EPISODE 106 | Guest: Joe Murray, technical operations manager and lead systems engineer for Visix
Digital signage is a system, and that system includes displays, content management software and some specialized hardware to get your content to the screens. Choosing the right hardware depends on what your content is, how many screens you’re feeding and where you want your media players to live.
Joe Murray walks us through the full line of Visix digital signage players and gives practical tips for how to choose the best options for your content strategy.
- Understand what a digital signage player does
- Learn why OS, processor and other specs are critical
- Discover different mounting options for various form factors
- Hear specs and use cases for Visix media players
- Explore HTML5 playback options
For more systems info, download our free Masterclass Guide 1: Digital Signage Systems Overview.
See player specs on our webpage here: Digital Signage Media Players
Derek DeWitt: When people shop for a digital signage system, a lot of focus is put on the software, which is a good thing. But hardware also matters. I mean, content doesn’t get to your screens without first going through a digital signage player. Now, are all players created equal? Not exactly. And how do you choose the right one? To talk about that with me today, I’m joined by Joe Murray, technical operations manager and lead systems engineer for Visix. Hi, Joe.
Joe Murray: Hey, Derek. How’s it going?
Derek DeWitt: Excellent. Excellent. I’d like to thank Joe for talking to me today and everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right. Don’t forget you can subscribe to this podcast and follow along with the full transcript on the Visix website at Visix.com/Resources/Podcasts.
So, Joe, I understand, you know, we talk a lot about these days, you read a lot about supply chain issues, and Visix is fully stocked on all the different kinds of digital signage players, which is quite exciting, actually.
Joe Murray: Yes, definitely. We’re quite proud of that fact at the moment. I’m sure, as everyone is acutely aware, there have been some serious global supply chain issues across the board. Every industry is impacted at least a little bit. And of course technology is no different. But yes, we’re very proud of the fact that we actually have everything in stock now. It’s the first time in a while, if I’m not mistaken.
Derek DeWitt: That’s quite exciting. So, we have all this stuff available. Very quickly, before we get into the specifics of the different kinds of players, let’s just do a quick overview. What is a digital signage player, for people that don’t know?
Joe Murray: So, a digital signage player is basically the component of your system that is “driving” your digital signage display. So, you’ve got your display, you know, whether it be consumer grade or professional grade. And then you’ve got, you know, hopefully our digital signage platform. And now you’ve made content in our platform, and it needs to get to the display.
So, you have a player that actually plays your content. And there’s quite a few ways you can configure your player, you know, whether you want it directly behind your display or maybe use it with video distribution or, of course, the almighty video wall, which everyone loves. So basically it’s, it’s the component that powers your content on the display.
Derek DeWitt: Right. So it’s basically like a little PC.
Joe Murray: Yeah, it is a little PC for, for how we’re utilizing it. Exactly.
Derek DeWitt: And now sometimes, they have player software as well that you also need to update and things like this.
Joe Murray: Exactly, right. So, for our use case, we currently have all Windows-based media players. And then on top of the Windows operating system, we run our digital signage software. So our current [player] software is AxisTV Engage. And so that runs on top of Windows on our players, and that’s what you actually see when you’re looking at your signage content. It’s actually just an AxisTV Engage window at fullscreen playing everything that you’ve either uploaded or created.
Derek DeWitt: Gotcha. And one player can feed multiple screens the same playlist?
Joe Murray: Yes, definitely. So, there’s a few ways you could do that. The most sort of typical way to handle that would be to buy one of our single output players and then use it in conjunction with video distribution. And you can simply have our one player sitting in like an AV closet, for example, and then it’s hooked up to video distribution, which then distributes its output across your campus, organization, building, whatever. And it’ll just play the exact same mirrored content across all your screens. So, that’s a pretty cost effective way to get the same content across a ton of displays.
Derek DeWitt: So, all right, I can imagine somebody asking why do, why do I have to have a player? That just seems like another add-on, you scammers. Why can’t my computer just, you know, that’s where the CMS is sitting, why can’t it just feed the screens automatically? I already have a computer.
Joe Murray: So basically, in IT, you typically have your server component and then your client component. So the server component for us would be the content management system, but then the client component for us would be the player. So, in technical terms, we call them endpoints really, because your content has to end at that point. That’s actually where it gets distributed to.
