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Zune HD

September 17th, 2009
Microsoft enters the touchscreen game with a major contender.

For awhile, many had thought the iPod touch had dealt blow to the Zune that Microsoft didn't have an answer for: the 2008 Zune update was just a mild refresh, and even the software team was mostly quiet for the next year. The Zune HD, then, is Microsoft's return salvo. It promises not only to put the Zune level in terms of features like multi-touch input and Internet access but to have features Apple lacks, such as 720p support, HD Radio and an OLED screen. We plan to discover just whether or not Microsoft's return to form is enough to quiet Apple's guns. design: thin is in

Microsoft has been known for making reasonably slim players, but sleek ergonomics were never its strong suit: all of the "clickpad" Zunes were comfortable, but very blocky and slightly childlike in their look. That goes away with the Zune HD, which is arguably one of the most attractive media players to date. It's minimalist but still visually interesting, and Microsoft has even managed to work the improved ergonomics into the design language: the tapered back is easier to hold, and the two-tone ridged sides make it easier to grip the player with just your fingertips. And once again, the Zune uses an aluminum back that resists scratches and hides most fingerprints, especially if you own the 32GB platinum model.

It's also noticeably thin and smaller than its Apple counterpart. It may be thicker than an iPod touch, but there's no question the new Zune fits more easily in a pocket both in thickness and width.

The controls are more mixed, but still quite positive. Microsoft was careful not to make the mistake it has with Windows Mobile in using a resistive (pressure-based) touchscreen, which would have been imprecise and prevented anything more than single-touch controls. Here, it's a capacitive glass touchscreen that reacts to very gentle input, and it supports multi-touch gestures (more on the subject later), albeit with the quick accumulation of fingerprints as a result. If anything might be a weakness, it's the physical buttons, which have small but largely forgivable quirks. The home and power buttons are slightly hollow -feeling, and the quick control button (there in place of a volume rocker) is harder to find without looking.

As before, there's no easily replaceable battery or storage card slot. That's becoming less of an issue with players as battery life and internal memory increase, but those who value expansion first will certainly want to turn to Creative or SanDisk first. The curious may be interested to note that the back is relatively easy to open, however: teardowns by others have revealed that you only need a screwdriver with a wood screw head to open the back. Without readily available spare parts there's little to do but look and void the warranty, but it remains an option.

music playback and the interface

Those who've had experience with earlier Zunes will recall that Microsoft's interface was freshly styled but, out of the necessity of a four-way control pad, couldn't be that original. Its best feature was the use of a cross-like interface that would always show nearby menu options even while it displayed what's in the current menu, such as existing tracks. In short, it was enough to be useful but not enough to lure entrenched iPod owners.

A touchscreen has given Microsoft more freedom to refine its interface for browsing and playing content, and it shows. In some senses, the interface is just refined rather than new. The menu layouts remain the same text driven arrangements as before, with touch mostly used to simplify what was already there: the top-level button to shuffle all songs is quick, for instance, and you now just have to tap on the words above the current menu to take a step back. Flicking through menus or playlists requires just a very natural-feeling swipe, too, and is much faster than even the touch scrolling on the clickpad. The larger, higher-resolution screen is also a treat for finding items visually, especially podcasts.

At the same time, Microsoft has made some potentially controversial changes to how it handles basic media controls. Rather than put the pause, skip and volume controls directly on the now playing screen, the Zune HD needs a screen tap on that view to show those basic controls. This makes sense for video -- most want the main interface out of the way during a TV show -- but it's counterintuitive for music, especially as Microsoft sees fit to put the much less essential favorite, repeat and shuffle functions at the top level. It's also harder to get back to the now playing screen than it is on a device like the iPod, where you can even set the home button as a double-tap shortcut to common music tasks. While the quick control button on the side of the player will give you basic controls, here it's usually necessary to revisit the home screen and visit the Quickplay section to actually see the track data you saw before.

