A month and a half after the first images leaked out, Microsoft officially confirmed what it was tacitly acknowledging before: the next generation of Zune is coming, and it’s called Zune HD. As an iPod touch competitor, it features a new body casing, multi-touch screen, web browser (Internet Explorer) and so on. It looks pretty cool, as deliberately angular devices go, and though the last few Zunes have been also-rans, we’re open-minded to the prospect that it might offer something of interest when it ships this Fall.
But what’s with the Zune HD name? Ever since that part leaked out, we’ve been thinking about similar naming possibilities for Apple devices: “iPhone HD,” “iPod HD,” and so on just have a nice, progressive ring to them. Microsoft chose well when it picked that suffix. But since HD implies “high-definition,” consumers are going to assume that the devices will offer superior video display resolution—perhaps something approaching the bottom rung of modern HD televisions. At least, that’s what we thought before Microsoft’s announcement today.
As it turns out, Zune HD has a decidedly non-HD 3.3” screen, smaller than the iPhone/iPod touch displays and with fewer pixels (480×272 versus 480×320). It should look a lot like the iPhone and iPod touch screens that debuted almost two years ago, minus of course Apple’s interface, and apparently the ability to fit the whole word Marketplace on screen at once next to an icon. So where’s the HD here? From a video perspective, it’s not in the box: Zune HD will only do HD-ready, 720p video output if you purchase an optional HD video dock. To be clear, we have no objection to such a dock—the iPhone and iPod touch frankly need one.* But it would be shady to call a device “HD” when it doesn’t do anything HD without additional parts.
Microsoft avoids that with a cheesy disclaimer** and a little trick: it’s including HD Radio. Yes, that HD Radio, the one we’ve previously covered with little joy, as the receivers have been expensive, mediocre at tuning in “HD” stations, and all but pointless—in short, digital radio designed by the radio industry for the radio industry, rather than for customers. We’ve only seen one really good iPod/iPhone audio system with HD Radio, and even then, the feature’s not worth paying any premium to purchase. The chances of it working in a portable device are only higher than the chances that it will work well.
Tossing the HD suffix onto a product’s name is a nice marketing idea, but doing so without having the right HD hardware inside is a mistake. Give us the 800-pixel-wide, next-gen screens and HD video output we’re looking for and we’ll be glad to jump on the HD bandwagon—by comparison, HD Radio support seems like little more than a cheap attempt to make a product match its otherwise unfit name. Hopefully Apple won’t be led down the same path.
[* = Note: Some current-generation Apple devices can already output video via existing Apple Composite AV Cables at 480p, the bottom-rung of HD standards—also known as Enhanced Definition. The reason we care about "higher than 480p” output is simple: since iPods and iPhones don’t support the playback of higher-definition 720p videos, many iTunes users are forced to maintain separate SD and HD video libraries, SD files for the iPod/iPhone and HD files for computer and Apple TV viewing. There are many arguments to be had over whether it’s better to keep doing this because of the limited storage capacities of some iPod and iPhone models, but ultimately, higher-capacity devices will end this debate.
** = "Zune HD & AV Dock, and an HDTV (all sold separately) are required to view video at HD resolution. Supported 720p HD video files play on the device, downscaled to fit the screen at 480 x 272 – not HD resolution.”]
Updated: Any similarity between the Zune HD’s promotional web page and Apple’s iPod web pages is obviously purely unintentional.