Zune HD – Hands On and First Thoughts

106375_matterIt was speculated, leaked and confirmed and now it’s here, the Zune HD arrived to market yesterday. I’ve spent the last day working with one from end to and end and here’s what I think. Oddly, Microsoft sent out the devices to most reviewers last week but would not enable their use until the software went live on Tuesday. That’s why you’re seeing such a lag in reviews.

The specs are impressive with a 3.3-inch, 480 x 272 OLED capacitive touchscreen display powered by and Nvidia Tegra, built-in HD Radio receiver and HD output (which requires an HD dock for $90 extra). There are 16gb and 32gb versions, I’ve been working with a 32gb, platinum model. The device is small and light and very comfortable to hold. The capacitive display works smoothly and effortlessly. If you’re coming from a Portable Media Center or prior version of Zune, you’ll have no problems navigating. If you’re used to another device, you’ll have a few minutes of learning to get oriented. The screen itself is gorgeous. There’s nothing else on the market like OLED technology at the moment. Colors are vibrant and literally pop off the screen. It’s not that big a deal for music but for viewing pictures and video, it makes quite an impression. All controls are handles on screen and there’s a central home button that always takes you back to the main menu. In a view, it’s possible to pivot, from that point to other views, so going from artists, to songs, to genres is simple and smooth. Oddly, there’s no speaker on the device. While it’s not the ideal way to listen to music, sometimes it’s just nice to have. Microsoft claims 8.5 hours of battery life for video and 33 hours of audio, I haven’t had the device long enough to test those claims, so we’ll see. It also doesn’t note the screen brightness for those claims.

In addition to music, videos, and photos, the Zune HD offers a few new goodies. First is a Web browser. It’s IE based and the best I can say for it is that it works for casual browsing on mobile optimized sites. If you’re looking for an Internet tablet, look elsewhere, this is a media player with a basic browser built in. There’s a new apps section (odd that MSFT went with the term apps) with some varied content. There’s a calculator, MSN Weather programs, and a few games, notably Hexic. Microsoft says there’s more content coming including Facebook and Twitter apps and more casual games. The good news is that titles are all free. The bad news is that there’s not much of a developer eco-system at the moment. If you’re looking for a more robust application marketplace and platform, you’ll need to look elsewhere. Microsoft’s focus with Zune has been on media, no one will mistake the Zune as a netbook or gameboy ds replacement.
The Zune desktop software works well. It’s still a mystery to me why and how Microsoft needs to separate desktop tuners for media integration. Between Windows Media Player and Zune desktop it can get confusing. I had no problems with the Zune software seeing my audio, video and photo collections. As iTunes tags content differently, not all my tags for genre, album art etc came over. It’s not an issue for most folks but made configuration a little harder than it needed to be. There’s also no way I’ve discovered to bring my playlists from the Mac version of iTunes over to the Zune. Again, not a problem for most users but annoying for me. Setting up and syncing was simple and easy. I had not problems sending over a few seasons of TV shows, some movies, a few thousand songs and a few thousand pictures. Syn times were relatively speedy given I was moving 30gb of content.

One of the key differences of Zune to other devices is the Zune marketplace. Microsoft has finally added movie rentals as well as TV show purchases to the Zune store. In addition, Zune marketplace lets you subscribe to the service and have access to the entire Zune Marketplace library. In addition, you can keep 10 tracks each month in MP3 format. That brings the costs of subscription down to essentially $4.99 a month. You can add channels, download and get content directly on the Zune. You don’t need a Zune pass to enjoy Zune HD but it’s the experience of the marketplace, the software discovery and the device that really make the experience different.
Sadly, the ability to share files between devices is no longer part of Zune. Given the crippled nature of the feature, it’s not something most users will miss.

Bottom line? The Zune team delivered. Zune HD is an excellent music player that handles pictures and video content well (the smoothness of viewing pictures is wonderful, something we haven’t seen on non-Apple devices before).

What’s missing? In terms of accessories, while there isn’t the legion of stuff available for iPod, but the usual assortment of cases, car kits and the like are around. For HD playback, you’ll need that dock I mentioned before that costs $90, which seems a little steep for me. There’s really not an app story here and the fact that folks are making this an issue underscores how good a job Apple has done in moving the needle on that conversation forward. The reality is that many users are just looking for good media player with support for music, photos and videos and want a device with a large screen and capacity. I don’t think Zune HD is going to head to head directly with iPod Nano or iPod Touch buyers but is looking at a different segment of an overlapping audience. The challenge that Microsoft will have is telling their story with only one device and getting users to actually take a look at the Zune HD experience.

Should you buy? That’s a tougher question. If you’re a Mac user, it’s easy. There’s no Mac support for Zune so unless you’re prepared to run Windows on your Mac to get Zune HD support this isn’t the device for you. Folks who are tied closely to Apple’s eco system will also have a tough time making the Zune leap. If you’re invested in car kits, speaker docks, cases, Apple TV and iPhone, Zune isn’t going to fit into that eco system well at all. This is in fact where Microsoft is going to face some challenge. It’s not the lack of apps but eco system and connection of content to other screens that’s the biggest challenge to Zune. The iPod/iPod Touch platform isn’t the issue, it’s the iTunes ability to manage content and serve it to phones, media players, PCs and TVs that’s the issue. That said, if you’re looking for something more akin to a pocket computer than a media player, Zune HD isn’t for you.

Folks who are on Windows who are looking for top notch media player that’s highly optimized for content consumption should seriously consider Zune HD. As a one to one product, it’s the first device I’ve seen in a long time that’s a credible offering against an iPod. The performance of playback, the gorgeous OLED display, combined with a robust set of content and service offerings help make the Zune HD stand out and offer a differentiated experience. If Microsoft is able to effectively market this differentiation to the consumer and tell their own story of eco system and integration, I suspect Zune HD will do better than some folks are predicting.

I’ll have some more thoughts once I’ve take in on the road and out and about for a few days. So what do you think? Did Microsoft get it right this time? Or is it, too little/too late?

5 responses to “Zune HD – Hands On and First Thoughts

  1. The Zune desktop is a much nicer experience than Windows Media Player but e.g. WMP can sync out of the box with an Android phone or with an MTP device, Zune desktop not.

    On the other hand, just like everybody else, I’d like to see better integration between, Zune, WinMo, Media Center and Xbox 360 – including Zune HD as remote for Media Center similar to the iPhone app. I’m an Apple user/fan but for Home Theater PC and DVR Media Center seems for me the way to go.

  2. You wrote: “odd that MSFT went with the term apps … ”

    I agree totally. They also refer to podcasts as “podcasts.” As silly as it might first sound, I think they should call the “zunecasts” and apps something like “zapps”

  3. I see you say that the effective price is 4.99 (i’m guessing per month) What does it really cost since i’m not likely to want to keep 10 songs a month. Are the songs high quality (256 k)?

    What do you get for $90 for the dock? Something you can only watch on your Windows pc?

    This review is missing a lot of information.

  4. Microsoft did an outstanding job with this media device. It is far sleeker than my iPod touch. Having used an ipod touch, the interface and the features on the Zune HD are far better. You get impressive features on the Zune. HD radio sounds great. OLED Screen is fantastic. The device is extremely light and very well built. Battery life is great as well. I have no complaints about this device. I purchased it with the dock, and man does the picture look great on my TV. The Zune outputs videos without any problems or hesitation. Truly a great device. I highly recommend and definitely recommend that you play around with it for yourself, because pictures truly don’t do it justice.

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