Review: Microsoft Zune HD

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Microsoft's newest digital media player is the Nvidia Tegra-powered Zune HD. In addition to sporting one of the sleekest designs on the market right now, the 2.6-ounce device features a 3.3-inch capacitive OLED touchscreen, WiFi connectivity for web browsing and streaming/downloading, HD radio receiver, 720p HD video support, and wireless access to the Zune Marketplace.

While all of this sounds very impressive on paper, does the Zune HD really "deliver the next level in music and video experiences"? Is it really "portable perfection" as Microsoft claims? Read on to find out.

Contributing Editor Chris King and I have teamed up for this review, which is presented in a "he said, she said" format. All of Chris' comments are in blue.

This review is based on the Zune HD running firmware version 4.1 (137).

System Specifications

Capacities:
16GB, 32GB
Supported audio:
MP3, WMA, WMA Lossless, AAC-LC
Supported video:
MPEG-4, WMV, H.264
Extras:
Web browser, apps & games, HD radio, photo viewer,
Zune HD social
Display: 3.3" OLED touchscreen (480 x 272)
Dimensions: 4.02" x 2.07" x 0.35"
Weight: 2.6 ounces
Colors:
Black (16GB), platinum (32GB)

Check out the unboxing for a look at the Zune HD's packaging and included accessories.

Design

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With the Zune HD, Microsoft proves that popular phrases like "third time's a charm" exist for a reason. Unlike the first two generations of the player, which were often criticized for their uninspired and some might even say ugly designs, the new Zune is an undeniably gorgeous, stylish, sexy piece of hardware.

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Not only is it exponentially better-looking than previous Zunes, but I dare say that it's a cut above other companies' flagship touchscreen media players as well. Shown above from left to right and bottom to top: iPod touch (first generation), Cowon S9, Samsung P3, Zune HD, and Sony X Series.

Even though aesthetics are subjective, I still can't imagine anyone being unimpressed by the Zune HD's good looks. The combination of minimalist styling, shapely plastic sandwiched between brushed aluminum plates, angular back, exposed screws, and glossy glass screen is too beautifully put together and well balanced to be unappreciated.

Build quality is equally outstanding, with no loose parts, creaking, wiggling, or anything else that could be evidence of questionable craftsmanship. Despite its light weight, the player feels incredibly solid and substantial in hand.

I was surprised when I first held the Zune HD in my hand because it was much smaller and lighter than I had expected. The design definitely takes a different direction than the iPod touch, but it is a welcome change. The Zune HD seems like a device that can take some rough handling, and come out no worse for the wear. The available colors of black or platinum are very nice as well, and with Zune Originals, which provide the option of custom colors and laser etching, the device can be personalized to fit one's individual style.

Display

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The display on the Zune HD is what sets it apart from most traditional PMPs on the market. While the 3.3-inch OLED screen may be a bit smaller due to a fairly large dark frame, it makes up for lack of size with its awesome color and clarity. The resolution of 480 x 272 is merely sufficient, however, and maybe a bit low these days. Overall, though, the screen is beautiful.

The capacitive touchscreen is responsive and provides eye-popping colors, which tend to be better indoors due to the less-reflective nature of OLED screens. Out of the box, the default brightness setting will be more than adequate for most conditions, but in bright sunlight it suffers a bit and looks washed out. Setting the brightness to maximum tends to solve this one shortcoming with the screen, but of course that comes at the expense of battery life. People who are used to the iPod touch may find the screen harder to use outdoors, but users of the similarly equipped Sony X Series will be used to it.

I agree that the display is truly stunning and very bright. I'm really impressed by how similar to AMOLEDs these OLEDs look, as my eyes wouldn't have been able to tell that the Zune had the latter. Viewing angles are great, too, and though there's been some debate over the true value of an OLED over an LCD, I still hope that more mobile devices will be released with this kind of screen in the future.

