Minidisc News: Sony Adds Native MP3 and Photo Capabilities to Hi-MD

Looks like Sony’s trying to keep it’s loyal minidisc users from jumping over to iPod land. Yesterday Sony announced some new MD units, including the Hi-MD Photo, which seems pretty much like the MD equivalent of the iPod Photo, except that it includes a 1.3 megapixel camera. However, I think 1.3 MP is pretty meager for a $500 MD unit, since you can get cameraphones with that sort of resolution these days. With 1 GB of Hi-MD storage available per disc, why not bump it up to 3.2 MP, which seems to be the point-and-shoot digicam entry level these days.

Sony does offer a memory card reader for Hi-MD that doesn’t require a computer so you can transfer your digital pics to a Hi-MD disc for storage and backup–and viewing on the Hi-MD Photo. And, refreshingly for Sony, it reads pretty much every major kind of memory card, even xD, which is only supported by Olympus and Fuji (and the kind of card my digicam uses).

The other big bombshell is that Sony’s next line-up of Hi-MD models will support MP3 natively. There’s no further details as of yet, so we’re left to assume that this support means you should be able to just dump MP3s on the Hi-MD like you would a flash drive or similar dedicated MP3 player, without transcoding.

The reason this is significant is that since Sony started supporting USB audio downloads to MD, it’s required that MP3s be transcoded to Sony’s ATRAC format on the fly by the PC, and then uploaded to the Hi-MD. This results in some minor sound degredation and a slowdown in transfer times, depending on your PC’s proc speed. Direct MP3 support should eliminate these minor problems.

I’ve never particularly minded the MP3 to ATRAC transcode, primarily because ATRAC is a more advanced and efficient codec, which is how you can get hours and hours of decent stereo audio on a MD or Hi-MD at a bitrate of about 64kbps, which sounds much crappier in MP3. Nevertheless direct MP3 support has its advantages and certainly makes Hi-MD a more flexible format.

Now I’m just wishing Sony would provide a firmware MP3 support upgrade for my MZ-NH1.