What's not: Very few applications and games available.
Reviewed September 18, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Zune has been much too easy a target for mockery and mirth since the first model, a brickish chunk available in such stunning colors as matte brown and dull black, shipping in the fall of 2006. Not that it didn’t have compelling features, chief among them the Zune Marketplace and its monthly all you can eat pass, but Apple’s venerable iPod line looked much sexier and had too much traction. So the Zune line has perhaps 5% of the portable media player market (PMP) because it just ain’t easy to wean folks from iTunes and Apple’s sexy players. Then Microsoft announced the Zune HD and teased us with tantalizing tidbits like 720p video playback, an OLED touch screen, the impressive NVidia Tegra processor and applications. Finally, something that might challenge the iPod, even the iPod Touch, or at the very least move the Zune into the rarified air of gadgets folks covet.
In September 2009 Microsoft released the Zune HD, available in 16 and 32 gig capacities and black and platinum colors (you can also order custom colors and design graphics from Zune Originals). The Zune HD features a capacitive 3.3” organic LED (OLED) display with multi-touch, 720p video output via HDMI (using the optional AV dock) and 480 x 272 16:9 output to the display. Thanks to the killer NVidia Tegra APX 2600 mobile processor the Zune HD is one of the faster pocket-sized music and video players on the market, if not the fastest. The Tegra max speed is somewhere around 750MHz, though Microsoft doesn't state the Zune HD's clock speed and NVidia shies away from specifying clock speeds, instead focusing on the package’s graphics capabilities and impressively low power consumption. The Zune HD uses flash media rather than a tiny hard disk: flash is faster than a hard disk and it's impervious to movement. It has WiFi (though “squirting” tunes is gone, syncing over WiFi is in as is web browsing) and an HD FM radio. It plays music, video, podcasts and audio books and it supports applications made for Zune.
The 16 gig Zune HD and the iPhone 3GS. 3.3" vs. 3.5" display but the iPhone is a much larger device.
The Zune HD is an undeniably attractive, modern and small PMP. The last gen Zune players looked OK but hardly unique. The Zune HD looks lovely with its glass and brushed aluminum exterior, beveled back and exquisite attention to detail. There's even a tiny "hello from Seattle" engraved on a side. We'd call the design angular and masculine and the exposed screw heads on the back give it an industrial modern feel (and just beg for device dissection!). The Zune HD has a power button on its top edge that can wake the device from sleep and shut it down completely. The 3.5mm stereo jack is on the bottom (sorry no Bluetooth for stereo headsets) and the large front button takes you to the home screen (main menu).
OLED displays are gorgeous; they’re more vibrant and bright with richer blacks. We’ve seen a few Samsung mobile phones with OLED displays and the Zune HD looks even better, likely since power management need not be as draconian on a media player. Among media players, it’s been hard to beat the iPod Touch’s lovely display, but Microsoft has done it with the Zune HD. It’s shockingly and stunningly rich. Colors fly out at you and the brightness of it pops. At 3.3”, it’s a relatively large touch screen, though it seems smaller since the Zune HD is quite small. It’s within a hair of the iPod Touch in terms of thinness and it’s significantly narrower. The Zune HD weighs only 2.6 ounces vs. 4.5 ounces for the iPod Touch and 4.8 ounces for the iPhone 3GS.
The glass display is as responsive and easy to use with a light touch as Apple’s Touch offerings and the multi-touch works perfectly for pinch-zooming in the image viewer and web browser. Finger scrolling is a pleasure as is flicking through photos (which look phenomenal).
Want to see the Zune in action? Curious about the UI, how responsive it is and how videos look? Then watch our short video.
The Zune line has always had very good sound quality with better separation and clearer bass than the iPod and many other PMPs. The Zune HD is no exception, and the included earbuds are decent (and work very well as an antenna for the radio) but use a top notch set of earbuds or over-the-ear headphones to really appreciate the sound. The Zune can play WMA files, AAC files (non-copy protected iTunes format), WMA-Pro and MP3 formats. It supports copy-protected music files from the Zune Marketplace and works with the Zune Pass service. The Zune can play up to 33 hours of music (higher bitrate files will use more battery power). Sorry, there's no speaker so you'll have to keep your tunes to yourself unless you have a speaker system or hand over your earbuds.
