After playing with the Zune HD for some time, here’s the complete review. The first Zune was an interesting device, but it was not sexy and didn’t have any real edge over the iPod, except in two areas: the WIFI sync and more importantly, the Zune Pass: a music rental option that doesn’t exist with Apple.
The Zune HD *is* sexy, slim and solidly built. It is actually smaller than it looks on the product photos and many people are surprised when they see it for the first time (which is good for a music player). It is also very light (2.6oz, versus 4.23oz for the iPod touch). The other day I was looking for it, after forgetting that it was in fact in my pants pocket… However, once you get over the first physical contact, the new user interface and experience is really what matters. So, is the Zune HD hot or not?
As I just said above, the physical design is well executed. It’s pretty sober and there’s no big “Microsoft logo”. The photo above shows a huge NVIDIA Tegra tatoo because I got this loaner unit from NVIDIA and they are obviously fans of this device. The aluminum back feels really good and you won’t be leaving finderprints there. Also, aluminum tends to be more scratch resistant and less slippery – ask the first iPhone owners.
The NVIDIA tatoo has been added afterwards
On the inside, the Zune HD is powered by an NVIDIA Tegra SoC (system on a chip) that has an 800Mhz ARM processor and a graphics processor (GPU), which makes it powerful enough to play 3D games like Quake 3 at high frame rates. The Zune HD runs on Windows CE. Yes, it’s scary, but microsoft has added some “special mojo” that makes the Zune HD much better than any Win CE device they had before.
Finally, the OLED display is the crown’s jewel. The pixel density, contrast and brightness are excellent. You could tell me “duh, it’s OLED”, but when you see it in action it is still impressive. You will get used to the new quality pretty quickly… haha
New user interface
If you have played with a Zune before, you’ll immediately notice that there’s a new user interface (UI). It looks a little like the “Today” interface from Windows Mobile 6.5, but it is so much faster and more fluid. “Fluidity” is actually one of the words that define the Zune HD. Any touch UI should be this fluid. I think that it is even faster than my iPhone 3GS. What a refreshing change from the many touch phones that I have played with in the past couple of months.
There are two buttons at the bottom (fused in the same piece of plastic): one to go back to the home page, the other to go to the most recently opened media files.
A first, the navigation into the various menus and sub-menus can feel bizarre, especially when you want to “go back” one level. I’ve recorded a short video to show how it works: When you click on a menu, it opens, but the parent menu name stays partially visible at the top of the screen. If you want to go back one level, just click on parent menu to go back. Once you know, it’s actually quite simple.
Zune Pass: if you don’t know what Zune Pass is, it’s a music rental service very much like Rhapsody or Napster. For $15/month, you can stream and download (DRM) MP3 files on up to 3 computers. These are the current terms for the U.S.A. I’m not sure how that would work in other regions of the world. Of course, you can have non-DRM MP3s from other sources (CD rip, Amazon…).
You can search your music by: song name, genre, album name, artist name or by playlist. If searching by song, you can jump to the first letter of the song, but you cannot search by keyword. That’s too bad because it is sometime convenient. I clearly don’t have hundreds of songs (or even thousands), so I was OK, but other people might feel that this is an issue. It would be nice if the Zune HD had a universal search.
Tap on the currently playing track and these controls appear
During playback, the UI is quite minimalist. That’s where you can rate a song, or select “repeat” or “shuffle” mode. Another tap on the screen will reveal the next/previous and volume controls (the side button doesn’t control the volume, but it will make the volume UI appear). It works fine like that, but I would argue that all controls could have been on the same screen. No big deal, though. I spotted one problem: I can’t seem to fast forward within a song.
Music: buy or rent?
How you consume music is up to you, everybody has a different usage pattern, but while it is understandable that one might expect to “own” music, the amount of money that you spend per month (let’s say over a year or two) should be taken into account. If you spend more than $15 dollars per month, may be renting isn’t such a bad idea. I personally like to rent – that lets me listen to a bunch of new stuff without, and I can download the stuff on my Zune to take with me. In the end, I listen to a lot more music than I used to, and I can choose what I listen to (unlike radios). The video below shows you how Microsoft sees it:
Music: sound quality
It’s funny to talk about sound quality w
hen the earbuds included with most MP3 players, including the Zune HD, are so basic, but using a Sony MDR-NC500D, I found that the Zune HD had a slightly better sound quality. The sound is crisper and warmer than my iPhone 3GS – I’ll assume that the iPod Touch has similar audio qualities here. That said, I don’t think that the audio quality is different enough to sway users one way or the other. If you use very nice headphones, that might be something to look at.
As you can guess, videos look awesome on the Zune HD. For this review, I found PSP-sized MPEG4 videos (300 in the photo below) and thanks to the OLED screen, it looks great. These videos were running at 30fps without a hitch. It’s not surprising, the Zune HD can in fact decode 720p videos to a HTDV if you have the optional dock (which I don’t). That said, I’ve seen the Tegra chip in action many times at NVIDIA and I’m pretty sure that 720p decoding works just fine.