Controls

As a touchscreen player, the Zune HD obviously makes good use of its capacitive touchscreen for navigation and general user interaction. To supplement that, the unit also offers a few hardware buttons.

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The upside-down trapezoid beneath the display is the home button. Pressing it while you're in another part of the system takes you back to the home screen; if you're already on the home screen, the button lets you toggle between the main menu and the Quickplay menu. It can also be used to awaken the player from standby.

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The on/off button at the top of the Zune HD (centered between two non-buttons) is for turning the player on and off, of course, and also for restarting (press and hold for 10 seconds) and truly shutting down the device (press and hold for 3 seconds then swipe the "power off" screen down).

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On the left side of the player is the media button that should've been a volume rocker.

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Pressing it launches an overlay that displays on-screen volume controls, playback controls, and the battery level. The same overlay can also be accessed by tapping the album cover on the Now Playing screen.

A standard 3.5mm headphone jack and the proprietary Zune port for charging, syncing, and connecting to various accessories are at the bottom of the unit.

For me, the controls are fairly intuitive. I agree that the media button on the left side definitely should have been a volume rocker. Many users will probably find themselves clicking that button up and down to change the volume when they first use the Zune HD. Actually, I hate to admit it, but that is how I was trying to do it.

Don't feel bad, Chris. I still find myself doing that! It's not easy to unlearn things, especially when the placement of the button automatically lends itself to misleading users into thinking it's a volume rocker.

User Interface

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The Zune HD user interface is truly a thing of beauty, and it raises the bar for others to follow. The large text coupled with the bright, vivid icons make it easy to get around, and the Quickplay menu on the left side of the main menu allows for easy access to favorites. When an item is selected, it either spins or zooms in an almost 3D-like fashion, and everything interacts wonderfully with the sensitive touchscreen. The Zune HD offers a wonderful user experience; everything seems well executed and balanced.

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The Quickplay menu (shown above) is one of my favorite UI features on the Zune HD. Not only does it show what is currently playing or paused, but it also allows users to set Pins (bookmarks of favorite songs or albums) for easy access. One other nice touch is the ability to see your recent history, and this covers everything, including web sites, HD radio stations, and apps. Of course, albums recently played show up also, as do all recent additions to your music, video, or picture collection. The latter feature is very useful, considering it is sometimes easy to lose track of certain things that have been added, especially for those with large media collections.

Unlike Chris, I don't think the Zune HD's user interface raises any bar, anywhere. The UI is definitely one of the player's strong points, but navigation isn't where it could be (more on this in the "Audio" section below) and there's sometimes a long-enough lag between certain actions that I think the system has crashed. I've read a couple of reports about stability issues, which I haven't experienced, but the extra second or two of staring at a black screen without knowing whether the player has given up on you can certainly be nerve-wracking.

The UI in general is responsive, but it often feels like it's trying to catch up to the even more responsive touchscreen, which is strange. While I do like the interface, I don't love it or really want to see it emulated by other companies.

I can understand where you're coming from, Jenn, since you have a nice collection of PMPs. My basis for comparison would have to either be my iPhone or my Haier ibiza Rhapsody, and the music UI for both of those look downright plain next to the Zune HD. You would definitely be more in tune with what has been happening in the PMP world, while for me the Zune HD is my first dedicated PMP purchase in quite some time. I guess that helps to explain why I am so impressed by the fancy new UI.

Desktop Software

Since I'm a gadget collector and am always using more than one of the same kind of device at once, I prefer DAPs/PMPs that do not require software to use. Software is always needed for syncing and sometimes required for playlist creation/management and video conversion, regardless of the player, but what I'm referring to here is the simple task of getting content onto the device. My favorite method is always drag-and-drop either through Windows Explorer or My Computer, which the Zune HD doesn't support.

