lowered the price of the Mac Mini M1 to $699 compared to the 2018 model which costs about $799. 

The latest 2020 model is very similar to the 2018 model in terms of specifications from shape and size, to the same 8th-gen Intel chip, 2.0 HDMI ports and 65 GB of 2,666 MHZ DDR4 memory. Although there is one tell tale sign that you are looking at a Mac Mini M1 because, unfortunately, It has two less thunderbolt 3 ports compared to the previous generation. This may be important to some people who like connecting numerous ports to their mac mini. 

The 2020 Mac Mini models come with two thunderbolt 3 ports, one 2.0 HDMI ports, 2 USB 3.1 ports, a headphone jack and bluetooth support. Using these ports, you can connect up to two displays at 4K resolution or one display at 6K resolution. It is important that the 2018 and 2020 models do not come with an SD card slot, if this is important to you then you can purchase a second hand 2014 model, but we do not recommend this as you will not be getting your ‘bang for your buck’ as the 2020 and 2018 models are much much faster. 

This device is great for digital signage as it is very reliable and the MacOS does have some remote device management tools that some people may like, but they are very expensive and have moved out of the mid range options. Warranty can also be extended to three years at a fee, which is a good option. If you want something cheaper but with the same performance levels or perhaps a different remote device management tool, we suggest purchasing a Chrome powered AOpen Chromebox Commercial 3 Core i3 or i5,  or you can go with a Windows powered Intel Nuc 8 Core i3 or i5.

Windows Devices

Intel Nuc 11 Pro Kit (Supports 1- 4 display)

There’s a long list of device manufacturers who make PCs, but we found that not too many of them make good devices in the mini PC box form factor that is best for digital signage purposes.

In this high-end category, we recommend the Intel Nuc 11 Pro Kit (NUC11TNKi5) powered by the latest 11th generation Intel Core i5 processor. This device is powerful and reliable and would handle ultimately any content you throw at it with ease. Core i5 processors are designed for high intensity tasks that require a lot of processing and graphics power for either gaming, productivity work, or 4K content in zones making them more than capable of displaying digital signage content. 

As well as plenty of storage space, 64GB to be exact, and has a 2.4GHz that can reach up to 4.2GHz with its turbo frequency feature. The Intel Nuc 11 Pro has a wide range of ports to support various network connectivity and screens for your digital signage set up. The Nuc 11 Pro comes with two 3.2 USB-A ports at the front and at the back of the device, one Ethernet port, two HDMI ports, two Type-C ports, and another USB 3.2 Type-A port. 

This small powerhouse of a device has the ability to power up to four displays with its two HDMI and two display over thunderbolt ports. Depending on the different resolutions and refresh rates you want to display up to, Intel offers a detailed guide on the various port combinations you can use to set up your video wall configuration here.  

This mini PC comes with fast Wi-Fi and Ethernet capabilities for both wireless and wired internet connections. Being a Windows 10 machine, it supports a wide range of business apps and systems. From remote device management to deployment systems, and can even run apps alongside the ScreenCloud player app. 

The only downside is that it's quite expensive. But like most devices in this category, these are expensive devices that will guarantee future usability and have proved to be better investments in the long run. Apart from that, the Intel Nuc 11 Pro might be considered too big for certain applications and having to connect your device to your display with a variety of cables may not work for you.

Advantech DS-085 (Supports 1- 4 displays)

If you are looking for a media player with a slightly higher processing power within this price category, we recommend a high end Advantech DS-085, roughly costing around $775. This device is available to order in multiple specifications, but for this category we suggest taking a look at the option with an Intel Core i5 vPro Processor. Not only is this device powerful enough to run the most demanding content with ease, you'll also get the advanced benefits of Intel's vPro Platform.

