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The term “HD” is often more about marketing than it is about accurately describing a product’s capabilities. Microsoft’s upcoming Zune HD is the latest example of that trend. The Zune HD looks like it will delivera compelling evolution over the previous-generation Zunes, with features including a touch-screen interface and a widescreen 480-by-272 OLED display. But while it will also offer HD video output and HD radio reception, it will fall short in delivering genuine HD playback.
The Zune’s OLED display is a 480-by-272 widescreen, which doesn’t meet anybody’s definition of HD. It’s only when you use a premium HDMI A/V docking station to output video to an HDTV that you get high definition–720p, to be exact.
That’s as far as its HD support goes. High definition video requires a minimum of 720-pixel resolution, and high definition audio is 24-bit; the Zune HD’s built-in playback falls short on both counts. A Microsoft spokesperson said that the company does not have any details to share regarding audio tracks or specific video files.
Microsoft is not alone in its marketing practices. “My daughter’s Sony VAIO has a sticker that says ‘Full HD’ [which suggests 1080p]. But the screen resolution is 1280 x 800. The “Full HD” comes from connecting the computer by HDMI to a monitor or TV,” said Joe Wilcox, an independent technology analyst.
While OLED screens deliver sharp colors and deep blacks–one benedit of HD–those advantages are almost entirely lost on a small screen with low resolution. And video marketplaces sometimes decrease the size of downloads by limiting black levels and other palette-related settings, said Matt Hargett, a noted technology author.
Microsoft could compensate for the Zune’s lack of HD video playback with 24-bit audio, Hargett said. Microsoft obtained the rights to the HDCD format in 2000. “Having 24-bit audio would be a great step forward.”
CDs introduced 16-bit lossless audio almost 30 years ago; High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD), a 24-bit audio format, is 20 years old; and DTS (Digital Theater System), a format used in DVDs and other media, has provided 24-bit lossy audio for over 15 years.
Despite these decades-older technologies, the Zune HD device and marketplace doesn’t appear capable to deliver a better audio experience.
“By adding the “HD” to the name, [Microsoft] is trying to secure a market who appreciates the details, but that same market will likely reject the product if it doesn’t deliver a real HD experience beyond the “HD Radio”, which isn’t really HD at all,” said Hargett. HD Radio’s quality “is below what CDs, Apple Lossless, and FLAC downloads already deliver consumers for years. Does that really count as HD? I don’t think so,” Hargett quipped.
As if two rumored Microsoft handhelds weren’t enough, the latest chatter from Redmond holds that the company is designing a new “digital entertainment handheld” to take on Apple’s iPod Touch and Sony’s PSP.
The news comes from Team Xbox’s César A. Berardini, who says he waited months to corroborate and clear his report with sources in Redmond and Santa Clara. One source referred to the device as “xYz,” alluding to a hybrid of the Xbox and Zune, but said the actual name hadn’t been decided on, to the source’s knowledge.
Before we go any further, let’s get all the Microsoft handheld device rumors out on the table. We know that Microsoft is working on a Zune HD, complete with a touch screen and due in the fall. There’s also talk of an iPhone rival, codenamed “Pink,” that involves collaboration with Verizon. This third device seems to fit in the former category simply because it’s entertainment-related, but Berardini writes that newly reported Pink specs “coincide with the scoop I got.” This suggests in a roundabout way that Pink and this gaming device are one and the same.
Except for one thing: One source said the device doesn’t have and “doesn’t need” access to a phone network. Berardini was also explicitly told that the device is not a “Zune Phone.” He speculates that the device will include WiMax, but who knows.
As for other hardware, the “xYz” reportedly has a WVGA touch screen and “features not found on any handheld on the market,” one source says, but the real kicker is in the software. The story says this device will blur the lines between the Zune, Xbox Live and the “Sky” market — supposedly the code name for a cloud-based mobile App store that Microsoft also hasn’t announced yet. It’ll also apparently compete with Google by integrating Live Search services.
Also interesting is the idea of content that’s transferable between each device, including video games. That’s where I get excited.
There’s obviously a technical disparity between handhelds and home consoles, but the simpler games found on Xbox Live Arcade — Braid and Marble Blast Ultra, for example, or classic ports such as Doom and Sonic the Hedgehog — could easily coexist on both platforms. That idea hasn’t been done since the Sega Nomad, a portable Genesis console that was ahead of its time.
The article gives off a vibe that this is all part of a carefully-planned strategy to pull several of Microsoft’s entertainment services under one umbrella. As an Xbox 360 owner, I see the potential in adding a handheld to the mix, but as always, execution is crucial. So now, we wait and see.
(Oh, and before you get too up in arms, please know that the image above is pure fakery.)
I feel really sorry for the companies, such as Real (with its Rhapsody service), Best Buy (with Napster), and Microsoft (with Zune Pass) that sell subscription music services. Rationally, subscription music makes perfect sense: You pay one monthly rate and get access to the service’s entire library. You can gorge all you want, and if you download an album that turns out not to tickle your fancy, you’ve only wasted a little time.
But none of these services have caught on with the American public on an emotional level–certainly not enough to make them into viable threats to the dominance of Apple’s iPod and iTunes. Apple’s sold billions of songs through iTunes, even though the price of a single album can be the same as other services’ monthly all-you-can-eat flat fee. Every time a consumer downloads a song, it’s a vote in favor of owning music rather than renting it.