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So just as non-hacking iPod users are forced to use iTunes, Zune HD users have no choice but to use the new Zune 4.0 desktop software. The Windows-only software is an improvement from previous versions with a more polished look, faster response times, and new features like wireless syncing, Quickplay, Smart DJ, Mini Mod e, and Mixview. It's relatively straightforward to use, though beginners may require a bit of guidance, and it offers everything you'd expect from an advanced media program.

However, if you don't like being trapped in an ecosystem that makes choices for you, then the software will probably be a thorn in your side. I don't detest having to use it, but I do resent it a little. I'd rather not have to install Zune 4.0 on all of my computers or else be forced to use the device with only a single computer. I don't mind that I need to use software for playlists and syncing (I don't use/do either anyway), but I'm definitely not a fan of having to use it just to get media content onto my player.

The last time I tried the Zune software was a few years back, when the original Zune was released. The new Zune 4.0 is much more refined, and it is very simple to organize content. Like Jenn mentioned, the closed ecosystem makes using the Zune software mandatory, but to me that is not a problem. As long as I can get my media on the player and it works, I am happy. Of course, I don't use the desktop software as much as most people do because of the winning combination of the Zune HD's built-in WiFi and the Zune Marketplace.

Zune Marketplace

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By far, this is my favorite feature of the Zune HD experience. The Marketplace allows users to download and purchase music and apps either through the desktop software or while on the go, simply by connecting to a WiFi network. For $14.99 per month, you can also get a Zune Pass, which is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for music lovers (more on this below).

Right now, apps are all free and only being developed in-house by Microsoft, but in the future it is easy to envision an app store not unlike the one Apple has had great success with. The Marketplace will handle this along with regular music purchases, just like iTunes does in the Apple ecosystem.

As Chris has shown, it's difficult to look at the Zune Marketplace and not think of Apple's app store. Microsoft's efforts pale in comparison in terms of content and ease of use so far, but I like that I can buy and download media without having to connect to a computer and fire up the Zune 4.0 software. On-the-go shopping is a feature I've become incredibly spoiled with on my iPhones (I've still never bought anything through iTunes on my computer) and one I would've complained about had it been missing on the Zune.

Audio

Although it has evolved into being able to do much more, music playback is still at the core of the Zune HD. Yes, some could say that it's moving into MID territory or that it's a full-fledged portable media center with its HD output capabilities, but for me the device is primarily about music. In the most simplified terms, the unit is really just an MP3 player with a lot of advanced extra features.

So if music playback is one of the Zune HD's primary functions, let's take a look at how well it handles the task.

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Navigation is somewhat intuitive, though certain items aren't as immediately/easily accessible as I would like them to be.

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For example, at the top of the music menu is a horizontal list of sorting/browsing options: songs, genres, albums, artists, and playlists. Only three of the options can be seen at a time, so an extra swipe of the list (or tap of an option) is required to get to what you want if it isn't already displayed on the screen. Though it may not have been as visually interesting, icons or a smaller font could have been used so that all five options were always visible.

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A similar issue exists with the "browsability" of long lists. Rather than a vertical or horizontal alphabet strip/ribbon that would allow quick access to letters, an alphabet matrix can only be brought up by tapping on a symbol/letter in the main list first.

I also think it takes a few too many screen taps to go back to root menus, change the EQ, and switch browsing options. An always-present item like the magnifying glass icon on the Sony X Series playback screen, which provides quick access to all of the browsing options, would be a welcomed addition to the Zune HD.

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The Now Playing screen is incredibly striking, with the player automatically using a photo of the artist in the background, large text displaying pertinent information above and below the album artwork, an oversized back button in the top-left corner, and a trio of playback options (shuffle, repeat, and rate) at the bottom. Basic playback controls are only accessible through the overlay that, as mentioned earlier, can be brought up by pressing the media button on the left of the Zune HD or by tapping the album art. This is a bit cumbersome, as it requires an extra button press or screen tap just to do something simple like play/pause or adjust volume, but unnecessary taps seem to be par for the course.

