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Updated Zune HD Review

updated-zune-hd-review

Previously, I posted an incomplete Zune review. Well, here’s a full one for those who are interested…

1. Introduction

Yes, we actually like most things about the Zune HD. Find out how it stacks up against Apple’s iPod Touch. The specs don’t tell the whole story.

The Zune’s slow march towards portable media player supremacy just got some real traction. The Zune HD may finally give Apple cause for worry– the device will redraw the battlefield for personal media players. Apple’s iPod Touch, however, remains very competitive.

To those who’ve gone Apple, does the Zune HD sport enough goodies to make the Apple faithful flock to the dark side? We tested the Zune HD and the new Zune software to find out.

Take a quick look at the specs of both the Zune HD and the latest iPod Touch:

Specification Zune HD iPod Touch 3G
Size
4″x2.1″x.4″ 4.3″x2.4″x.33″
Weight
2.6 oz. 4.05 oz.
Screen Size
3.3″ 3.5″
Screen Type
OLED (Active, Color) LCD (Active, Color, Backlit)
Touch Screen
Capacitive Capacitive
Resolution
480×272 480×320
Aspect Ratio
16:9 Widescreen 4:3
Storage
16/32 GB 32/64 GB
Audio Codec Support
MP3, AAC, WMA AAC MP3 WAV
Video Codec Support
h.264/AVC, MPEG-4, WMV h.264/AVC, MPEG-4, Quicktime
Picture Format Support
HD Photo, JPEG BMP, GIF, JPEG, PNG, TIFF
WiFi
802.11 b, g 802.11 b, g
Wireless Sync
Yes No
Bluetooth
None 2.1 + EDR
Radio Tuner
HD Radio, FM None
Video Output
HDMI, RCA None
Price $219.99/289.99 $299/399

Based on the specs, these seem like two very similar devices. But, it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and the inside of the Zune HD is very nice and shiny and gives the iPod Touch a run for the money. A 3.3” OLED display produces brilliant picture quality and colors and is much more enjoyable for watching video than the Touch, even with its smaller size. It’s also wide-screen, albeit at a strange 480×272 resolution, which means HD content won’t be letterboxed.

The main difference between the two devices is the hardware. Running on the new Zune is Nvidia’s Tegra, a chipset with imbedded CPU, GPU, and memory. With it, all graphic-intensive applications work faster than we’ve seen on competing devices. Even the iPhone 3GS feels slow in comparison. The speed of simply turning pictures back and forth between portrait and landscape is remarkable. Instantaneous shifting of pictures and applications, as well as instant touch applications such as pinching to zoom in and out give the Zune HD unmatched speed.

Beyond the bright and rich screen and top-notch processing power, the Zune HD represents a different take on the personal media player. For once, it is Microsoft that wants us to think differently. (Yes, that was Apple’s slogan a few years back). How is Microsoft actually accomplishing this? By giving users a new way to organize media and a never-ending catalog of media to sort through. We’ll take a look at how the company made this possible, but first, let’s see how the Zune HD design stands up to Apple’s best.

2. A Smaller, Simpler PMP

If the Zune HD’s design says anything, it says “compact.” The iPod Touch is meant to fit in the hand comfortably and show off a large screen, and in comparison, the Zune feels small, light, and small-screened. However, holding the Zune and using it feels just right. The ridged sides are easy to grasp and much more comfortable than the Touch’s rounded sides. A larger screen would have been better, but considering how good the screen is, we’ll still take it over the Touch’s screen any day.

The Zune has three buttons: a power/sleep button on top, a home button below the screen, and a volume and music control button on the left side. Forgoing the standard volume controls (two volume buttons, for louder and quieter) feels like a mistake, since the new layout forces you to touch the screen often, which causes unsightly smudging. It also means that changing the volume requires users to look at the screen, but at the same time it’s now easier to play, pause, and switch tracks.

That top power button does not stick out (like the Touch’s), and is still easy to press. This makes it excellent for keeping it in your pocket because nothing will catch the button. The home button sticks out slightly, but is rounded off and is much more comfortable to press than the Touch, iPhone 3GS, or previous models are. A satisfying click for every press gives users confidence, instead of Apple’s quiet, depressed button. The area underneath the home button, which is just a plastic covering, is useless except for a thumb rest. That is, until a video is played and suddenly it’s the area where users are meant to hold onto the player. This is very convenient and comfortable and reduces the need for extra screen smearing.

