Is Zune HD the future of portable media?

Just a few days ago, the Zune HD was nothing more than the subject of some wild speculation, but now that it has been made official, many people are wondering whether or not Microsoft's new player is actually going to be make as much noise as they hope when it comes to changing the way people consume media on the go.

The HD in the name might be a tad misleading. The screen itself runs at 480x272, but the fact that it's a multi-touch capable OLED definitely makes up for the average resolution. The HD part comes into play when you slap it into the optional cradle, at which point it can churn out 720p video to an external display through an HDMI. That means the player has native support for HD videos, presumably including the ones you buy from the Xbox Live marketplace.

There's also the matter of the HD radio tuner. A Zune rep told us that,"we found that more than 50 percent of Zune users tune into FM radio at least once a week. It’s one of the two primary means for finding music. The other is friends." That number actually sounds kind of surprising, but it must be working if they're putting in the extra time to improve it.

The un-crippled WiFi is another big step in the right direction, finally allowing users to get online and poke around using the included browser. There has been some grumbling about it being based on IE and not WebKit, but we're optimistic. If Microsoft really wants to make waves with a portable, it's going to have to excel at the web, not just use it. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be any plans for an app store, or subscription movie service, according to Microsoft. We can't rule one out for the future, but they sure aren't talking about it yet.

As for the multi-touch interface, we're going to reserve judgment until we get to spend some serious finger time with it, but from what we've seen, it's every bit as impressive as the iPod Touch, the device it'll be tirelessly compared to, even after its release. The interface looks very snappy, which is super important in this scenario, and something Apple has faltered with a little.

While it's not scheduled for release until later this year (Fall 2009 is the official line from MS), we will be interested to see if this is yet another step toward pushing physical media out of the picture entirely. MS wasn't keen to comment on the prospect, but having access to HD content that's directly downloadable and extremely portable is a big step. Of course, there are still some mysteries yet to be figured out, like how much storage can we actually expect out of the SSDs (as you know, HD content is big) and how much it's going to cost. Oh, and there's always the not-so-small issue of what Apple has planned to keep the Zune HD out of the spotlight. Only time--and irresponsible internet rumors--will tell.