There aren't any visualizations to look at while music is playing, but there's an attractive screen saver that displays the artist's name, album title, album artwork, song title, and song length in varying text and scroll styles on top of the same artist photo used on the Now Playing screen.

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Another feature I like is that pressing and holding any media item (not just music) brings up a context menu that allows you to delete the file from the player, pin it to the Quickplay menu, add it to the Now Playing list (music only), or use it as your background (photos only). Very handy.

The screen that shows while listening to music is very nice, making other players look very plain. Surprisingly, tapping on the album art does not make it larger like on many other PMPs; all it does is bring up the on-screen controls. Tapping on the song title brings up a list of all tracks on the album, upon which you have a few seconds to make another selection before it reverts back to the previous screen. I wish this timer was selectable because it has a tendency to go back before I'm ready to make another selection.

Also, like Jenn mentioned above, certain items are hard to get to or require more effort than they should.

Zune Pass

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Rhapsody fans will be familiar with the Zune Pass subscription model since it allows you unlimited downloads all the time. But one major difference in Zune Pass is that you get to legally download 10 songs each month to keep forever. So if you are in the habit of purchasing an album per month, for only about $5 more you get access to a virtual library of hundreds of thousands of songs. Not only can you download tracks and albums to store on the Zune HD for later enjoyment, but you can also stream music wirelessly using Zune Pass.

I much prefer this method of stocking my player with music, as I have written in the past. The ability to immediately connect to the Zune Marketplace on the Zune HD and get music from any artist is priceless to me and is also the reason I don't use the desktop software very much. Combined with my Sprint MiFi portable broadband router, I can listen to anything at any time.

Obviously, not everyone likes the subscription model, but Microsoft gives you a free two-week trial of the service when you first setup your new Zune HD so you can see whether it's a good fit for you. I plan on keeping my subscription because the flexibility it affords me is worth the price of admission.

I've never been a fan of subscription-based music services, as my musical tastes aren't varied enough to justify another recurring bill, but the ability to keep 10 songs per month is very attractive. That plus the wireless streaming and the unlimited downloads make the Zune Pass a killer feature for music junkies and certainly one-ups all of the touchscreen DAP/PMP competition.

Hopefully you're taking advantage of the free two-week trial, Jenn. If not, give Zune Pass a try. I think you'll be surprised by how much new music you can come across. For example, let's say you're a fan of The Cars. You can just go into the Marketplace menu, search for the group, and once they're selected, you get a screen showing all of their albums listed in chronological order, newest to oldest. Across the top of the screen are various categories that let you see their top songs in the Marketplace, pictures of the band, and their bio. The last category is called "Related" and that pulls up similar bands, so in this case I see The Police, The Go-Go's, Billy Idol, Talking Heads, and The Pretenders. Select one of those, and you can see even more related bands.

The subscription music service gives you the ability to discover new music, or just run across a song from long ago that had been forgotten. Now, of course if your taste in music involves things that are not carried in the Zune Marketplace, then everything I just said goes out the door.

Sound Quality

While the EQ was removed from the second-generation Zune line, it has been re-included on the Zune HD. The bad news is that there are only preset EQs available (acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, and rock), but sound quality is actually better when the EQ is turned off so it doesn't really matter.

Using a pair of Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 Pro canalphones, which are almost twice the cost of the 16GB Zune HD, my ears report the player's output as a tad dull with more priority given to the midrange than anything else. Bass isn't muddy but it lacks punch, while trebles lack the sparkle and clarity that my ears prefer. In a purely subjective side-by-side comparison with the Sony X Series and Cowon S9, I'd personally give the sound quality award to the S9 with no EQ or sound enhancement enabled and the X Series with a custom EQ and sound enhancements enabled. The Zune HD does sound good, but the S9 and X Series sound better to me. Your mileage will vary depending on your earphones, music, and personal preferences.

