The Zune HD is seen by many as a too-little-too-late attempt at challenging the iPod touch, but it's a formidable portable media player in its own right. Its multitouch OLED touchscreen makes everything from the intuitive interface to TV shows and movies pop; the integrated HD Radio is great for discovering new music, and you can output HD content right from the Zune HD to your TV (with an optional accessory). We also like the integrated Web browser, even though its not best in class. Microsoft has a long way to go to catch up to Apple in the apps department, but the Zune HD is a slick and satisfying device that will get better with age.
We love the look and simplicity of the Zune HD player. Its luxe aesthetic goes well with the interface overhaul and premium aura. The brushed aluminum backing, graced with a Zune logo etched into the metal, comes in black and platinum with red, blue and green available via Zune originals. Smooth and streamlined, the Zune HD has has three buttons. On top, the power button is flush with the case, the slightly raised Home button sits below the screen, and on the left is a narrow button that shows and hides the on-screen player and volume controls. Both the headphone and data/power cord inputs are on the bottom.
Measuring only 4.0 x 2.1 x 0.4 inches, this little player manages to make the iPod touch (4.3 x 2.4 x 0.33 inches) look almost bulky. The size and narrow screen is more akin to the Sony Walkman, which is 0.2 inches shorter. At 3.5 ounces, the Zune HD is also 0.7 ounces lighter than the iPod touch. With a resolution of 480 x 272 pixels, the Zune’s OLED display (1.6 x 2.8 inches) is noticeably smaller than the Touch’s 2 x 3-inch screen.
We found the capacitive, multitouch display responsive, as long as we used the pad of our finger and not our nails. The interface is very intuitive and easy to navigate. When you first turn on the Zune HD, you're faced with a simple text menu. If you slide your finger to the right you get the QuickPlay menu showing thumbnails that represent what's currently playing, new and recent items, plus whatever media you've pinned for fast access. Everything from songs to games to radio stations show up in the QuickPlay area, providing a nice graphic overview of your multimedia life.
Navigating through menus is easy, and the level above is usually accessible by tapping the text or arrow at the top of the screen. Scrolling vertically and horizontally is smooth and quick; when changing songs, flipping through albums, or searching for radio stations, we rarely had to repeat an action to get the desired result. Same with tapping; a light touch was all it took in most instances.
We only ran into trouble when the elements we wanted to select were small, as it was hard to be precise with the tip or pad of our finger. For example, it’s difficult for users with fingernails to be accurate with the on-screen keyboard because the individual keys are tiny, though users who were used to tapping with the tip of a finger fared better.
Even in landscape mode we found the keyboard layout frustrating to use. Entering our Wi-Fi password and typing URLs in the browser took so long and involved so much backspacing that it took over a minute to type what should have taken a few seconds. Additionaly, some of the games included small elements or menu items that were hard to select and move around.
Though the Zune HD includes an accelerometer, it doesn't change the orientation on all screens. We were a little disappointed that we couldn't see menus or the music player in horizontal mode, only vertical. Videos only play horizontally, which is understandable since vertical video doesn't make sense.
We often wished for button controls when watching video; even with clean fingers, every swipe and tap left smudges on the screen. We appreciated the streamlined look of the Zune HD, yet would have liked a way to start or stop video and change volume without touching the screen.
The Zune HD is the first available with Nvidia’s Tegra APX 2600 processor, a chip specifically designed for handheld devices. The advanced visuals, 3D graphics, slick UI, and HD video are made possible by the chip’s eight distinct processing cores.
Moving through the interface was fast and quick most of the time, and it takes a second or less for music and videos to load. However, we had to wait about 4 - 6 seconds for the Marketplace to load and up to 20 seconds for the browser to load, since the wireless connection has to start first. Game load time is hard to determine due to the advertisement that displays before you get to the main screen.
Returning to the home screen from most functions was quick -- again, 1 second or less -- but returning from games or the browser took up to 5 and 8 seconds, respectively.
Music Experience and Audio Quality
Similar to the Zune desktop software, the Now Playing screen shows the track, artist, album, album art, plus an image of the artist in the background. Leave the screen on and text scrolls artfully across the background image before it automatically turns off to save power. You'll also see the next three songs in the queue below the current track name and at the very bottom you can toggle shuffle and repeat on or off. Click the heart icon to love the track, which feeds into the Smart DJ algorithm.
Tapping on the background brings up the player and volume controls, also accessible via the button on the left side of the device, which will fade away after a few seconds or immediately if you click the button again. You can also change tracks by swiping left or right for next or previous.