Smearing, however, is a bit of a problem. Like earlier Touch and iPhone models (before the 3GS’ oleophobic oil-resistant screen), the Zune HD attracts fingerprints easily. The screen is bright enough to make sure you’ll never see smears when watching videos, but the standard black background of the operating system means smears are visible the rest of the time, so it does tend to look dirty on the front.

A metal plate is screwed into the back as a battery cover, though it is replaceable with soon to be released customizable backplates. Our device came with a simple Zune logo laser-etched into the back panel, though right now online buyers can pick between 20 different designs and, for the 32 GB model, four colors. The 16 GB model now only comes in Onyx black.

With its flat bottom, the Zune HD can actually stand on its own. The bottom houses the 3.5 mm audio jack and proprietary connector input. We discovered an “Easter egg” on our Zune, but it is possible that this feature exists only on units given to journalists.

3. Navigating the Zune HD

Activate the Zune and a lock screen appears, which is unlocked by swatting up. A menu pops up for music, videos, pictures, radio, marketplace, social, Internet, apps, and setting options. Hitting the volume-control button shows the volume level, play/pause status, media playing or waiting to be played, WiFi status, and battery life.

All of the menus in the Zune HD are tiered, meaning once you enter one, you can go back by tapping the enlarged heading on the top of the screen or hitting the home button to return home. We’ll skip music for now and look at the other options.

Videos are sorted by TV, movies, music videos, and other and are listed in alphabetical order. Tapping on the video name brings up a description. Tapping the image beside it will play the video immediately. Pictures are sorted by folder or date. The Marketplace gives quick access to the latest music and apps for you to purchase over a WiFi-Internet connection and a search feature is available if you already know what you’re looking for. A shopping cart is also available, in case you have a list of downloadables. Apps currently have no organization method, but with only nine of them available, it’s not a problem yet. For our look at the apps, see the next page.

Behind all the menu options on the left is a graphical interface that shows what is playing/paused and recently pinned. The interface also displays highlighted music and videos, a brief history of the latest media you’ve enjoyed, and the newest items added to your Zune. When the Zune is shaken, the background shakes in real time with the device. It has no real purpose, but it looks attractive.

4. New Ways To Play Music

The original Zune was made to share music between Zunes, but that never caught on because for every Zune owner there were at least 100 people with an iPod instead. Even today, you’d be lucky to find a fellow Zune owner in the wild unless you work in Redmond. Microsoft’s initial failure seems to have inspired its developers to give new Zune owners the best possible music experience without actual music ownership. Just stay with us, it’ll all be clear soon.

First among the Zune’s music sources is the HD radio, an excellent addition not only because few personal media players come with it, but because this HD Radio comes with many layers of content, meaning local radio stations can broadcast multiple stations over the same signal. For example, in Los Angeles we have 95.5 KLOS, which appears in HD1 and HD2, where HD2 is actually the company’s AM station KFI 640. Whether a frequency has multiple channels depends on the radio station and the maximum is three different channels per frequency.

The radio app is innovative, but a little slow to start and reception gets weak. Driving around the LA area, several radio stations, which played clear in the car radio didn’t work at all on the Zune, which uses the headphones as an antenna, though they aren’t required to use the radio. Of course, this practice limits the radio’s use when using speakers, which do not make a good antennae.

If the reception is clear, HD radio shows the music playing and Zune owners can click to bookmark songs for later purchase from the store, which is a very handy add-on. Controlling the radio is a hassle, though, both because it’s slow and because preset stations can only be accessed by going back and forth between the preset button on the bottom left of the screen. There is no option to add preset hotlinks to the screen. Once a radio station is visited, its information will be saved if it’s a preset. The radio also works in Japan and Europe.

Besides the radio, Microsoft wanted people to get away from listening to just the music they own and to try out new tunes that they may like. The company made a Pandora-like algorithm (Pandora is a popular Internet radio service featuring “stations” based on your likes and dislikes), which determines what type of music you like based on your music collection. There’s also an option to download “channels” from other users or companies, like KROQ or other radio stations. If you’re a Zunepass subscriber, which is $15 a month (we’ll discuss exactly how Zunepass works in our second portion of the review, in a few days), you can download these channels as play lists associated with specific types of music. We set one up and were immediately pleased with the music selection it gave based.