But basically, it’s just the nature of the game, it’s how the system works. You don’t want your server, you know, actually powering all of your displays for numerous issues. It’s a security problem. It would be very difficult logistically to get the server’s video output all across your organization.
You really want actual legitimate endpoints for the best performance and best resiliency, especially because players don’t affect each other. So, if you have one player go down, you know, in your cafeteria for example, it’s not gonna affect your server, which is powering everything, nor will it affect any of your other players that are, you know, throughout the rest of your organization.
Derek DeWitt: Okay. All right. That sounds like a pretty decent answer. So, how do I choose the right digital signage player?
Joe Murray: So, the first question you should ask yourself, of course, is what type of content am I going to play and what type of displays will my content be shown on? If you’re maybe, you know, not a power user, you’re just getting a digital signage, you’ve got just full HD displays, nothing super fancy, and you’re just gonna show maybe some basic static content, things like text or just still images, then one of our lower-end players like the Nano or the HDx would probably be perfectly fine for you.
But if you, you know, see yourself as the true artistic individual that you are, you really, really want to show just high fidelity 4K videos and 3D transitions and really cool slick animations at 60 frames per second, you’ll probably want to go for something a little higher end in our lineup, like the Element 4K, which has been just a huge powerhouse for us currently.
Derek DeWitt: Do each of these kinds of players have different hardware specs and requirements?
Joe Murray: Definitely, definitely. So if we look at the lower end, like the Nano media player, which has been a huge seller for us, it has, you know, like a Celeron processor, 4GB of RAM and a 64GB solid-state drive in it. So again, respectable specs for sort of a base player, starting player.
Meanwhile, if again, we take a look at our higher-end players, like the Element 4K, that’s got an Intel Core i3 in it, it’s got 8GB of RAM, a 256 GB SSD, and it has a few different outputs that you can use instead of just a single output on the Nano. So definitely, we’re not just packaging the same player and putting it in different chassis.
Derek DeWitt: Right. It’s the same thing, but, exactly, in a bigger box! Yeah, exactly.
Joe Murray: But no, we are definitely using very different specs across the board in our players. And again, that’s amplified even further with our multi-output players, which can get really intense with the hardware we’re putting in those.
Derek DeWitt: Now, I know a word that I often see and hear bandied about when we’re talking about digital signage players is form factor. And I have to be honest and say I don’t actually know what that means.
Joe Murray: Yeah. So, it’s definitely something to consider, especially if you’re putting your players directly behind your display or very close to your displays. So, the form factor you can think of is just the physical dimensions and physically how the player looks and feels and, you know, the types of inputs and outputs it has on it, things like that. They’re just, you know, the physical dimensions of the player would be the, the way to think about it.
So, our Nano is tiny; it fits perfectly in the palm of your hand. And the HDx is also pretty small. Meanwhile, the Element or the Element 4K are definitely a little bit bigger. Not large at all. Again, they’re all designed to fit behind, you know, flat panel displays, which we’re aware, you know, space is a premium behind those things, especially if you’ve wall mounted them.
If you have no space at all, and you really need to get a player behind the display, which of course is typically the easiest way to hook up a player, directly to your displays right behind it, you’d go with the Nano. And I’ve been on quite a few onsites where they said, oh, we went with the Nano simply because it’s so small, it’s very easy to fit right behind the display, it’s perfect, we just drop it back there.
Meanwhile, something like the multi-output players, especially our twelve-output, that’s not gonna fit behind a display. That form factor is quite large and really should be in an AV closet or a networking closet instead.
Derek DeWitt: Right. Like, we say quite large. What do you mean? I mean, not, you know, three feet.
Joe Murray: It’s 10 feet actually, Derek. No, so the twelve-out, I believe, is a 4RU system, so four rack units. It’s basically meant to be racked up in an AV closet. And then our six- and eight-output players are also designed to be put in a rack, although, they’re only 1RU. However, they also include ears in the box that allow you to convert their chassis to a wall mount, which is pretty nice as well if you do wanna put those two behind your video wall displays.
Derek DeWitt: Right, right. So now what’s the software that is on the, like the OS, that’s on these players?
Joe Murray: So currently, we run a special version of Windows. We run Windows 10 IoT Enterprise 64-bit LTSC 2019.
Derek DeWitt: Ha ha!
Joe Murray: I hope you took notes. You know, everyone’s favorite version of Windows!
