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Old 08-07-2007, 03:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Join Date: Aug 2006
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Default The Zune as a Video Player: Room for Improvement

Looking at the size of the Zune screen, it's pretty obvious that it was designed for more than just music - if music was Microsoft's only goal they should have put out a small, Flash-based player with a smaller screen. Instead, they put out something with a bright, 3" screen running at 240 x 320 resolution. The whole thing looks like the now-defunct Portable Media Center players, and they used an updated version of the OS. The Zune should be great at doing video - but it's not.

When I went on a week-long vacation at the end of June, I wanted to use my Zune to watch some video content. I had a bunch of TV shows on my Media Center PC, and I had some DVDs that I wanted to rip. Pretty standard scenario for any portable media device. Failing #1 of the Zune is the lack of Media Center support - unlike Windows Media Player 11, the Zune desktop software can't work with DVR-MS files, which is the recording format for Media Center. A registry hack has been discovered that allows the Zune desktop software to work with DVR-MS files, but any time you have to hack the registry to gain missing functionality, I consider it a failed scenario. The Zune is a Microsoft product, so it's inexcusable that eight months after launch it still doesn't work as a mobile companion to anyone that has a Media Center PC.

Failing #2 of the Zune is the fact that is only accepts content in WMV format. Sure, the Zune desktop software will transcode MPEG4 content, but transcoding takes extra time and lowers the quality of the content. This is a significant problem because some of the best applications for taking DVD content and converting it to a mobile format don't support WMV (I'm thinking of Slysoft's Clone DVDMobile here, my main tool) or if they do support WMV, they don't do it very well. I've used Intervideo's DVD Copy 5 Platinum, and while it will rip a DVD to a Zune-compliant WMV file, it can't handle wide-screen content, only 4:3 content. Sure, there are other tools out there, but if the Zune supported DivX/Xvid or h.264 directly on the device, it would be much easier to get the content you want onto the device. I've tried other video content on the Zune, and I miss having aspect ratio options on it like my Creative Zen Vision:M has, such as zoom so you can get rid of the black bars at the top and bottom of 16:9 video content.

Failing #3 of the Zune in video scenarios is tightly linked to failing #2: the fact that it relies on the Zune Desktop software to transcode video files is a serious problem. The Zune desktop software is using the musty and dusty Windows Media Encoder behind the scenes, and this is code that hasn't been significantly updated since 2003. I ripped a DVD of a TV show using DVD Copy 5, using the Zune template at 500 kbps video quality. For some reason, the Zune software said it had to transcode the 2.5 hour video file - this is bizarre because when I ripped 45 minutes of the same show using the same settings the Zune software didn't need to transcode it. I can only guess that the size of the 2.5 hour file was what triggered the transcoding. I let the transcode happen but a few days later when I was watching the video, it would lock up the Zune whenever it got to the 1 hour 45 minute mark. The Zune simply would not play the video past that point: I tried skipping past it, rebooting the Zune, etc. No dice. I checked the original, pre-transcoded file when I got home and Windows Media Player 11 didn't lock up when I played the same part. Playing a hunch, I transfered the transcoded version off the Zune and Windows Media Player 11 locked up at the same 1 hour 45 minute mark. The transcoding process had screwed up the file somehow - one more reason not to trust the Zune desktop software. I've been saying for years that Microsoft needs to release a consumer-friendly WMV transcoding tool, something similar to DivX Author. If the Zune team wants to stick to WMV, we at least need a useful tool to get our content into that format.

The Zune looks like it should be great for video, and in truth that's one of the few ways one can justify carrying something that's nearly twice as thick as an iPod, but it's not. Whether it's the lack of video codec support on the device itself, or the weak and dysfunctional ecosystem for WMV, the Zune doesn't live up to the potential that the hardware design would seem to indicate it has. The iPhone sets a new standard for mobile video with it's 160 ppi, 320 x 480 wide screen display, and the direct on-device support for h.264 content means it can tap into a great deal of video content. In contrast, the Zune's WMV-only support means there's not a lot out there for the Zune. The Zune needs to do better.

Jason Dunn owns and operates Thoughts Media Inc., a company dedicated to creating the best in online communities. He enjoys mobile devices, digital media content creation/editing, and pretty much all technology. He lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with his lovely wife, and his sometimes obedient dog. He sees great potential in the Zune.
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