Sport & Auto
- About Future
- Digital Future
- Cookies Policy
- Terms & Conditions
- Investor Relations
- Contact Future
Try as it might, Microsoft has never been able to put a dent in Apple's marketshare for portable media players. The previous Zune players were pretty good, and the Zune desktop software finally got there after a few revisions, but neither one had the "wow factor" necessary to pull the masses away from the iPod juggernaut. With the Zune HD (and accompanying Zune 4.0 software), Microsoft has finally delivered the kind of truly exciting device that should make even the most ardent iPod fan take notice. It's sleek, small, thin, and surprisingly light with the rare quality of looking as good as Apple's products without looking just like Apple's products. There are only three buttons: power/sleep on top, a home button beneath the screen on the front, and a "media button" on the upper left edge.
It's also the first product to hit the market with Nvidia's Tegra APX 2600 system-on-chip, which packs a pair of ARM11 cores with lots of individual processors for audio and video encoding and decoding, 2D graphics, 3D graphics (with OpenGL ES 2.0 support), etc. This is paired with an 3.3" OLED screen that conforms to the 16:9 ratio of HD movies with a resolution of 480x272 (the same as the PSP, only smaller). The multi-touch display is as accurate and responsive as any we've used, and downright gorgeous. Blacks are perfectly black, colors are bright and vibrant, and there's no smearing or ghosting effect. It's the first mainstream portable with support for HD radio, at a time when many other portable media players aren't even including an FM tuner. You can, as with previous Zunes, tag a radio song and put it in your cart, so you can download it later. With the HD AV dock (sold separately) it can output 720p video to your TV over HDMI, which looks pretty darn great. You can, of course, also play all your music, podcasts, and HD radio through the dock as well. If anything, we could complain that this slick little gizmo is actually too small. With a screen so pretty, you want to something a tad larger to watch movies and play games on.
This is an impressive and surprisingly energy-efficient hardware package. The specs say 33 hours of music or 8.5 hours of video, but like all battery specs, this is a pipe dream that don't reflect real usage scenarios. Our battery lasted for just over 10 hours of heavy and varied use with Wi-Fi enabled, which is better than most devices of this type.
If the modern gadget market has taught us anything, it's that the most amazing hardware in the world is useless without a great interface. Fortunately, the Zune developers have hit a home run with the Zune HD's touch UI. The home screen shows a simple list of categories (music, videos, pictures, radio, marketplace, social, podcasts, internet, apps, and settings). Drilling down into each of these is clear and intuitive, with left and right finger-swipes to swap to different categories, and vertical swipes to fly up and down the list of content. Long lists (artists and albums) have an alphabet jump-menu that can take you right to a specific letter. The real magic happens when you tap the left edge of the home screen, swipe to the right, or press the home button to "flip" it over to the Quickplay menu that shows your recent history, new stuff, and "pinned" content. You can pin anything there - apps, podcasts, albums, artists, songs, playlists, even web bookmarks - by holding down your finger on the item and choosing "pin to quickplay." It's a simple and elegant solution a big problem with mutli-funtion portable devices: getting to your most frequently used stuff quickly. There are a few niggling issues, like a slight inconsistency in the way one backs out of different screens. The "back" arrow present in some places should simply always be there, and always take you back one level.
The web browser is surprisingly good, too. It's not quite as fast as Safari on the iPhone or iPod Touch, and it doesn't support Flash, but it works great with even complex websites and all the expected zoom and pinch and drag gestures work. It's based on Internet Explorer, but you'd never know it, especially if you're used to the abomination that is IE for Windows Mobile. It's another reason why we find the device perhaps a touch too small; the on-screen keyboard works well, but is a bit cramped when you hold the 16:9 screen vertically. Text scaling could be a little bit smoother, and it would be easier to read some sites on a slightly larger screen.
