(Updated for 2018) Digital signage buying decisions are no longer simply a matter of selecting an LED display and a way to hang it on the wall. After discussing this year’s buying guide with our own product management team and digital signage experts such as Bob Care, President of Empire Media Group, I realized that the watchword, “content is king,” applies as much to digital signage as any other media. That is because the content you intend to display dictates nearly everything about the buying choices you make in signage solutions.
The first things you need to evaluate are what the signage will display and what will be the source? Obviously, any content you intend to use should be produced for you or licensed for your use according to copyright law.
If your business used to pay designers to prepare printed materials like brochures and menus, you may now need to divert that funding to digital signage content design and development. Depending on the signage software you select, some of the design may be provided through templates and automated layouts, saving you time and money.
The long-term maintenance issue alone is deserving of rapt attention when making the main digital signage system selection. Because of seasonal and promotional changes, events, and anything else that would instigate a content change, the signage will require ongoing production and maintenance. Your choice of media sources, management, and delivery software solutions will be influenced by the decision whether this will be in-house staff (minor computer skills required), outside resources, or some mix of the two.
Some or all of the content may be fed into the system and displays live, such as by RSS, broadcast, or narrowcast. So, you’ll need the appropriate hardware and software to accommodate these sources.
If the content is ingested into the signage system, you’ll need to have adequate storage and quite likely, a content management system that can handle the volume of material you’ll be displaying over time. In addition, consider communication options to get content to displays and control them. This can be USB flash drives for simple installations, RS-232 control systems, or networking for more complex solutions. Here again, the signage system software plays a major role.
As you make your buying decisions, the choices may end up determining who will set up the system. If the solution that satisfies your needs is simple enough, this can be you. This could also be internal IT staff if they have specialized experience with audio visual and digital signage systems. But, it may be wise to bring in expert assistance to ensure complex systems are set up correctly and optimized for maintenance.
Look into Display Specifics
Display size and resolution are usually the first considerations. Content is king here too. Determining the detail you expect the content to exhibit is essential and will be factored in with the anticipated viewing distance. Many display manufacturers recommend that high definition content be viewed at 1.5 to 2.5 times the diagonal screen measurement, depending in part on the viewing angle since the more off center it is, the brighter your display will likely need to be.
If color is important to your signage content, make sure to check those specifications as well. Detailed content, such as a menu may require a larger screen or more resolution than other types of content, but maybe not as many colors. So, consider the content carefully.
Some of the least expensive paths to getting digital signage up could result in a frequent sneakernet run through facilities to load content and turn displays on or off. Since you would probably prefer to keep focused on business activities, common televisions would be an unsavory solution. If display of television broadcast programming is needed however, commercial TVs are recommended because they are built for business use.
There are a lot of good reasons to purchase more costly commercial displays rather than consumer-grade televisions, which are built to only be on a few hours a day. Business signage applications often require 16-24 hour daily operation in environments that can be harsh for electronics. Commercial displays are therefore built for extended duty cycles with extra heat dissipation and engineering that allows them to last much longer than a consumer TV, which may have commercial use exclusions in the warranty. So always be sure your choice is rated for commercial use.
Commercial displays typically have narrow bezels that are the same width all the way around so they can be mounted in landscape or portrait positions without looking oddly off balance. Their electronics are designed to handle the different positions as well. Some displays have very thin bezels, which are popular choices for video wall applications.
Commercial displays also have appropriate power control automation and communication ports, such as RS-232C, HDBaseT, and Ethernet. Make sure the display you choose has adequate remote management capability for your application.
Some enable loading of content with SD card or a USB flash drive, which then can be used to control multiple displays. If this is a solution you find satisfactory, check the details to ensure the number of other displays and control capabilities meet your specific needs.
There are a few commercial models that are essentially all-in-one computers. These are best for stand-alone use when real computing power is needed for the display.
If your digital signage application requires projection, take a look at our Projector Buying Guide.
Keeping in Touch
Touch screens are popular for interactive displays, but do add to the maintenance routine. Touch screen overlays may be applied to displays, although many digital signage professionals prefer that the touch screen be built in. Keep in mind that calibration of the display touch locations requires attention in many cases. Touch screens will need to be checked regularly after installation as part of the maintenance routine.
Non-standard Indoor and Outdoor Uses
Location of the display is a significant consideration. If there will be a lot of ambient light, such as direct or nearby sunlight, the display will need to be much brighter than would usually be expected of a screen in normal indoor conditions. Brightness is measured in candela per square meter (cd/m2) and commercial displays should provide their rating in the specifications. Make sure the screen brightness noted in the specifications is adequate for the lighting conditions at the location where you intend to use it. For example, you may want more than 700 cd/m2 for bright ambient light conditions.
If your installation requires protection from the elements, be prepared to spend significantly more. Outdoor installations are particularly harsh for electronics. Changing weather, humidity, wind, dust, temperature extremes, and other conditions will wreak havoc on displays that are not properly protected. Conformity to the IP56 ingress protection standard provides assurance that the display should survive for a number of years in such severe circumstances.
In addition, brightness changes are best dealt with by automatic sensing technology while reflections are a common issue in outside environments that screens must accommodate as they resist outdoor conditions. Displays built to perform well outside provide very good pictures despite all the conditions working against them.
Media Source and Management
For simple digital signage applications, the aforementioned USB flash drive solution may be adequate. However, many digital signage situations are not so simple. For those, there are various solutions for media storage, content management, scheduling, and production. These of course are driven by software.
Selection of a solution that fits your application and potential future expansion is dependent on your complete understanding of the number of displays, complexity of the installation, content sources, anticipated scheduling and content change needs, among other factors. Carefully assess these and the media player and software options available that may meet your needs for near term and perhaps several years.
Besides simply playing media off of USB flash drives, basic applications have been satisfied with Raspberry PI, ChromecastTM, small PCs, or other media players. Most of these are small and can be hidden behind a display.
Hardware and software specifically designed for digital signage is often required. Offerings by NeweggBusiness vendors such as BrightSign® and Viewsonic® are often adequate for more complicated digital signage applications. These can significantly simplify content preparation, provide in-depth content management, and allow complex scheduling that involves many displays with varied content—even across multiple locations.
Whether simple or complex, your digital signage product selection should always begin with an understanding of the content you intend to display and the expected expansion over the foreseeable future. You may want to bring in someone with expertise in this specialized field since it is outside of the usual IT department work. Maintenance of the equipment is only part of the equation since ongoing content production and changes are normally needed throughout the year. With all things considered, buying digital signage solutions requires considerable forethought and planning.