The Advantech DS-085 comes with fast Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections with the option of purchasing an optional Wi-Fi module to expand your network connectivity. Similar to the Intel Nuc 11 Pro, this device has the ability to display up to four displays in a video wall configuration. And more importantly, the Advantech DS-085 comes with four HDMI ports so there is no hassle when trying to connect your displays. The build quality of the Advantech DS-085 is more on the industrial side, so its fit for all types of applications. This device also supports VESA mount standards, and is actually quite a slim device as it measures 19 mm in thickness, so you can easily mount it behind a TV or under a desk. 

This device is quite expensive but it is the best solution if you want a reliable device to power up to four displays up to 4K resolution for digital signage. 

Intel Nuc Hades Canyon (supports 1- 6 displays)

The Intel Nuc Hades Canyon was first released in 2018, there is an updated version called the Phantom Canyon. Though what the Hades Canyon has that the Phantom Canyon doesnt is its ability to display up to six 4K displays depending on which Hades Canyon model you purchase, whereas the Phantom can only display up to four.

The Intel Nuc Hades Canyon costing about $800 may be the most affordable device that we have ever seen in the market, when comparing price to amount of features. The Hades Canyon combines an Intel quad-core processor with an integrated AMD Radeon RX Vega graphics processor to boost communication between chipsets and increase the performance in a cost, power, and space saving package.

This device has such a wide range of connectivity options on both the front and back of the device. On the front of the device you have an HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports, one USB Type-C port, and one SD card slot. On the back you have another four USB 3.0 ports, two display ports, two USB Type-C ports, two Ethernet LAN ports, and one HDMI port.

The design on the box is quite small for the amount of power it contains. The Hades Canyon has a great ventilation system on the bottom and around the sides of the device so you don't have to worry about the management of heat. Because it was originally intended for gaming use, the design may be interesting for some as it has a large glowing signature skull on the face of the box. 

While it lacks the eligibility for Intel's vPro platform, at this price point and capabilities, we think this is a great option for digital signage. Rather than purchasing numerous devices to support your digital signage needs, purchasing one Intel Nuc Hades Canyon is a great investment down the road

Seneca HDs (1-2 displays) 

The Seneca HDs is Arrows' entry level Windows powered media player equipped with Celeron N3350 processor and Intels 9th generation HD 500 graphics card. The Seneca HDs is a small device that measures up to 1.22 x 4.96 x 4.33 inches and has an industrial build quality to ensure your device is protected and to optimize thermal control when in demanding environments. This device has 2 USB 3.0 ports in the front of the device and 2 USB 2.0 in the rear. It is also equipped with one HDMI and one display port to display up to one display at 4K resolution or two displays at HD resolution. This is a great entry level Windows powered media player and is more than capable of keeping your content running consistently. If you prefer to display more than two displays at 4K resolution then we recommend taking a look at the next recommendation below. 

Arrow Seneca HDn (1-3 displays)

The Arrow Seneca fanless HDn in our perspective is more suited for digital signage. The Seneca HDn supports a 7th generation Intel core i3-i5 vPro processor or an 8th generation core i7 vPro processor with an integrated Intel HD 620 Graphics card. This device is slightly more powerful than the entry level Seneca HDs devices and can support up to two 4K displays or three HD displays. It also supports VESA wall mounting options and is equipped with an industrial built that can withstand all types of environments 

Arrow Seneca XK-Quad (1-4 displays)

The Arrow Seneca XK-Quad media player is equipped with a powerful AMD Ryzen V1756B Embedded 4-core and 8-thread processor with up to 3.6GHz support. The AMD Ryzen V1756B is a 64-bit quad-core microprocessor introduced by AMD in 2018. This processor has a base frequency of 3.25 GHz and can boost up to 3.6 GHz. 

The Seneca XK-Quad media player is in direct competition with high end Intel Nucs as it packs quite a punch and can support up to four 4K displays and is suited for video wall configurations. The Seneca XK-Quad media player has 250GB of storage with the option to upgrade to 2TB. It also has two LAN ports, 1 USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 ports. This media player is the best option if you are a large business looking to purchase a powerful media player that supports up to 4 displays through channel sales. 