If you're within range of Wi-Fi, the Zune HD gets a bit more useful. Browse any artist in your music collection and a little down arrow at the bottom of the screen will extend the page with a discography of that artist's work on the marketplace. You can stream or purchase tracks and albums right there on the device. Of course, you can browse the music and apps marketplace in the traditional manner, by choosing "marketplace" from the main menu. Interestingly, the "squirting" function of previous Zune models is now gone. You used to be able to send tracks to any other Zune in physical proximity over Wi-Fi, with the stipulation that they can only listen to it three times without buying it. It its place is perhaps a better feature. You can send what is effectively a link to any artist or album to any Zune Tag or email address you want, wherever they are. If they don't have Zune software or an account, they can listen to a 30-second clip on Zune.net. Still a feather in Zune's cap is Wi-Fi syncing - once you link your Zune to a PC on your home wireless network, you can sync it without cables.
The Zune desktop software gets a host of refinements and a few extra features in the 4.0 release, too. There's a new Quickplay intro screen that mirrors the functionality on the portable device with pinned content, new stuff, and your recent history. You can choose to go right to your collection, the marketplace, or the social upon launch, if you want. The software now supports Windows 7 features like jumplists and a mouseover taskbar player that has the little heart-rating added. The library and marketplace interfaces have been touched up, and are cleaner and better organized than iTunes 9. The best new feature is something Microsoft calls "Smart DJ." There's a new Smart DJ icon on every album and artist in your collection or the marketplace. Click this to get a custom playlist of that artist and similar ones. It's a bit like Pandora, only it generates a playlist about 30 items long instead of a continuous stream. Unlike iTunes 9's new Genius Mix feature, it includes both local content and streaming music from the marketplace (you can turn that off if you like). You can even save any Smart DJ mix as a playlist, and then adjust how long it should be (in songs or minutes) and how often (in days) it should be refreshed, if at all. You can then sync these Smart DJ playlists to your Zune device, and it'll be refreshed when you sync.
Features like these add tremendous value to the Zune Pass, Microsoft's $15 a month all-you-can-eat music subscription service. Smart DJ is a great way to discover and download new music. Zune Pass subscribers also get unlimited streaming of full songs, not just preview clips, from any web browser on any PC or Mac by going to Zune.net. Yeah, the Zune Pass content is laden with DRM (how else would it expire if you don't renew your subscription?), but they even give you 10 song credits a month you can use to download totally DRM-free MP3s that you'll own forever. The marketplace's tight integration between device, desktop, and web make the Zune Pass a seriously good deal for music fans.
If there's an Achilles' heel to the Zune HD, it's apps. There are only nine apps in the marketplace, all of them free and seven of them games. They're nothing special, really. You'd have paid a couple bucks for some of them when the iPhone App Store launched, but they pale in comparison to what you can get today. Others are coming this fall, including Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition, Vans SK8: Pool Service, and Audiosurf Tilt in addition to Facebook and Twitter. That's good, but this is a device that desperately needs a real app marketplace. Perhaps it isn't too far away - Microsoft just updated the XNA development framework to version 3.1, adding support for the Zune HD's accelerometer and multi-touch screen.
So is the Zune HD better than the iPod Touch against which it competes? That all depends on what you're looking for. If you want a portable player primarily for media, the Zune HD trounces the iPod Touch. Music, video, and podcast offerings are similar, but the Zune has FM and HD radio, marginally better sound quality, 720p video output, the optional Zune Pass subscription service for music, and an honest-to-goodness superior interface. The software on both desktop and device is designed to be vastly better for discovering new music. If you want a pocket computer to run apps and play games, with music and video playing as a second-tier function, the incredibly robust App Store on the iPod Touch make it still the obvious choice.
Microsoft still has work to do, of course. With all that hi-def video and subscription music, we desperately need a 64GB model. The hardware and software service aren't available outside the U.S., and really needs to be expanded internationally. The required Zune software is Windows-only, which leaves Mac users out in the cold, or at the very least requires Boot Camp or virtualization of them. Most of all, a truly robust app marketplace needs to be built, and fast. For those looking to buy a portable media player for, you know, media, the Zune HD is a truly awesome little device. Microsoft has a product that has captured the enthusiasm of gadget geeks across the web, and it doesn't disappoint.
Awesome interface; OLED screen; HD Radio; subscription music option; 720p video output
You have to buy stuff with MS Points; no true app marketplace; no camera or microphone built in