updated 03:00 am EDT, Tue September 15, 2009
Zune HD's first look
Microsoft's long-anticipated venture into touchscreen players has just arrived in the form of the Zune HD, and we've already had an opportunity to unbox the player and give it an early look ahead of our full review. What might impress iPod owners first -- and the most -- is the sheer quality of the display. This is one of the few players to get to Apple's level in quality, responsiveness and the interface. The OLED display is extremely vibrant and high contrast, more so even than Apple's better iPhone or iPod touch displays; unlike an LCD, the Zune's OLED doesn't need a backlight and so black really is black. Colors pop out, and there's no ghosting or other slight visual artifacts you get from most mobile displays. We could easily see ourselves watching at least TV-length videos on the Zune HD during a commute just because of the pleasing picture.
Almost as important is that Microsoft has latched on to what has made the iPod touch work so well. It's a capacitive display, so it responds to the electricity in your fingers and is therefore sensitive to very precise, subtle input; this isn't a resistive screen of the kind Windows Mobile phones are saddled with, where deliberate pressure and questionable accuracy are the order of the day. Moreover, all the gestures are natural, if slightly imitative. Menus have a "bounce" when you reach the end, and it's possible to flick through items quickly or make pinch gestures to zoom in and out of photos or websites.
On that note, the navigation menus themselves are surprisingly intuitive. The highly stylized text menus from earlier Zunes are still intact, but here the words themselves are always interface elements: you can go up to the previous menu by tapping the word for that menu (usually above you), for example. Media playback is natural, if slightly opposite that of what Apple does. You have to tap on the now playing screen to bring up the full play/skip controls instead of using the same function only to bring up extras, as on an iPod. Transitions are all rendered in a quick but attractive 3D that both adds a sense of style and reminds you of what the Tegra processor inside can do: it's a genuinely modern 3D processor and can also decode 720p HD (with a dock).
The design itself may also come as a surprise to some who are used to the brick-like shapes of older Zunes. It's not only thin but tapered and generally sleek. Microsoft's design also exudes quality and a certain amount of attention to detail without being derivative. The back is (as far as we can tell) brushed aluminum, so it won't scratch the way an iPod's stainless steel might, and the home button on the front is wide, making it fairly easy to hit one-handed.
It's not perfect: the Zune HD is actually almost too light (though not flimsy), and the power/hold button feels slightly cheap with a hollow "click" when it's pressed.
For now, though, the Zune HD is one of the few players outside of Apple that might win someone over through a semblance of quality that isn't relying on obviously flashy elements like chrome trim or home screen widgets to distract you. We'll be sure to explore media playback, the web, apps and the Zune 4.0 software in greater depth and deliver our ultimate verdict in the near future. Our gallery of unboxing shots is available below.