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Old 01-06-2007, 08:00 PM
Jason Dunn
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Default Zune Ugly Truth #2: Embedded Album Art Not Supported

<strong>BACKGROUND:</strong> With its big, bright screen and display of CD cover art while playing a song, it seemed like the Zune was going to be the ultimate audio player for visually-oriented people like myself. Yet when the first Zune reviews were starting to trickle in, several of them made similar comments to this:<br /><br /><em>&quot;Despite the larger screen, many album covers look worse than they do on the iPod.&quot;</em> - <a target="_blank" href="http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/ptech-20061109.html">Walt Mossberg</a><br /><strong><br /></strong>I couldn't figure out why the early reviewers were saying this, and quite honestly I chalked it up to them not knowing how album art was supposed to look. I sent a friend of mine (who had a pre-release Zune) an MP3 from an independent artist that had big, glorious 600 x 600 pixel embedded album art, and asked him to load it onto the Zune. He sent me a picture (which looked great) and I <a target="_blank" href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/254/zune-supports-embedded-album-art-that-s-frickin-awesome.html">published a glowing article</a> about how great it was that the Zune displayed embedded album art. It was especially noteworthy because the Toshiba Gigabeat S and other PMC devices did not display embedded album art. I was thrilled - until I bought my Zune and saw that, indeed, the quality of the cover art was horrible. What was going on? Why did I think the Zune displayed embedded album art?<div style="page-break-after: always;"><span style="display: none;"> </span></div><br /><strong>PROBLEM: </strong>The Zune <em>does not display embedded album art</em>. I misinterpreted what I was seeing from the test I had my friend do and made a false assumption about it. I've done a lot of experimenting, and you can rip a CD with something like <a target="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exact_Audio_Copy">Exact Audio Copy</a> (to get a 100% perfect bit for bit copy), use <a target="_blank" href="http://www.mediamonkey.com">MediaMonkey</a> to embed high resolution 600 x 600 pixel album art, then use the Windows Media Player 11 to play the song, and all is good with the world - you'll see the big, full-resolution album art in the Now Playing window. But the second that WMP11 is used to scan a folder and import the music into its library, it scans the MP3s and extracts the album art, resizing it to 200 x 200 (the Zune software <a href="http://www.zunethoughts.com/news/show/466/high-resolution-album-art-with-firmware-zune-software-1-2.html">now does 240 x 240</a>, more on that later), compressing it to about 50% JPEG quality, and creates four JPEG files in the same folder:<br /><ul> <li> AlbumArt_{C8489A4E-6A61-4807-9614-EF63D5E65B54}_Large.jpg (200 x 200 pixels)</li> <li>AlbumArt_{39FD80B4-4429-4822-8765-F8058A39FEA1}_Small.jpg (75 x 75 pixels)</li> <li>Folder.jpg (200 x 200 pixels)</li> <li>AlbumArtSmall.jpg (75 x 75 pixels)</li></ul><em>C8489A4E-6A61-4807-9614-EF63D5E65B54</em> above is the album ID and will be different for every album you have in your library. <br /><br />These smaller, highly-compressed images are what get displayed on the Zune when the files are synchronized. This album art looks <em>horrible</em>. We're talking really, really bad. How bad depends somewhat on the album: some, without any text and mostly black and white, will look vaguely passable. Others, especially anything with rich colours like red and orange or smaller text, look extremely bad. The Zune screen is 240 pixels wide by 320 pixels tall, and it looks like the album art on the screen is being displayed at about 240 x 240 pixels. The JPEG compression is really what kills the quality though: massive artifacts, ugly image blockiness. The blurriness from stretching the 200 x 200 pixel image just adds insult to injury.<br /><br /><strong><em>But Jason, what about the new 240 x 240 JPEGs from the Zune 1.2 software update?</em></strong> Yes, the Zune team made things better recently (before I started writing most of this) by kicking up the resolution of the album art by 40 pixels. The extra 40 pixels do make a difference, and album art looks better. But it's still way over-compressed and doesn't look as good as I know it should. I need to do some more testing and comparisons, but I'm pleased to see that they realized this was a problem and acted fast to correct it (hey, this is Microsoft after all, two months after launch is quite fast). You shouldn't have to remove and re-add all your music to get the 240 x 240 album art though - there should be a way to force the re-generation of album art.<br /><br />Still...I go from having the custom-scanned, 600 x 600 pixel, lightly compressed AMAZING looking album art to the smaller, high-compressed art that the Zune software creates. I've confirmed that the album art is based on the embedded art and not something that the Zune software downloads from an online database - I have some indy CDs that I know aren't in their database and I'll still get album art when synchronizing my Zune for instance.<br /><br /><strong>WORKAROUND:</strong> There's no known workaround for this issue. I'm investigating whether someone can create a <a target="_blank" href="http://www.mediamonkey.com">MediaMonkey</a> script to allow for batch converting of embedded album art to overwrite the default images created by the Zune software, but I've hit a snag as the one script I've found is buggy and I'm waiting for the developer to fix it. Once he does, I may have an awesome workaround.<br /><br /><strong>PROPOSED SOLUTION:</strong> The Zune should be able to read embedded album art. Period. Even if the 240 x 240 album art becomes less-compressed, and the quality improves, there are going to be situations where the user will have files on the Zune without separate album art files - reading the embedded art is the real solution. As for why embedded album art is a better approach than the separate file solution Microsoft currently employs, well that's a discussion for another day...
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