In May, Microsoft officially announced plans to release a touchscreen version of the Zune portable media player, intended to compete with Apple's iPod touch. The new device is called the Zune HD, and offers several features not found on the touch, including an OLED display, high-definition radio, and high-definition video playback (using an optional dock accessory). Long-standing Zune features, such as a photo viewer, games, podcast management, and Zune Pass music subscription integration, will continue to be supported.
The Zune HD is expected to be available this autumn in the US, and appear in the UK at some point in the not-too-distant future.
The Zune HD will be the first Zune to include an Internet Explorer Web browser, complementing its other Wi-Fi features (song sharing and Zune Marketplace browsing, for example). The Zune HD's browser is optimised for the touchscreen with an on-screen keyboard, but there's no word on whether it will be capable of streaming Flash media (used by sites such as YouTube), a capability that is currently lacking in the Safari browser for the iPhone and touch.
Microsoft also unveiled plans to dramatically beef up the video download selection of its Zune Marketplace online store, and use the improved storefront to power the movie and TV downloads available to the Xbox gaming console. There's been no word yet on whether the new storefront will support movie rentals that can be transferred to Zune hardware (in a similar way to iTunes movie rentals), but Microsoft has already proven very capable of managing media DRM with its Zune Pass subscription music service.
The Zune HD isn't the first MP3 player to offer an 84mm (3.3-inch) touchscreen OLED display or HD video output, but it is one of the first portable audio devices with announced plans for an HD radio tuner. Beyond the added fidelity of HD radio, the format also lends itself well to transmitting artist and song data, which is useful for the Zune's existing FM radio song-tagging and download feature.
There's still plenty we don't know about the Zune HD, such as pricing, capacity or colour options. Given the Zune's history, it's fair to assume the Zune HD will be priced aggressively against the iPod, and offer more flexibility when it comes to colours and personalisation.
Statements made by a Microsoft employee suggest that the Zune HD may bear a substantially lower price tag than the touch, as evidenced by Microsoft's plan to discontinue its current line of low-priced flash-memory-based Zunes while retaining its more expensive hard-drive-based model. A low-cost Zune HD would put the product on par with other non-iPod touchscreen-based MP3 players on the market, such as the Samsung YP-P3, the Cowon S9 or the iriver Spinn.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet