So There IS a Zune HD Coming. Can it Compete?


Image Credit: CNET News

Image Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft (s MSFT) is indeed creating and launching a Zune HD digital audio player later this year, having confirmed its plans with CNET. The HD part of the name essentially represents the HD Radio receiver in the device, although Microsoft says it will be capable of playing high-definition videos as well. The Zune HD will sport a touchscreen, run on WindowsCE (possibly a custom Windows Mobile version?) and use Internet Explorer for browsing. Sounds good, but is it enough to break out of the pack?

I’ve been thinking about adding an HD Radio to either my home or car for some time, so the aspect of a portable HD Radio tuner is very appealing. But I’m not sold on the rest of the Zune HD just yet — at least, not based on what little bit we now know. I’m struggling to see where this device fits into my day. It’s not a phone, at least it won’t be in its first iteration. So I’ll have to carry it in addition to a phone. And I’m carrying it in addition to a phone mainly for the HD Radio function because my phone already does everything else that the Zune HD will do. That’s why I think the phone will eventually rule over the digital audio player market: It can do “all that and more.”

As far as the capability to play high-definition video, there are plenty of devices that can play such content. But the biggest benefits to watching HD video aren’t found on a small screen; they’re on a big screen. To even display the lowest form of high-def video, the Zune HD would have to be capable of showing 720 horizontal lines of resolution, and the lowest likely vertical res in that case would be 1,280 lines. That’s overkill on a device with a screen size of 3 to 4 inches. Heck, that’s overkill right up to 10- or 12-inch displays. Microsoft has already stated that the OLED display is 480 x 272 resolution, so again, the “benefit” of playing high-definition video on the go is lost on me. I will give Microsoft credit on a better use for those videos. With an optional docking station and HDMI cable, the Zune HD can play HD content on a high-definition digital television. Actually, I shouldn’t give them too much credit on this one: I proposed this idea nearly four years ago. ;)

Don’t misunderstand me because I’d love to see a hot new Zune device be successful by offering unique features. We’re early on the information cycle on the new Zune HD, so there could be plenty of great surprises yet to come. But based on what we know now, I’m simply not sold. Get me a solid phone with these capabilities and the ability to stream Netflix and Xbox 360 video content to my device and I’d probably change my mind. Thoughts?


Joe T.

Oh, I wish I were as far advanced as Kevin in simplification. As a start, this article inspired me to order an 2.5-to-3.5mm audio cable for my Centro.

But the other, specialization side of me that keeps an MP3 player in each car, uses a teensy Clip for the Gym, etc., finds part of the Microsoft announcement distressing. The part that said they would discontinue making the small and light flash Zunes. For those of us who have to buy Zunes because we love the Zune subscription service, and who listen while mobile (walking or running or working around the house or …), we’ll be stuck with carrying fragile PDA-sized devices. How 2003.

Kenneth Murphy

I’m planning to wait on this over getting an i-touch now. I have a company provided blackberry phone so I don’t want to waste money on a 2nd phone to carry around. I rather have the cheaper i-touch or this zone etc. My company phone will never be the highest end phone available either, so these devices will likely offer better features where they overlap with what my phone can do. So there is other markets for this type of device.

Tom Reestman

“Microsoft has already stated that the OLED display is 480 x 272 resolution, so again, the “benefit” of playing high-definition video on the go is lost on me.”

The Zune HD cannot play HD on the device itself. The “HD” in the name refers to HD radio and the ability to _output_ HD video via a special dock.

Kevin C. Tofel

That’s why I said “on the go” benefit… because you can’t view the HD content on the screen when you’re mobile. You need to be stationary and docked to a TV. ;)


That’s a very fine line that you’re both being nit-picky about. It’s still a 16:9 ratio, it is just down-scaled to play on the hardware. From what I interpret from the press release, it’s still in HD format which is why it’s able to output to HD TV’s.