I'll admit that I am no audiophile. I like my music and I like it loud, so I don't try and catch every little nuance in it. My primary use of a PMP is in my car, so I tend to listen through speakers more often than headphones. And when using headphones, as long as it is in stereo, then I am good to go.

From what I can tell so far of the Zune HD, the sound is excellent and seems to be better than my iPhone 3GS. Of course, if I used some high-end buds like Jenn uses, I would probably be able to give more detail on the sound.

I'm not an audiophile either, but my ears started to bleed when they heard you say the Zune HD's sound "seems to be better" than the iPhone 3GS. Of course it's better!

I was asking for it with my comments about the sound, I knew it as soon as I wrote it. What can I say? It does seem to be better; that is simple and straight to the point. Oh, and you better get some gauze to keep the blood off of those triple.fi 10s!

Video

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For video, the Zune HD takes that gorgeous OLED screen and uses it to the fullest. The blacks are black, instead of that muddy-gray black that most traditional backlit LCD screens display. Getting videos onto the Zune requires that they first be converted into a compatible format (WMV, MPEG-4, or H.264), unless they're already supported as is. From there, it's just a matter of using the Zune desktop software to transfer everything over. HD-quality videos are downscaled to fit the Zune HD screen, but they play in the full 1280 x 720 resolution at 30 fps when using the optional HD AV Dock ($90).

From the few videos I have tried so far, the quality seems excellent and playback is stutter-free. Admittedly, I don't use my PMPs for video very much (I'm more of a music guy). For me, I'd rather use a small computer to watch videos so I don't have to worry about conversions or video formats. But for people who travel heavily for work, I can see the allure of a small device like the Zune HD to keep them entertained on long flights or train rides. And with the extended battery life of a dedicated PMP for video, it can be a much better choice than a computer. The Zune HD has arguably the best video quality I have seen thus far.

All of my videos are XviD and DivX files, so the Zune's lack of AVI support is disheartening. Yes, this isn't the only player on the market that doesn't support this container, but considering how many do support it (e.g., Archos, Cowon S9, Samsung P3), conversion just isn't worth my time. It isn't a difficult task, but why bother with converting a video that already plays perfectly on several other devices I have?

Having said that, I agree with Chris that video playback is excellent, though I'll add that the video options and controls are pretty weak. I personally think video quality is better on Archos PMPs given their larger, higher resolution screens, but the Zune HD has nothing to be ashamed of (aside from the "I'm only HD when hooked up to an optional dock" in its name, of course).

The whole conversion process is what has kept me from using my PMPs for video playback too. It just seems silly when I can just load anything onto one of my handheld computers and play it natively. I don't know, maybe I'll try and actually use this feature more on the Zune HD since it seems like I am not taking full advantage of the screen.

Internet

If you're interested in the Zune HD because you're hoping that its Internet Explorer-based mobile browser is better than Safari on the iPhone/iPod touch, let me say right off the bat that it isn't. Even though Safari isn't the most robust mobile browser around, it's still set the bar for usability, enjoyment, navigation, finger- friendliness, responsiveness, and (in the case of the ARM Cortex A8-powered iPhone 3GS and third-generation iPod touch) speed that no other browser so far has been able to surpass across the board.

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That said, the Zune's web browser is good and quite usable with few frustrations once you know what you're getting (and what you're not).

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Page rendering is excellent (though text is completely unreadable without zooming), the on-screen keyboard is easy enough to use, double-tap to zoom and multitouch gestures like "pinching" and "spreading" are accurate, panning/dragging is quick, and there's automatic screen rotation thanks to the built-in accelerometer.

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The interface is also extremely clean and minimal, allowing more screen estate to be devoted to web pages and actual content. The only navigational element on the screen is a thin strip at the bottom with back, favorite, and Bing search icons. Tapping the three dots on that strip brings up the URL bar; touching anywhere inside that bar calls up the on-screen keyboard, which oddly doesn't fill up the entire screen in landscape mode.

