Microsoft’s Zune HD is a touchscreen portable media player that has a number of things going for it. It’s thin, light, and has a brilliant OLED display. It can play 720p WMV and H.264 videos, which means you may be able to copy movies from your collection without transcoding them first. But the device doesn’t actually have an HD display. Instead, it has a 480 x 272 pixel widescreen display that’s actually smaller than the iPod Touch screen, which may come as a surprise to anyone that assumes a devices with HD in its name would actually display HD video.
The Zune HD is also one of the first consumer electronics devices to use the new NVIDIA Tegra platform, which bundles an ARM-based processor with NVIDIA graphics. This is how the low-power media player can play high bitrate HD video flawlessly. The Tegra processor also enables 3D graphics effects which show up in menu animations and in some of the handful of applications currently available for the Zune HD.
The folks at NVIDIA sent me a Zune HD to review for a few weeks. I recently took it on vacation to put it through the paces. The model featured in this review has 16GB of storage. A 32GB version is also available.
It’s hard not to compare the Zune HD to the iPod Touch. Both are portable media players that for the most part forego hardware buttons for on-screen, finger-friendly controls. But I plan to review the Zune HD on its own merits, largely because I haven’t spent a lot of time with an iPhone or iPod Touch.
That said, I did get a chance the other day to snap a few photos of the Zune HD next to a friend’s iPhone the other day. Bear in mind, the newer iPhone 3GS is thinner than the model shown in these photos, and the iPod Touch is even thinner. But measuring less than 2.1″ x4.1″ 0.4″ and weighing just 2.6 ounces, the Zune HD is smaller, thinner, and lighter than them all.
The Zune HD fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, and if you spend a little time with it, you can easily learn to manipulate the touchscreen menus with a single hand, although I generally find it easier to hold the media player with one hand and poke at it with a finger on the other hand.
At the top you’ll find a power button. You can hit this one just to shut off the screen, or press and hold the button to power down the Zune HD altogether. Bear in mind, the device will go to sleep after a period of inactivity, thus saving battery life, while still allowing you to start using the Zune HD within a second of hitting the power button again. Resuming from a complete shut down, on the other hand, will take a few seconds.
On the left side there’s a button that you can press to bring up on-screen menus for adjusting the volume, skipping tracks, fast-forwarding, or rewinding. The front of the Zune HD has a single button near the bottom that will bring up the main menu.
The headphone jack and sync port are all the way at the bottom. This placement seems a bit awkward if you want to place the Zune HD in your pocket while listening to music. Essentially you wind up having to throw the media player into your pocket upside down. But since you’re probably going to have to pull it out of your pocket to operate the controls anyway, maybe that’s not such a big deal.
The player has a nice solid feel to it, but my demo unit has the NVIDIA logo laser etched onto the back and I’ve noticed that after carrying the Zune HD in my pocket for a few days, the logo appears to be a bit scratched up. The rest of the casing and screen appear to be OK, but you might want to invest in some sort of protective case if you plan to throw the Zune HD in a bag or pocket on a regular basis.
While the 3.3″ OLED screen can’t actually display HD video, it does look quite crisp and clear and the colors are extraordinarily vivid. On the down side, it’s a fingerprint magnet. You may want to carry around a microfiber cloth to keep the display clean.
The zune HD also features an accelerometer which can be used to control some applications, although there are few programs that actually take advantage of this feature at the moment.
Features and Applications
The Zune HD is primarily an audio and video player. But that’s not all it can do. Microsoft also packed in an HD radio, which works quite nicely. It also has built-in WiFi capabilities which you can use to download music and album art from the Zune Marketplace. There’s also a web browser which works better than most version of Pocket Internet Explorer for Windows Mobile that I’ve used. It would be nice if the Zune folks and the Windows Mobile folks at Microsoft spent a bit more time working together.
The Zune HD also runs a handful of applications, but right now the emphasis is on handful. While Apple boasts over 100,000 apps for the iPhone/iPod Touch, there are just over a dozen applications for the Zune HD at the moment. On the bright side, they’re all free. On a dimmer side, they’re ad-supported, which means you have to look at a brief ad every time you launch and app. And on the much cloudier side, aside from a few games, a calculator utility, and a weather app, there’s really not much available to run on the Zune HD.
If Microsoft opens the Zune HD up to broader third party development, the platform could hole a lot of promise. Some applications such as the PGR: Ferrari Edition racing game feature rather impressive 3D graphics. And I’m mildly addicted to the Texas Hold’Em poker game. But right now there just aren’t that many apps to play with. For now, the main reason to pick up a Zune HD is for its user interface, form factor, and media playback capabilities, not its app platform.
There are so many aspects of the user interface that it’s hard to decide where to begin. But overall, the Zune HD features a UI that is both flashy and intuitive. It would have been easy for Microsoft to have gone overboard by trying to make the interface so beautiful that it was actually difficult to use. And at first glance, you might almost think that’s exactly what happened. But the truth is, that most of the animations and other effects are seamlessly integrated into the UI in a way that provides the Zune HD with a little wow factor without making the UI confusing.
Here’s a video overview of the user interface:
When you power on the device you’re greeted with a wallpaper, clock, and battery meter. You can slide up the wallpaper to visit the home screen, the now playing screen, or whatever menu you were looking at when the screen powered down.
