This is Not a Zune HD Review

By  |  Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 2:43 am

Zune HD(UPDATE: This isn’t a Zune review, but now I’ve written one–here it is.)

Microsoft’s Zune HD–the first touch-screen version of the company’s non-iPod-killing media player–goes on sale today. I’ve been playing with one loaned to me by Microsoft, along with the new Zune 4.0 software, and am itching to review it. I can’t yet, though–the Zune Marketplace service still seems to be down, and it’s impossible to judge most of the features that are at the heart of the new Zune without snagging audio and video content from Microsoft’s store.

It’s not too early to share some initial thoughts based on the hands-on I’ve had with the features that are up and running. Such as…

The Zune HD feels small. I mean that mostly as a compliment, it’s noticeably less of a pocket-hog than my iPhone, which is suddenly feeling a tad bulky. Fits in the hand well, too.

The screen’s also smallish, but attractive. It’s 3.3″ with 480 by 272 pixels compared to the iPhone (and iPod Touch’s) 3.5″ screen with 480 by 320 pixels. So far, the reduced inchage and loss of pixels are only an issue in the Web browser–the Zune isn’t as good as an iPhone or Touch for reading more than a paragraph or two of Web content at a time. I want to watch video from the Zune Marketplace before rendering any verdicts on the OLED display’s overall quality.

Microsoft nailed the touch interface. It’s just as fluid and intuitive as Apple’s–unlike the clunky touch to be found on Windows Mobile phones. The user interface is more exuberant than the iPhone/Touch’s straightforward menus–items fly around in 3D space. Which sounds annoying, but it isn’t.

The browser is good, but basic. Pages render accurately; zooming works; speed over my Wi-Fi network is adequate, although it feels slower than my iPhone. It doesn’t have iPhone OS’s multiple-page manager, and typing in URLs is tricky simply because the screen is small. (The keyboard is similar to the one in the iPhone OS.)

There probably won’t be an app for that. The Zune Marketplace has an apps section, but Microsoft isn’t releasing a Zune SDK, and doesn’t plan to bulk up the store with gazillions of programs anytime soon. It does say that there will be 3D games for the Zune HD (which has powerful Nvidia graphics) and that it will be releasing Facebook and Twitter apps by November. It also says that Zune could become a meatier app platform eventually, building on work done by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team. But for now, the Zune HD, unlike the iPod Touch, is in no way a pocket computer. It’s an audio and video player with a Web browser and a few other apps on the way.

The HD radio works. But I’m still deciding whether I prefer it to the new iPod Nano’s plain ol’ FM with TiVo-like pausing and rewinding.

I don’t like the Zune software for Windows. It seems overly complicated, with a user interface that emphasizes sizzle over straightforwardness. (iTunes has a lot of features, too, but it’s easy to ignore the ones you don’t like.)

Microsoft lost its price advantage, but the Zune is still competitive, more or less. When the Zune’s price was announced, it looked aggressively lower than that of the iPod Touch. But then Apple got aggressive–and now the 16GB Zune sells for $20 more than an 8GB Touch, and the 32GB Zune is only $10 less than a 32GB Touch. Many people will opt for the Touch given that it does so much more at generally similar prices, but if you’re interested mostly in music, movies, and the Web, the Zune is a plausible Touch alternative at a plausible price.

Like I say, I can’t review the Zune HD until I can try all its core features. But so far, mostly so good–the Zune HD seems to be well thought-out from both a hardware and software standpoint. It’s not entirely clear that the world still needs ambitious media handhelds that don’t try to be little computers and/or telephones, but if there’s still a place for them, the Zune HD looks like it’s going to provide genuine competition for Apple. This gizmo is most definitely not an iPod Touch knockoff–it’s a different kind of device with a different set of pros and cons.

More once I’ve had a chance to put the Zune HD through all of its paces…



10 Comments For This Post

  1. Chip Says:

    Hi Harry,

    One of the unexpected pluses of my old ipod nano is its ability to be used as an external hard drive. I’m kinda interested in a Zune, but it would need to have this feature.

    So … um … does it?

  2. mikey Says:

    ^^Nope it can’t.

  3. davesmall Says:

    Microsoft appears to have done a nice job with the aesthetics and hardware features that differentiate it from Apple’s iPod touch (HD Radio, 720p HD Video, and a bright OLED screen. It looks like an excellent media player.

    The obviously didn’t even try to compete with Apple’s App Store which is too far out front for them to have a shot (75000 apps now and counting).

    I really can’t see anyone buying a Zune HD instead of an iPod Touch unless they’re just ignorant as to what the App Store brings to the party and just want a basic media player. With so many apps to choose from the iPod Touch is user configurable. It can be whatever you want it to be from game platform to cook’s assistant to travel helper to business machine.

  4. cephalopoid Says:

    RE: davesmall

    I prefer the Zune because I plain don’t like Apple’s business model. Also, hopefully the IE mobile will be robust enough so that there won’t NEED to be an app for everything, just one icon . . . the browser icon.

    The reason why iPhone has so many apps is because the browser was gimped and wouldn’t allow you to access many of the services that apps provide. Interesting, considering that many of those services are free over the internet, but cost $ as an app.

    We’ll have to see if the Zune’s browser will allow you to do simple things like view Google maps, update your Netflix queue, etc.

  5. William Says:

    How about inter-operability with the xbox 360? I think this could be the key to the Zune hd’s success, if they integrate zune marketplace with xbox live and allow you to sync your device through your xbox 360 I think they could give apple a run for their money. Of course this is nothing but wishful thinking at this point, but with over 30 million xbox 360’s in the wild it would be foolish not to integrate the two. I would buy one if I could use it with my xbox 360, and I already have an iPod touch.

  6. Jorge Says:

    Xbox integration is vital if it wants to succeed. Being able to sync my Zune content via my 360 is something I’ve been hoping for since I first got my 80GB Zune. MS is throwing the Video Marketplace on Xbox, might as well throw in the music marketplace as well. They need to make Xbox owners want a ZUNE HD.

  7. Tim F. Says:

    cephalapoid, Netflix and all the Google apps work on my Touch. Flash? No, but neither does the Zune. Have you even used either?

  8. Seth Mould Says:

    There is an XNA SDK.

  9. james kim Says:

    Here’s a review of the new Zune software.

    I think it comes close to iTunes.

  10. Zune review Says:

    8 cores on portable device, this is awesome! now waiting for the zune phone, with camera it will be iphone killer.

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