Microsoft is not a company of fools. It knew the Zune was going to get pummeled by the iPod – and it knows that the Zune HD will never knock the iPod Touch or iPhone off of their throne. But it also knows there are a lot of people more interested in a good personal media player than an all-in-one device – and for them, Microsoft has hit the sweet spot.
While the Zune HD isn’t quite a home run for the company, it’s a solid triple – and has quickly become the strongest competitor on the market to Apple’s PMP empire. Priced fairly at $220 for the 16GB model and $290 for the 32GB one, the device is stylish, ultra-light and ultra-powerful. It boasts a solid battery life. And, come mid-December, it could be a tough item to find on store shelves.
One of the Zune HD’s major attractions is its 3.3-inch OLED screen, which offers a sharper picture than anything you’ll find on the iPhone. Like many competitive devices, the screen is touch sensitive and offers a 16:9 (widescreen) ratio. Ironically, videos shown on the Zune HD itself do not appear in high definition.
Most people won’t realize it, though. Video on the player is crisp and clear. As with a high-end TV, though, it’s best watched in a darkened room. The Zune HD’s highly reflective screen makes outdoor viewing (and some indoor viewing) a bit challenging – and sometimes impossible.
To get true HD from the Zune HD, you’ll need a $90 dock (sold separately). With this, users can output 720p video from the device to their HDTV. The functionality is a big selling point for the Zune device – and it’s a feature that really shines. Videos look spectacular – and the interface works surprisingly well on the big screen, despite its shortcomings on the player itself.
The player’s interface is one of the Zune HD’s more notable stumbles. It’s minimalist, but perhaps a bit too much so. Figuring out how to navigate among choices isn’t as intuitive as some competitors, including Apple.
The system has, essentially, a dual homescreen, with both the feature list (“music, videos, pictures, radio, marketplace, social, internet, apps and settings”) and a smaller (nearly hidden) quickplay menu on the left side that can be brought to the forefront with the flick of a finger.
That quickplay menu is where the confusion begins. Yes, it’s a great idea to quickly be able to get to your most recently played video or playlist, but it takes a fair bit of poking around before it’s obvious what you’re supposed to do.
Browsing your music or video collection, by comparison, is a pretty easy affair with the touchscreen. Of course, if you subscribe to Microsoft’s ZunePass subscription service (download as much music as you want for $15 per month), some lists may seem to take longer to browse than they should, but it’s a minor frustration.
The biggest problem with the navigation is figuring out how to take a single step back. Pressing the most prominent of the Zune HD’s three buttons takes you to the home screen, but you often don’t want to start from scratch. Touching the very top of the screen will take you where you want to go, but it’s not an obvious motion. (And let’s face it, not a lot of people are going to bother reading the device’s small print manual.)
While digital downloads are getting the bulk of the attention on the Zune HD, the player’s imbedded HD radio receiver is a nice feature that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Though free HD radio is fighting for recognition against satellite radio, it offers a crystal clear reception – and the Zune HD’s inclusion of it could give it a big boost. For owners, it’s another high-quality music option – and one that comes free.
If there’s a downside to the HD radio receiver, it’s that it only makes the device’s lack of any external speaker all the more obvious.
While the Zune HD gets trounced in the apps department (there are only a handful for the device – and they’re all forgettable when compared to the diversity and quality of Apple’s App store), it does more than hold its own for users who want to use it to browse the Internet. The accelerometer lets you view pages vertically or horizontally and it’s easy to zoom in on content using the standard multitouch gestures (pinch, moving the screen with a flick of your finger, etc.)
The only hiccup with browsing is the on-screen keyboard, which will feel small to anyone with normal-sized hands, much less big ones.
Ultimately, the frustrations with the Zune HD are small ones. Microsoft has learned from the shortcomings of previous models and come out with a device that more than stands on its own against the iPod and iPod Touch. It’s reasonably priced – and both music and film lovers will quickly find themselves won over by the portability and big screen interoperability of the device.
Apple may not need to worry about losing its king of the hill status – but other media player manufacturers should brace themselves for a big hit to their market share.