The browser is definitely a huge step in the right direction for Microsoft, not to mention the best mobile browser the company has ever made, but there's still room for improvement. In addition to Flash support, it would benefit from multiple pages/tabs, a CPU that enabled faster load times, predictive text input, and a setting to allow the user to decide whether the browser should automatically default to mobile versions of websites (which it currently does).

I am OK with the web browser, but only because I know its shortcomings can and will be addressed in future firmware updates. It makes me wonder why Microsoft hasn't adapted this browser into its Windows Mobile platform yet. Like Jenn mentioned, once you realize the limitations, you can lower your expectations and get good usage out of the browser. The automatic switching between portrait and landscape mode is lightning quick, but it is frustrating for mobile versions of sites to load by default. If there isn't a "go to full version" option on the site, then you are pretty much stuck with a WAP-style browser.

Because of the smaller and narrower screen, the keyboard is a bit harder to use than that of the iPhone or iPod touch. In portrait mode it stretches across the entire screen but as Jenn noted, it doesn't in landscape mode, leaving a key-sized space on each side.

Overall, the browser is serviceable. Once Microsoft can get it optimized so page loads are faster, and maybe add in a few preferences, it will be able to stand on its own.

Extras

Apps & Games

At the time of this writing, the Zune Marketplace offers two applications (MSN weather and calculator) and seven games (Sudoku, Texas Hold 'Em, Chess, Space Battle 2, Goo Splat, Hexic, and Shell Game of the Future) for the Zune HD. All the titles are free and can be downloaded directly onto the player via WiFi or using the desktop software.

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The apps take a moment to load and picture/video ads (yes, ads!) are shown before games launch, but it's hard to argue with free. Everything is still in its infancy as well, so improvements are bound to be made through firmware upgrades as the months wear on. Likewise, though the current selection is very small and there are no stand-out titles just yet, the future release of 3D games (to put that Nvidia Tegra chip to good use) and apps like Twitter and Facebook will eventually make this particular feature on the Zune HD more compelling.

If the Zune Marketplace can eventually offer even just a fraction of the useful apps and games that Apple currently has in their store, th en it will be a great success. Right now, that just is not the case and the selection of titles is abysmal.

I would have actually preferred for this feature to be excluded until it was ready, similar to what Apple did on the iPhone. The apps can take almost 10 seconds to load, which is unacceptable. I can understand why the games take long since they are showing those annoying ads, but let's hope they do away with them and speed up those slow load times. The Tegra is a powerful chipset, but the way it is being used now almost reminds of a computer without the proper video drivers.

Yeah, the apps/games section definitely doesn't seem ready for prime time just yet, but I think it's better that the player was launched with it than without it. If you look at it as just a little teaser of what's eventually to come, then you can certainly see the potential. I'm not sure it will ever be able to compete with the selection available in the App Store, especially if Microsoft continues to insist on developing everything in-house or only with select third parties, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it grows.

HD Radio

While most people think that the "HD" stands for "High-Definition," it actually stands for "Hybrid Digital." This digital technology lets stations offer multiple feeds while using the same bandwidth as one traditional analog station would. You can learn more about HD radio here.

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The Zune HD is the first device of its kind to offer an HD radio, and I'm sure there will be more to follow. The HD radio feature not only shows the station call letters, but also the artist and song currently playing. You can even save your favorite channels and add songs to your Zune Marketplace shopping cart for purchase. With WiFi, you can listen to a song on the radio and then purchase it with just a few screen taps!

Here in my hometown, we have at least 4-5 stations that broadcast in HD, so I like this feature. While I would never use a regular FM radio, the HD radio offers more choices since most HD stations offer two different feeds. When listening in my car, the HD radio sounds far better than the FM radio on my factory stereo and more like CD-quality.

