Almost two years to the day after Apple reimagined the personal media player as a mobile computer with the iPod Touch, Microsoft has outed its own take on the pocket entertainment machine: the Zune HD. Like the Touch before it, the Zune HD uses a high-resolution touch screen to add a new degree of ease and color to mobile listening, and to serve as a portable theater for video. But since “like Apple” has never been enough to outsell the Cupertino thinktank that always seems to be one step ahead, Microsoft’s Redmond engineers have also gone the extra mile with a retina-scorching OLED display, lighter design, and 720p HD video output, to name a few features that best Apple’s Touch. Will it be enough to win iPod devotees over to Microsoft and breathe life into the struggling Zune brand? We pocketed the little guy and cranked up the tunes to find out.
Like the string of increasingly capable Zunes before it, the Zune HD handles both digital music and video, but to truly bring the Zune platform up to speed with the Touch, Microsoft has stuffed in a grab bag of other features as well. The most immediately impressive must be the 3.3-inch screen, which uses incredibly bright (and efficient) OLED display technology to produce colors as vibrant and life-like as the pages of National Geographic. True to its name, the Zune HD also outputs true 720p HD content via HDMI, turning it into a HD media house smaller than a deck of playing cards. The FM radio tuner that Microsoft has always waved over Apple’s head is now joined by an HD radio tuner to tap free, higher-quality terrestrial radio signals alongside your MP3 collection. And though Wi-fi has also been a Zune selling point since day one, the Zune HD is the first to turn that Internet connectivity into a full HTML browsing experience, rather than just a channel for pumping music and video through. The browser isn’t the only non-media use for the player, either. A new Apps menu and section in the marketplace will play host from everything from weather apps to games.
First thing out of the box, it’s impossible not to note how lightweight and tiny the Zune HD feels. Although the iPod Touch technically has it beat by a hair on the thin-factor (0.33 inches to the Zune’s 0.35 inches), those without calipers in hand will call it equal, and at 74 grams, it feels like a feather beside the 115-gram iPod Touch. It’s also a smidge smaller on the other dimensions, measuring 2.1 inches wide and 4.0 inches tall. Microsoft hasn’t attempted to dupe Apple’s rounded-edge taper for the illusion of thin, but the back case of the the Zune HD does cut in around the edges with a wide, shallow chamfer, making it far less than 8.9mm thick at the edges.
The Microsoft Zune HD sitting on an Apple iPod Touch
And what a case it is. With a silvery gunmetal finish on the back panel and four prominent screws at each corner holding it together, the Zune HD gives off a sturdy industrial vibe, almost along the lines of some of the rugged electronics we’ve seen, like Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-TS1. Of course, it doesn’t carry nearly the bulk of the typical ruggedized device, and doesn’t boast any of the resultant protection, either.
Controls and Ports
Thanks to the touch-screen interface, operation of the Zune HD has been distilled down to only three buttons: a centered power button up top turns the Zune HD on and turns the screen off with a tap, a “home” button at the bottom works the same as it does on the iPod, sending you back to the main menu, and a dotted left-hand switch brings up music controls (pause, play, stop, forward, etc.) from anywhere in the menu. You’ll find both the requisite 3.5mm stereo jack and Microsoft’s proprietary Zune connector on the bottom, the latter of which serves as a port for both charging and data transfer.
The slim black cardboard box for the Zune HD contains all the essentials: a USB power and data cable, standard-issue Zune headphones with three foam covers (black, orange, pink) and a quick-start guide to get you off and running. Never one to skimp, Microsoft included a Zune HD AV dock for hooking the player up to an HDTV ($90) and no less than three different cases with our review unit.
For those who have seen OLED displays live and in person before, the screen on the Zune HD will undoubtedly be one of its most exciting features. For those who haven’t, it will be when you see it. The 3.3-inch OLED display comes to life as soon as you fire it up with some of the darkest blacks and brightest whites you’ve seen from a portable player, and it only gets better when it explodes into color from the preloaded demo video and pictures. Even relatively dry footage from a Flip HD seemed to come to life on the screen, and though we’ve never complained about a stutter on the iPod Touch, the lightning-fast refresh on the Zune HD’s OLED screen lends it an amazingly fluid look that we never realized we were missing out on.