So, this is not an off-the-shelf version of Windows, like some clients may think just when they pull the players right out of the box, they say, oh, what’s with this weird version of Windows, what is this? And so, we haven’t picked some Windows 10 Home or Pro like you might see just, you know, at your local Best Buy or what you might buy on your Dell laptop or what have you. This is not that version of Windows.
This version of Windows is designed for embedded IoT devices like our digital signage players. They’re meant for sort of low-touch, low maintenance scenarios, and they’re meant to be supported by Microsoft for a long time.
You’ll notice I said, you know, we’re using version 2019, and that’s for a specific reason. Microsoft does not update this version of Windows 10 very often. Unlike consumer versions of Windows 10, which basically get updated about every week or two with new features and enhancements, these versions of Windows, IoT Enterprise, is really just meant to sort of have its features frozen, this is just how it works. It still gets updates from Microsoft but really just for stability and security.
And this is great for embedded devices like digital signage players, because they’re not constantly getting like Cortana updates and the Xbox Game Bar updates and Microsoft store downloads and all this nonsense that is fine for personal computer, but you really don’t want that popping up on your digital signage player in front of everybody,
Derek DeWitt: Right. So, it’s like a simpler but more robust version of Windows.
Joe Murray: That a perfect way of putting it, honestly. Yes, it’s got more core functionality of Windows, but Microsoft simply enhances it with security and reliability updates, not feature updates. Which is really, really perfect for us. In addition, they support this version of their Windows operating system for a decade from release.
So, the version that we’re shipping now is within Microsoft’s supported cycle until 2029, which is really great. So, again, that goes back to that low touch, low maintenance philosophy. You don’t need to constantly update the operating system on these players. You know, they can be managed in the field much easier.
Derek DeWitt: And this is pretty secure, I would imagine. Windows is on top of it. They know who the clients are that are using, you know, this Windows IoT stuff. I should think that they’re on top of it.
Joe Murray: Absolutely. Honestly, ’cause of course I’m very technical; I build my own PCs and everything here for myself to personally use, I kind of wish I had this version of Windows on my own personal desktop, because quite frankly, it’s so much more robust than just a standard version of Windows that… I mean, we’ve all seen it; you boot up your Windows laptop or whatever and it just has extra stuff on it. Or, you know, you get popups, you know, oh, you gotta update windows, you gotta, you know, this new app from the Microsoft store downloaded whether you liked it or not. You don’t have to worry about any of that with the version of Windows we’re shipping. It’s really, really nice for that. So, honestly, I wish I could use it basically as my only version of Windows.
Derek DeWitt: It’s the Windows version that true tech connoisseurs prefer.
Joe Murray: There you go. Yeah, put that right on the box.
Derek DeWitt: Right. I should think that something small like the Nano, and is not as powerful as, say the multi-output ones, is cheaper. I should think that cost sometimes comes into it when people are choosing which player to use. Like obviously you wanna pay as little money as possible, but you don’t wanna cheap out too much and then find yourself without the capability that you need.
Joe Murray: Yes. That is, of course, something you should ask yourself and your organization about, you know, what’s the budget for this whole project? ‘Cause you know, if, again, if you’re getting a multi-output player, you’re getting, you know, 12 huge displays or you know some LED panels, you’re gonna make a custom video wall, that’s gonna be quite the large investment for your business.
But of course, you know, if you’re a smaller business or like maybe a school district or something like that, you’re probably not gonna be making an investment like that. Although it’d be pretty cool if you did.
Derek DeWitt: Right. That’d be awesome. A kindergarten with a video wall bigger than the actual children.
Joe Murray: Exactly.
Derek DeWitt: That’s me, mom. Life-sized.
Joe Murray: The kids will love it. They’ll be staring at the signs all the time. They can’t get enough of it.
But yes, of course our lower-end players are certainly cheaper than our higher-end players, which in turn are cheaper than our multi-output players for the most part.
Derek DeWitt: Do I have to stick to one player model? I mean, can I mix and match? Can I have some Nanos, some this, some that?
Joe Murray: Absolutely, absolutely. And that’s very standard for a lot of our client base. They may have, you know, a mix of Nanos just to power more static content like menu boards, for example, you know, food menu boards. And then they might have something a little higher, like an Element or Element 4K maybe for their lobby or maybe it’s powering some outside display that they wanna make sure always looks perfect.
