Really small, really cheap computer for photo slideshow
February 8, 2019 10:35 PM   Subscribe

We put on a booth every year at a big local dog show to educate people about our breed. Part of this booth is a screen displaying dog photos. I've always been worried that that the MacBook Pro we use for the slide show will wander off when my back is turned. So I'm looking for a better way.

This year I'm looking to see how easy it would be to use a Raspberry Pi or other small, cheap computer to display the photos. My ideal would be to be able to stick a memory card into the device and have it simply display photos from that card in a shuffled order through a VGA port or DVI port, without having to fiddle too much with software. It doesn't need a Ken Burns effect or fancy fades or wipes.

However, I can fiddle some if need be. I am comfortable with Linux and networking so if I need to install something, or copy the photos onto the device, I can do that. I just don't want to invest a lot of time in it. I just need to know the pieces, especially if you've done something like it before.
posted by kindall to Technology (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Low cost chromebook. Get a slideshow extension. Should be enough local storage for a few hundred photos or point to a server if there's wifi. They generally have great battery life so you may not need an extension cord.
posted by sammyo at 10:58 PM on February 8, 2019

You seem to want a digital photo frame, not an actual computer. Something like this?
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:35 PM on February 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

There might be some requirement I'm missing but it seems like rather than building a custom computer you'd either want to use a digital photo frame, if you want something with a built-in display, or if you have a separate display you want to use than has an HDMI port (or DVI, with an adapter) you could get something like a Chromecast ($35) and if you compose the slideshow as a video (lots of other AskMes about doing that) you could stream that to the Chromecast off of a tethered phone or more-secure computer.
posted by XMLicious at 11:36 PM on February 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I believe the Fire Stick from Amazon will let you save photos to the device itself and then play them back on demand. That's probably the cheapest and least fiddly approach, but requires syncing the photos ahead of time.

A Chromecast can do the same thing but requires a separate device to send the photos.

If I were you and didn't like the idea of the a Fire Stick, I'd get a cheap Chromebook for the purpose, as it's the most versatile thing when it's not being used at shows. But a Pi or stick computer would also work.
posted by Candleman at 11:57 PM on February 8, 2019

Best answer: For a raspberry pi I would recommend:

- raspberry pi 3a+
- microUSB power supply, minimum 2.5A output
- sd card, 8gb minimum
- a case

If you live near a Microcenter, just go to the hobby electronics section everything should be there. Otherwise, you can order parts off for only slightly more plus shipping. If you can't get a model 3a+, the 3b+ would also work, but costs a bit more.

Tons of tutorials out there already on making an image display "kiosk". If you are familiar with Kodi, you can install LibreELEC and set it up to do a slide show. I'm just not sure what the path to use for images would be, it would likely be something like "/media/usb0". Once you set it up it shouldn't be hard to find.
posted by Poldo at 5:47 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Pretty much any new TV (like 100-150 for a 32in model) will have a USB port that you can plug a USB stick with a bunch of photos into and it will play a slideshow.
posted by rockindata at 5:48 AM on February 9, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You want something like a "TV Box": a little no-name media player, probably running an ancient version of Android. Put in a USB stick, start the picture viewer, and you have photos forever. Comes all in one box, no fiddling, even has a remote so you can pick out particular pictures if you want to stop the show and explain to someone. Under $50. Looks cheap, so unlikely to be a theft target.

I'd normally recommend a Raspberry Pi, but:
  • they don't come in a ready-to-go kit with everything you need for this application. You need to buy the board, a case, the right power supply, an SD card, an HDMI cable … then put them together and find the right software image and configure it using the USB keyboard and mouse that of course you already have lying around …
  • surprisingly, there isn't a free load and go slideshow SD card image for Raspberry Pi: there are lots of commercial ones with subscription plans, though
  • The new Raspberry Pi 3A+ doesn't work with pre-packaged application distros that haven't yet been updated to include firmware support for its hardware.

posted by scruss at 6:18 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: LibreELEC is not quite "load an go" but is darn close. Good point about firmware support for the model 3a+, I could not positively verify it is supported in LibreELEC 9. You could install kodi on raspian to achieve the same result. A nice thing about using a pi instead of a throwaway grade appliance is that if plans change, you still have a nice little hackable computer to play around with.
posted by Poldo at 7:25 AM on February 9, 2019

No need to over-complicate that. rockindata has it exactly right: an inexpensive TV with a port for a USB stick solves both your display device and image storeage problem and gets you a nice, big, clear, flatscreen display at a very low cost.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:40 AM on February 9, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions. Buying a new TV just for this application is right out, but maybe one of the ones we already have has this capability. I know they both have USB ports. I'll look into it. We have a projector we usually use for this booth but a TV would be OK too (maybe better in some ways; it's tough to get the projector positioned so it can throw a big enough image).