Is it blasphemous for me to say that I would rather have had a standard FM tuner and something like Pandora or Slacker instead of the HD radio? I guess that doesn't really make sense since you can just as easily stream music of your choosing with a Zune Pass, but Slacker and its pals are much cheaper if streaming is all you're after. I think I'm just not enough of a radio fan to appreciate the Zune's HD radio, though I can see the value and fun of being able to tag songs for later purchase.

Actually, I would have to agree with you on Pandora or Slacker, but I still would want the HD radio. Even the Sony X Series has a Slacker app, so maybe we will see something like that on the Zune HD in the future.

Photo Viewer

The Zune HD's photo viewer is nothing out of the ordinary. Images do look stunning because of the OLED screen, but other than that, everything is standard fare: zooming, setting as background, viewing in a slideshow.

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Ditto on what Jenn said because I just don't ever use this feature. But those that do will have a great experience because of the screen and the ability to view slideshows on a large TV or monitor when using the optional Zune HD AV dock. The photo viewer is also handy for people who like to carry along digital photo albums to share with unsuspecting family members, friends, and coworkers.

Zune HD Social

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The ability of previous generation players to wirelessly "squirt" songs to one another has been replaced by sending a Marketplace album link to another user's inbox instead.

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This seems less social to me, though at least now you don't have to actually find someone locally who has a Zune to be able to share your music. The downside is that while squirting used to allow the "squirtee" to be able to listen to the full song up to 3 times, the new inbox method only lets the person hear the full song if he/she has a Zune Pass; if not, then a 30-second clip is all that's offered.

Maybe if enough of the readers here on the site get a Zune HD, we can set up a "Pocketables Social." That would be a neat experiment, right, Jenn?

Not if my inbox is going to be flooded with songs from The Cars or Billy Idol!

Battery Life

According to Microsoft, the official battery ratings are 33 hours for music (with wireless off) and 8.5 hours of video. Of course, real world usage will tend to disprove the official ratings, but so far I have been very pleased with my battery life. I haven't had my Zune HD for even a full week yet, and I've only charged it 3 times, including the initial charge when I first opened it. Keep in mind that my usage is with wireless on about half the time and volume cranked up to the full 30 level while in the car using the auxiliary input on my stereo.

If I had to give a number, I would say I am getting about 3-4 hours of straight wireless streaming through Zune Pass, which to me is amazing for such a small device. Battery life seems about on par with what I get from my iPhone. Jenn probably uses hers more without wireless, so let's see what she has to say about her battery life experiences.

Yep, wireless is almost always off on my Zune HD since I don't have a Zune Pass or willingly choose to use the web browser. I got my player the day it launched last week and have just plugged it in for its second charge (the first charge being the initial out-of-the-box one). Microsoft's estimates are of course the best possible times yielded from usage that would most likely not mimic anyone's real world habits, but those numbers (especially the video one) are impressive and nothing to complain about. I get tired of using the player for the day way before the battery runs out, so I'm happy.

One little tidbit about the battery life that I read somewhere is that OLED screens actually use more power than their LCD counterparts, which is why Microsoft went with the all-black interface. Supposedly using the web browser, with its mostly white background color, uses even more power. Maybe this is wrong, but hopefully one of our readers can clear this up for us.

What We Would Change

If I could remake the Zune HD from scratch, I'd add a microSD card slot, a CPU to enable faster web browsing, and hardware volume buttons. I'd also include the AV dock as a bundled accessory so that the "HD" in the player's name could actually be meaningful to everyone, not just those who spent an extra $90 for the optional peripheral.

From a software/firmware standpoint, I'd like the ability to add content to the player without the use of Zune 4.0, better codec support, a custom EQ, and maybe a slightly tweaked UI to address some of the navigational quirks I mentioned earlier.

My wishlist of changes really doesn't involve the hardware much at all, with the exception of the hard volume rocker and maybe a smaller screen bezel. I like the hardware; it is very well executed. I'm sure a 64GB is coming before long and maybe even a larger-screen version too.

