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Media Player: Microsoft Zune HD 16GB

Tom's Hardware's 2009 Gift Guide: Part 2, System Add-Ons
By: William Van Winkle

Perhaps you already caught our coverage of the Zune HD over in our Tom’s Guide holiday roundup. That was the fluffy (yet intellectually compelling) version. In case you missed it, here’s the short take: way better player than the original Zune. Sexy. Friendly. WiFi with a half-baked browser. More likely than Apple to leverage future cloud capabilities. Buy it, love it, give it a pet name.

Here on Tom’s Hardware, we need to deal with things from a more technical slant. If you want to know if and why the Zune HD has better audio output than its predecessor, I have nothing to tell you. It sounds great, just don’t ask me why. What I can tell you is why the Zune HD’s UI is so smooth and its video playback so much better than the iPod Touch: Tegra.

Buried behind Microsoft’s gorgeous 3.3" (480x272) OLED touchscreen sits Nvidia’s Tegra APX 2600 processor, a so-called computer-on-a-chip capable of groundbreaking 2D, 3D, HD video, and audio processing. Within the chip, manufactured on a 65nm fab process, are actually eight discrete processor cores, including the video engine and two ARM cores. With these, the Zune HD can flawlessly handle 720p encode and decode. Each core is independently power managed. In fact, Nvidia implements dynamic clock and voltage adjustment in the same vein as Intel's SpeedStep and similar power efficiency technologies. When a core is unneeded, it gets put to sleep, and well-planned power islands within the processor help reduce idle leakage. As a result, the new Zune can play back up to 10 hours of HD video on a single charge.

The Zune HD supports encode and decode for H.264 (baseline profile at 30 FPS), MPEG-4, VC-1/WMV-9, JPEG, and a range of audio formats, although not OGG or FLAC. Interestingly, the Tegra also supports image signal processing and support for up to 12MP camera input, so you might hazard a guess at one of the features laying in wait for future Zunes.

As for this Zune, you can’t go wrong with HD radio reception, the HDMI output dock is a decent optional add-on, and I remain a big fan of the Zune Pass subscription service: $14.99/month for unlimited streaming and music on your player plus 10 DRM-free downloads per month. Whether the Zune HD catches and surpasses the iPod touch will be a matter of personal taste. But if you’re not an iTunes addict, this unit is awfully hard to let go.

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