I also hadn't thought of using a Fire TV. We have two of those and even have Kodi on both of them already. And the device has a USB port to stick photos on. That's a good second avenue to explore. Just need an HDMI to DVI cable probably.

Thanks also for the Android "TV box" idea and the Raspberry Pi deets. I've got plenty of ideas to go on now.
posted by kindall at 9:42 AM on February 9, 2019

Maybe this is super obvious but if the MacBook provides all the things you need, and security is the issue, wouldn't a cable lock solve that?
posted by tinydancer at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2019

Response by poster: That's a good point, tinydancer, but there are lots of other bad things that could happen to that MBP, security is just the one that concerns me most.
posted by kindall at 12:20 PM on February 9, 2019

If the tv supports DLNA you would not need a chromecast or firestick to use a phone as the source.
Since any computer made in the past 10+ years could work for a slideshow, maybe check craigslist/nextdoor and put out a want ad for a free one.
posted by Sophont at 3:43 PM on February 9, 2019

I used to have a digital photo frame playing when I benched my dogs. Most will take a variety of memory cards or a flash drive. The nice thing is that you can switch out the cards / drives with other exhibitors from your club, the con is that you can't use audio with the frame as you can with a laptop.
posted by IpsoFacto at 5:06 PM on February 9, 2019

Best answer: An Orange Pi Zero Plus2 H5 set 7 ($37 shipped) is the Orange Pi Zero Plus2 H5 board itself (Allwinner H5 quad core 64-bit Cortex A53 SoC, 512MiB of RAM, HDMI, 80211b/g/n wireless) plus an expansion board with a couple of USB ports, plus a neat little case roughly 2" x 2" x 1.5", plus a 5V 2A wall wart power supply.

That plus a micro SD card with Armbian flashed on it gets you a completely general purpose Debian box. I don't currently know of a smaller, cheaper one. If I needed to do what you need to do at minimal cost, and the TV I had didn't have a suitable USB-based slideshow inbuilt, that's where I'd start.

If I were in more of a hurry I'd spend about twice as much on a Raspberry Pi 3 in a cheap case and run OSMC on it, because that's pretty damn close to plug and play.
posted by flabdablet at 1:32 AM on February 10, 2019

NB, that Orange Pi will be at least as fiddly as a Raspberry Pi, and given that it's New Year, might arrive some time before the end of March.
posted by scruss at 5:58 PM on February 10, 2019

Response by poster: What I ended up doing:
  1. Snagged a 32" Toshiba Fire TV Edition when they were on sale for $99
  2. Put Kodi on it
  3. Put the photos on a USB stick
  4. ???
  5. Profit!
Step 4 turned out to be "figure out how to disable the thing turning itself off after 15 minutes" which involved a shell command over the TV's debug bridge.

There was lots of other fun stuff involved in this project, like troubleshooting permissions issues on the Macbook that originally held the slideshow so I could get Photos to export all of the pictures and slimming the images down so they would all fit on the USB stick I happened to have lying around, but these are incidental.
posted by kindall at 8:19 PM on March 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The dog show was this past weekend and it went great, including our new slideshow. One minor speed bump was that the Amazon Fire TV home screen doesn't show jack when the TV doesn't have an Internet connection, which meant Kodi wouldn't show up on the home screen. No biggie, you just have to go into Settings and launch Kodi from the Applications list. I already had plenty of experience with Fire TV devices so I knew where to go. Kodi itself worked fine without the TV being on the Internet.

And we now also have a nice little TV we can put in our guest room for... guests... until we need it for the show again next year.

Next year we may look into a mounting bracket so we can hang it from the top rail of the booth backdrop. And maybe I'll look into how much power the TV draws and see if we can't use a UPS to power it, rather than paying the venue extra for an electrical outlet. The UPS would pay for itself in one use, and would also allow us to take the slideshow to other venues where there isn't AC available to the booths.
posted by kindall at 7:02 PM on March 11, 2019 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: The booth including the TV
posted by kindall at 11:57 AM on March 12, 2019

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