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So you saw one of those cool Christmas light shows on YouTube or Facebook and thought to yourself “I can do that too!”, but you have no idea where to begin. There are countless hours of how-to videos on YouTube, Facebook groups, webinars, and other resources, but it can be overwhelming. This is intended to be a high-level overview of how to set up and run a basic display.

Software: xLights

XLights is the software used to design and program your light show. I won’t go into too much depth here as there is plenty of information out there on how to use xLights.

 

The physical setup consists of power supplies, a show player, controller(s), and pixels. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Power supplies:

By far the most popular power supply in the hobby is the Meanwell LRS-350-12. They are widely available from vendors both inside and outside of the hobby. The reason for their popularity is the additional circuitry they contain that prevents overcurrent, which can lead to fires. Equivalent generic power supplies are about $10 cheaper, but usually don’t have this level of protection.

Another popular option is the HP common slot power supply. These are very high-quality PSUs that are pulled from servers. As they are usually used, they offer excellent value but can be a little harder to mount in an enclosure. Most people use them with a breakout board to access the power, but they can be used without it if you are handy with a soldering iron.

Many displays also use 5v power supplies. 5v pixels are slightly cheaper but require power injection more often. Most people standardize on 12v.

 

Show player:

There are 2 options for a show player: xSchedule or Falcon Player (FPP).

XSchedule runs on windows and is installed alongside xLights when you run the installed. This is a popular option with commercial displays as it allows easy remote access capabilities. It doesn’t take a lot of resources, so most people will set it up on an old, dedicated laptop. It’s highly recommended that you disable updates, sleep mode, and anything else on the PC that could interrupt playback.

FPP is a very popular option that is bundled with a Linux image that runs on a Raspberry Pi or Beagle Bone. If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry, the process is super easy and you don’t need to know Linux! It is very reliable, with low power consumption, and cheap hardware. FPP also has a lot of options that allow interactivity and advanced configurations.

Neither choice here is “the best”- they are both proven and widely used and supported by hobbyists and commercial displays.

Controllers:

Three main choices for controllers right now: Falcon, Kulp, and Experience Lights

Falcon controllers are the gold standard. They have been around for a long time, and are used in commercial and hobbyist displays all over the world.

Kulp controllers have only been around a few years, but have quickly gained favor with the community. They are Beagle Bone-based controllers, which means they are “capes” and they require a Beagle Bone attached in order to run. They run FPP natively which means they can be a show player and controller in one package.

Experience Lights Genius controllers were introduced in 2022 and were very well received in the community. They were designed to be very user-friendly with lots of innovative new features.

Again, no one controller is the best- they are all great choices.

Another important concept to understand when choosing a controller is DIFFERENTIAL OUTPUTS. Essentially, a differential output bundles 4 ports worth of data into a single Ethernet cable.

Pixels:

Lastly, we have the humble pixel. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes, but they all work in the same way. Each pixel has a WS2811 chip in it that determines its place in line, strips data from the input signal, lights each of the red, blue, and green elements of the LED, then repackages the data and sends it off to the next pixel. The most common is the 12v resistor bullet pixel. 

 

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