Considering I can get “digital copies” of most movies and TV shows these days, it’d be much more convenient to carry around my Zune than a collection of DVD’s if I’m visiting family and friends for “movie night”… especially since I take my Zune with me when I leave the house anyway.

Tom Reestman

A 16:9 ratio has little to do with whether it’s HD or not. In fact, all 16:9 ratio does is steal screen space from what was once the much more common 16:10. The widespread move to 16:9 screens is because it’s cheaper, not for the very few times one might actually prefer it. Think about it, unless viewing a widescreen video — where the black bars are eliminated — what other time one would prefer the smaller 16:9 format to 16:10? None.

Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but I’ve bemoaned the industry move to 16:9 screens for a while, and will continue to do so even as I realize the battle is lost.

Jonathan Sundy

I think the real market for these Smart Media Players is college students. It’s pretty much the only place that really has ubiquitous wifi. College students tend not to be loaded with cash for monthly cell phone internet bills, and also still receive decent gifts from family members.

You are sort of right, this device doesn’t really serve any purpose if you have a smart phone with the real internet, but PMPs still serve a real purpose. No cell phone can hold my entire music collection like my 80GB Zune can, and since I travel a lot that’s a feature I appreciate. I also know people who aren’t really comfortable exercising with their $400 to replace cell phone and generally get a $100 nano device for that purpose.

But these devices seem to work well for the segment of our population who just isn’t ready for the cell phone bills associated with full on smartphones. I mean sure my dad’s RAZR can play MP3s, but the interface just flat out sucks and that’s the case on most phones outside the high end ones. So for grandma who wants to show pictures of her grandson to her friends, or the new parents that wants to show off the latest video of their new baby doing something cute, or the college student who wants to listen to music and check their e-mail between class, these devices do serve a purpose.

I’m kind of partial to the Zune as it complements my iPhone nicely and I much prefer it to an iPod, so I’m pretty excited about this. I want that OLED screen on my media player, and being able to bring 720p videos to my gf’s house to watch tv shows together would be great (already do it at 480p on my Zune), but like you said, my phone fills my flash needs so I probably won’t be purchasing this :/


I get your point, Kevin, and I hope to agree with you someday. I probably would right now, if I was an iPhone user, like you.

However, aside from the iPhone, smartphones really can’t compete with a good media player. For the most part, they’re just too much of a pain to use as a primary media playback device.


I agree. Every time I walk out the door, I take my phone and Zune with me. It’s not that my phone can’t serve as a media player, it’s that I *REFUSE* to sacrifice my PHONE BATTERY (my primary communication tool) in order to listen to entertain myself.


Did anyone notice how similar the gui looks to the windows mobile 6.5 os!?


No, WM6.5 has been purposely modeled off the Zune interface. :)

Also, all Zunes since the original launch have been based off a heavily customized Windows CE platform.


This product is dead on arrival… the DAP market is shrinking, Windows CE Internet Explorer is brutally painful, fewer and fewer people listen to radio any more.

I don’t understand the business strategy behind products like this.


While your argument is valid, the exact same one could be made about the iPod Touch, which has less features, and we know the iPod Touch sold nearly as much as the iPhone. (Inst it 13 million devices in 2 years).

In short, either you are right and 13 million people are wrong, or there is a demand for a touch screen music player with a browser.

And with a Zune pass this one I can fill for less than $4000…

Kevin C. Tofel

True, but the argument is the very reason I *didn’t* buy an iPod Touch. ;) There surely is demand for a non-phone, touchscreen DAP with a browser. I wasn’t solely comparing the Zune HD with an iPod Touch, but since you’ve brought it up, Microsoft is waaaay late to that game. The HD Radio feature is a differentiator, but likely not enough of one. And if the browser is comparable to the native one on Windows Mobile devices, that’s not going to help all that much either.

I do agree with the financial aspect. I’ve written about that prior as I loved my Zune Pass subscription when I had it.


