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Zune Getting Wi-Fi, Plus Other Features

9/09/2008 11:13:00 AM Eastern

New York — New 16GB and 120GB Zunes and currently available Zunes will be able to download and stream songs via Wi-Fi directly from the Zune Marketplace music service.

Zunes will also take advantage of a new “Buy from FM” feature, which lets users tag and download songs they hear on a Zune’s built-in analog FM radio, Microsoft announced.

The features will be available as software and firmware upgrades on Sept. 16 for existing Zunes and for the new 16GB and 120GB Zunes, which have started to show up at some retailers’ stores, Microsoft said.

With the new features, consumers will be able to download songs via a Wi-Fi network or hot spot directly to the Zune, making it unnecessary to download a song to a PC and then manually side-load it to the MP3 player. The upgrade will also tag songs broadcast by analog FM stations, which will use their existing RDS (Radio Data System) capability to transmit a digital identifying code while broadcasting a song.

All analog FM stations use RDS to digitally deliver station call letters and song metadata to RDS-equipped radios and enable those radios to search for stations by genre, a broadcast-industry spokeswoman said. Nine radio-station groups that announced plans to support the RDS tagging feature, and more than 450 stations will go live with the service on Sept. 16.

RDS tagging is similar to Apple’s iTunes tagging feature, but the latter requires the use of a digital HD Radio tuner. And because iPods and iPhones lack FM tuners of any kind (at least until Apple’s launch of new iPods on Tuesday, Sept. 9, at 1 p.m. Eastern time), consumers can take advantage of the iTunes tagging feature only by docking their Apple device with an iTunes-tagging HD Radio-equipped home and car radio.

The “Buy from FM” feature, broadcasters emphasized, could be incorporated into any device with an FM tuner, including home and car radios and cellphones, and is not exclusive to Zune. “This is not exclusive,” she said. “The Zune is simply the first device.”

Consumers who subscribe to Microsoft’s $14.99/month subscription-download service will also be able to stream music via Wi-Fi without downloading it for storage.

Coinciding with the launch of the new features, Microsoft is rolling out new 16GB and 120GB capacities at a suggested $199 and $249, repricing the current 8GB model to $149 from $199, and repricing the 80GB and 4GB models to $229 and $129, respectively, from $249 and $149 The 80GB and 4GB models, however, are being phased out and are available only in limited quantity.

Microsoft is also launching new blue-on-silver and sleek all-black color schemes.

Previously, Zunes used their Wi-Fi capability to wireless sync with a PC and for peer-to-peer file sharing, which enables a shared file to be playable three times.

In another upgrade, Microsoft created Zune Marketplace channels programmed by music-industry experts, and it enabled Zune software to create custom channels based on a user’s past listening. Songs in the channels can be purchased, but the channels are also available as part of a monthly ZunePass subscription.

The nine broadcast groups supporting RDS tagging are Beasley, Bonneville, CBS Radio, Citadel, Clear Channel Radio, Cox Radio, Emmis, Entercom and Greater Media.

Microsoft’s download service delivers about two-thirds of its catalog in unprotected MP3 format, but the company is working to deliver all of its songs in that format. The rest of its music offerings are currently sold in WMA format protected by a proprietary technology that allows playback on registered PCs and on Zune portables.

In audio, Zunes play back unprotected files in the MP3, AAC and WMA formats, and WMA files protected by Zune-proprietary technology.

In video, Zunes play back A/V podcasts available free through the Zune Web site and feature native decoding of unprotected MPEG-4, H.264 video and WMV files. Microsoft also offers software that transcodes TV programs recorded by a Media Center PC to the Zune’s native WMV format.