Summary 

We have covered all of our top recommendations that can support up to 6 display outputs, which in our experience, is the maximum number of displays that most of our users are interested in if they want to set up their digital signage in a video wall configuration. However if you would like to hear more about other recommendations for larger set ups such as the iBase which can support more than six display outputs, please do not hesitate to ask our support team at support@screencloud.com. 

If you would like to use one of our recommended displays here, we suggest choosing one of the Intel NUC Windows devices if you want the most powerful commercial device designed for digital signage with the features, support, and warranty to match. The MacOS is a good option if you only need to power up to two displays and prefer Apple's user interface as this can be used for other tasks other than digital signage. Or choose a Chromebox Commercial 2 if you prefer a ChromeOS operating system and its great remote device management tools. 

3. Understanding device performance

Whatever content you’re displaying, you’re going to want it to play smoothly and without interruption, and the performance of your device is a big part of ensuring that happens. We covered a lot of the stuff around devices and performance in our media device section, but if you want a deep dive, read on.

Use this table to see whether you’ll need a lower or higher performance device:

High-performance device summary table

Here’s what to look for in terms of performance:

1. SOC (System On Chip) / CPU (Processor)

When it comes to digital signage devices, the SOC (system on chip) in a device is responsible for much of the heavy lifting, containing the CPU, GPU, RAM, storage, connectivity options, video codecs and output. As such choosing a device with a reliable SOC is key.

SOCs and CPUs are often mentioned in the same breath in a digital signage device spec, or simply have the same name. The CPU is responsible for the processing power, and you want to make sure the device you choose has a CPU with enough power for your needs, so let’s take a look at SOC/CPU combos and which ones you should be looking for.

Choosing a device with the correct SOC/CPU can be tricky, but in general, try to get a device with the newest generation. For Android TV boxes, we recommend getting devices with the Amlogic S912 SOC and included processor, which is the latest and most reliable SOC for this category, or at least devices with the slightly less powerful S905 SOC and included processor, also from Amlogic. For other Android devices like tablets, try to get at least a quad-core processor, with a dual-core the minimum.

For Chromeboxes and Windows PC boxes, try to get at least a Celeron device, with Atom devices being less recommended as they are less powerful. Even better than Celeron would be Core m3, Core m5, Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 devices, with i5 and i7 devices being especially powerful and able to take anything you throw at them.

With Amazon Fire TV, Apple iOS and Chromebit devices, the rules are a bit different. These devices are made to do less things but do them well and we find that manufacturers have in most cases optimized these devices to use the processors they are given to accomplish what they need to, so no problems here.

We explain more about CPUs and in each device category later in this article.

2. GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) 

The GPU is responsible for the graphics processing power, so make sure the device you choose has a GPU with enough power for your needs. You’ll also want to look for things like video decoding, video output, HDMI and support for HDR, which we explain further in this article.

3. Storage Drive

The storage drive of your device will need enough space for cached media, after some gets taken up by the operating system and apps. Read this article to find out more about this the available space. In general you’ll want a device with at least 8GB, with 16GB being preferable. Devices that have less than this are meant more for use cases where you are streaming video content and not storing it on the device. You’ll also want a device with SSD storage as opposed to HDD storage, and you’ll want to check that your storage drive has good read & write speeds.

4. RAM (Random Access Memory)

Your RAM or memory is needed to keep the general user experience running at optimal levels. Some operating systems have more ongoing processes than others and therefore need more RAM.

For Windows, Android and Android TV devices, aim for at least 2GB of RAM, with 3-4GB preferable. Chrome OS requires less resources, so get a device with 2GB of RAM or more. As for Amazon Fire TV and Apple iOS it’s similar to how it is with CPUs, with devices well optimized in most cases to use the RAM they are given to accomplish what they need to do.