Every once in awhile, an Apple competitor tries to make subscriptions sound sexy–or at least smart–via advertising. The latest example is this new Microsoft ad for Zune Pass:
Of course, as Ars Technica notes, Wes Moss–who’s a real guy–does blithely ignore the crucial distinction between digital music’s subscription and buy-to-own variants. Stop paying Microsoft your $14.99 a month, and all your music goes away, but the 99 cents you blow on an iTunes track makes it yours to keep. On the other hand, Moss also doesn’t mention a notable virtue of Zune Pass: the monthly fee lets you keep ten songs. So at least he’s glossing over important facts in a balanced fashion.
An odder thing about the ad: While it shows an iPod, It doesn’t even mention the Zune explicitly. Unless you’re paying reasonably close attention to the digital music wars, it might be unclear to you that what Microsoft is suggesting is that you go out and buy a hardware device called a Zune. I’m not sure if this is intentional on the company’s part–it may be sick of people making fun of its poor little audio player–or what.
Despite everything, Microsoft has a point here: Anyone who’s considering buying a music player should at least consider whether buying one that supports subscriptions is a smarter move than springing for an iPod. (I suspect I’m in the same camp as a lotta folks, though–I’d switch from buying music to subscribing it in a heartbeat…if you could do so and still own an iPod or iPhone.)
I have my doubts, though, whether Microsoft’s subscription salesmanship will find much more success than that of this old Napster ad, which makes the same point in a radically different fashion, stylewise:
Greetings to you from Malta…
My taxes? Filed. Whew! You?
Technologizer has learned that rumors surrounding the fourth third generation Zune model are indeed true, and Microsoft’s music player would be getting a high-definition upgrade sometime in the fall, most likely in September or October. Sources close to the Zune team indicate that Engadget’s shots of the marketing materials are indeed authentic, but are fairly tight lipped on exactly what the player may have.
What we do know is this: the size of the device is set to come in smaller than the iPod touch (although we believe in size, not in thickness). Capacities should be competitive with that of the iPod touch, and like the touch, it would sport a touchscreen interface. The old click wheel would be replaced with a single-button as the pictures show.
We’re still trying to source out more information on it, but we do know with a good deal of confidence that this information is correct — these sources have accurately called the launches and specs of two previous launches (see my stores at Betanews: here and here).
More as we get it…
New Details: We’re being told that the Engadget marketing materials are likely not the final art for any advertising. So while the device is real, this art is probably just a draft.
Update 2: We made a bit of a mistake. While generally every year since their launch there has been some type of revision, this is technically the third gen model, not the fourth.
If anything was evidence that Apple’s iPod is ready to be the de-facto digital music device, the latest survey of teens by financial research firm Piper Jaffray should be it. Of the 606 teens surveyed (54 percent male, 46 percent female), those planning to buy a player all responded they were considering Apple’s iconic device.
About one out of every five teens are planning to buy a new music player in the next 12 months, down from 34 percent in the fall survey. Of that group, 100% say an iPod.
For whatever reason, Zune’s share has collapsed — probably due to the fact the players have gone without any update for quite awhile. In the fall, 15 percent said they were considering a Zune. If this is true, Microsoft may find itself being forced out of the digital music player market as the youth is what drives this industry.
There really isn’t much untapped potential here either: 92 percent of teens own a player, up from 87 percent in the last survey. So even if this is exaggerated, the growth potential is slipping away for Microsoft — I’ve often heard them argue about the untapped market as its salvation.
I just can’t see with the increasing amount of negative data for Zune how it is worthwhile for the company to stay in the market. We are hearing that the wagons are circling in Redmond and talks are ongoing with partners on the next Zune model, which should come out in the fall if what we are hearing is correct.
However, will it even be worth it?
Despite a recent organizational shake up, help-wanted ads indicate that Microsoft may be taking its Zune brand into the living room, and expanding into new international markets.
Today, blogger Long Zheng’s watchful eye took notice of a job listing on Microsoft’s Web site seeking a software engineer to help its Zune team, “deliver great digital entertainment features into the living room, including on demand music and video.”
The job requires an engineer with experience developing user interfaces to deliver “rich online media experience delivering music and video from the cloud.”
The listing is dated just days after the company announced that it was restructuring the Zune product group into distinct software and hardware divisions. Microsoft’s goal may be to bring Zune services to third-party devices, CNET reported.
A separate job listing is seeking a database programmer to help Microsoft open Zune stories for other countries or regions.
The company has already made inroads into the living room with its Xbox console. Windows Media Center Edition has failed to make much of an impact. It would make sense for Microsoft to offer a Zune store through a future edition of the Xbox that would serve as a digital media hub. If nothing else, it would help the company compete in the living room with Apple TV, which analysts have projected could sell as many as 6 million units this year.
That could be true, if what we’re hearing about the buzz within Microsoft these days is correct. The Zune for all intents and purposes has been anything but a success for Microsoft. Redmond saw that Apple was wildly successful in controlling the experience from the top down, and decided to try to duplicate it.
In the process it all but abandoned its partners, casting PlaysForSure aside in favor of its own single store proprietary system a la Apple’s. The change all but meant certain death for just about every store that wasn’t either the Zune MarketPlace or iTunes, and most device manufacturers.
Fast forward to today. We’re now nearly three years out from Microsoft’s initial launch, and the company has very little to show for it. iPods still outsell Zunes by a 20-to-1 (or more) margin, roughly the same as it was at launch.
So what is Microsoft to do? According to our sources, the company is currently discussing marketing strategies going forward. But the most interesting aspect of this talk is that Redmond is apparently sharing information with key partners for the first time in the platform’s short history.