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Monday, September 14, 2009, 04:00 pm PT (07:00 pm ET)

From OLED to Tegra: Five Myths of the Zune HD


Myth 3: Zune HD is mobile HD

Microsoft is promoting the Zune HD as supplying HD video and HD Radio, purposely conflating the use of "HD" as a meaningless marketing term. There are two issues here, the first being HD video display and output. The Zune HD's OLED screen isn't high definition in the sense of HDTV, of course. The screen itself is only 480x272, which is significantly less than the iPhone/iPod touch at 480x320. (That's 130k vs 153k pixels; the iPod/iPhone displays 18% more pixels).

What Microsoft is promoting is the Zune HD's capacity to output 720p HD video, at least when using its HDMI dock. The iPod touch is limited to 480p (DVD quality video) but can output this without a dock using Apple's Component AV Cable. This is a software limitation, not a hardware limit somehow broken by the Tegra.

If you're buying a mobile device primarily to act as a fixed movie player docked to your HDTV, the Zune HD offers a curious advantage in that regard. On the other hand, if you expect a mobile media player to deliver a mobile experience, the iPod touch delivers both a significantly better screen resolution and a better display technology, unless of course, you're planning to always stay at home in a candle-lit basement.

However, most people looking at the Zune HD won't be thinking of it as Microsoft's smaller, second attempt at delivering the HD-DVD player. They'll be excited about its HD Radio support, perhaps imagining that HD always means "high definition" relative to HDTV.

Myth 4: Zune HD delivers high definition radio

Unfortunately, HD Radio was given an intentionally misleading name. The HD in HD Radio officially doesn't stand for anything anymore, but it was originally for "hybrid digital," because HD Radio is all about replacing or augmenting analog radio with digital transmissions. It offers both an all-digital option as well as a hybrid digital option that enables radio broadcasters to augment their existing analog radio broadcasts with a digital version, something most opt to do so as not to alienate their existing analog radio listeners.

Like the move to digital TV, digital radio offers both the potential for better quality and the capacity to deliver more content within the same bandwidth. Unlike digital TV, the US government hasn't decided to officially transition the nation to all digital radio broadcasts, as it did with TV in order to reclaim large portions of the old analog TV bandwidth for other more productive purposes (such as allowing more competition in mobile and data services).

Analog radio isn't going away, so you won't need any new converter box to tune your old radio into new digital broadcasts. New digital broadcasts will coexist with the old analog radio feeds, because radio wasn't really wasting any huge amount of bandwidth to start with, as TV broadcasts were.

One competing standard for delivering digital radio is HD Radio, which isn't an FCC open standard but rather a proprietary protocol sold by iBiquity. However, HD Radio remains the only digital radio transmission technology approved by the FCC for use in the US.

HD Radio uses a proprietary audio codec called HDC, which like Microsoft's own WMA, is based on but not compatible with MPEG-4 standards. It should be no wonder why Microsoft is jumping on board to promote this proprietary standard. Major corporate broadcasters, including ClearChannel, support HD Radio because it allows them to deliver more content using subchannels squeezed into the existing radio spectrum.

Loopholes in the existing implementation of digital radio also enable big radio broadcasters to subvert existing regulations in order to avoid the controlling-interest caps established to prevent excessive concentration of media ownership, perpetuating the shift away from local radio broadcasts and toward generic piped-in feeds from media conglomerations like ClearChannel.

International reception weak

In contrast with the relatively recent rollout of digital radio in America, the European Union began implementing all-digital radio broadcasts back in 1999. Its existing DAB (digital audio broadcasting) standard is being improved to make use of the modern MPEG-4 HE-AAC, called DAB+. More recently, another broadcast standard has emerged in Europe with an even more misleading and unfortunate name than HD Radio: DRM (Digital Radio Mondiale). Like HD Radio, it maintains backward compatibility with analog radios using a hybrid digital broadcast.

Like HD Radio, Europe's DRM and DAB+ all have their own flaws helping to hold back widespread adoption of digital radio standards, including a lack of compatibility amongst each other. This is all relevant to the Zune HD because it effectively makes its main feature usable only to Americans. That's also why Microsoft is restricting sales to the US; who outside the US would buy a media player with HD Radio features that aren't even available outside of the US, and which isn't compatible with the digital radio standards that are available locally?

Again, if you're wondering why the iPod touch hasn't jumped on the HD Radio bandwagon, it's because it the proprietary new standard isn't in use globally, isn't in high demand, and barely covers 85% of the US from fewer than 2,000 radio stations. Of course, Apple's iPod has never been oriented toward playing over the air radio feeds, but instead is designed to play your own music. Of course if you want to play Internet radio, there's an app for that.

If you're just looking for a regular radio, you don't need to spend $300 for the Zune HD to get one. Portable FM radios are dirt cheap, and even mobile HD Radios are available starting at $50. Microsoft's feature mix aimed at taking on the iPod touch is looking increasingly odd from every angle.

Myth 5: Zune HD games and software will wow you

From the hardware end, the Zune HD applies a lot of hype to drum up interest in its otherwise non-novel technology. But it's the software side where the new device really fails to shine.

Despite being first and foremost a software platform vendor, Microsoft has a schizophrenic history in delivering a mobile software platform. The Windows CE foundation that the Zune HD is built upon is regarded as a joke throughout the industry, even by Microsoft's own developers. Windows Mobile, which delivers an additional layer of software on top of the Windows CE kernel to support PDAs and smartphones, is also scoffed at. Given its dismal performance in the market over the last decade, that reputation is well earned.

The original Zune models promised to someday deliver handheld gaming potential through a beta "community technical preview" of Microsoft's XNA Game Studio 3.0 tools. Instead, Microsoft simply yanked the plug on the effort, abandoning its support for existing Zune devices so it could focus on the Zune HD. This is Microsoft's standard operating procedure in the mobile business. The same thing was also done with nearly each release of Windows Mobile. The newest release of Windows Mobile 6.5 won't even work on lots expensive hardware sold in the last year.

Curiously, Apple has been painted by some pundits as being "developer-hostile" over a handful of application approval disputes that have occurred over the past year, despite maintaing a solid, profitable mobile platform that works across all iPhone and iPod touch models ever built. Imagine if Apple just kept churning out new models of iPhone, each running firmware incompatible with its existing hardware and developer's third party apps.

Microsoft's own software for Windows Mobile and the Zune HD is similarly bad. Its mobile version of Internet Explorer still doesn't work despite having been on the market since 1996. What's "new" in the release of the Zune HD is a different version of the mobile IE browser, based not upon the creaky IE 4 engine from 1997 (still delivered in today's Windows Mobile devices), but a mobile version of IE 6, which dates back to 2001. That leaves the Zune HD's browser nearly a decade behind the modern WebKit browsers used in the iPhone, Palm Pre, Android, and modern BlackBerry phones.

If Microsoft is doing that poorly in games and web browsers, what can one expect from the Zune software store, from media integration, and from the third party developers Microsoft has abandoned along with its past Zune initiatives? Are they going to come flooding back to welcome the few enthusiasts who keep returning to buy obsolete-at-arrival Zune hardware?

Despite the hype, the Zune HD appears to have failed before even hitting the market.