Who would have said that Apple would become uncontested
king of music player market. Just 20 years ago Sony's Walkman and later Discman
dominated the music player market. In very late 2009, when tapes are long
gone and MP3s are far more popular than CDs, Microsoft has decided to try and beat Apple’s iPod. This is not Microsoft’s first attempt. Zune
got its second iteration of this product, and if we might notice, this time around
Microsoft did a much better job.
We would be surprised if you hadn’t heard of Zune or Zune HD. Long story short, Zune HD is a device that tries to goes after the iPod, and in HD iteration it doesn’t have a wheal, but can play music and fancy movies and Videos, and it does a very good job. When you first take Zune HD in your hand, you can notice the build quality and a nice metal body that fits the device perfectly. I heard many times that device is “smaller than expected” and this is definitely the feeling you get when you first tried it
There are only three buttons and for the rest you will have to rely on the touch sensitive screen. When you turn it on, you'll notice that Zune HD has an incredibly crisp screen. It has the best screen compared to any similar device I have seen in my life and this is no exaggeration. The second thing you notice when you turn it on is that the device reacts very fast to commands and that it works very fast in general.
You don’t get a CD or an USB drive with a driver, you have to go online and download the software and eventually upgrade it. We had some issues upgrading our software mostly due to the fact that we did all the testing in Europe and this product doesn’t ship in Europe, at least not yet. Once you install all that has to be installed you can start the video, audio and picture synchronization. This procedure looks very much like the one you do with an iPod’s iTunes.
Microsoft copied this things right. You load your music, videos and pictures to the Zune HD and the fun can start. Once you boot you go right into the quite intuitive user interface. When you select, music, videos, podcast, settings, internet or one of other options you can notice insanely fast reaction. The device is not laggy and it is not annoying to use it. The multitouch screen works as it is supposed to and offers some space for mistakes. If you can aim well, you will select the desired menu. If we start describing Zune HD from the button, we can tell you that Microsoft has its own proprietary Zune HD connector and it ships the device with a single USB cable. If you want a charger you have to buy one, but you can charge your Zune HD with an USB cable.
Below the screen at the central point there is a multi-function button and this home button can always get you back to the home screen. The left hand side has multi function button that can adjust the loudness and when the device is locked, it will offer you on-screen commands where you can skip song, go back or adjust the volume. There is always an soft exit button on the left hand corner and it speaks for itself. You lock the screen by pressing the power button located on top of the player and of course, you can turn the device on using the same button.
Zune HD is unique and it's a bit better than the iPod because a few things. First and foremost it can play HD 720P video for at least 5+ hours. When you match this with the OLED screen that looks beautiful you get a winning combination. Nvidia’s Tegra chip is responsible for frame-drop-free playback of HD video and SD videos also look great.
The bad thing about this player and HD playback is that if you want to play HD on your HD capable screen you need to buy an HD cradle that will give you HDMI connectivity. This is not something that you want to have in your pocket, but it will fit any lady’s bag or a backpack. The lack of HDMI is probably the most series flaw of this device. It would probably make it thicker, but it would make it great for taking a movie to your buddy or girlfriend’s home and playing it on an HD capable screen without much hassle.
The Zune HD is powered by Tegra, so is very fast and responsiveness can only take your breath away. The latest generation of Apple's iPod Touch, its direct competitor, and iPhone 3GS are definitely comparable in terms of reaction time, but you cannot play HD 720p on them. The other nice feature is internet browser that can be used if you have a wireless hotspot in your range. The browser can open complex sites including Fudzilla and it renders images and text very fast. When you zoom the device can render fonts in a fraction of a second, which makes the overall browsing experience very positive.
The virtual keyboard that is available with the browser is fast and easy to use. Naturally Zune HD has an accelerometer that can rotate a browser content or a picture in landscape format. It is much easier to type in landscape as the key are bigger. You get a zoom in and zoom out function for photos, and of course do can set the slideshow to show how cool your vacation in some exotic paradise truly was.
Let’s go back to music. Zune HD software will take care of album art in case you don’t have any, which is a nice touch. History and Pin options can take you faster to either to content you listened or watched before or to a shortcuts that you can predefine. You can install applications of Zune HD but only if you can make it to make an account on Zune market. Americans and Canadians won’t have any issues, but Europeans and European credit cards are persona non grata which might make things more complicated. Microsoft made it clear that this is an America oriented device as it doesn't sell it in Europe. You have to get one from America or import it to your desired country.
The choice of applications is very limited and pitiful compared to iTune store and Cydia or similar installers for iPhone / iPod touch players. We tried some games, and we can tell that graphics look great, at least in free Space Battle 2. The Weather application from MSN is nothing that will impress you, but it’s a Microsoft’s attempt to copy Apple's weather application used on the iPhone. There will be more applications as this device is very young and there will be more and more applications. We almost forgot about the radio, but there here is not much to say anyway. It works well, scans the stations very fast, supports RDS and the radio station you are listening to uses it.
Microsoft also makes a big deal about Podcast and has it as a separate category for both video and audio podcasts. The other category worth mentioning is social category what has something to do with Microsoft own attempt to make Zune HD users to talk to each other but tweeter and some similar social not-working medias got its own application and can run on Zune.
The device doesn’t have integrated speakers, which makes it quite thin. You do need headphones or a line in cable connected to some sort of speakers to make it sing. The headphones that Microsoft ships are average and will play music, but they could have shipped something better. The most annoying thing is that there are no any controls on the headphones and you have to reach for your pocket to skip the song and adjust the volume.
The greatest things about Zune HD are its incredible speed, great looking OLED display and Nvidia's Tegra chip that makes browsing, HD and video audio playback very fast. Basically, this is one great alternative to iPod Touch. It comes with either 16GB or 32GB of memory that should be enough for most consumers.
The drawbacks are the lack of HDMI and lack of controls on average headphones, but most people buy better headphones for good MP3 players, as they are not happy with iPhone / iPod ones. I did so myself.
The price is competitive to an iPod Touch, but iPhone 3GS easily wins the battle simply as it has a phone function.
A few suggestions for the next generation would be headphone mounted controls or a bit better headphones. HDMI connector is a must and we would like a phone option. Matched with an OLED screen and Tegra 2 it would be even better and we can predict that new Zune should be able to play 1080P and remains fast if not faster than the current one.
Microsoft did a good job with this device and so did Nvidia with very power efficient Tegra chip that can push HD playback on this tiny device. The key thing is that the device is so fast with what it offers that you cannot make it faster. If you are looking for an iPod touch alternative this is the device for you.