The Zune's text-based UI lives on, and in fact it influences Windows Mobile 6.5. We like it for its ease of use, finger-friendliness and clean look (we actually like it better on the Zune than on WinMo). Once you select an option (music, video, pictures, radio, marketplace, social, Internet, apps and settings), you'll be greeted with lots of eye candy. Music takes you to a cover view listing of albums, videos show thumbnails as does photos. Thanks to the fantastic screen and lively UI these look attractive and compelling. When the display sleeps during music playback you'll see the song title and artist scroll by in a few lines of large text in various sizes along with the album cover (the screen eventually turns off completely to save power). The photo viewer allows for pinch zoom of photos and finger-flicking through photos. The accelerometer handles screen rotation and it's the fastest at switching orientations of any mobile device we've seen (and that's pretty much all of them). Movies and TV shows downloaded from the Marketplace have written blurbs and info rather than just a thumbnail. The Zune's default screen saver (an extremely colorful abstract that shows off the screen quality) acts as a screen lock much as with the iPhone and iPod touch. Press a button to wake up the device, then slide the screen saver up to start using the device.
For a little more eye candy and functionality, swipe your finger leftward while in the text-based main screen. You'll see the current playing album, radio station or paused video, an album cover and thumbnail history of the last 6 items you've used (music, videos, web pages, radio station and etc), a thumbnail-based listing of the latest items you've added to the Zune and a reminder that you can pin stuff to this list for quick access (Quickplay). Very nice.
Video Playback, Zune HD AV Dock
As with other mainstream PMPs, the Zune supports the most popular formats but leaves out DivX, the format beloved to torrent users. It can play video up to 720p in WMV, MPEG4 and H.264 formats. It works fine with video encoded for the iPod and iPhone and with MPEG4 files downloaded from sites that offer YouTube download and conversion. While the 480 x 272 pixel display obviously can't show 720p HD video at full resolution, the Zune can output it via the optional Zune HD AV Dock to a TV over HDMI or composite video with your choice of analog RCA video out or digital audio out. This $89.99 accessory package is pricey but worth it for those who wish to view content on an HD TV, especially movie rentals. It includes the dock which has a USB port for syncing, a charger, remote, HDMI out, digital audio out and composite AV out. There's a long thin wire that functions as the FM antenna since you can't use headphones while it's in the dock (the headphone connector is at the bottom and the headphones otherwise serve as the FM antenna). Cool geek tidbit: the Zune can update the dock's firmware. When we dropped the Zune into the dock, the Zune's screen told us it was updating the dock and to wait until it finished. The Zune will only update the dock when the dock is plugged into the charger.
We rented an HD full length movie from the Marketplace and played it back to our 50" HD LCD TV via HDMI with the optical audio connected to our receiver. The results were outstanding: the better-than-DVD quality video looked superb and the Zune kept sync and never got hot during the 2 hour playback. Colors were vibrant and the stereo audio sounded full and clear. That 2 hour HD rental was a 5.5 gig download (!!) and it look over 2 hours to download it. That was on grand-opening day when the Zune HD shipped and now the Marketplace servers are running faster. That's larger than the HD movies we've downloaded from iTunes-- interesting. This is one area where Zune shows up the iPod which can only output video at 480p/576p.
The Zune HD AV dock costs $90 and includes the dock, charger,
remote, an HDMI cable with gold-plated connectors and a composite cable.
How about video playback on the Zune itself? It too looks awesome and video plays fluently even at higher bitrates. Don't bother renting HD content if you plan on watching on the device itself rather than to a TV via the HD AV dock. HD rentals cost more and the player can't display at 720p anyway. That said, SD content looks awesome as did a variety of movies we'd originally ripped for the iPhone at mostly 480 x 360 resolution. The Zune can play video for up to 8.5 hours (using a 500kbps WMV file, higher bitrates will use more power as may other file formats). In our tests, we managed over 7.5 hours of video playback. When playing through a TV, you'll likely use the AV dock's included charger, so runtimes matter little.