The home screen is broken up into categories including music, videos, pictures, radio, marketplace, social, podcasts, internet, apps, and settings. You can also flick your finger from left to right across the screen to see the item that is now playing, as well as any items that are pinned to the home screen, thumbnails showing your history, and recently added media.
I won’t go into everything in this space, but her are some of the highlights.
In the music menu you can sort by playlists, songs, artists, albums, or genres. When a song is playing, the Zune HD background will change to an image of the artist drawn from the internet. You’ll also see some album art, and after a moment, song information will start to scroll across the display.
You can tap the screen to bring up a menu for skipping tracks, adjusting the volume, pausing, fast-forwarding, or rewinding. You can also create and manage playlists from the music menu.
Songs, artists, or other items are sorted alphabetically. You can sift through these items by dragging your finger up or down the screen. If you have a long list to go through, you can also click on a box with a letter in it. For example, there’s a box with a C before all of the artists that start with the letter C. Clicking on this brings up a screen with all the letters of the alphabet that are represented in your music collection, making it faster to skip from A to T than by scrolling through dozens or hundreds of artists.
The videos menu is organized by TV, movies, all, and other. I was pleased to note that TV shows I’d recorded using the BeyondTV DVR software on my computer were recognized on the Zune HD, complete with show descriptions and series groupings. For instance, I copied several episodes of Heroes to the media player, and it grouped them together.
As with the music, when you click on the screen when watching a video a set of controls pops up allowing you to pause, fast forward, or rewind. You can tap on the fast forward button to skip ahead by about 30 seconds, and the back button to go back about 8 seconds. Or you can tap and hold to fast-forward or rewind. There’s also a progress meter at the bottom of the display, which you can tap on to move from place to place in the video, although I found this to be a bit tougher to use.
You don’t have a lot of control over things like aspect ratio from the Zune HD video player. If a movie is in 16:9 aspect ratio when it’s copied to the device, you’re golden. 4:3 videos look a bit funky, but that may just be due to the fact that it looks odd to put black bars to the left and right of any video on such a small display. You can zoom in on some videos that don’t have widescreen resolutions, but this just tends to crop off the top and bottom of the video, thus robbing you of some detail, while still failing to use up all the screen real estate on the Zune HD.
The settings menu lets you configure wireless networks, adjust the display brightness, choose EQ settings for music, set the clock, check your free storage space, and make a number of other tweaks.
I’ll be honest. I kind of wish Microsoft would scrap Windows Media Player altogether and replace it with the Zune desktop software. While the Zune software is clearly designed first and foremost as an application for finding and purchasing music and syncing music, video, and applications between your PC and Zune, the software also features a decent built-in media player and an excellent user interface for sorting your media into “collections.”
Collections on the Zune desktop software are similar to those on the device. They’re sorted into music, video, picture, podcast, and channel categories. And under each of those sections you can sort further by category, title, type, album, artist, and so forth.
I’m particularly fond of the podcast client, which lets you find podcasts in the online Zune Marketplace or enter the RSS feed for any audio or video podcasts that aren’t available in the marketplace. If you delve into the settings, you’ll find options to keep a certain number of fresh episodes of each podcast, a feature that comes in handy if you want to have just the last few day’s worth of newsy podcasts, but larger collections of entertainment podcasts or others with “evergreen” content.
The Zune software is far from the only application that gives you this sort of control over podcasts, but I find iTunes to be rather clunky on PCs, and it tends to want to rearrange my music collection for me, while my old favorite Podcatcher, Juice, isn’t updated very often anymore.
In order to sync media files from your PC to your Zune, you just add a folder or other location to the “Monitored folders” list in the software settings and then select the songs, artists, or other items you want to sync. When your Zune HD is connected, the software will copy the files to your mobile device. Most supported audio and video files will be copied automatically and quickly, while I found that the Zune software wanted to transcode some video files before copying them. I haven’t seen this happen often enough to pinpoint what types of files the software transcodes.
The Zune desktop software isn’t perfect though. It takes a fairly long time to load, and most importantly, it’s Windows only for now. There’s currently no officially supported way to synchronize a Zune with a Mac or Linux machine.
I like the Zune HD. I really do. It’s small, light, attractive, and does a great job of playing supported audio and video files. The few games that are available look good too. But as much as I want to judge it on its own merits, it’s hard to justify the $220 and up price tags when you can pick up an iPod Touch with a larger (if less vivid) display and the ability to run thousands of third party apps in addition to audio and video files.
If you have a huge collection of 720p videos that you really want to play on a mobile device, the Zune HD will do it while most other portable media players won’t. But the Zune HD is hardly limitless. For instance, while it can handle 720p WMV and H.264 videos, it can’t handle DiVX videos at any resolution.
It would probably be fairly easy to add support for DiVX and some other codecs with a software update, but there’s no indication that Microsoft will be doing this any time soon. And since I’ve been spending the last few years recording TV programs using BeyondTV and an over-the-air antenna and saving them as DiVX files, this severely limits the usefulness of the Zune HD for me.
I’ll probably stick with my aging Dell Axim X50v for my audio/video/mobile app needs for now, or think about picking up a more versatile portable media player/PDA in the future such as the iPod Touch. If Microsoft opens up the Zune Marketplace for more third party app development, on the other hand, I’d certainly take another look at the Zune HD. If it could play DiVX files and run Pocket Informant, I’d almost be ready to kick my Axim PDA to the curb.