Audio quality from the Zune HD is on a par with the iPod but didn't wow us. The Equalizer options (located under Settings > Music on the Home menu) didn't offer much variation as we scrolled through acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, and rock while listening to Michael’s Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” We loaded songs from a range of genres onto the Zune, including Jill Sobule’s “Palm Springs,” Aerosmith’s “Livin’ on the Edge,” Lura’s “Ponciana,” and S. J. Tucker’s “Firebird’s Child,” and always got decent volume and acceptable audio quality. However, the Zune HD doesn’t deliver the richness or depth of the Samsung P3 and Sony Walkman X Series.
The included hard plastic earbuds weren’t good enough to give us a reason to put aside our favorite in-ear phones. Still, they’re a step above the buds included with the iPod touch, which deliver tinnier sound and don’t block noise as well.
The Zune supports MP3 up to 320 kbps, WMA up to 384 kbps, WMA Pro 2-channel up to 768 kbps, WMA Lossless 2-channel up to 768 kbps, and AAC-LC (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b) without FairPlay DRM up to 320kbps.
Standard and high-definition content looks great on the Zune HD’s OLED screen. Colors are bright and crisp, it delivers true blacks, and 3D elements render beautifully. While watching a high-def episode of House in a room with bright lights, viewing angles weren’t the best due to the reflectiveness of the glossy screen. In dim light we were hard pressed to find an angle that didn't look good. A small group can view video or images without color distortion.
Comparing the episode “Games” on the iPod touch and the Zune HD, the latter came out ahead with crisper images and more depth of color. However, light reflecting off the iPod’s screen is a bit less glaring and doesn’t obscure the display as much as it does on the Zune, making it much more versatile in different lighting conditions.
Moving through video clips wasn't as fun as on the Sony Walkman X Series, which has a clever Cover Flow-like interface. Tapping the forward and back controls skipped 30 seconds, pressing and holding rewound and fast forwarded quickly. Beyond that, there is no variable speed or scene selection/scroll.
Users can enjoy WMV files up to 720p HD video (up to 10.0 Mbps peak video bit rate), MPEG-4 (up to 4.0 Mbps peak video bit rate), and H.264 video (up to 10 Mbps peak video bit rate). However, you’ll have to download videos to your computer, then sync them—there are no over-the-air purchases at present.
While still a fraction of the size of Apple’s library, Microsoft has increased the video offerings to include movies alongside television episodes, many of which are available in both standard and high definition. Currently the library has more than 10,000 TV episodes from 40 channels and over 500 movies. XBox live users will be able to buy the same video content as Zune users and, once purchased, you’ll be able to access the video from the Web on any device.
Point System Still Annoying
Microsoft continues to use its idiotic Points system for purchasing content. Instead of paying directly, users must buy Microsoft Points to purchase videos and individual songs (beyond the 10 included in the monthly ZunePass). TV episodes cost 160 points for standard definition and 240 for an HD version. Renting movies, which gives users access to the download for 14 days or 24 hours after first play, cost 320 and 480 points for SD and HD respectively. Buying movies costs 1,200 and 1,600. You can buy as few as 100 and as many as 5,000 points, with 2,000, 4,000 and 5,000 points costing $25, $50 and $62, respectively.
The Zune HD is able to pick up FM and HD Radio stations, and depending on where we were in New York City, the player found about a dozen stations. Inside buildings the FM signal was sometimes filled with pops and hisses, whereas the sound was clearer when walking around midtown Manhattan. HD stations were nearly free of background noise, coming through loud and clear even indoors. The Zune has the ability to add presets, but doesn't include a utility to scan all available frequencies and auto-preset each one it finds.
The player will show station identification and track data for stations that broadcast it. Like the previous generation, you can add tagged tracks to your Zune Marketplace cart. When you connect to the Internet, the device will look for that song in the catalog and download it directly if available. We were able to find about half of the songs we tagged and remove anything we ultimately didn't want before purchasing.
Marketplace and Apps
Users can access the Zune Marketplace right from the main menu, where you’ll see new releases, top songs, and top albums listed. You can also search the 5-million song library (half that of iTunes) by artist, album, or song. Purchasing and downloading tracks to the device was easy. Less than two minutes after selecting it, Whitney Houston's "I Look To You" was added to our collection.
New with the Zune HD is the ability to download apps. Right now the selection (just 9 apps) is laughably small compared to Apple’s App Store. While initially the focus will be on games, there's also a useful calculator and an MSN Weather app. There’s no way to rate apps either from within the desktop app or on the Zune itself. All of the apps, developed by Microsoft, are free. There’s a small catch: while the app is loading, a still image or video ad shows for a few seconds before you can continue on. We’re not fans of this approach.