One area where Microsoft deserves at least some credit, though, is in integrating artist information with music. With syncs and downloads, any track that has recognizable track data (which is most) gets not just the album art but also a custom artist background, a bio, a discography, photos and related artists. And just as the Zune Marketplace will let you see albums produced by an artist but unavailable on the store, the Zune HD will fill in all the custom artwork and details even for artists whose music can't (legally) be downloaded anywhere. Play a Beatles album and you'll not only see John and Paul in the background but have a chronology of the group's music, even though it can only be found on CD outside of a Rock Band game.

There's a definite tinge of self-promotion to the feature, though: while useful for filling in details of an artist you don't know much about, it's made clear this is partly a vehicle for getting you to either buy more songs from the Marketplace or to download them if you have a Zune Pass. Thankfully, it's not pressed in your view unless you go looking for it, and the Zune team's care for music is shown in lavishing the same amount of attention on famous artists that have little to no online presence as those in the modern top 40. If nothing else, it's an appreciated level of eye candy that isn't as present on more austere players.

The aforementioned Quickplay is certainly an element the iPod lacks. Like the desktop software, it gives you a quick, visual at-a-glance view of what's been most recently accessed, most played, and importantly, most recently added. Frequent buyers or Zune Pass subscribers might consider having very quick (two taps) access to a just-imported album a defining advantage, and the format isn't limited to music, either. Photos, videos, websites and even radio stations show up in this list, so it's never hard to quickly play a favorite album or revisit a video.

Radio also deserves a mention, though only just. The touchscreen makes it easier to browse airwaves and to select stations, but the main addition is HD Radio. To be honest, we don't find much use in it. While it does provide better sound quality and more variety in music, it's limited in scope (only some stations have it) and its digital nature means that poor reception translates to complete silence rather than the somewhat usable "fuzz" of analog FM. We consider it a bonus rather than a must-have feature.

photos, videos and the stunning OLED screen

The Zune HD's name suggests its highlight is visuals, and this is where the player undoubtedly excels. As we mentioned before, the control scheme is more logically laid out for photos and videos, and multi-touch comes into play here. You can pinch to zoom into and out of photos as well as flick through them while browsing -- it's no secret that this is modelled after the iPod's approach, and it's one area where imitation was all but necessary for an intuitive experience. The interface for browsing both photos and videos is again intuitive and lets you sort by automatic criteria, such as the month a given set of photos were synced with the player. An accelerometer is built into the player and works very well for rotating to display photos at their native aspect ratios.

More than anything, though, the Zune's OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display makes either still or moving images a treat in most cases. In most lighting conditions, the screen is much more vivid than an LCD like that on the iPod. OLEDs don't need backlights, so they produce true blacks and better overall contrast ratios. Colors "pop" on the screen in any mode, but with photos and videos the effect is dramatic and has the virtue of making them very attractive to look at. Given that the 16:9 aspect ratio of the display also eliminates most of the black bars that appear when a video has to be cropped to a non-native format, resulting in a larger real-world picture, we'd go so far as to say that the Zune HD may be the ideal handheld for watching modern movies, TV shows and video podcasts.

There is a caveat, though, and it's potentially significant for certain users. As OLEDs aren't naturally reflective like LCDs, they have a tendency to wash out in bright light, such as a sunny day. We did notice this occasionally , but it wasn't quite the fatal flaw that we'd feared would be present. We'll take the rich color in most conditions, especially as this renders the Zune HD one of the few players whose output still looks good in the dark.

What's inside the player is equally important to video playback. The new Zune is one of the first genuinely mainstream media players to handle 720p (1280x720) video properly. No current reasonably-sized handheld display can actually display this at native resolution, and certainly not the Zune HD's 480x272 panel; however, it's valuable to have support for loading videos without needing to downsize them to fit, as on the iPod and most every other player before it.

That sheer performance also gives Microsoft's hardware a distinct advantage for TV output. Unlike Apple's video out, which just shows a currently visible photo or video in full screen, the Zune HD's optional HD AV dock has a specially designed interface just for the TV that uses a remote control for input. It's much more flexible and lets users play music or otherwise use most of the Zune interface, including videos at the full resolution. There are times where we're inclined to use the Zune HD as a portable media center.