Microsoft’s lust for slender sans-serif fonts has not subsided in the months since the last Zune launch, and former Zune owners will recognize the main menu immediately. It offers selections of all the basics (music, video, pictures) as well as extra features like radio, social, and apps, making it relatively easy to cut to the intended function with a minimum of navigation. Of course, rather than selecting with a directional pad, a simple tap on the screen now suffices for just about everything. Microsoft wisely chose a high-quality capacitive touch screen for the Zune HD, and as a result it feels just as precise and fluid and as its similarly equipped Apple cousin.
Although Microsoft includes a hard “home” button front and center right below the screen, navigating backwards through the menus without jumping all the way back to the start can be a little confusing at first. The title of any given selection (“music,” for instance) expands and leaps to the tip top of the screen when you click on it, sliding halfway off the screen in the process. It looks like a visual effect, but clicking on the half-obscured, oversized title is actually a key to sliding back a level. It’s a quick move to learn, but slightly less than intuitive from the get go.
Even so, the Zune includes some brilliant shortcuts that help enliven the experience without complicating it. The Quickplay menu, easily accessible by tapping to the left of the main menu options, presents a number of shortcuts to content you might want near-instant access to: now playing, the last six items you used, and new music and apps that you’ve added. You can even pin your favorite content, like an album or video, to the list for quick access without having to find it through the menu system every time.
Without hard controls for essential functions like play, pause and forward, Microsoft provides a side shortcut button to pull them all up instantly from anywhere in the menu. One tap, and a giant overlay presents all the essentials, including volume, over the top of everything else. To keep you from accidentally cranking the volume through the roof when you reach in your pocket, or stopping your favorite song midchorus, the Zune HD locks itself and shuts off the screen with a single click of the power button. Upon pressing the home button to power the screen back on, you’ll need to slide a screensaver photo up off the screen like a window blind to unlock the device again.
The radio capabilities built into the Zune HD may be the best we’ve seen on any portable media player, with an interface so refreshing it makes an ancient 20th century technology seem new again. Scanning through the dial is as easy as swiping at it. The tuner skips over fuzz and settles in quickly on real stations, with station call signs and other data like song titles and artist names popping up nearly immediately. It almost gives the illusion you’re listening through the Web. Saving a preset takes one click, and once you’ve added your favorites they’re all browsable from a station list for quicker seeking without the hassle of scanning. You can add songs from the radio to your cart with another dedicated button, which makes them easy to snag (without additional cost) with your Zune Pass at a later point. Radio stations with HD capability get separate HD labels below the dial, which make them a breeze to cycle through, and integrates them seamlessly into the standard FM browsing experience. Our only complaint: There’s no autotune function to scan the dial and fill in presets.
The Zune 4.0 update takes Microsoft’s already flashy music and video management software and adds even more whizbang features to the mix, most notably: Quickplay and SmartDJ. Much like the Quickplay feature on the Zune HD itself, selecting Quickplay in the software offers up a mix of items you’re more inclined to need to access, like newly added content, recently played content, and favorites that have been pinned there. SmartDJ, by contrast, acts more or less like Apple’s Genius playlist feature. Just drop an artist, song or album, and Zune does the legwork of combining similar content from your own library and from the Zune collection, if you so choose. Used in conjunction with the Zune Pass this way, it almost feels like Pandora with an extra degree of control and refinement.
Like earlier Zune versions, Zune 4.0 also includes a Social tab for sharing your own preferences with friends and hearing their own songs, as well as a Zune Marketplace for buying music from Microsoft or taking advantage of the $15 a month all-you-can-eat Zune pass, an economical option that Apple’s iTunes Store doesn’t offer.