5. Connectivity

It’s important to get a device that supports the network setup you have, with things like WiFi speed, Ethernet capabilities and support for different network security protocols.

Here’s what to look for in terms of connectivity:

WiFi

Different digital signage devices will support different levels of WiFi, and in general, if you can get a device that supports 802.11ac WiFi, you’ll get the best network speeds. All the devices we recommend either support 802.11 ac, n or g WiFi. At 1,300 Mbps, 802.11ac is about 3 times faster than 802.11n at 450 Mbps. 802.11g is much slower at 54 Mbps, but all the devices we list support at least 802.11n.

On the flip side, your internet speed probably won’t ever be 1,300 Mbps, or even 450 Mbps for that matter, so this won’t affect your internet speed much, but what you get from a device with 802.11ac WiFi is more stable connectivity and up to date internals, which promise a better experience.

Network Security

Each WiFi network will be set up with a different network security level. If you want to be secure, you shouldn’t really be using Open, WEP or WPA networks. Open has no security at all, while WEP and WPA-PSK are old protocols which are now vulnerable.

You should instead be using WPA2-PSK, which is the most secure option. Basically all of the digital signage devices we cover here have support for WPA2.

In some cases, your network will be using an even higher network security protocol like WPA2-Enterprise. Fewer digital signage devices have support for this protocol, so if you need to connect devices to this network, you’ll want to check out our help article on this topic.

8. Ethernet

For some use cases, you will want a digital signage device to connect to the internet via a wired connection with an Ethernet cable. In this case the best device to choose is of course one that includes an Ethernet port, but some devices also have support for official Ethernet adapter or 3rd party adapters.

You’ll also want to check what Ethernet speed your device supports and make sure you are using the correct cables to match.

4. Deployment and setup considerations 

When deploying digital signage devices, things like size, form factor, case and mount support will come into play. Additionally, especially for use cases where your digital signage devices are in remote locations, options for theft protection and remote management features will be important.

We've covered this briefly in the media device section above but here are some in-depth deployment and setup factors to consider.

Remote management features

When it comes to remote management features, the operating system your device is running plays a big role. In general, devices running a desktop OS like Windows or macOS will have the best options with good native options as well as a wide variety of 3rd party options, with some apps even able to turn devices off and on via Wake-on-LAN, meaning you can turn devices on and off and control them completely. 

Next best include Chrome OS devices like Chromebox devices which can use Google’s Chrome Enterprise Tools to manage devices. iOS, Android and Amazon Fire OS have weaker remote management options which allow you to control only a few options.

Stability & boot time

As we noted earlier, some operating systems use more resources than others and you’ll have to choose a device that has enough resources for the operating system it is using. You’ll also want to think about stability, with some operating systems less prone to crashes and errors than others. OSs like Android are tricky, with many versions in use and some implemented poorly by device manufacturers sometimes resulting in devices that are error prone.

Boot time is also important with the amount of time it takes from a restarted device to go from off, to showing your content, differing by OS. OSs like Android TV and Fire OS will also show content and menus during the loading process, which may be disruptive. To avoid issues like this you will want to choose an OS which has support for kiosk mode, a special mode when a device is used to run a specific application used most often in public settings, like a bar or restaurant. 

Support

Support is also another important factor. You’ll want to check if you will receive adequate support for OS issues in case you have an issue. For example, some Android TV boxes have custom interfaces developed by their manufacturers and if they offer poor support options it could be an issue.

Price & availability

Price is an obvious factor to consider when trying to find digital signage devices that match your needs while also matching your budget. Device availability will vary by region, so make sure that the device you want is available. If the device is not available from the manufacturer in your region, it might still be available from 3rd party physical or online stores or have an option for international shipping that’s cheap enough. Prices will also vary whether you are buying from the manufacturer or from 3rd party physical or online store, so make sure to compare prices and find what’s best for you. If you’re buying a fleet of devices check if your manufacturer can be contacted about bulk orders or if they have a quotation request page, which could further improve pricing.