The whole Zune history has been plagued with these inappropriate comparisons. First the Zune was compared to the iPod Touch, and now the ZuneHD is being compared with the iPhone.

Lets keep our comparisons to devices which are actually similar, at which point you will find that the ZuneHD can compete well with the iPod Touch.

Of course you would buy neither, but thats neither here nor there when we are talking about the wider market.

BTW, the advantage of being able to play HD video on a 480×272 screen is not having to do any conversion, and being able to play X-box marketplace video rentals without any conversion, only transfer.

Kevin C. Tofel

Umm… I didn’t compare the Zune to the iPod Touch… you brought that up. ;)

Point taken on video conversion. If and when Microsoft offers Xbox Video integration, then it becomes a selling point. Until then, it’s simply an idea. In fact, it’s the same one I wanted to see two years ago. It was a good idea then and it’s a good idea now. Unfortunately, the longer it takes to implement, the less chance it has of becoming a key differentiator… especially if Apple brings iTunes rental streaming to the iPod Touch.


If and when Microsoft offers Xbox Video integration, then it becomes a selling point. Until then, it’s simply an idea.

“REDMOND, Wash. – May 26, 2009 – Microsoft Corp. today announced the evolution of Zune, the company’s end-to-end music and entertainment service, to a new platform and new markets. #### Zune will extend its video service to Xbox LIVE internationally this fall.### This marks an important development in the Zune strategy and brings the Zune brand to more than 17 million international Xbox LIVE subscribers. In addition, Microsoft confirmed the next generation of the Zune portable media player, Zune HD. Available in the U.S. this fall, Zune HD is the first portable media player that combines a built-in HD Radio receiver, high-definition (HD) video output capabilities, organic light-emitting diode (OLED) touch screen, Wi-Fi and an Internet browser.

“The Zune music player is an integral part of the overall Zune experience, and we’re proud to be growing and extending our offering beyond the device,” said Enrique Rodriguez, corporate vice president of the Microsoft TV, Video and Music Business Group. “Delivering on Microsoft’s connected entertainment vision, this news marks a turning point for Zune as it brings cross-platform experiences and premium video content to living rooms around the world.”

Zune Service Expands to New Platform
Zune will be a premium partner in the Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace, bringing an exciting catalogue of TV and film to the platform. Zune will occupy the first slot within the Xbox user interface in the Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace, exposing the Zune brand experience to millions of new consumers for the first time. ####At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) next week, attendees will see firsthand how Zune integrates into Xbox LIVE to create a game-changing entertainment experience.###”

Kevin C. Tofel

Ack! Shame on me for using the word “if” since I linked to that very press release. Thanks for pointing it out! :)


I agree with you completely on this. It perplexes me in every review of Zune I see how and why everyone tries to compare Zune to the iPod Touch or iPhone when that isn’t (yet) the target audience.

Microsoft has very clearly been testing the waters to see just what formulas are required to “get it right”. Anyone who watches them should have figured out by now that it almost always takes them 3 product generations to do that. Zune HD is generation 3 of the hardware.

There’s still a lot of information we don’t know yet. Obviously it will have WiFi, but will it continue to have the FM radio in addition to HD radio– I actually use this a lot on my Zune so that I can listen to Bob & Tom in the Morning while I work. What is the storage capacity? Considering how cheap flash memory is these days, a 32GB and 64GB version is completely viable at a cost on par with what we pay for the current 120GB hard drive model.

Moreover, with a new hardware revision will come a new software revision, and 3.0 already receives better accolades from those who use it than iTunes does. Sure, it’s too bad more people haven’t stepped away from their precious iPods to try Zune, but as the service has improved, so has the software.

Gavin Miller

Why ‘yuck’? Win CE is a scalable modular OS which can have any custom front end. It’s unlikely to bear any resemblance to Windows mobile if that’s where you’re coming from.

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