There are a multitude of options for digital signage players that can be used to drive your display screens.
We take a look at a very low cost Windows 10 option.
Love it or hate it, using a windows player has its advantages. It’s a fairly easy platform to write applications for, and more usefully there will almost always be somebody on your staff that knows their way around Windows enough to easily resolve any issues.
Contrast that with Linux that can be difficult to get things working for anybody unfamiliar with it, especially if the desktop GUI has been removed leaving you to battle with the command line.
Looking on Amazon there are a number of very small Windows 10 PCs that are less than £150 which more or less makes a cheap Windows digital signage player one of the cheapest options around, unless you want to fiddle about with the Raspberry Pi or ASUS Tinker board.
Even those options get more expensive when you have to buy a case and power supply plus heatsinks and or fan to stop it overheating.
So, we looked at a Windows 10 PC that cost £129 including VAT. For that you get a very small PC measuring 120 x 120 x 24. That’s about the same size as a 120cm PC chassis cooling fan!
On first power up you need to spend about ten minutes answering some Windows configuration questions about your country settings etc.
You then need to leave it alone for a couple of hours while it gets the latest updates and applies them.
Now here is the catch with 32GB storage PCs
Windows takes up about 20GB of that 32GB leaving around 11GB of free space.
Even fresh out of the box there isn’t enough space left to download the latest Windows Creators update and allow the upgrade to take place.
There are work arounds with external storage options (USB stick, SD card etc) to allow the upgrade.
So, save yourself any pain and get one with a 64GB disk or greater instead.
The hardware specs for the one we looked are the same with the 64GB machines so the performance should be the same.
While the upgrade process is taking place don’t bother trying to get any meaningful performance benchmarks out of it at this stage as the CPU will be pegged at over 50% making literally everything incredibly sluggish. If you start a web browser it will struggle to connect to anything while updates are taking place.
This is one of the downsides to the Windows 10 home version. You can’t disable updates. If Microsoft decides to do a major upgrade it will be out of action for a few hours. If you have the pro version you get a bit more control and can switch updates off until you require them.
You can of course schedule updates to take place overnight, but may be left in the morning with a question on the screen that requires a yes or no click.
Other downsides to these cheap units is the operating system isn’t backed up on the disk. If you pull the power lead out while it’s running (never a good idea on any PC) you may end up with disk errors that could prevent it from booting.
You will then be at the mercy of any recovery options it offers you on boot. While this applies to any Windows or Linux PC (the Raspberry Pi is notorious for trashing the SD card), with these units the licence key is built into the unit so while you can probably reinstall Windows you won’t have the licence key to licence it unless you can get it out first.
Some of these cheaper PCs hold the licence key in the bios and there is a powershell command you can use to extract it, but that didn’t work with the one we tried it on. It is stored in the registry in binary format (ie not the format you need) and there are tools available to show you it.
The above aside, a Windows 10 Home licence costs around £100 (much less if you shop around) so replacing a dead unit with a new one won’t break the bank.
Ok, so is it any good?
Well, for the money and upgrade issues aside it’s surprisingly good and works well for simple electronic noticeboard or digital signage applications.
It has 4GB of memory which isn’t too bad and 32GB of disk space (64GB is an option and given time will probably be the base standard. You can add up to 128GB of SD card storage to the unit if you need it.
Windows reports the CPU as an Intel Atom X5-Z8350 with two 1.44GHz cores supporting a 1.92GHz burst mode. This CPU is fitted to a number of this class of PC.
The CPU has no cooling fan so is silent in operation and as as long as you don’t block up the cooling holes it doesn’t appear to get too hot. Graphics are provided by Intel HD Graphics 400.
It comes with a small fixing bracket so you can bolt it to the back of a monitor, although if you take this approach shut it down with the keyboard hot keys or just leave it running rather than switching it off at the wall.
It’s entirely able to operate as a standalone digital signage system if you install our Orangevalley electronic noticeboard software and custom digital signage webserver onto it and it will be able to support a number of additional signage screens connecting to it either over WiFi or the wired Ethernet connection.