And then, of course, maybe they’ll have a multi-output player sitting in some atrium or something as well that just really catches people’s eye right when they walk in. So absolutely, you can mix and match to your heart’s content.
Derek DeWitt: Oh, that’s quite nice. Now, we talked a bit here about video walls and like, you know, multi-screen setups, which is basically what a video wall is. Is there anything special to consider when thinking about a player to power those?
Joe Murray: It’s a similar line of thinking as our single output players. So the question to ask yourself is what type of content am I going to be showing on this video wall? Again, more still images, something like that, and maybe you’ve only got four displays or even less, three or two, maybe just go for our four-output. That should be completely fine.
Meanwhile it’s like, oh, you’ve got some 10K video that you want wrapped across, you know, 11 or 12 displays, maybe look at our twelve-output player. It’s worth noting that all of our multi-output players are pretty beefy, especially compared to the single-output player.
So even, even our four-output, you know, don’t think of it as oh, a lesser player than the six- or the eight-out. They’re all still quite powerful. And we’re aware that most people are gonna play at least some, you know, videos on their video wall. So, even if you have, you know, lesser displays, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna get worse hardware. It’s simply the outputs on these players that really matter.
Derek DeWitt: Now, I know some digital signage players allow for like HTML5 content. I know Visix has this option with Signage Suite that lets you, like, take the playlist that’s, you know, being sent to the displays and also show it on your intranet. Is there something special? Is there a special player for that?
Joe Murray: Yes, so that’s actually a whole different architecture. So, all the players I’ve been talking about thus far are really refer to as PC players within our software. And then, as you just noted, we do have another type of player called an HTML5 player. So, as you might assume, the HTML5 player is powered by web technologies, HTML5 specifically, and CSS.
So those are kind of interesting. They’re a different beast entirely. So, the way they work is you’ve got our server software, called AxisTV Manage, or you’re hosted in Visix Cloud; you’ve made some content, and you wanna show it on an HTML5 player that maybe you want to, like you noted, embed into like your company’s intranet or even just your company’s website. What you would do is you’d either designate your own PC that you supply, or get one of our players, and convert it into what’s called an AxisTV transcode device. As that product’s name implies, all it does is transcode content from one type to another.
And again, this HTML5 player, we’re calling it a player. You know, to keep it simple for this, you can think of it really as just a webpage. So basically, some of your signage content that you’ve selected gets transcoded and published to an HTML5 webpage. You can then take this webpage and, depending on your environment, you can, you know, just send a link directly to users and say, hey, go to this link to see signage content, or you can embed it in your company’s intranet; you can embed it in your company’s just webpage. It’s pretty interesting. So if you’re a web developer listening to this, you can just basically use like an iFrame and actually just embed this webpage in another webpage, and it looks great, it looks like you’ve got a nice little slide show of signage content right there on your webpage. And it’s got animations and everything.
Derek DeWitt: Nice. And for people that don’t know, HMTL5 means that it’s sort of this new, not so new anymore, but you know, the more up-to-date version of the web protocols that allow, basically it means it scales to the size of the screen. So you know, if you’ve got it on your phone, it changes the look; if you’ve got it on a PC, it changes the look; if you’ve got it on a digital sign, it changes the look. It scales to the size of the display that’s showing the content.
Joe Murray: Exactly. It’s more sort of rich media robust content, you know. It’s powered by current modern web standards.
Derek DeWitt: Obviously we all know supply chain issues have been a challenge, we shall say. And yet even considering that, Visix has managed to launch some new digital signage players. Can you just walk me through basically the current lineup, the basics of the current Visix player lineup?
Joe Murray: Absolutely. So, we’ll just start from the lower end and work our way up. So, we’ve got our most popular player, the Nano, that I was talking about earlier. We’ve revised that relatively recently. It’s in the same form factor that our clients, you know, know and love at this point, but we did bump up the CPU just a little bit. It’s still a Celeron processor like we had in our first revision Nano. This one is just a little more powerful, a little more oomph, just, you know, to help clients with those little animations and such that they want.
So, we have the newly revised Nano, then we also have the HDx media player, which is actually pretty similar in spec to the Nano media player. The key difference between the Nano and the HDx, is that the Nano is what’s called actively cooled; it has a fan and ventilation built into the chassis to keep it cool during workloads. The HDx, however, while it does have some vents, it’s more minimal with its venting, and it does not have a fan. It actually doesn’t have any moving parts at all.
