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Welcome to Microsoft Pri0: That's Microspeak for top priority, and that's the news and observations you'll find here from Seattle Times reporter Sharon Chan.

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September 8, 2008 10:36 AM

Zune firmware, software updates leak out ahead of schedule

Posted by Benjamin J. Romano

Microsoft faces a tough challenge in keeping a lid on the updates to its line of digital music players. The company has to get the devices out to the retailers who sell them to consumers and apparently those retailers don't always abide Microsoft's schedule.

"Precision execution at retail nationally is impossible," said Adam Sohn, director of Zune PR. "The channel is getting ready with their stock of devices, some of which are new [some are not], so that bit's happening right now and the devices are out there."

The company intended to lay out its Zune update -- including significant new software features -- on Sept. 16. Instead, many of the details were discovered late Sunday on a product listing for a blue 8 gigabyte Zune at It was spotted first by Zunerama, which last week brought us news of a 120 gig Zune.

So, on to details of the latest Zune update, which we can confirm because we were briefed by Sohn on Friday. Worth noting: None of the updates described here will be live until the 16th.

-- The form factors are staying largely the same, but they're getting more capacity. A 120 gig hard disk device is being added ($250), in the same form factor as the current 80 gig. A flash memory 16 gig device ($200) joins the existing lineup of 4 and 8 gigs, again in the same form factor. The 80 and 4 gig devices are being discontinued. Microsoft is also adding some new colors: Blue with a silver back and black with a black back.

-- The company is taking advantage of Zune's FM radio tuner and the additional information transmitted by some stations (such as song and artist information) to start a "Buy-from-FM" feature. You can click on the song and put it in a shopping cart on the device to be purchased the next time you sync it with the Zune software on a computer. Fifty percent of Zune users turn on the radio at least once a week, Sohn said.

-- With each subsequent generation, Microsoft has added uses for Zune's Wi-Fi capabilities. The latest: the device can connect directly to the Internet from many Wi-Fi hot spots to stream or download songs. A software keyboard is being added to the device to enter passwords and search for titles. It takes about a minute to download a song over a good Wi-fi connection, Sohn said.

-- The Zune software itself, which runs on a PC and is free to use regardless of whether you own a Zune, is getting several new features designed to help people discover new music:

* New music channels programed around the Billboard Top 100; Seattle's KEXP; popular songs in specific genres based on the usage patterns of other Zune listeners; custom tastes of each user based on what other listeners with similar tastes are playing.

* A new visual display of artists and albums related to the song currently playing, including an artists' influences and other musicians he or she influenced.

* Graphics, images and data related to the song currently playing. It is drawn from album art, artist biographical information and statistics, such as number of plays, drawn from other Zune users.

-- The devices themselves are getting new firmware features including Hexic, a geometry game, and Texas Hold 'Em and a clock.

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