The most convenient part of all this is that while you don’t own those songs, they are still on your Zune to listen to at your leisure, until you sync and change the mix or delete it altogether. Of course, if you don’t like the song (or if you love it), you can rate it and when you next sync, it’ll upload that data to Zune and it’ll remember what you liked and didn’t like.

5. Zune Gets Social Web

A social app connects your Microsoft Live account to any friends you may have on Microsoft’s network, either through Zune or Xbox Live. An inbox and friends list are available for you to share songs or quick messages.

The Web browser is very different from what we’re used to with the Touch and iPhone. The browser loads pages specifically designed for mobile devices (as opposed to the Apple devices, which typically load full pages), and it’s very quick (we’ll have full speed tests in the coming days). Preliminary tests show that the browser can access secured networks properly without conflict, that it can access required pop-ups, and that it does just about everything Apple’s mobile Safari browser does, with the exception of loading non-mobile sites in non-mobile format. Slide the command bar up from the bottom to type out a new URL or to set a favorite.

Typing on the Zune is not as natural as on the Touch/iPhone. It’s too easy to accidentally hit the wrong letter when typing quickly, even in landscape mode. There are no sound options for typing, so audio queues can’t help you catch your mistakes. Typing in landscape was easier, but the scrolling-method of choosing letters is not as precise as Apple’s interface. It works, but the accuracy is not up to par.

Applications are very few in number and are the weak link for the Zune HD. There are only nine in total, though plans to offer serious gaming titles like Forza Motorsport are rumored to be making their way to the Zune. We tested all nine of the applications, including Hexic, Calculator, Chess, MSN Weather, and a few other games. Most of the games seem like demos designed to show off what the Zune can do, which considering the games in question, is very little. The calculator app has an interesting function where when turned in portrait mode, it becomes a scientific calculator. The Chess app crashed whenever the computer was close to losing, but the other apps ran smoothly and without incident.

6. Microsoft Is Thinking Differently

6. Microsoft Is Thinking Differently

The Zune HD is an excellent piece of hardware, with some exemplary software included within it. It competes seriously with the iPod Touch in all ways except applications and keyboard typing, but considering the Zune app store will only have been open for fewer than two days when this article is published, it’s not that big a deal. What is important is that watching videos and listening to music is better, smarter, and more convenient than the previous Zune models and is on par with Apple’s interface.

Microsoft also sells a Zune accessory: a $90 dock with HDMI and optical output, which allows for the Zune to play 720p video on an HDTV. We tested the quality of both SD and HD content, and while the quality of the video will depend on your TV, we found it very satisfying to simply plug in the Zune, use the remote to quickly navigate through the specialized dock menu system, and select whatever music, videos, pictures, or radio stations we wanted. The dock, officially called the Zune AV and HD Dock, even comes with a 1990s style wired antenna.

You can also plug the Zune into your media center during a party and set a channel up, and if there’s WiFi in range, the Zune can play new music on the fly. The TV will display music information in a smart, sexy fashion, keeping the screen moving but not in a way to attract too much attention. It’s a very simple DJ system. And if you have an older Zune, the dock will work with those as well.

Neither the Zune software nor the Zune HD supports WAV files (nor AIFF or FLAC). There is no support for high-end audio files. Therefore, we were unable to test the Zune HD under a heavier workload of high-bitrate audio, but more importantly, anyone who has music in WAV files (a format to which many programs record directly) will have to change the audio format if they wish to put the music on either their Zune handheld device or background player.

More testing needs to be done on the Zune HD to see how fast its browser really is, how good the battery life is, and to examine the latest updates to the Zune player. However, we have so far been extremely pleased with the Zune HD. It is a dashing piece of hardware, albeit one with plenty of room to grow with future upgrades

Source: Toms Guide

1 Comment

  1. Comments  Ecomb   |  Sunday, 04 October 2009 at 2:05 AM

    Basicly I have herd that when you download the latest iPhone software it keeps all the old ones (therefore wasting space) so i am trying to locate them on my mac to delete the last few, do you know where/how i can find them?

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