What irks about the Zune HD's video capabilities are hardware limitations and marketing decisions. One that Microsoft can't escape is storage size: with current models limited to 32GB but a typical HD movie consuming anywhere between 4GB and 6GB, regular HD viewers won't have more than a handful of videos on the player at any given time. Moreover, the necessity of buying a full, $90 dock to see video at its native resolution is likely to leave many customers missing out on one of the Zune's staple features.

Internet features and the app dilemma

As much as Microsoft might be loathe to admit it, the Zune HD is the first Zune whose Wi-Fi access is useful on a broad, practical level. The infamous ability to "squirt" songs and photos is gone; Wi-Fi sync has always been partly useful, but on a basic level shopping the Zune Marketplace is now decidedly easier thanks to quicker navigation and the option of typing in searches.

Importantly, though, this is the first Zune to have a web browser, which instantly opens the door to using the Zune as a general-purpose Internet device, not just a connected media player. It also gives the Zune wider options for where it can connect: at least in theory, the Zune can login at coffee shops and other locations that need a website login to work.

In practice, the browser isn't quite as strong as it would promise to be. Based on the Internet Explorer 6 engine, it's mostly accurate and handles typical pages correctly. It also takes advantage of the accelerometer very well: pages are reformatted almost instantly the moment the Zune is tilted on its side. But using an aging web engine is also a clear problem when the Zune is compared against the Safari browser with the iPod touch. Web browsing just isn't as engaging: sites load much slower, sites occasionally show visual artifacts, and any site that uses the very latest web code (such as HTML) is ruled out. Multi-touch input is present but doesn't work as well here as in the photo browser. Pinching is slightly "loose" in that it may zoom slightly further in or out than you intended, and double-taps are more likely to not zoom in far enough to properly highlight text.

Some gripes also exist with the onscreen keyboard. It's mostly positive and takes a few useful cues (once again) from the iPod, like a visual confirmation of the key you're about to press or intelligently adding shortcuts to common text entries (think ".com") when relevant. But as it's on a slightly smaller and noticeably narrower display, mistakes are slightly more common than on Apple's hardware. We also greatly missed the auto-correct feature both to fix mistakes and to speed up entry, although it does remember past web addresses to save time.

The combination of flaws adds up to an experience that leaves web browsing to more deliberate tasks and mobile-optimized sites (a number of iPhone-aware sites recognized the Zune, on this note). We'd use the Zune HD for updating Twitter or checking webmail, but we can only see ourselves occasionally using it for day-to-day web browsing.

Perhaps the most upsetting feature for anyone on the fence between Apple and Microsoft is the climate for apps: namely, that there isn't much of one. On launch, just nine apps are available and mainly involve two minor utilities (a calculator and a weather app) as well as a handful of 2D board games. 3D games have been promised by the end of the year, including Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition, but no one should buy the Zune HD today with the expectation of using it for productive tasks or as a substitute for a Nintendo DS.

Worse, many of these apps load slowly and have pre-launch ads. Having to view a Kia ad just before a game is unlikely to persuade users to return. We suspect this will change as more apps appear or as feedback possibly results in a reversal of the ad-based policy, especially for the promised, frequent-use apps promised later like Facebook and Twitter.

Even if this is the case, though, users just shouldn't anticipate software availability on the level of the iPod's App Store, at least in this incarnation. Microsoft has publicly cautioned that the initial app selection will be limited to first-party titles and therefore that specific app needs aren't likely to be met. It's been speculated that Microsoft is waiting until it can sync development of Windows Mobile and Zune apps before opening the floodgates to third-party development; until then, buy the Zune HD as a media player first.

audio quality and battery life

Gauging sound quality is a subjective effort as it can vary widely based on the quality of the encoding as well as your listening equipment. Even so, we're generally pleased with the pure output of the Zune HD when using a good pair of in-ear buds, such as the Shure S2c or, yes, Apple's In-Ear Headphones. It doesn't feel like the Zune brings out quite as much detail as an iPod under the same conditions, but the sound is warm enough and will certainly let you hear the difference between steps up in earbuds or headphones.

