May 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Jeff Sauer
Video player offers the price-conscious a foot in the digital signage door.
When you look at the obvious places — theaters, sports arenas, and large retail chains — digital signage is clearly showing signs of becoming a real killer application for professional AV installations. And that may indeed prove to be the case. However, it's only going to happen if the technology can reach down to much smaller installations, too, such as single mom-and-pop-type retail stores, small-company lobbies, and schools. But that's not going to happen without some truly intuitive and inexpensive solutions, and Mediagate may just have one.
Admittedly, the new Mediagate MG-350HD really targets the home user, and it doesn't come close to having the scheduling and playlist capabilities that are often at the core of turnkey digital signage solutions. But for the small, price-conscious sector of the market, it could be just the right foot in the digital signage door.
The MG-350HD is Mediagate's second generation of standalone video players, but it's the first to support high-definition content, and it can play a variety of video files including MPEG-1, -2, and -4; AVI; M2V; and DivX, as well as JPEG stills and MP3 and Windows Media audio files.
Of course, there's nothing terribly special about that. Several digital signage-oriented products (such as Canopus/Grass Valley's MediaEdge, Adtec Digital's Soloist 4111 HD and Edje 4111 HD, and Electrosonic's FrEND) can do the same. The Mediagate also has a straightforward selection of video outputs, including composite, S-Video, and three RCA YPbPr component, as well as HD DVI and stereo analog and digital audio out.
But there are a lot of differences — starting with a price that's in the low three digits (instead of four digits) and functionality that is admittedly geared to playing entertainment content around a home, rather than professional content. On the other hand, the MG-350HD is quite flexible on where the files can come from, and that just may make it a terrific in-a-pinch solution for digital signage.
BUNCH OF OPTIONS
Strictly speaking, the MG-350HD is nothing more than an empty shell. Sure, it's got a chip that can play digital media files and analog-to-digital converters to play out the result to a monitor. But there is, rather oddly, no storage built into the unit. Instead, there is a bunch of options.
First, there is an IDE interface and an empty bay inside the chassis for installing a hard drive. Certainly, for home users, Mediagate would be smart to offer a hard drive-equipped version for those leery of opening boxes and attaching cables. And surely the company is asking for trouble in consumer land by starting the user manual with several potentially intimidating pages on installing and formatting a hard drive. However, none of that should be a deterrent for most professional AV contractors (if it is for you, learn it — it's not hard), and has the distinct benefit of maximum user flexibility and low price.
Once a hard drive is installed, the MG-350HD shows up on your computer desktop like just another removable drive when connected via a USB cable. You can drag and drop files onto the MG-350HD, and then bring the device wherever you need it and play the files using either unit-front controls or a handheld remote. But that's just the start.
There's also a second USB port on the back for connecting anything from a digital camera to a USB thumb drive. The MG-350HD's onscreen menu offers straightforward navigation to the media files on the thumb drive, and you can also play those out to a monitor. Awkwardly, though, there doesn't seem to be an option for copying files from a USB thumb drive onto the newly installed hard drive without going through a computer.
Even better, the MG-350HD has both an RJ-45 wired Ethernet port and an 802.11G wireless antenna for connecting to a local area network. In either case, the onscreen display allows you to browse the network for media files, then stream those files over the network directly onto the local monitor connected to the Mediagate device. Altogether, that provides an extremely flexible array of source options for a modest price.
SIGNAGE ON THE SLY
OK, so the MG-350HD can play a bunch of video, still image, and audio files, and it can play them off an internal hard drive, attached USB drive, or other USB device, or stream them wired or wirelessly from a networked computer. But what about digital signage information or a series of media files? For the time being, at least, you're going to have to be a little creative.
The MG-350HD can automatically play through a series of files within a given folder; however, there is a number of caveats. Files are played in alphanumeric order by default, except some file types, including MPGs, that are always grouped first and played first. They cannot be mixed in with JPG stills. Other file types, such as AVI using generic compression, can be intermixed with stills. There is a simple, if clumsy, playlist function that allows you to select files in the order you want them played; however, MPGs are not selectable in this mode. Nor can you save playlists.
High-definition files and images are supported, but you'll definitely want to test performance prior to public display. Some can take several seconds to load, particularly from a USB thumb drive or over the network rather than an internal hard drive.
A built-in photo viewer offers some modest timing and effect options for playing through a series of images, including JPEG-converted presentation slides that could be the meat of a modest digital signage messaging display. Mix in a few AVI video clips, and the store visitor might think it's the height of high-tech chic (as long as the storekeeper remembers to restart it when finished: There is a loop function, but only for one file at a time).
Make no mistake: The MG-350HD is not an all-inclusive digital signage player. In fact, it's closer to a high-tech consumer gadget. Still, at less than $250, it just might be the ideal starter solution for getting more clients involved with digital signage.
Pros: Low price, plays lots of file types including HD video, easy to use.
Cons: Lacks any scheduling and playlist functionality beyond alphanumeric lists.
Price: $249 MSRP
OS support: Windows 98/SE/ME/2000/XP, Mac OS 9.0 or higher, Linux 2.4 or higher
Video output: Composite, S-Video, YPbPr, HD DVI
Audio output: Unbalanced RCA stereo, S/PDIF digital out
Video playback: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, AVI, WM9, MPEG VOB, HD MPEG-2
Audio standards: MP3, WAV, WMA, OGG
Wired LAN: 10Mbps/100Mbps 100BaseT
Wireless LAN: 54Mbps 802.11g
USB device: 480Mbps
USB 2.0 host: 480Mbps USB 2.0
Hard drive type: 3.5in. IDE, NTFS/FAT32
Warranty: One-year parts and labor
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