Right off the bat, we had issues connecting the Zune HD to a Wi-fi access point for browsing. Even in some cases when the device reported two out of three signal bars, it wouldn’t connect, requiring high signal strength before it would really latch on and keep a Wi-fi signal. To be fair, the iPod Touch exhibited similarly weak Wi-fi reception, which is fairly typical for handheld devices without the real estate for a full-size antenna like a laptop.
The browsing experience itself feels nearly identical to the iPod Touch, which is about the highest complement you can pay to a handheld device. It offers fluid multi-touch zooming, panning, and smoothly anti-aliased text. To the blind eye, it might as well be the same browser, save for one important detail: You can’t open more than one tab at a time. Yes, back to the days of Internet Explorer 6 you go, with only one page to view at a time. While most people won’t want to sift between five browser windows on a 3.3-inch screen to begin with, the lack of an option prevents the Zune HD from ascending to the same desktop-like browsing experience the iPod Touch offers.
Apple fans may expect a virtual warehouse of clever applications hiding behind the “Apps” item on the Zune HD menu, but sadly, it’s mostly a facade. Microsoft only offers eight different applications at launch, and has no immediate plans to release an software developer’s kit (SDK). That means the flourishing ecosystem of user-developed applications that built the iPod Touch into the device it is today will never take root on the Zune HD, which Microsoft has pledged to seed and groom for itself. Of course, popular applications like Twitter and Facebook are already on the way, and Microsoft has even dropped the titles of some games for this fall, like Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition, Vans Sk8: Pool Service and Audiosurf Tilt. But for those who had hoped to use the Zune HD as much like a mini computer a personal media player, the lack of an open software ecosystem effectively makes the Zune HD a nonstarter.
Microsoft PR reps haven’t ruled out the possibility of opening it in the future, and vague references to collaborations with the Windows Mobile team make it seem likely, but with the rumored release of Windows Mobile 7 a year in the future, we don’t think fence-sitting buyers should snap the Zune HD up with fingers crossed.
720p Video Playback
Watching a device this small serve up 720p high-def video almost feels like watching a man bench press a car: It doesn’t seem like it should be possible, but (in the case of the Zune HD) it is. That said, it’s not without its hiccups. The $90 Zune HD AV Dock that Microsoft included with our review package refused to work out the box because it required a firmware updated that Microsoft’s documentation conveniently neglected to mention. And even after we got it going, HD video seemed to consistently stutter for the first two seconds of playback. That’s fine for a movie you’ll press play once on and leave alone, but for short clips, like those you might get off a point-and-shoot camera, the reoccurence gets old fast. As do the sliding text graphics the Zune HD displays on the TV during music playback. They impress at first, but with the processing power of the Tegra on tap, a visualizer would have seemed like an obvious inclusion.
However, we give Microsoft credit for the build quality and generous accessory package bundled with the dock, which includes both HDMI and composite cables, a remote control, and adapters to make the dock work with previous-generation Zunes.
While the Zune HD supports WMV, H.264 and MPEG-4 video formats, popular codecs like DivX and Xvid have been left out, meaning those file types will have to go through a lengthy transcoding (which the Zune software won’t do) before the Zune HD will handle them.
If you’re looking for a personal media player that also morphs into a calendar, e-mail device, remote control, and all-around life machine, abandon hope now and buy an iPod Touch. Even if Microsoft opens the doors for developers to hop on the Zune HD in the future, it will take months and years before it grows the amazing variety of software that Apple’s App Store already has, making that device nearly bulletproof for 90 percent of its functionality. However, the Zune HD has its own merits as a focused and extremely refined personal media player, which we think put it over the top as the video junkie’s player of choice. Make us pick a smartphone substitute, and we’ll take the Touch. Make us pick a media player for the next 12 hours on a plane, and we’ll take the Zune HD any day.
- Incredible 3.3-inch OLED display
- Small, lightweight
- Sensitive capacitive touch screen
- High-def 720p video output
- Smooth Web navigation
- Refined FM and HD radio tuner
- No open App Store
- Initial stuttering on video output
- No tabbed browsing
- Weak Wi-fi reception