Microsoft has released the new Zune HD and they are hoping it will be a direct competitor to the Apple iPod line of MP3 players. It comes in two capacities, 16GB ($219) and 32GB ($289), and two colors, black and silver. The new device sports an HD radio, a beautiful user interface, and Internet browsing. There are drawbacks to the device, one of which is the lack of an App store that compares to the Apple iTunes App Store.
In total, the Zune HD measures about 2.1 x 4.0 x 0.35-inches (whd) and weighs only 2.6 ounces and has a 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen that has resolution of 480 x 272 pixels. This puts the Zune HD's display slightly smaller and of slightly lesser resolution compared to the Apple iPod Touch. The screen is, however, very bright and extremely sharp, which makes it a great portable video player. The OLED screen also helps to increase battery life, but more on that later.
The user experience with the Zune HD's touch interface is very pleasant. The software allows for complete touch navigation and multitouch commands, like squeezing and pinching for zooming. There are only two physical buttons on the device, a power button on the top and a Home button under the display. There is also a volume button to bring up the volume adjustment on the display.
The main menu of the device features a vertical list that has been refined since previous Zune's and includes links to things like Pictures, Radio, Music, Marketplace, Internet, and more. Navigating this menu is very easy to use for anyone, and all other menus are similar in design. Zune 4.0 software is required for syncing the Zune HD and this is one of the downsides to the device. Despite Microsoft's continued attempts to make it more user-friendly, it is still bogged down by too many settings and other "hoops" to get the device configured for first use. It is by no means as user friendly as Apple iTunes is, which is a huge downside.
The high-definition FM radio integrated into the Zune HD is one of the strong marketing points for Microsoft, but it was mildly belittled by Apple's recent inclusion of an FM radio (but not HD) into the new iPod Nano 5G's. This does allow users using the Zune HD to tune into the various HD programming available from local stations at high-definition audio quality. The Zune HD has no live buffer, meaning you cannot pause live radio. The iPod Nano 5G can pause live radio for up to 15 minutes, so this either a major of minor drawback depending on how you see it.
Listening to music on the Zune HD itself is very similar to the Apple iPod, so there's not much to say here other than the fact that it works well. There are equalizer presets available in the settings menu and you can also search for music using the on-screen keyboard, which works very quickly and efficiently. Watching video on the Zune HD's 3.3-inch OLED display is also a very pleasant experience due to the excellent quality of the display. Videos are very bright and clear without any contrast/brightness/color issues. Video can be output in 720p (but not 1080p) HD quality via an HDMI cable that comes with the purchase of the separate Zune HD Dock ($90). It should be noted that while the device is called the Zune HD, the screen itself is not HD and does not display content in high-definition. To do so, you must output the video via the HDMI cable to an HDTV.
The Zune HD supports only MP3, WMA, and unprotected AAC audio files. Supported video files include MPEG-4, WMV, and H.264 at a maximum resolution of 480 x 272-pixels. JPEG files are the only picture format supported as well.
Microsoft includes a modified version of Internet Explorer Mobile on the Zune HD to provide a pretty decent Web browsing experience. It is similar to Safari on the iPod Touch in the sense that it displays full-version Web sites in the same way it would appear on a computer and it renders these sites extremely well. There are times where the Zune HD displays the mobile version of a site because of the user agent that Microsoft uses to identify the browser to servers, which can be aggravating. The Zune HD supports Wi-Fi (802.11b/g).
The Zune Marketplace lets you wirelessly browse the marketplace right from the device. This means you can purchase music and video and download it right to the Zune HD. The App section of the marketplace is very sparse and almost nil (only a hand full of applications), but hopefully this will change. It is by no means anywhere near to the comprehensive Apple App Store with over 65,000 applications.
One feature that Zune HD has that the iPod Touch doesn't is wireless syncing, which allows you to sync your music, videos, pictures, and applications directly to your PC via wireless connection.
Because of the OLED screen, the Zune HD's rated battery life is rated at 33 hours for audio (with Wi-Fi turned off) and 8.5 hours for video, which is higher than the iPod Touch's rated battery life.
In comparison with the iPod Touch, Microsoft has seriously stepped up its game with the Zune HD, but we feel like it still will not be enough to unseat the iPod by any means. If Microsoft can increase the quantity and quality of the App store in the Zune Marketplace, they may have a better chance. The HD radio is a nice feature to have, but probably not a deal-breaker. We believe the Zune HD is in second place behind the iPod Touch, at least as of today.
PCWorld has a very nice comparison chart to compare the Zune HD against the iPod Touch. We must say that in viewing this comparison in a side-by-side manner, it's very clear the iPod Touch is superior to the Zune HD.
Correction (9/16/09): Previously, we stated the Zune HD does not have a physical volume control, but it does. The review has been corrected. Sorry for any misunderstanding.