Microsoft has made no attempt to hide which trendy little MP3 player lay in the sights of the recently released Zune HD: Apple’s iPod Touch. Apple turned the market upside down when it released the Touch back in 2007, and while Microsoft let its own Zune line languish for two years before responding, the silver bullet Microsoft has finally offered up has clearly been engineered to drop Apple. But will it succeed? With both players in hand, we ran down the key advantages of each to determine which truly makes the ultimate portable video device.
Microsoft may have had Apple firmly trounced in the price department when it lifted the lid on the ZuneHD pricing back in August, but since Apple responded with a price drop on the Touch in September, the gap has narrowed significantly. Apple technically holds the lowest entry-level price with the 8GB iPod Touch, marked at $199, but only because Microsoft’s cheapest Zune sports 16GB of memory, and sells for $220. (Apple no longer offers a model in that size capacity, but you can still snag a 16GB iPod Touch through Amazon for $248).
The two players only match up head-to-head in the 32GB size, where Apple’s iPod sells for $299 and the ZuneHD sells for $290, and almost-negligible price difference for most folks debating between the two. Apple’s top-shelf 64GB player sells for $399, but Microsoft offers no comparable ZuneHD in that capacity. Although Apple has the cheapest entry-level model, we have to hand the price war victory to Microsoft, which has managed to skim just enough off the price to make non-Apple-devotees look twice before leaping.
The generous 3.5-inch screen on Apple’s iPod Touch has long made it the de facto player of choice for on-the-go video, but Microsoft set out to challenge that lead with the ZuneHD. Not by offering a bigger screen, but a better one. Although the ZuneHD screen measures a slightly smaller 3.3 inches diagonally, it’s uses cutting edge OLED technology, which delivers brightness and contrast unlike anything you can find in a LCD. It’s the same technology that sizzled before our eyes on the Samsung Impression and it looks even more impressive here, where Microsoft has crammed more pixels (480 by 272) into a similar space for a crisper look. You’ll really only need to watch Microsoft’s demo video to realize that this is no gimmick – it absolutely shimmers with color. If this thing were a miniature TV, it would be the Pioneer Elite Kuro Pro 111FD.
Will you notice the lack of 0.2 inches diagonally? Absolutely. And technically, Apple has more pixels (480 x 320), too. But we think the brilliance of an OLED display more than makes up for it.
No matter how small or how capable, a personal media player does no good if you’re constantly running back to the wall to charge it, making battery life one of the most important specs that you’ll never truly appreciate until you take a device into the field. In this department, Apple didn’t have it half bad to begin with, boasting 30 hours of music playback and six hours of video playback for the iPod Touch. That’s a very respectable three movies, provided you use modest settings. But Microsoft has one upped Apple here as well, claiming the Zune HD will deliver 33 hours of music and 8.5 hours of video. However slight another three hours of music may look, the extra 2.5 hours of video stands out to us as a significant advantage – and it makes sense, given that OLED displays are more efficient than their LCD counterparts. Even if you don’t want to watch Titanic back to back, the extended battery life should allow you to pump up brightness past the most miserly settings to a more pleasant level.
Although most PMP owners we know tend to leave their players overnight for a little R&R when it’s charging time, Microsoft claims the Zune HD will fill up faster, too: two hours when fast charging from a wall adapter, three when suckling from a computer’s USB port. Apple claims the iPod Touch can fast charge to 80 percent capacity in two hours, but requires four for a full charge.