When Microsoft steps into the arena with another company, you know itís going to be a helluva fight: the Redmond, Washington giant has the cash to keep on keeping on even if they take a beating. Be that as it may, when they take on Apple in the sector that Apple has dominated since 2001, you also know that theyíre probably going to lose. Such is the power of the iPod.
Zunes, then, are meant to be iPod-beaters, and Microsoft has been churning out different models since 2006. The Zune HD is a 2009 release that comes in 16 and 32GB versions (for $200/245), and that takes unambiguous aim at the iPod Touch. Does it even come close? Letís take a look.
First up we have the physical packaging. Buyers have a basic choice of black or silver, but other zanier options are possible if you use Microsoftís online store. Aside from this thereís not a lot to say about the Zune; like every modern touchscreen portable media player, its front is defined and dominated by its screen. The chassis is anodized aluminum, it has a solid feel, and with dimensions of 4.08 x 2.07 x 0.35 inches itís a little smaller (and squarer) than an iPod Touch. Itís also lighter than an iPod, as the iPod uses chromed steel where the Zune is aluminum.
But letís talk about that screen in more detail. The Zune HD boasts a 3.3 inch wide-screen format OLED. Is it any good? Well put it this way: it not only trounces the backlit LCD screen on the iPod Touch, it gives it a wedgie and flushes its head down the toilet as well. For color and contrast it is outstanding, and these factors combined with the wide-screen format make watching a movie on the Zune HD an absolute joy.
Getting a movie to watch on your Zune HD is a bit of a different story though, as a lot of the time youíll have to run AVIs and DivXs through conversion software before they will work. On the other hand Microsoft offers low-cost movie rentals for the Zune HD from the Zune Marketplace (Microsoftís answer to the iTunes store), but the range is not as extensive as from Appleís iTunes. On the other other hand, if you pay extra for the Zune AV Dock youíll be able to output high-definition 720p video to your TV via HDMI.
The Zuneís interface comes as a pleasant surprise, as thereís something slightly off-beat and daring about how it looks and works. Oversized text rolls off the screen, on the album pages there are band photos hung up in the background, and when you play a song pictures and artist bios float around the screen. Thereís more: select an artist or band youíll see an album list set against a background photo of the artist/band, with tabs for biographical information, more photos, and a list of related artists. If youíre online via a Wi-Fi connection it gets even better Ė you can see an artist or bandís entire back catalogue and preview and download songs. Thereís also a slightly messy secondary menu, ĎQuickplay,í that allows you to access everything you use frequently in one place.
A marquee feature on the Zune HD is the inclusion of HD Radio capability along with an FM tuner. HD Radio offers improved sound quality and enhanced metadata, allowing you for example to see the title and artist of the song that is currently playing, and tag it for later download. You can also access sub-channels with additional content.
Turning to matters of the internet and we find that the Zune HD sports Wi-Fi connectivity and a great web browser with an onscreen keyboard. It also has very smooth scrolling, multi-touch interface (pinch to zoom in on a page for example), a built-in sensor that automatically orients pages in landscape or portrait view depending on which way youíre holding the device, and always-there back, bookmark, and search icons. Itís very good, but unfortunately it lacks support for Flash, meaning that you canít use services such as YouTube and Pandora. This leaves it as a runner-up at best to Appleís Safari browser for the iPod Touch.
The Wi-Fi connectivity also allows the Zune HD to connect to the Zune Marketplace where you can preview and download songs, or, if you have a $14.99 per month Zune Pass subscription, listen to whatever you want however you want and keep forever up to 10 tracks a month. Itís a great, if costly, feature.
Like the iPod Touch, the Zune HD has some apps, such as a calculator, a weather app, Facebook and Twitter. Thatís ok, but what it doesnít have is access to an App Store like the Touch does. Microsoft will develop and release more apps in time, but that hardly makes up for the lack of a store with literally tens of thousands of apps to choose from (115,000 at last count).
The final verdict on the Zune HD is mixed. Itís a great device, but itís always going to be compared with the iPod Touch rather than appreciated completely in its own right. While it definitely beats the iPod Touch on some measures, such as its beautiful OLED screen, long battery life, and HD Radio, the iPodís vastly greater range of available apps and the fact that you donít need to pay a monthly subscription fee to get the best out of it leave the iPod out in front for most users.