This thing is just drop dead beautiful. Check out this comparison of the iTunes Store and Zune Marketplace artist page.

[And yes, as the father of daughters, Steven Curtis Chapmans new song 'Cinderella' does make me cry.]



Categories: Zune | iTunes | Comments [9] | # | Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 5:48:05 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)   

If you read my blog and are a Media Center enthusiast you've no doubt read the comments attached to And It Has Media Center Extender Built In. I'm going to head up an effort here at Microsoft between the Media Center, XBox and Zune teams to give you a set of resources which help you put our products together and begin to realize the 'Connected Home' dream. It will probably start out as a whitepaper -- it *might* include things like scripts or tools -- but don't hold me to the latter. Along the way I'm almost sure we will find areas of improvement, and you have my word we will file bugs or feature requests to consider what we can do in future versions to make life better.

But first, I need your help to make sure we cover the scenarios. Here is what we have so far -- would you add any others...?

1) Standalone Windows Media Center machine.
2) Windows Media Center + XBox 360 Media Experiences.
3) Windows Media Center + XBox 360 Media Center Extender(s).
4) Windows Media Center + Windows Home Server + XBox 360 Media Center Extender(s).
5) Multiple Windows Media Center machines + Windows Home Server + XBox 360 Media Center Extender(s).
6) Zune added to any of the above.



Categories: Media Center Extender | Windows Home Server | Windows Media Center | XBox 360 | Zune | Connected Home | Comments [50] | # | Posted on Tuesday, November 6, 2007 6:08:43 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)   

Robert has been trashing Microsoft quite a bit lately -- his most recent dig at Zune is somewhat over the top. A response is in order...

Robert: "Many projects there are simply defensive ones. To keep a competitor from getting more inroads into one of its businesses."

Many (perhaps even most) products are born in response to competitive pressures. I would say it's a sign of a company which is not satisfied with the status quo and very much has a 'can do' attitude with a belief they can make a better mousetrap.

Robert: "The problem is that whenever you do something just to defend another business you don’t do it from a position of love. Or a position of strength."

I personally don't believe the concepts of 'defense' and 'love' and 'strength' are mutually exclusive. I believe you can play a defensive position out of love for the company or product. A soccer analogy is a good one here. On a soccer team you have offensive and defensive players. The defensive objective is to stop the other team and move the ball forward to the offense so they can score points. I play soccer, specifically as a defender. I play with every bit as much passion and love of the game as the offensive player. In the case of Zune I think Robert is off base. Everything I've seen and heard is about building a better mousetrap, not protecting another mousetrap. I'd also say there is absolutely nothing wrong with building a better mousetrap AND defending the one you already have -- just like in soccer.

Robert: "I’m totally uninspired. Yawn."

That's probably because you haven't actually sat down for any length of time and played with one of the new Zunes, its software or communities. On this I will say the following: Shame on you, Robert, for jumping on the bashing bandwagon. Maybe next time you should wait and actually use the product before you drag its reputation through the mud. I could be wrong but I *think* you will be singing a different tune once you've had a chance to experience it yourself.

Finally, I'm beginning to think Robert is forgetting there are real people who work at Microsoft. Once upon a time he went from office to office with his video camera and helped to tell the stories of interesting individuals and teams working on neat stuff. Perhaps we haven't changed all that much while your access to the percolation of technology here at Microsoft has and in that vacuum you can only assume a negative end result.

Life is good here at Microsoft (you can't measure everything about a corporation based solely on their current stock price). In many, many ways it's much better than when you were here, Robert. Do try to keep the interpersonal relationships in mind when you are negative or critical of us over here in the collective hive. :-) Perhaps that should go in the manifesto right underneath number 5.



Categories: Be Smart | Zune | Comments [3] | # | Posted on Thursday, October 4, 2007 3:02:48 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   

Chris Lanier, once he has actually played with the new Zune devices and software, will end up loving them. I was lucky enough to get to play with one of the new Zune 80 devices a couple of weeks back and the ZunePad is absolutely brilliant (not sure how much I can say about how it works -- but trust me, you will think it's pretty cool -- the wife acceptance factor takes a HUGE leap over the iPod clickwheel - nuff said I think). Likewise, the software is wonderful -- many of the same crew who have worked on Windows Media Center (design, usability, engineering) had a big hand in bringing a fresh, new experience to life.

On a related note, Michael Gartenberg doesn't really appreciate the candid and earnest opinion of Bill Gates about Zune. Don't get me wrong, the Steve Jobs reality distortion field is nice and comfy -- but doesn't really tell the whole story about their products.