Upgrades from the Zune 80 and 120 will be disappointed to learn that the stock earbuds aren't the Premium Headphones that came standard with the hard drive players in the past. We don't think too many will miss these, though. Prices are lower with the Zune HD, and we've often recommended that audiophiles look for their own earbuds rather than pay the extra expense for pre-supplied earbuds that often will only sound mildly better than the very cheapest models. For those who hold out with the default, the audio quality is strictly average for the price, but the anti-tangle magnets on each earpiece are more useful than for most in the class.

There's little to complain about in terms of longevity. Officially, the Zune nets 33 hours of music with Wi-Fi off and 8.5 hours of video. In our short testing time we had reason to believe the music playback figures were accurate, but we're skeptical about video. Microsoft's battery claims for video assume an unacceptably low 320x240 resolution for playback. No one is going to play a video at this resolution, and battery life will go down sharply just with 640x480 (standard-definition TV) clips, let alone 720p. Also, be ready for battery life to shrink with a heavy amount of browsing or with apps that heavily tax either the 3D rendering or Internet features. This isn't different from the iPod, but it's a reality of handheld devices.

a note on Zune 4.0 software

For all the changes made to the Zune hardware, there's actually not much to write about the 4.0 update on the PC side. It adds Quickplay, which isn't as useful on the desktop, and now lets users buy or rent HD movies through Zune Marketplace. The most useful feature is Smart DJ. There's no doubt it's a clone of Apple's iTunes Genius, but it's at least a tangible improvement. It now creates automatic playlists based not just on single songs but also whole albums or artists. And if you do subscribe to a Zune Pass, you can use the Smart DJ to make playlists based on the entire Zune Marketplace catalog -- a definite guarantee that content can always stay fresh.

In fact, the other most notable addition on the software side is web access to that Zune Pass, which now doesn't require the Zune software at all. On a computer with a modern browser, even a Mac, you can play anything from the Marketplace for no extra fee. The feature isn't unique but is a definite advantage for those who forget their Zunes at home. As a whole, the Zune software remains easy to use and visually attractive but isn't a revolution.

wrapping up

Coming to the Zune HD, we were afraid that it would reflect the stereotype of a Microsoft 1.0 product: interesting and full of potential, but far too rough to be enjoyable. That was doubly true as Microsoft's poor reputation with Windows Mobile touchscreen phones didn't offer much hope that the company would mend its ways, even with promises of capacitive multi-touch input.

Thankfully, most of these fears weren't warranted. The latest Zune as a media player is surprisingly accomplished. Quirks with music navigation and the cost of extra features aside, it's a modernization of an already good media experience that comes with some technically very advanced features. We'd recommend it most for the sort who watches TV shows on the subway commute to work or movies while waiting in the airport. The screen is large and beautiful, and those who want to port their media around the living room without a full, dedicated set-top box have their first truly viable option.

Dock pricing aside, the pricing of the devices themselves are right. There are few $220 players that have the 16GB Zune HD's feature set, and at 32GB ($290) it's still very competitive with not only Apple but Samsung, Sony and most others in the field.

What gives us pause is Microsoft's plans for mobile apps and Internet use. The situation could be very different in a year's time, but the software library and web browser right now are strictly secondary in the Zune HD's world where they're at least as important on the iPod as media functions. If you look at devices like these as pocketable computers, the Zune is for now very limited where Apple's feels like a genuine platform from which to check the Internet, play games and in some cases complete work.

The iPhone question also has to be raised. So much development has been put into the Zune as a media player at a time when converged smartphones are steadily replacing dedicated devices; there's no guarantee the Zune HD will be completely satisfying in a year's time, and owners of devices like the iPhone or HTC Touch Diamond2 won't have as much incentive to upgrade.

Still, for those who want a player first and everything else second, the Zune HD is a thoroughly enjoyable device. In fact, it's the definitive choice for anyone averse to the Apple ecosystem but who still wants an advanced touchscreen player.

- Sleek, fairly durable design.

- Excellent OLED multi-touch screen.

- Mostly very polished interface.

- Capable web browser.

- 720p playback; special TV interface with a dock.

- Good audio quality and battery life.

- No serious app platform.

- Web browser is tangibly worse than Apple's.

- Odd priorities in music controls.

- No major overhaul to the Zune software.