Microsoft Zune HD: The Technologizer Review

Microsoft's first touchscreen media player is slick and capable, but holes remain on the service side.

By  |  Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:45 am

Zune HDWhy have Microsoft’s Zune media players failed to make even the tiniest of dents in the iPod’s market dominance? There are multiple reasons, but one stands out: They’ve been stuck in a hopeless game of catch-up, and they’re always way, way behind.

The original Zune was a hard disk player that debuted in 2006–right when Apple’s flash-based iPod Nano was becoming the world’s best-selling MP3 player. In 2007, Microsoft announced Nano-like Zunes that used flash storage–a couple of months after Apple shipped the sexier touch-screen iPod Touch. And now Microsoft is releasing the Zune HD, a touch-screen model, but one without the awesome power of the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. To riff on the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, Microsoft is like a hockey player who keeps skating to where the puck was…not to where it is right now, and certainly not to where it will be.

But wait. The Zune HD may be a mere media player, but it’s anything but a retread. It packs worthwhile technologies that no iPod does, such as an OLED screen and HD output. It’s very much its own device in terms of industrial design and user interface, both of which are nicely done. In short, the Zune HD is cool in ways that no previous Zune has been. And even though the HD has its share of imperfections and limitations, it’s easy to imagine some folks preferring it to any media player that hails from Cupertino.

Sizewise, the new Zune is noticeably more pocketable than the iPod Touch and its soulmate, the iPhone–it’s a midsized gizmo, in an aluminum-and-plastic case that fits your hand easily and looks good in it. (The jokes about the homely brown Zune can end now.) Here it is flanked by the new iPod Nano and an iPhone 3GS:

Zune Comparison

Naturally, a noticeably smaller player is going to have a noticeably smaller screen: The Zune’s is 3.3″, vs. the 3.5″ display on the Touch. The difference is more striking than those two numbers suggest: The screen is plenty big enough for tasks like managing audio and video, but movies feel less expansive than on the Touch, and the on-screen keyboard requires that you tap with more precision. Some folks are bashing the HD for its lack of the Touch’s embarrassment of app riches, but even if it could magically run all 70,000-odd iPhone OS apps, it wouldn’t run many of them very well–the screen is too little.

Microsoft Zune HD

By far the slickest, most capable Zune to date, with an excellent touch-screen interface. But Microsoft’s video marketplace is too skimpy, the browser is basic, and there’s no true app store.

Price: $219 (16GB); $289 (32GB)

In the box: Zune HD, earbuds, USB cable, instructions.

Buy from Microsoft

Which is not to say that the 480-by-272 pixel screen looks bad. The OLED display boasts vivid, bright colors; it’s not a total revelation compared to the LCD on my iPhone 3GS, but it’s pleasing by any standard, and particularly nifty for video content. The nicest thing about it isn’t how it looks, though–it’s the multi-touch interface, which is every bit as fluid as that on the iPod Touch and iPhone. Just as with Apple’s interface, you use your fingers to scroll, tap, pinch, and pull; it’s smooth, responsive, and fun, and the fancy animated menus you use to jump from feature to feature are as intuitive as Apple’s equivalents even though they don’t look or work like them. And there are nice touches like QuickPlay, a feature that lets you pin just about any item you can experience via the Zune to a home page for instant access later.

As a music player, the most interesting thing about the Zune HD is a holdover from previous Zunes: Microsoft’s Zune Pass subscription service. For $14.99 a month, you get full access to Microsoft’s entire catalog of music; you can download albums and tracks directly to the HD, via its built-in Wi-Fi, or download them to a PC first and then sync them to the Zune via USB cable or Wi-Fi. You can also stream unlimited music in your Web browser (even if that browser is on a Mac–a platform which Zune doesn’t otherwise support).

Of course, when you subscribe to a music service you’re renting, not buying: If you cancel your Zune Pass subscription, all this music goes away. But in an obvious response to the utter domination of iTunes’ pay-per-track pricing, your fifteen bucks also lets you download ten DRM-free MP3s a month that are yours to keep and will play even if you dump your Microsoft audio player for a competitor.

Consumers have consistently failed to show much enthusiasm for subscription music plans, so it’s possible that real people won’t find Zune Pass a significant point in the HD’s favor. Then again, the HD is probably the best subscription-music player ever; it may help subscription music’s cause simply by being a device that people want.

If you still don’t want to commit to Zune Pass, you can buy songs a la carte from the Zune Marketplace, as you would from iTunes. (Microsoft continues to needlessly complicate matters by pricing everything in Microsoft Points, which are worth 1.25 cents apiece in real-world currency, and which you buy in blocks.) Or you can rip songs from CD using the Zune software. Or listen to the player’s built-in HD radio receiver, which provides static-free reception and extra variant versions of some stations, and lets you tag songs for later purchase. (Too bad the radio doesn’t offer the new iPod Nano’s TiVo-like pausing and rewinding of live radio.)