Categories: Zune | Comments [8] | # | Posted on Wednesday, October 3, 2007 4:22:25 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   

[First read about this over on Brier Dudley's blog: "iPod Amnesty" photographer says lighten up.]

I was wondering if someone was going to snap a picture of the iPod Amnesty Bin which was displayed in the very public lobby of the building where the Zune team works. I'm in there about once a week and had a good, healthy chuckle when I saw this clear plexiglas box. I followed some of the blogtrail, read about 50 comments and once again find it pretty amazing just how polarizing the conversation becomes when the topic is iPod vs. Zune. Invariably the comments further devolve into MacOS vs. Windows and then Apple vs. Microsoft.

I have no idea why this bin was setup, nor do I work on the Zune team. So, I thought I ruminate on the possible ideas or reasons why this thing appeared.

Reminder of the task before the Zune team. Actually, I don't really believe this is the reason. I'm pretty sure most of the Zune team understands they are the proverbial David vs. Goliath here (without the supreme being backing David had in his encounter). This could be de-motivating -- having the exact opposite effect intended.

Marketing buzz. The Zune marketing team seems to grok that a 'People_Ready' campaign won't cut it to motivate people to become interested and buy a Zune. Nothing stirs the pot like putting up a poster that says 'Bite Me' to your biggest competitor in the hopes someone (anyone) snaps a picture and posts it publicly. Almost every blog post and / or link includes the words 'iPod' and 'Zune' -- and that isn't a bad thing. It's the slightly edgier version of the Mac and PC commercials from Apple where Apple is putting the two products on equal footing. It would be perhaps the cheapest marketing ever. It's certainly better than the 'People Ready' or 'Wow' in my opinion, if this was the true intent.

Comedic relief. Honestly, I think this is the real reason. I watched about 4 people pass by the bin and in every case the reaction was a smile and a chuckle. Plus, I can't imagine anyone really taking it seriously. Microsoft is still very, very competitive -- but in a different way from the past I think. It's a more mature, marathon type competitive spirit these days rather than the 100 yard sprints of the 90s where Ballmer was screaming "Developer! Developer! Developer!". It can be draining to get so heads down on work you forget to pause and actually enjoy work. I'm willing to bet a couple of folks were joking around and someone said 'wouldn't it be funny if...' and then one of the folks around the table went ahead and followed through and the result showed up in the lobby.

Well, anyway, it gave me a good laugh, and reminded me to not take work (or competition) so seriously.

Any other theories out there on the iPod Amnesty Bin...?

[P.S. Lest fanboys from either side appear and comment here: I own an iPod and a Zune. I own Windows machines and Macs. I'm a geek, not a zealot.]



Categories: Zune | Comments [3] | # | Posted on Saturday, May 26, 2007 6:50:10 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   

I love taking pictures and am a stickler for quality, sharpness and detail in the pictures my family enjoys on our walls, scrapbooks, computers and devices. It's not uncommon to find me retouching an image for days until I get it just the way I like it. My recent acquisition of a Zune had me pretty excited about the ability to showcase pictures to family and friends. I loaded up a few hundred images and started viewing slideshows and selecting images for the background. The quality was fine, but in comparison with the sample images which ship on the device mine looked out of focus and not quite as crisp. I knew some of my originals were every bit as sharp and detailed. So I decided to run a few tests to see if I could figure out how to tweak my images for maximum enjoyment.

I wanted to share my images with the general public, so no copyrighted material or people for which I would need signed releases. The quandary here is that humans (generally speaking) tend to notice quality issues with faces more easily than any other type of image, especially if we know the individual personally (as will be the case with many of the images on my Zune). Therefore they can be the best subjects for evaluating quality. So I tried to pick a couple of images which would give me enough detail to mimic what I observed with crisp closeups of people. I evaluated about 15 images total and selected these as representative of the overall results:

Test Image 1 is of a hat sold in the company store about a year ago. It has lots of fine threads which don't travel in straight lines, and the intricacies of the weave lends itself nicely to mimic the wisps of hair, the eyelashes, eye details, facial hair and other details you commonly see in faces. Things for which a single pixel missing or out of place can mean a world of difference in perceived quality. This particular image is particularly sharp around the stars and R.

 

Test Image 2 is a picture I took while hiking the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China several years ago. This picture has and incredible amount of fine detail both in the inorganic (building) and organic (stone work, trees, snow in the distance). This picture provides interesting challenges for resizing because of the detail (and the type of detail, as we will see).