Warranty

Most devices will come with a one-year manufacturer warranty but make sure to look closely at device warranty options as they’re not all the same. Often your device may not include warranty for digital signage scenarios like long use periods. Commercial devices like Intel NUCs and Chromeboxes often have better warranty options like three-year warranties or better conditions. Companies like Apple and AOpen also allow you to purchase additional warranty or care packages for some devices.

5. Supported ScreenCloud features

You should also check if the device you want supports all the features that you need from the digital signage platform that you choose to use. For example, support for ScreenCloud’s different features differs from one device and OS to the next. Take a look at this comparison chart to get an idea of what we mean.

Let’s take a closer look at some specific device and ScreenCloud features that you may need for your digital signage setup.

Offline support

Different digital signage platforms will support working offline in different ways. ScreenCloud works offline on most devices, except on Apple iPads because of technical restrictions. It’s good to keep this in mind when setting up devices in a use case where the network connection may fluctuate, like an event venue or retail store. Read our article about how offline playing works for more on this topic.

Auto reboot

While this is not a ScreenCloud specific feature, a device’s ability to auto reboot when something like a power cut happens and to get back to showing your content can be important, especially when that device is in a remote location. We list which devices support this feature here. Most do, but sometimes things like pressing the power button to turn a device on prevent an auto reboot from working.

Kiosk mode

As mentioned earlier, kiosk mode is a special mode where a device is used to run a specific application in a public setting. Kiosk mode is often necessary for digital signage when you want your device to only load your digital signage app and not have the option for the user to exit the app and use other apps on your OS. 

Zones & advanced apps

Zoning is where a digital signage display is divided into multiple sections, all showing different types of content. This could be a weather display in one corner of the screen, a news feed in another, with a Twitter feed running as ticker tape along the bottom.

You can read more about setting up zoning with ScreenCloud here and here

ScreenCloud also comes with over 80 apps to help you get your content onto your digital signage screens, and advanced apps are apps that use specific hardware resources to display information in the ScreenCloud Player. Google Slides is an example of an advanced app.

6. Summary

Choosing the correct hardware setup for your digital signage is all about understanding your needs. The better you understand your needs, the better choices you’ll make.

Think about what displays you want to use, whether you will use professional grade displays designed for digital signage or just consumer displays. If your displays don’t have to be so big, consider monitors, bases or tablets instead of TVs. Think about whether you want to get a display paired with a media player or use a smart TV or tablet with player capabilities built in.

Think about your performance needs, whether your hardware will need to be able to handle 1080p or 4K content or run more advanced apps. Consider how much storage space you’ll need for cached media and what connectivity options you’ll need in terms of WiFi or Ethernet capabilities.

Think about deployment and setup, things like size and form factor, cases, mounts and theft protection, as well as remote management features. Think about what operating system is best for your needs and budget and what supported features you’ll need, like kiosk mode, auto reboot, and offline support. Consider price and availability in your region, as well as warranty and after-sales support options.

Think long-term. In the best case scenario, how many digital signage screens would you have in one or five years time and what would they be showing? Could your current hardware choices support that vision? If not, it’s worth weighing up how that may hinder you, and whether it’s best to invest now or wait and risk repurchasing later.

Digital signage is possible with any budget. You can get a fantastic player device to pair with your existing displays for $70, and one with even better options if you can budget for up to $150. If you have a higher budget than that, there are powerful high-end and commercial devices that can handle anything you throw at them.

The days of digital signage being a tool that’s only available to a select few are over. With ScreenCloud, you can use a wide variety of hardware to get yourself up and running, using digital signage to push your business forward.

We look forward to seeing which decision you make.

For help or advice on anything you’ve read here, or to discuss your digital signage needs in more detail, you can reach us anytime on hello@screencloud.com.

For personalized support on choosing the correct digital signage hardware, you can submit a request or RFP directly to our team at screencloud.com/enterprise

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