Despite of the quality, I find the videos to be a bit small to really be enjoyable. The same thing can be said for the iPod Touch or the iPhone. I just tried recently during a flight to Asia. Secondly, I wonder how many Zune user will actually buy the dock. I would really like to know. The Zune HD supports wmv, mp4 and dvr-ms4. I tried .mkv and it didn’t work.
Yes, these guys were disquised like that in one of the busiest place in Tokyo
The photo gallery works really well. It is extremely fast (faster than my iPhone 3GS) and the zoom and pinch user interface is efficient. There are really no complaints here. The only downside is that the screen is a bit narrow (16:9), both for looking at the photos and for using the multi-touch gestures (check the video above).
The user interface for Marketplace is pretty well done. When you get there, Microsoft shows the “featured songs” and stuff like that. You can also search with keywords if you know what you are looking for. You can add to your cart to buy, or if you have a Zune Pass, you can download right away.
Everybody loves applications right? Well, don’t be too excited, the Zune has less than a dozen apps available and the most useful has to be the calculator… It’s frustrating, given that the underlying hardware is so powerful.
So when are apps coming? I don’t know, but Microsoft needs to build an SDK first, so you’ll see that coming. I can only speculate that they have an issue with the fact that Zune HD is not your plain vanilla Windows CE device. It would be really nice to transfer some Zune HD “mojo” to Windows Mobile, then build a unified SDK form there. Are we going to have to wait for Windows Mobile 7?
Update 11-11-09: The first 3G games are creeping up on the Zune HD. Check this video:
Having FM radio can be nice, not only to listen to radio, but most importantly to use in the gym or places where TV audio is sent over FM. The Zune HD would be a nice gym companion by the way, and I think that it is less sensitive to moisture than some popular phones…
Web browsing on the Zune HD is much better than any Windows CE handheld that I have seen. The browser is also more reactive than Windows Mobile 6.5 phones, it has pinch and zoom too. That said, things can be slow while the page is loading. Also, the web browsing experience is still inferior to the iPod Touch / iPhone, there’s no question about that. Apple’s browser provides a much better user experience, and the images downsampling (reduction) is better. The Zune HD uses point-sampling, which looks fairly bad.
Zune is the PC software that will be the main interface between your Zune HD and the online service. That’s also where you will tell your Zune which directories on your PC contains media files to sync to. It’s the equivalent of iTunes.
iTunes’ graphics interface is sluggish but Zune is fast… very fast. It is visually very nice to use, but there are inconsistencies in the user interface. Sometimes I can rate a song, sometimes I can’t. Also, clicking on an album icon will lead you to different screens, depending on the current context. The bottom line is that after a few weeks, I’m still searching my way sometimes. But despite that, I still prefer using Zune than Rhapsody or iTunes.
By the way, the Zune interface looks really nice on a flat TV. While the music plays, photos of the artist (or similar ones) are displayed with text information. I showed it to a few friends (all working in Tech) and I had a bunch of people asking me what that was. The first thing that people ask is: “do I have to buy a Zune HD to get this on my computer?” Of course, a Zune device is not required, as Zune is a standalone application and service. It just shows that Microsoft has done an incredibly poor job of communicating about an otherwise good software and service.
Things to improve
Display: yes, the OLE
D display is superb, but not perfect. In broad daylight it is very hard to see what’s going on (that’s not even direct sunlight in the photo).
Apps: There’s no question that the number of apps is ridiculous. I hope that popular apps will show up soon.
Volume control: it would be better if the volume could be controlled without looking at the screen.
It’s hard to predict what battery life is going to be, but I used the Zune for several hours on Sunday evening, and I left it unused since. It’s Saturday morning now and I just got a “low battery” warning. How does it compare to the iPod Touch? Most independant reports indicate that while music playback is comparable with 30hrs (iPod touch) and 33hrs (Zune HD), the Zune HD can play 2.5 hours more of video (8.5hours) than the iPod Touch. You can either use the extra battery to watch another movie, or to increase the screen brightness.
With the Zune HD, Microsoft is making a big come back in the portable media player market. May be not in terms of market share (yet), but in terms of technology, service and overall coolness. Technologically, the Zune HD is one of the most powerful mobile devices out there and its user interface is unbelievably fast, but it lacks applications beyond the basic media player functions. At least, it’s got great potential. At the moment, the iPod touch has better (and so much more) apps, and provides a better web experience. You need to know if you want your device to be a media player or a personal digital assistant (PDA).
Now, it truly comes down to whether or not you want to “rent” music. This is absolutely not an option with Apple, and if you listen to a lot of music, renting can be absolutely fabulous. Sure, Zune might not have as much choice as other services (if you are into obscurely edgy stuff), but that might just be good enough and it is getting better. You can check what’s available by downloading the software (it works on Windows only). For music rental, the Zune HD is simply the best player out there.