 

Cropping and Resizing

There were three individual tests with each image and in my tests the end result was a typical (and some might say predictable) good, better, best paradigm...

  • Good: Import pictures at their original resolution and aspect ratio and allow the Zune software to crop and resize during the sync process. This is the out of box experience which I describe above as OK but not quite as good as the sample images provided.
  • Better: Crop originals to a 4:3 aspect ratio (keeping original resolution) before importing into the Zune software and syncing with the Zune device. There was a noticeable uptick in perceived quality taking this approach.
  • Best: Crop and resize to the optimal resolution and aspect ratio outlined below in a third party tool like Digital Image Pro, Photoshop or Paint.NET. I used Photoshop for all of the tests except the first where I compared all three programs to see if there were large differences in their resizing algorithms (which there really wasn't except if you went looking for the differences). For each export of the JPEG the highest quality option was used (12 in the case of Photoshop) to try and keep artifacting to a minimum).

Resolution

The best resolution for most pictures (especially those involving faces) is going to be 640 x 480. While not a face, the image for Test Image 1 shows distinct differences at the pixel level between 320 x 240 and 640 x 480 on the Zune device, closely resembling my observed results with actual faces. You can test this out for yourself by copying these images to your Zune and playing a slide show -- look for pixels to appear which provide more definition in the weave of the embroidery. For faces the difference between the two resolutions can be a glimmer in the eye (or not) and the other nuances we observe in the human character. Also, 640 x 480 is going to look better if you are using the TV out functionality on the Zune.

However, there are always exceptions to the rule. If a picture has many hard edges or patterns involving straight lines 320 x 240 may be perceived as better due to moire' patterns. In Test Image 2 the bricks in the building at 640 x 480 introduce an unpleasant moire' pattern on the device not observed when the 320 x 240 resolution was displayed.

It does NOT seem to make a difference what DPI you use for display on the device. I tested at 45, 72 and 96 DPI and could not discern a difference on the device between the three at comparable resolutions. As a result I'm only posting the 96 DPI images for you to download and test for yourself, because...

Even though this was a test of pictures on the device you have to go through the Zune software to get the images to the device. So why not take a look at the results there. So I did and observed the following:

It DOES make a difference what DPI you use for the Zune software for when it generates thumbnails. 96 DPI renders better in the Zune software than others and in some cases beat the thumbnail generated by the Zune software from the original high resolution image.

Resolution also seems to matter in the Zune software, and it seems somewhat at odds with what is optimal for the Zune device in most cases. 320 x 240 @ 96 DP Iooked best in the software but 640 x 480 (no matter the DPI) generally speaking looked best on the device. I guess it's hard to have your cake and eat it too. :-) For comparison look at the suite of images in Test1. Again, this will be highly dependent on images -- it's hard to tell the difference between the various choices in Test2. Judge for yourself...

 

Aspect Ratio

You will want to maximize use of the pixels on the Zune. Slide shows look best when all of the pictures are landscape (640 width x 480 height). Otherwise the portrait images (480 width x 640 height) are displayed significantly smaller in a horizontal letterbox format. Here is some ASCII art which hopefully illustrates the differences...

[ || ]O vs. [|  |]O

It's nice not having to swivel the Zune 90 degrees while cycling through a slide show -- but you are using only 1/3rd the amount of pixels you could be for portrait images. The only time you would not want to do this is for images you plan to set as the background -- the Zune device will automatically crop the landscape picture on the sides to display as the background, perhaps obscuring important information (like those faces).

Recommendation

If you want your pictures to look their absolute best on the Zune device always use third party software to crop and resize to the following specs before importing into the Zune software and syncing to the Zune device:

  • Slideshow Pictures: 640 x 480 (Landscape)
  • Background Pictures: 480 x 640 (Portrait)

...and by all means use the highest quality JPEG export setting your software provides.

I hope you are enjoying your Zune as much as I am. :-)



Categories: Photography | Zune | Comments [2] | # | Posted on Wednesday, May 16, 2007 5:45:28 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   

I second this emotion: Microsoft Finally Gets Zune Marketing Right. I bought a Zune this past Friday because of that commercial and am looking forward to comparing it with my iPod 5G. 'Nuff said.



Categories: Windows Media Center | Zune | Marketing | Comments [1] | # | Posted on Monday, May 14, 2007 12:20:33 AM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)   
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