Currently, none of the current apps take full advantage of what the Tegra chip offers (or the accelerometer). However, Microsoft has promised to release a few games by the end of the year, including Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition, Vans Sk8: Pool Service, and Audiosurf Tilt. Facebook and Twitter apps are also planned.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
We like the browser on the Zune much better than the one included with the Sony Walkman X Series, but not as much as the Safari browser on the iPod touch. Entering URLs wasn't nearly as annoying as with the Walkman, but the on-screen keyboard made the process more time-consuming than it needed to be. We did appreciate the button for entering “.com,” with one click. When trying to select letters on the bottom right quadrant we often accidentally hit the Go button, causing the browser to try and load an incomplete address.
Once we did actually get to web pages they loaded quickly and were viewable both vertically and horizontally. CNN, NYTimes and ESPN recognized the mobile browser and automatically loaded the correct version of those sites in 10 seconds or less. It took Yelp.com and Laptopmag.com a little less than 30 seconds each to load, which was nearly twice as long as it took the iPod touch. Zooming in and out was simple with pinch and pull gestures, as was scrolling. Flash isn’t supported, so we couldn't play YouTube or Hulu videos, but that’s true of all portable media players.
The Zune HD’s Wi-Fi signal was strong even more than 50 feet from our router. Entering our security key was annoying, because of the cramped keyboard, but the software did allow us to see the characters as we typed.
Due to the Tegra chip’s energy efficiency and the low-power OLED screen, the Zune is rated to last for up to 33 hours while playing music and up to 8.5 hours playing video with the wireless radio off. The music-playing endurance is the same as the Sony Walkman but 3 hours shy of the iPod touch. The Walkman beats the Zune on video playback, but only by half an hour. We used the Zune periodically for three days, playing music, TV episodes and games plus a bit of downloading, before the battery got critically low.
Zune Software and ZunePass
With the release of the Zune HD comes the 4.0 version of Zune software. From here, users can sync media and apps with the device, access the full Marketplace catalog, create playlists, and organize their collection. The slick UI matches that of the Zune device and also includes a version of the QuickPlay menu. It’s currently available for Windows XP, Vista and 7 (32 and 64-bit), but not for those few, intrepid Mac owners who prefer the Zune to iPod.
We installed the software on a laptop and desktop with older Pentium and Celeron processors and found that CPU usage was anywhere from 50 to 85 percent, even when we weren’t playing a track. On a Samsung NC10, CPU usage was as high as 95 to 99 percent, even while idle. However, that number dwindled to a reasonable 1 to 5 percent when we engaged the mini player or taskbar modes, which involves fewer graphics. Under Settings > Display you can adjust the complexity of screen graphics from Premium down to Basic, which taxed the CPU much less (5 to 40 percent depending on the screen/task).
New in the Zune 4.0 software is the Smart DJ mix, which creates playlists based on artists and draws music from both the user's collection and the music available from ZunePass (if you have a subscription—$14.99 per month). Once a playlist is generated, users can rearrange, delete, or give love to a track. This helps the Smart DJ's algorithm better choose music and artists you'll like, and you can sync these playlists with the Zune HD. Tracks you haven’t used credits or Points to purchse remain active as long as you maintain your ZunePass subscription, which still includes 10 free tracks each month.
Other benefits of ZunePass include the ability to access songs from up to three computers and three Zune devices. You can also stream tracks from the 5 million song library through your browser at Zune.net.
Zune HD Dock
The Zune dock, sold separately ($89.99), lets you output HD and SD video, music, HD radio, and pictures from the Zune to a monitor, television or sound system. You can output 720p video via HDMI and 480i standard video via an RCA composite A/V cable. When plugged into a monitor, the Zune’s screen shuts off and a simplified version of the text menu appears on the screen. An included remote let us navigate menus easily, play, pause, and fast forward through videos.
Both HD and SD video looked crisp and played smoothly on both a standard television and an HD display. The included antenna greatly improved indoor FM reception and gained us a few extra HD stations on the dial.
As a music and video player, the Zune HD is compelling. Based on its interface and welcome features like HD Radio, the Zune HD is nearly as good as the iPod touch. At $289 for the 32GB model ($219 for 16GB), Microsoft is looking to challenge Apple on price as well. On the other hand, the iPod touch’s Web browser is better than the Zune HD’s, and its app selection is vastly superior. Once third-party developers are allowed to come out and play and add more apps (especially games), the gap between the Zune HD and the iPod touch may very well begin to close.