Otherwise, everything I want can be accomplished with software updates, and I am confident that most will be addressed eventually. For example, when selecting an album off the Quickplay or history list, it immediately starts playing the first track. I would like the ability to choose the track. Also, more customization options would be nice, like being able to turn off the lock screen. With a capacitive touchscreen, there is not much of an issue with accidental screen taps. Also, like I mentioned before, a more robust browser would be nice, along with simplifying some elements of the UI.

A larger-screen version? Madness! If I start seeing rumors of a Zune HD tablet popping up alongside the incessant iTablet headlines soon, you're going to be in trouble. I think we'll see a Zune phone first (how's that for fueling rumors?).

Well, by larger I just meant something slightly larger, similar in screen size to an iPhone or maybe an Archos. And yes, let's fuel the Zune phone rumors.

Conclusion

The Zune HD is an interesting device and is most easily compared to the iPod touch. It is because of this comparison that some will deem it a failure, while others will praise its added features. With smartphones becoming more sophisticated and encroaching on the PMP's traditional turf, the Zune HD is not for everyone. Most people do not need a separate device to play music or watch video, and I am actually in that group. I could get by with using just my iPhone 3GS, but the Zune HD has the one thing that got my attention: subscription music through Zune Pass. While Apple recently approved the Rhapsody app for the iPhone and iPod touch, the sound quality is capped at an awful 64kbps; Zune Pass is at a much better 192kbps.

Very interesting point, Chris. Without the Zune Pass, would the Zune HD appeal to consumers who are satisfied with listening to music and watching videos on their phones? I would think so, since subscription music and streaming services are available for other platforms, yet many reviews have cited the unlimited downloads as a major strength that could be the deciding factor for those choosing between this player and another device. It clearly played a large role in your decision to get the Zune HD, yet I didn't know much about it when I decided to get mine.

Zune_hd_final

I admit that I am not the target Zune HD customer since I will rarely if ever use the video feature of the device. But when you think about it, maybe I am the target customer because of the $14.99 I will be sending to Microsoft each month. Either way, I am thrilled with the Zune HD and excited to see where it goes from here. The music listening experience far exceeds anything available on an iPod, and this is from a guy who's about as pro-Apple as you can get.

I don't think I'm the target customer either (unless Microsoft is aiming for the wallets of the gadget addict who just wants things for the sake of wanting them), but I can understand how the player could be everything a particular kind of consumer would want. Those who blindly hate anything from Apple, for example, would be hard pressed to find anything else that comes closer to being an "iPod killer." It looks fantastic, offers a ton of advanced features, comes with an app store (albeit a weak one), sounds great, has impressive battery life, and of course there are all the benefits that come from the Zune Pass.

There's no question that Microsoft did an excellent job with the Zune HD. Although it isn't without its shortcomings, it will improve over time with firmware updates and a more mature app store. The player is certainly the best Zune to date and a fairly well rounded DAP/PMP in general, but it doesn't excel in any one area for me to choose it over another device I have. I prefer a "master" over a "jack of all trades," so I'll continue to use the Sony X Series for music, Archos 5 for video, iPhone 3GS for apps/games and light web browsing, and UMPCs/MIDs for full browsing on the go. For anyone looking for a solid all-in-one device that isn't a phone, however, the Zune HD is definitely something to consider.

For those looking for a modern interpretation of on-the-go media consumption, I believe the Zune HD is currently the way to go. The price-to-performance ratio might not be up there with the iPod touch just yet, but Microsoft seems committed to doing this the right way and they are off to a great start.

Buy the 16GB Zune HD ($219.99) from Amazon.
Buy the 32GB Zune HD ($289.99) from Amazon.

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Jenn K. Lee

Jenn K. Lee is the founder of Pocketables. She loves gadgets the way most women love shoes and purses. The pieces in her tech wardrobe that go with everything are currently the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Sony Tablet P, and Nexus 7, but there are still a couple of vintage UMPCs/MIDs in the back of her closet.

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