Ever since we started developing our analytics dashboard product, we've been interested not only about the software but also the hardware part. We've played around with different hardware to come up with reliable yet affordable setup. Basically what we needed is:
A large screen (40+ inch)
A mount for attaching the screen to the wall
A (mini) computer attached to the HDMI port of the screen
A wireless device of some sort for controlling the mini computer
Over the years, we’ve tested our setup with many different hardware ranging from Raspberry Pi to various Android based devices. While some of these have done a decent job in powering our dashboard, in this case decent is not good enough. Your screen is placed in a public space so you don’t want any downtime at all. You don’t want it to display some error message whole day for everyone who’s passing by.
We’ve seen setups in which screen (or rather the mini computer) is automatically rebooted once a day, or even once per hour to avoid memory leaks and to automatically recover from error situations. That causes downtime and is totally unnecessary if you choose your hardware wisely.
Ideally you’ll do the setup once and never have to get back to it again. It just runs and rotates your dashboard screens without interruption 24/7. Is that achievable? Yes it is, read on to learn how it can be done.
Choosing the location
The main requirement for the location of the screen is that it is visible to all those people who need to see it. At our office, we have a wall that divides the room in two so it provides a natural placement for the screen. We wanted to minimise any visible cables so we had an electricity outlet installed in advance so that the cables can be hidden behind the display.
For attaching the screen, you’ll need a TV mount of some sort. If you prefer not to drill holes in your wall, you can always use a TV stand instead. However, those tend to be bulky (and expensive!) so we wanted to save space by attaching the screen to the wall.
The process started with drilling some holes.
Next we attached the wall mount. It is recommended to use a level tool for making sure the mount is attached straight. Choose the mount according to the size of the screen, ours was suitable for screens of size between 23 and 55 inches.
We tightened the mount to the wall using the screws that came with it:
Here’s the wall mount fully attached:
Looking good so far! Now it’s time to attach the screen to the mount. On the backside of the screen, there's the standard 20x20 VESA mount that is compatible with any wall mount that supports this size of screens.
You’ll need two people for completing this step (or even more depending the size of the screen!).
While one person holds the screen, the other one tighten the screws on the back of the display. Here’s the screen attached to the mount:
The power cable is neatly hidden behind the screen and there’s one plug free for the mini computer.
Choosing the hardware to power the screen
When it comes to choosing the hardware to run the dashboard, you’ll want to make sure it is suitable for the job. First of all, it must be powerful enough to ensure that the animations run smoothly. In our dashboard, the animations are limited to simple “fade out - fade in” effect when the screens rotate, But you don’t really want any jiggering in that effect. The device should also have a robust network connectivity so that that it doesn’t drop off from the wifi connection.
While you can use any hardware that runs a modern web browser, when it comes to reliability, our device of choice is the Asus Chromebit. It’s a small computer of size of a candy bar that runs Google ChromeOS. Based on our experience so far, It seems capable of running a dashboard 24/7 without any interruption.
Here are the parts after unboxing:
In addition to the dongle, there’s a power cable and an extension cable which you may need depending on the accessibility of the HDMI port in your TV.
Attach the Chromebit to the HDMI port of your screen:
In our Samsung model, the ports are placed so that the dongle is parallel to the screen, making it easy to operate from the side of the screen. Here’s the Chromebit attached to the HDMI port of a Samsung TV:
You’ll also need a bluetooth keyboard for completing the initial setup. First pair your bluetooth keyboard with the Chromebit device. That may involve attaching a small receiver unit to the USB port of the device so that the keyboard can make connection (see the small extension at the top of the dongle in the picture above).
Any bluetooth compatible keyboard can be used such as this model from Logitech:
What’s good about this model is that has a mouse pad in addition to keyboard. It’s a 2-in-1 solution which connects easily to Chromebit. You’ll find the mouse pad handy when setting up the dashboard. While you can do most of the configurations via your laptop, you’ll need a connected keyboard for completing the initial setup.
The final setup
Here’s the final setup with the Screenful dashboard running Chrome in in full screen mode. Auto-rotation is turned on so that dashboard screens will automatically switch on a set interval (once per minute by default).
Depending on your screen, you may have to adjust the default settings like the brightness and contrast to fit your office lightning.
Our hunger grew during the process and we realised that one screen is not enough for displaying all our dashboards. You may want to see some information all the time, and some other only occasionally. In our case, we wanted to see the burndown of the current sprint constantly on one screen, and have the rest of the dashboard on rotation on another screen.
We ended up with a two screens setup pictured below:
This setup has served us well since it was deployed. We haven’t had any downtime due to hardware so far. That’s how it should be, you set it up once, and it runs without interruption!
This blog post documented the process of setting up a TV screen for the purpose of running a KPI dashboard that is constantly visible for the team. A TV dashboard, when set up correctly, can be a great way of boosting communication and adding transparency to the work. Setting up one is easy, and you can multiply the effect by installing more than one screen.
This post was focused on the hardware setup. For the software, here’s a step by step guide for setting up Screenful as a TV dashboard.