When the first Zune showed up back in 2006, one of its biggest differentiating points compared to the iPod was supposed to be the Social, its social-networking features. They’re still there, letting you share music and recommendations with your Zune-using pals (assuming you have any–but perhaps the Zune HD will sell well enough that Zune fans won’t feel so lonely). In 2009, the Social feels a tad long in the tooth: It’s a separate menu on the Zune and in the device’s PC software, and even if you have Zune-loving friends, it’s too hard to find them. You have to enter their “Zune Tag” nicknames or e-mail addresses one by one; it would be way easier if the Social, like other social networks, could scan your e-mail address books and lists of friends for folks who are already using it.

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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Chip Says:

    You wrote: “As with iPods, you buy and download video for the Zune via its PC software, then sync it over to the player.”

    While you can do this two-step process, I know my teenager had downloaded movies directly to my Touch over wi-fi. This one-step is much faster and more convenient, particularly if you’re away from the computer.

    Any chance the Zune can do this, but you didn’t mention it?

  2. ediedi Says:

    All the shortcomings will be corrected in time I think, but the deal breaker is the smaller screen – both physically and resolution-wise. If they wanted to take on the touch – bigger screen, (gaming) physical buttons and a better browser. A pleasant surprise though is the well designed and snappy interface.

  3. John Says:

    @Chip: Yup, you can sync over wi-fi, there’s the article http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/news/2009/09/first-look-zune-hd.ars .

  4. iphonerulez Says:

    I get a kick out of the Zune HD commercial with the white duck and Yogi Berra.

    When Yogi asks about the Zune HD, the duck is always yelling “App-lack, App-laaaaaack!” That is so funny.

  5. DaveZatz Says:

    I can deal with the minimal apps and smaller screensize. But the iPhone/Touch browser would be VERY hard to give up. Also, I don’t need a stand alone Internet slate or PMP – build all of this into Windows Mobile. Then we’ll talk, Microsoft.

  6. Limeybloke Says:

    You say that the Zune’s competitor is the Nano, yet they meant it to compete with the Touch, then you state that it lacks many of the features of the Nano.

    You then say you would buy the Zune (if you wanted to play Microsoft -hobbled DRM – madness poorly – converted files) so, do they pay you for this rubbish or are you actually an idiot?

  7. Relyt Says:

    Harry, are you sure that the Zune HD can’t pause live radio ‘TiVO-style’? Because Dan at Gizmodo says it can – “Like the Nano, the Zune HD can pause and cache live radio, a great function, though it also cannot record.”

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    I don’t think I’m an idiot–others may disagree and often have–but I’m pretty confident I’m not a jerk. Some people who are jerks, I’m told, aren’t aware of that fact.

    I’ll also cheerfully admit when I’m wrong and/or conflicted. Almost everyone who writes about the HD is going to compare it to the Touch (including me!) but I think there are two kinds of handheld devices in the world: Those that are app platforms and those that aren’t. The HD’s lack of an SDK puts it squarely in the the latter category, along with the Nano.

    I know that the Nano has some features that the Zune doesn’t have, and vice versa; if they had exactly the same features they’d be exactly the same device, and everyone involved would be really confused.

    On the Zune’s copy protection: Most of the time when I write about copy protection it’s to complain about it. Maybe I should have written about this in the story–or should do so in another piece–but subscription music is an instance where DRM doesn’t strike me as an affront. They’re not claiming they’re selling you the music, for one thing–your access to it is by definition limited. And providing access to an entire music catalog for one price that’s about what we used to pay for one CD strikes me as a reasonable deal.

    If you’re utterly opposed to copy protection on philosophical grounds, you’re going to hate Zune Pass. But as I’ve said many, many times, I don’t hate DRM for religious reasons–only because it so often causes problems for paying customers.

    –Harry

  9. Daniel Says:

    Harry,

    I generally feel that your assesment of the Zune was really how you felt about it. In trying to convey what market the Zune was trying for I believe you were right to pick on the Nano. @Lymebloke, was out of line to call you an idiot without at least trying to justify his comment, which he couldn’t cause no can. What MS just put out there can not be defended when it stand next the the iPod touch, so it’s why I believe lymebloke can come up with anything better than name calling. So though you didn’t have to respond to such idiotic comments it’s was the polite thing to do.

