Size and Weight
The iPod Touch reached a wafer-like standard of thinness when it first launched, then seemed to hit an almost impossibly thin 8.5mm profile with the second generation. And for once, Microsoft hasn’t been able to claw forward at all in this category: The ZuneHD measures 8.9mm thick. However, it is smaller in all other dimensions: Just 2.1 inches wide to Apple’s 2.4 inches, and 4.0 inches tall to Apple’s 4.3 inches. To be fair, much of the difference can be accounted for in the smaller screen (3.3 inches versus 3.5 inches), so we can’t applaud Microsoft too much for eeking out smaller dimensions here and there, when it shrank a vital component to get there.
We could stop and call it a draw, but Microsoft pulls ahead on the scales. For all its thinness, the iPod Touch has always felt a little bit like it was packed with gold doubloons – all 115 grams of it really made themselves felt. By contrast, the Zune HD comes in at 74 grams, a 36 percent reduction in weight. And the difference is noticeable. Unlike the iPod Touch, it actually feels lighter than you would expect upon picking it up for the first time, especially with the brushed-metal exterior suggesting a heavy device. We would pocket the Zune HD over the iPod Touch any day.
At the end of the day, most folks buy an iPod Touch over an iPod Classic or Shuffle for one reason: They want to watch video. And the device excels at it. It handles video up to 640 x 480 resolution at 30 frames per second, and can decode the popular MPEG-4 and H.264 compression schemes at up to 2.5 Mbps.
But as the name would imply, the Zune HD doesn’t draw the line at 480p video. It will handle resolutions up to 720p (1280 x 720) and play them back at 30 frames per second without flinching, a task that even some netbooks choke on. And where the iPod Touch tops out at video played at 2.5 Mbps, the Zune HD will do 14 Mbps. Of course, as a Microsoft product, it will also handle WMV compression in addition to H.264 and MPEG-4 video.
Since both devices have screens well below the resolutions they can technically decode, all these specs really only apply to video played from the device on a larger monitor, like a flat-screen TV. And no matter whose device you buy, you’re going to have to drop some extra coin to make it happen. Apple charges $49 for composite cables, $49 for component AV cables, and makes no HDMI cables. Microsoft charges $50 for a bundle including composite AV cables, a Zune-to-HDMI cable, and a charger, and makes no component cables. In effect, if you wanted to connect your device to both standard-def and high-def TVs, and wanted an extra wall charger as well, you would pay $127 out the door at Apple ($49 + $49 + $29) and $50 for the bundle of three from Microsoft.
As iPod Touch owners can attest, the diversity of offerings in Apple’s App Store makes the device as much a portable computer as it is a personal media player. You can create and edit calendars on it, surf the Web, and even find nearby places to eat with Google Maps and its built-in GPS.
If the App Store is leafy oak tree, full of 75,000 apps and counting, Microsoft’s app offering is a seedling starving for water. At launch, Microsoft offers only six apps, including a few games and some basic utilities like a weather app and calculator. While more will be on the way, including additional games later this year, Microsoft claims it has no plans of releasing a Zune HD software developer’s kit, meaning no homegrown apps for the foreseeable future.
Nvidia’s powerful Tegra processor may give the Zune HD a leg up as a gaming platform when and if publishers ever pile onboard, but at the moment, its App potential remains pathetic beside the incomparable iPod Touch.
Both Microsoft and Apple make a point of tying their media players tightly to desktop software – Zune and iTunes, respectively – and tying those software packages even more closely to their own marketplaces. On this front, it comes down to taste.
Apple’s 10-million song iTunes catalog easily trumps Microsoft’s smaller library of 4.2 million, but Apple also forces users to buy songs individually for a dollar apiece, while Microsoft offers a very practical all-you-can-listen option, which opens nearly the entire library to you and allows you to download 10 songs to keep every month, for $15 monthly. On the other hand, should you want to buy songs individually from the Zune Marketplace, we hate Microsoft’s impossibly stupid Zune Points, which force you to make unnecessary conversions from an imaginary currency to figure out how much songs and videos cost.
The Zune and iTunes software packages both have their individual merits as well. While iTunes used to offer features like Genius that Microsoft couldn’t match, the latest Zune 4.0 software includes the very comparable SmartDJ feature to automatically generate playlists based on what you like. And unlike Apple’s offering, Zune Pass also allows it to pull in songs from the Zune Marketplace that you haven’t yet downloaded, making an easy way to start tapping music you hadn’t previously taken advantage of. Zune also offers a more cinematic picture-heavy interface, while iTunes uses a more logical, if slightly dry, design.
Overall Winner: Microsoft Zune HD
Taken soley as a personal media player, the Zune HD outshines the iPod Touch in many ways. It’s lighter, brighter, well-engineered, solid, and if you want to pump 720p movies to your home high-def set, the Touch simply cannot compete. But for those who see the iPod Touch as more of a blank slate than a purpose-built PMP, and intend to use it as such, the Zune HD comes nowhere close to replacing the sheer flexibility and utility of Apple’s wonder box. And for those folks, 75,000 apps in the App Store may as well be 75,000 different reasons not to buy the Zune HD. But we didn’t come here to treat the Zune HD as a wannabe PDA, and with the categories rated as such, the Zune HD simply makes a better device.
As an all-around entertainment machine and productivity device, Apple’s iPod Touch remains the reigning champion of the touch screen.
For someone with no interesting in piddling around with apps, looking solely for the ultimate personal media player, the Zune HD truly makes a better buy.