WiFi, Streaming, HD Radio and Apps
You can also use WiFi to stream music from the Zune Marketplace if you're using the Zune Pass service (we assume most Zune owners use this service). That works surprisingly well with no audio hiccups or buffering-- it was as if the tunes were in our collection on the device. You can also download applications directly to the Zune HD. Speaking of applications, a tantalizing new feature, there aren't many right now. At launch there are 2 applications: MSN Weather and a calculator. There are a handful of games and these games show an ad before running (under 30 seconds but yuck). Applications don't show ads thank goodness-- who'd want to wait 30 seconds to use a darned calculator? And applications take too long to launch-- we hope Microsoft fixes this in an update as well. This handful of applications is free, but we assume that when 3rd party developers, especially 3D game developers launch content, that those apps won't be free. Microsoft plans to release Twitter and Facebook clients for the Zune and they hinted that sexy games like Project Gotham Racing are in the works. In the meanwhile, the iPod Touch has 75,000 apps to lure you away from the Zune HD ecosystem.
The FM radio is a staple of the Zune platform, but HD radio is new and very cool. I had no idea there are 45 HD radio stations in the Dallas area until I got the Zune HD and checked it out. Mind you, our Zune HD didn't pick up all 45 stations, especially not indoors, but several of my favorites are on HD and yes they do sound better. You can save your favorite radio stations (both standard FM and HD) as presets and you can pause radio playback.
The Zune Marketplace 4.0 is a rare thing of intuitive beauty from Microsoft. Gone is the URGE-based Marketplace and now we have something unique (not an iTunes clone) that works for all media that's transferable to the Zune HD player. In fact, it makes iTunes look dreary and old-fashioned. Artist pages have a pleasing background graphic of the artist with listings of albums, songs and music videos and you can sample tunes too. TV shows have several useful views including view by channel, view by genre and more. The software, alas is Windows only, but you can log into your account at zune.net from any computer, including a Mac, to stream music and watch movie previews. If you buy or rent a video using the desktop software you can choose between SD and HD quality and watch it either on your PC or your Zune HD. The Zune HD, like the iPod Touch, doesn't support mass storage mode so there's no way to transfer content to and from the player without using the desktop software.
Clearly, Microsoft's Zune Pass is a big selling point for the Zune platform; for $14.99/month you can stream, download and fill your player and PC with as much music as you like. And you get to choose 10 tracks to keep each month (those credits don't roll over so you must remember to download them by the end of each billing period). We suggest going with MP3 format non-DRM tracks for those that you keep (most tracks for sale on the Zune Marketplace are now DRM-free). The Marketplace has an excellent selection of music and they've got pretty much every genre covered, even obscure stuff.
The Zune Pass doesn't carry over to video. You'll have to buy music videos and TV show episodes or rent feature length movies. Marketplace still uses the Microsoft Points system, just as does XBOX Live. If you want to buy something, you'll need to buy blocks of points and those are sold in 1200 point chunks that cost $15. That's fine if you're renting a few movies but annoying if you just want to buy a few tracks since you'll have lots of points you've pre-purchased that you might not need right now. While we understand the appeal of the points system-- no credit card is needed which is great for kids, we sorely wish Microsoft would make one point equal to 1 penny and do away with the mental conversions (hmm, let's see; 500 points is about $6.00?). That said, TV show episodes and music videos are priced similarly to iTunes and SD content is cheaper than HD just like iTunes. Movie rentals are also similarly priced.
Now that some of the Zune team has moved over to the MS entertainment group, the Zune desktop software and services are something to keep an eye on. We'll be seeing these services ported to the XBOX and Windows Mobile in the future. That means you should be able to download movie rentals to your XBOX for easy TV viewing and listien to your music on a Windows phone.