And so we found that manufacturing clients really like the HDx media player because, you know, they typically have more dusty or dirty environments, potentially, and you don’t want your PC, you know, getting basically garbage gunked up inside of it, especially with its heat sink and such. That can cause some serious issues. So, the HDx, you know, is more solid state, you know, would be the technical term, which is great.
Then stepping up again, we’ve got the Element media player. Note this is not the Element 4k, which is the high end of our standard player lineup, but this is just the Element. The Element is pretty nice. It’s based on a Pentium processor, current Pentium processor, and it’s really meant for light 4K content or excellent full HD playback. So it’s sort of a hybrid. It’s either very high-end full HD or sort of mild to moderate 4K content.
And then finally you’ve got the big boy, you’ve got the Element 4K, which as the name implies, is really meant for 4K displays, which we found the industry is really starting to shift towards. You know, full HD has been the standard for quite a long time, and it’s still quite popular, but 4K is definitely creeping up as the most popular current resolution. So, we’ve got the Element 4k, and that’s just throw anything you’ve got at it, it should be able to handle it, which is great.
So, that’s sort of our standard player lineup right now. And then you’ve got the multi-output players, which again, are really meant to power video walls. We’ve got a four-output, which is actually based on AMD hardware and chip sets, which is pretty interesting. We’re sort of toying with AMD to see how much we like working with them. And it’s proved very, very nice so far. We’ve got our AMD-based four-output player. Then we’ve got a six-output, an eight-output, and a twelve-output. And that’s the really big one.
Derek DeWitt: That’s, like I’m taking, we’re taking over the world!
Joe Murray: Exactly! That’s the do whatever you want player. So, those are great. And really you should pick the player that’s best suited for the amount of displays you’re trying to power in your video wall.
And then of course, players aside, we also have our own rack mount content management server. If you want to truly have everything turnkey and come from us, you can even buy a physical server from us if you’re hosting everything on premise.
Or, of course, you can just, you know, use Visix Cloud or your own virtual machine to host our software if you’d really like. And all of our players are compatible with any type of deployment, whether it’s a on-premise VM, on-premise our physical server, or a Visix cloud instance.
Derek DeWitt: So, it’s 2023, the new year has begun. Any new players coming out in Q1 or Q2?
Joe Murray: So, it’s a little tough to say, obviously due to supply chain issues. We definitely have some players in the works. We’re looking at some more lower-end players, ’cause quite frankly, the Nano and HDx have just been so insanely popular, and just fits so many clients’ needs perfectly. We’re looking at potentially expanding that lineup with another sort of lower-end/mid player.
Unfortunately, I don’t wanna talk too much about its specific specs, simply because, again, things are very much in flux right now with the supply chain. It’s possible, you know, that we’ll get this type of CPU and then, you know, Intel’s not manufacturing that one anymore or they’re having issues with that production batch, so we’re gonna have to go with this CPU instead. So, it’s really in flux, and it’s all sort of up in the air.
But I can tease you with, we’re looking at potentially a new lower-end player, or I guess really mass market player would probably be a better way to put it, to really satisfy our clients.
Derek DeWitt: Excellent. So, look forward to that in the new year. Very exciting stuff. So, again, it’s not just software. When you’re talking about a digital signage system, there is some hardware involved. It’s not ridiculously complicated, it’s not even ridiculously expensive, but you do need it, and you do want to make sure that you choose the right digital signage player. Which means that it is certainly powerful enough to do not only what you want it to do, but you know, if you’re gonna expand your system later, maybe buy that slightly higher-end player now so that it can accommodate your grand vision. But you also don’t want to go buying the most expensive one and then never use most of its capabilities. That would be just foolish.
Joe Murray: I mean, I couldn’t have said any better myself.
Derek DeWitt: I’d like to thank Joe Murray, the technical operations manager and lead systems engineer for talking about hardware with me today. Normally, I’m not a hardware guy, but kind of interesting stuff, I thought.
Joe Murray: I always like to talk about kind of interesting things, so thanks for having me. It’s been my pleasure.
Derek DeWitt: Thank you again, Joe, for talking to me, and everybody out there for listening to this episode of Digital Signage Done Right.