    What I really am interested to know is how is using the browser on the Zune? I didn’t believe I would use the browser on my iPhone as much as I do, but I like so many find it a very good experience. I’d like to see how you veiw the Zune after having to use for several day to see what is really annoying or really great.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hi, Daniel,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’ll continue to use the Zune browser for a few days. It does a good job of rendering sites and is respectably fast, but could definitely use support for multiple pages and a better keyboard…

    –Harry

  11. gala Says:

    I just got a 32gb Zune HD, (i love the zune pass)… and i also have a 8gb 2nd gen ipod touch, and yes the touch has thousands of apps, but 80% of them are worthless junk, i got bored of apps after a while and just didn’t feel like searching for more..

    I say microsoft has made an excellent media player, they do need to hurry and get custom facebook, twitter, maps, fandango, email and most important (for the public anyway) YOUTUBE apps and then the zune will truly be in the game, point is they need to develop the apps that we come back to on the touch i don’t think this wouldn’t be too hard for them to accomplish..

    and on a side note… how come no one talks about the one thing i hate about the iPods… the sound quality or to put it better..the lack of it, i just don’t understand why apple still don’t bother with focusing on better sound, the zune smokes the iPod in sound quality and that for me is the main reason i get a pmp and it doesn’t hurt that the zune’s OLED display is quite attractive.

  12. SallyRemo77 Says:

    :o)) There’s one in every village.

  13. SallyRemo77 Says:

    …’zune’ owner that is!

  14. airhead190 Says:

    ok on best buys website they have the 32 gig listed for 289 and the 16 for 219. whos right?

  15. Dongobob Says:

    I noticed the week M$ ‘invented’ the wii controller. So I guess this week their ‘inventing’ the iPod touch – just not as good and 3 years too late. what a joke!

  16. gala Says:

    The week that M$ “invented” the wii controller? ….

    have you even looked into project natal? it’s a completly different beast than the wii (gamecube with motion control) i was really impressed by it…
    the wii on the other hand, i was never impressed, i actually have all three consoles the one i use the most is the ps3, and the wii is inside it’s box in my closet, what a waste of money that was!

    now i’m not saying that the zune is a better portable mini computer device, because it’s not aiming to be that, but as a persnoal media player it’s top of the line

  17. gala Says:

    airhead190 Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 6:58 pm
    ok on best buys website they have the 32 gig listed for 289 and the 16 for 219. whos right?

    ^^ Best buy has it right, they don’t make an 8gb version of the zune hd

  18. Brian Davis Says:

    Fistly, it’s $219 for 16GB, $289 for 32GB. Second, can Zune HD owners trade songs with people with older non-HD Zunes?

  19. Daniel Says:

    @Harry,

    or any owner of the new Zune HD, it’s been close to five days since it’s been out and I want know how the battery performance? Are the controls become easier to use. It has taken a while to use the iPhone keyboard, but I’m very pleased with it. On the Zune any take on their keyboard?

  20. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Daniel: I don’t have a good sense of the battery life. On the keyboard–it’s nowhere near as good as the iPod Touch keyboard, both because it’s smaller (an understandable tradeoff) and because it doesn’t have the iPhone OS’s pretty sophisticated spelling correction (less necessary on a device as limited and focused as the Zune, but it would still be nice).

    –Harry

  21. hank hauffe Says:

    I heard that MS was just showing off the screens in unusually dark rooms and that the colors wash out pretty badly under normal conditions. Did you try it in a normally lit room and outside where portable devices might go and be used on occasion?
    I’s also heard that their screen actually consumed More power when rendering most white space filled webpages as opposed to their own unusually dark (but not unattractive) interface.

  22. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > have you even looked into project natal?

    Please no vaporware. If product demos counted for anything at all, Microsoft would be Apple and vice versa.

    > the wii on the other hand, i was never impressed

    You were impressed by a vaporware product demo but not impressed by a shipping product that has thrilled millions of people? I think your priorities are impractically oriented.

    > the browser is basic

    The browser is a striped-down IE6, that is archaic. There are major websites which already block this browser because its engine is so old, and Microsoft is charging people money for it today? The mobile Web is ahead of the desktop Web in technology and the Zune HD is behind. There are so many pocket-sized websites that run on iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Nokia handhelds and they don’t run on Microsoft handhelds.

    WebKit is free and open source and licensed for commercial use. Google, Nokia, Blackberry, Palm, Apple and others all use WebKit. So what is Microsoft’s excuse for shipping a 10 year old browser? There is none.

  23. Emille Says:

    Microsoft did an outstanding job with this media device. It is far sleeker than my iPod touch. Having used an ipod touch, the interface and the features on the Zune HD are far better. You get impressive features on the Zune. HD radio sounds great. OLED Screen is fantastic. The device is extremely light and very well built. Battery life is great as well. I have no complaints about this device. I purchased it with the dock, and man does the picture look great on my TV. The Zune outputs videos without any problems or hesitation. Truly a great device. I highly recommend and definitely recommend that you play around with it for yourself, because pictures truly don’t do it justice.

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