Rugged Intel Atom-based digital signage player (by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
The Advantech ARK-DS303 is not your average mobile rugged computer. Instead, it's a very compact (7.25 x 4.6 x 1.8 inches) rugged box designed specifically for digital signage applications.
Digital signage players are essentially specialized computers that display customized information in a variety of settings and locations. Since those locations are not always easily accessible they are usually remotely controlled and managed via wired or wireless IP connections. This makes it possible to easily program, schedule and update playlists; remotely monitor player status; and issue remote commands no matter where the player is located.
Unlike conventional computers, digital signage players must be easy to install in locations where space and access is limited and operating conditions less than optimal. That is why digital signage players are usually small footprint, low- profile devices that can be installed behind flatscreen displays or even integrated into display housings with special mounting brackets. They must also be quiet, able to handle heat and cold, and reliably run 24/7 with minimal maintenance requirements.
The ARK-DS303: small, light, silent, powerful
Digital signage content may include a combination of different data (video/Flash, graphics, text and ticker, etc.) in multi-zone layouts, and so digital signage players are designed to provide support for a variety of media formats. They often use SMIL (Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language), the W3C-defined and recommended XML-based markup language for multimedia presentations.
In terms of connectivity, the requirements are modest: a signage player must have analog and digital video output, audio input and output, an adequate number of USB ports, a LAN jack, and legacy serial communication support, and this is exactly what the Intel Atom N270-powered Advantech ARK-DS303 provides:
4 x USB 2.0 (two front, two back)
1 x Serial RS232
VGA Video (up to 1680 x 1050)
RJ-45 gigabit LAN
Power (12 Volt DC)
The pictures above also show two antenna connectors that, if needed, can be used for WiFi and WWAN (GSM/HSPDA) radios. Our review unit did not include those.
As far as physical appearance and construction goes, the housing of the DS303 measures 7.25 x 4.6 x 1.8 inches and weighs 2.5 pounds. The bottom part is a steel box with ventilation holes on the sides, the top part a heavily finned block of aluminum that acts as a heatsink for the three chips that make up the ARK-DS303's Atom chipset as well as for the single SODIMM memory module. The system board itself, essentially an embedded single board computer, measures 6.375 x 4.5 inches and includes a CF Card slot for systems running off Flash. There is also an additional card slot mounted on the board and sitting underneath the hard disk. I could not identify that one.
The DS303 includes a 2.5-inch Seagate Momentus ST9160314AS with a 3Gb/second SATA interface and a capacity of 160GB. The disk sits in a separate, shock-mounted caddy enclosure underneath the system board. It's spinning at 5,400 RPM and is quite power-efficient, using about 1.4 watts idling and about 1.8 watts operating. The disk's operating temperature range is 32 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit and it can handle operating shocks up to 350Gs. While the DS303 can probably be run off Flash, many signage applications may need the space provided by a hard disk. Below you can see what the DS303 looks like inside:
Now Advantech advertises the ARK-DS303 as a low-cost, energy-saving, fanless digital signage media player that supports 720p high-definition video via the MPEG-2 decoder built into the 945GSE chipset that's part of the Atom N270 package. If full 1080p HD output is needed, there's an optional Broadcom HD accelerator.
Now the dirty little secret of millions of Atom N270-based netbooks (and pretty much all other Atom-based systems) is that they really cannot run HD video. If you try it, you get choppy video that creeps along at frame rates of no more than 10 frames per second max even with just 720p video, let alone 1080p. This makes HD video on Atom-based systems impossible to watch. How did Advantec handle that problem? With the hardware accelerator.
Broadcom's Crystal HD Decoder shines
The Broadcomm "Crystal HD" High Definition hardware decoder BC970012 with the Broadcom AVC/MPEG-2/VC-1 video/audio BCM70010/BCM70012 decoder chipset is a PCIe Mini Card designed to allow full high definition real-time decoding for hardware that otherwise could not do so. The board can decode H.264 480i/480p, 720p, and 1080i/1080p at 40Mb/second. You can see the blue Broadcom module in the picture above.
Our review ARK-DS303 had the Broadcom module installed. To test the HD playback capabilities of the ARK-DS303 with the Crystal HD decoder, we installed both QuickTime and the freeware Media Player Classic HomeCinema 1.3 and copied a 250MB 720P high definition Quicktime (.mov) movie recorded on a Bonica HD video camera.
We then ran the movie side by side on an Apple iMac27 and a 22-inch display hooked up to the ARK-DS303, set to 1680 x 1050 pixel resolution. The DS303 kept up with the powerful Macintosh machine throughout the movie, with playback quality being almost identical. There was a very slight choppiness at times, but it did not materially impact playback (run video to the right to see live comparison between 720p HD video on the iMac and the ARK signage player).
I then ran a full 1080p MPEG4 movie trailer on the DS303 and it never missed a beat. In fact, it almost ran better than 720p video. That is very impressive for a low-power Atom player with just a gig of RAM and no fancy hardwware. By comparison, an Acer Aspire One netbook with basically the same hardware as the DS303 sputtered along at just a few frames per second. I should also mention that the DS303 was an excellent performer overall, reaching the best benchmark numbers of any Atom-based system we've tested to-date, and always feeling quick and responsive.
Ruggedness and applications
In terms of ruggedness, the requirements for a digital signage player are different than those of a mobile computer. The housing is tough and very sturdy, and designed to handle the kind of shocks and vibration that may be encountered by fixed-mount system.
Unlike consumer-grade, off-the-shelf media players, the Advantech ARK-DS303 is expected to run 24/7 all the time, with minimal maintenance requirements. That's why it is not only built like a tank, but also comes with special BIOS settings for digital signage applications, such as system Wake-on-LAN and Power-On-after-Power-Failure settings. There is also an embedded watchdog timer that allows for near 100% uptime, and there are additional functions that help the system recover from fatal errors or system crashes.
Note that the ARK-DS303 can be configured for a variety of signage applications. Advantech offers an external TV module that attaches to the side of the DS303 so that TV programing can be included when real-time news or entertainment is crucial. The system can also be configured for use with WiFi or WWAN PCIe modules. There is only one PCIe slot, though, so if the Broadcom decoder takes that slot, WiFi and/or WLAN could presumably be handled via USB.
So who is the Advantech ARK-DS303 for? That would be anyone contemplating digital signage projects where the requirements include maximum life expectancy even under 24/7 operation, the ability to handle very wide temperature ranges, a long product life cycle, and, thanks to the optional Broadcom hardware decoder, the ability to play even high definition content on a low cost, low power Atom-based device. In our review and testing, the light and compact ARK-DS303 convinced with rock-solid construction and it easily surpassed any performance expectations we had.
-- Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
Advantech ARK-DS303 Specs:
April 2, 2010
Rugged digital signage IPC
1.6GHz Intel Atom N270
Intel System Controller Hub 945GSE + ICH7M
CPU Thermal Design Power
Front Side Bus
Windows XP Embedded, Windows XP, Windows Vista
1GB 400 or 533MHz DDR2 in 1 SDRAM 200-pin SODIMM socket (max. 2GB)