I got a few minutes of hands-on time with Microsoft's forthcoming Zune HD at a Microsoft event, and I came away thinking that Microsoft might finally have a contender.
Of course, it inherits all the benefits of the current Zune--a more visually interesting (if not always more useful) PC client than iTunes, and the ability to subscribe to all-you-can-eat music plus 10 permanent downloads for only $14.99 a month via the Zune Pass. New features like HD Radio and high-def video output also sounded attractive when they were .
But it's one thing to read about it, and another to actually use it. I was surprised and pretty impressed with its small size--without measuring, I'd guess it's maybe two-thirds the size of an iPod Touch, and quite a bit thinner. In my hands, it felt more like an iPod Nano or perhaps one of the flash-based Zunes, although it's obviously not that small. The OLED screen offered excellent color and brightness--great for album covers, anyway--although I honestly didn't think it was a quantum leap above the iPod Touch. Then again, I was using it in a fairly dim-lit room, not in sunlight.
But the real innovation seems to be going on in user interface--how do you make a touch screen workable on such a small device? Here, Microsoft has done a solid job, taking the mixture of horizontal and vertical menus used on the current Zunes and adding particular tweaks for the touch screen. You can scroll horizontally or vertically simply by swiping your finger along, and there are multiple "ways in" to and "ways out" of the various menus and screens, which encourages exploration. When a song's playing, you control the volume by touching the screen and hitting a little plus or minus button; numbers show you absolute volume. Clearly marked "exit" buttons are usually available to get you back to the previous menu, and a physical button below the screen (you can see the black trapezoid shape on the screenshots here) takes you back to the home menu page. There was a bit of a learning curve, but after a couple minutes I was impressed by how much functionality Microsoft was able to pack into such a small screen.
There was no public Wi-Fi when I tested it, so I didn't have a chance to test the browser, but based on what I've seen demonstrated for Windows Mobile 6.5, as well as some other very well-placed rumors, I think users will be impressed and surprised at some of its features. It's a solid addition to what's still essentially a music player--not a super-device.
The timeframe for the Zune HD is still this fall. I expect it to be priced quite a bit cheaper than the iPod Touch, as CNET's Donald Bell suggested in his preview a couple months ago, but Microsoft hasn't confirmed anything on that front. Whether you end up buying one or not, at least there will be something interesting to check out in Microsoft's upcoming .
Follow Matt on Twitter.