[IMGCAP(1)]Have you ever looked at those cool digital signage displays that some companies use? It might be displaying a “Hello” message to a visiting client or potential client. Or maybe showing some of the services your firm can offer running as a loop on a display in your waiting room or at the receptionist’s desk.

If you buy a commercial version, these can run several thousand dollars.

But if you’re a little handy, you can kludge together a perfectly serviceable version for a lot less. The display is any LED television or large computer monitor with an HDMI input. I talked about using one of these as a presentation device back in January. The 100 buck Westinghouse 32-inch TV I purchased on sale is pretty good for this purpose, and there’s always a 32-inch or larger television on sale somewhere for $150 or less.

The other part of the equation is a very small form factor PC with a VESA mounting. VESA is a flat display mounting standard, and most flat panel televisions and computer monitors manufactured over the past few years have the capability of using a VESA mount. This type of mount on your TV or display is useful if you want to mount the display on the wall. If it’s to be used on a desk or table, the VESA mount is doubly useful, as you can actually mount many ultra-small form factor PCs directly on the rear of the TV or monitor.

Ultra small form-factor PCs aren’t exactly common, but if you look, they aren’t hard to find. Most of them are what is called “bare bones,” which means they come without memory, a hard disk drive or operating system. The Intel NUC (New Unit of Computing) is a good example. It’s available with a large selection of CPUs, and the least expensive model, with a Celeron CPU, costs about $130 on Amazon. Adding an 8GB SODIMM stick of RAM and an inexpensive $60 SSD (solid state disk), takes about five minutes. You can buy a copy of Windows 7 online for less than $100. Adding in a cheap keyboard and mouse, if you don’t want to borrow one from another PC, and the whole hardware and software should run about $350.

Or, if you don’t want to be bothered installing memory and Windows, Staples has a Shuttle XPC nano NC01U Celeron ultra-small form-factor PC with a minimum of memory and a tiny solid state hard disk for $299 (as of publication). It even comes with Windows 8.1 installed. It’s a bit larger at 5.6 x 5.6 inches than the other approach and doesn’t come with the VESA mounting plate to mount it on the back of the monitor, but the 2GB of RAM and 32GB of hard disk storage is fine for running the display application.

There’s one more thing to add, and that’s software to actually display your message. The Impress component of LibreOffice is free (as is the entire LibreOffice suite), and it’s very much like PowerPoint. There is an interesting assortment of transitions, and you can even move over a slide show created in PowerPoint if you feel more comfortable working with that application and have it installed on another PC. There are plenty of suppliers of digital signage software, and some offerings are even free, but the LibreOffice or PowerPoint approach is really simple, and works well.

This approach will get you a very workable digital signage setup for about $500 including the TV. The Intel and other four-inch square by two-inch thick NUC PCs all come with mounting plates that let you mount the PC on the back of the monitor/television if you don’t mount it on the wall. If you do, you’ll have to put the PC on a shelf or a nearby desk, and run an HDMI cable to the back of the display.

Finally, if you consider yourself a real technophile, LibreOffice runs on the $35 Raspberry Pi. Of course, when you add in a power supply, case and SD card, the cost is closer to $75 or so (assuming that you can scrounge a keyboard and mouse), and it isn’t for the technically timid, but it does work pretty well and is really inexpensive.

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