The PMP market is a nasty place to be, and we're surprised and pleased that Microsoft hasn't given up yet. Apple obviously owns the market every bit as much as Microsoft owns the computer OS market and it's no easy task to change that dynamic. The Zune HD is a wonderful piece of hardware and we can only marvel that something this powerful in terms of video and audio playback performance could be this small and light. It's got the looks and build quality to win folks over. It's a better media player than the iPod. But the problem may lie in the iPod Touch's absurdly long laundry list of features and downloadable applications as well as its status as a pocket computer. The Touch adds PIM syncing, email, MS Office document support (via 3rd party applications) and an abundance of applications from 3D games to social networking. Even if the Zune HD is the best media player, the iPod Touch is priced nearly the same and it offers more features for the buck. Even if you really just want a media player, it's human nature to be tempted by something that offers more features (regardless of whether you really need or want them) and that everyone else uses. I will say that I believe the Zune HD is more about relaxation and enjoyment of media, and that's a good thing. When I use the Zune HD, I try out new music, I listen, I unwind. Or I plug it into the TV and watch an HD movie. Ahhh, that feels nice. When I have my iPod Touch I find myself backgrounding the music and checking email, checking websites, gawking at tweets, and thinking maybe I should be writing a review using my document editor. More like a computer means powerful but not so relaxing. That's why I don't want the web or social networking applications on my eBook readers either.
In the end, the Zune's real appeal and differentiator is the $14.99/month Zune Pass subscription music service, which is a relative bargain since you get to keep 10 tracks each month and download and listen to all the music you want. If you're a music-head and listen to lots of different music and artists, this is the way to go vs. buying tracks and albums via iTunes, Amazon or physical CD. It's great for new music discovery and Microsoft has done an excellent job with the music DJ that finds new artists and albums you might like. Marketplace has a very good selection of music and even obscure tastes are catered to. The other key feature is HD video if you spring for the HD AV dock. That turns the Zune into something close to a portable Blu-ray player and makes it a very compelling dual-purpose gadget. We hope that Microsoft adds movie purchase in addition to movie rentals, which would make this an even more attractive proposition.
Price: $219 for 16 gig and $289 for the 32 gig player
CPU: NVidia Tegra APX 2600. Has support for 720p video, Open GL ES 2.0, hardware decoders for H.264, WMV9, MPEG4 simple and JPEG.
Output: Stereo 3.5mm headphone jack (earbuds included). Via optional Zune HD AV dock: optical audio out, 720p (1280 x 720) out via HDMI.
Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Claimed music playback time: up to 33 hours. Claimed video playback: up to 8.5 hours.
Supported audio and video formats:
Video: Windows Media Video (WMV); Main and Simple Profile, CBR or VBR, up to 10.0 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second); Advanced profile up to L2, 1280 pixels x 720 pixels up to 30 frames per second, CBR or VBR, up to 14.0 Mbps peak video bitrate; Zune software will transcode HD WMV files above stated capabilities at device sync.
MPEG-4 (MP4/M4V) (.mp4) Part 2 video3; Simple Profile up to 4.0 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second); Zune software will transcode HD MPEG-4 files at device sync.
H.264 video; Baseline Profile + bframes, up to 10 Mbps peak video bit rate; 720 pixels x 480 pixels up to 30 frames per second (or 720 pixels x 576 pixels up to 25 frames per second); 1280 pixels x 720 pixels up to 30 frames per second, up to level 3.1 and 14.0 Mbps peak video bitrate; Zune software will transcode HD WMV files above the stated capabilities at device sync.
Audio: Windows Media Audio Standard3(WMA) (.wma); Up to 384 Kbps; constant bit rate (CBR) and variable bit rate (VBR) up to 48-kHz sample rate; WMA Pro two channel up to 768 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz.
WMA Lossless: two channel up to 768 kbps and 48-kHz.
Advanced Audio Coding (AAC-LC) (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b); .m4a and .m4b files without FairPlay DRM up to 320 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz
MP3 (.mp3); Up to 320 Kbps; CBR and VBR up to 48-kHz.
Radio: FM Radio, HD Radio.
Networking WiFi 802.11b/g with support for wireless syncing and wireless download and streaming of music, application downloads.
In the box: Zune HD, earbud headphones, 3 sets of headphone covers (in 3 colors), printed guide and 14 day free Zune Pass advert.