Editors' note: This review has been updated with battery test results from CNET Labs, new pricing, and includes the 64GB model.
As the high-profile underdog alternative to Apple's iPod portable media player, the Zune has endured an unfair share of jokes and scorn. Proving the adage that "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger," Microsoft has taken four years'-worth of hard knocks and forged the Zune HD. As one of the only iPod alternatives that can match the iPod Touch in beauty and pricing, the 16GB ($199), 32GB ($269), and 64GB ($349) Zune HD also includes a unique stable of features worthy of Apple's envy.
The most important aspect of the Zune HD's design to recognize is that there's something missing: the ugly. Gone are the days of the bulky, brown brick. Instead, the Zune HD's slender body (0.3 inch thick) and anodized aluminum construction has the futuristic and industrial look of a sci-fi movie prop. A glass-covered 3.3-inch screen defines the front of the device, while a slab of angled aluminum curves around the back, giving the Zune HD a cold and solid feel in the hand.
Like any touch-screen device, most of the Zune HD's functions are controlled by pressing or swiping your finger on the responsive capacitive display. Only three buttons have made their way into the hardware, including a large power/hold button on the top edge, a slim home button below the screen on the front of player, and a button on the left edge of the device for quickly calling up the Zune's onscreen playback and volume controls. We're not sure why the designers didn't just take a page from the iPod Touch and turn the side button into a dedicated volume control. Frankly, it's a pain to adjust volume on the Zune HD, and nearly impossible if the device is in your pocket. Granted, the Zune's full-screen volume icons are easier to work with than the onscreen volume slider on the first-gen iPod Touch (which also lacked a dedicated volume button), but that's about the only nice thing we can say about it."
If you've been raised on nothing but iPods over the years, your brain may need an adjustment period to get comfortable with the Zune user interface. We'll let the hard-core fans hash out which user interface works better, but for us, the difference feels like driving in Europe--the lanes may be switched around and the street signs use different symbols--but essentially it's all the same stuff. That may sound like a cop-out, but when it comes to designing a user interface, creating something that's comparable to Apple but still maintains its individual spirit is about as high a compliment as you can get.
To Microsoft's credit, the aesthetic of the Zune's interface is a bit more daring and informal than the tight, sterile icon grids and Rolodex menus of the iPhone and iPod Touch. On the Zune HD, you'll find oversize main-menu text that recklessly rolls off the screen, album pages with band photos hung in the background, and a secondary main menu called Quickplay, which works like a messy desk drawer filled with all the stuff you use frequently (play history, new content, and any songs, photos, videos, radio stations, or Web pages you've pinned for easy access). In a side-by-side comparison with the iPod Touch, you'd swear that Apple's whole "I'm a Mac" campaign got its characterizations reversed.
The set of features packed into the Zune HD are unapologetically focused on media playback and entertainment. On the main menu you'll find options for music, videos, pictures, radio, Marketplace (Microsoft's music download portal), and Internet. Some features, such as podcasts, audio books, and applications, are given main menu categories once there's content to justify it.
Music tops the Zune HD's main menu for good reason. More than anything else, the Zune HD is a portable music machine designed for curious fans with large appetites for new music. The audio player supports MP3, AAC, WMA, and WMA Lossless formats, as well as audio book files from Audible or OverDrive. Like most MP3 players, the music you sync the Zune HD with can be quickly sorted by artist, album, song, genre, and playlist, but the Zune HD's unique strengths as a music player are revealed once you dig down to a particular artist or song. For example, when you select an artist to play, you'll get a list of their albums set against a background photo of the musician or band, along with tabs that offer biographical information, additional photos, and a list of related artists (all of which is pulled offline from the Zune software). If the Zune HD is connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi, album listings will show an artist's entire album catalog and let you preview and download additional songs, or explore the music catalog of similar artists. Armed with Microsoft's Zune Pass subscription music plan, you can easily leverage the Zune HD's similar artist listings and extended album views to explore and download unlimited quantities of music at a flat monthly rate ($14.99 per month). Without the Zune Pass plan, the Zune HD's similar artist feature still connects you to Zune Marketplace, but previews are limited to 30 seconds and downloads are sold individually, much like the built-in iTunes store on the iPod Touch.
Another small feature that music fanatics will appreciate is the Zune HD's on-the-fly playlist creation and content management. The Quickplay menu found right off the main menu puts all your newest music right up front, along with your play history, currently playing song, and anything you've deliberately "pinned" to the menu. In other words, all the media you've recently shown an interest in is placed into a concise menu, letting you jump right into the good stuff without rooting around in menus. To pin something to the Quickplay screen, you hold your finger on the item you want pinned, and a context menu will pop up asking if you want to pin the content or add it to your Now Playing list. The latter option cues up the selection behind whatever you're currently playing, giving you a jukebox-like capability to throw playlists together on the fly. Entire albums, genres, or playlists can be thrown into the Now Playing queue, and a disk icon at the top of the Now Playing view allows you to permanently save and name your ad-hoc playlist.
A long story short is the Zune HD--more than anything--is a music fan's dream machine. However, when it comes to video, the results are more mixed. As far as the Zune's evolution goes, the Zune HD is the most video-friendly model yet, boasting a gorgeous 3.3-inch screen (480x272-pixel resolution), support for movie rentals, and an OLED display technology with color saturation and contrast advantages that leave competitors in the dust (with the exception of the equally stunning Sony X-Series Walkman). Unfortunately, no matter how pretty your screen is, when it comes to portable video players and the video junkies who seek them out, format support is crucial. Unless your video meets the MP4/H.264 video podcast standard or Microsoft's own WMV format, you'll need to jump through some video conversion hoops to load up AVI, DivX, MOV, or other files. Granted, the iPod Touch is equally restrictive when it comes to video format support, but the larger selection in the iTunes video catalog, along with its over-the-air downloads and dozens of options for streaming Internet video make it a better overall choice for video fans.
There is one more ace up Microsoft's sleeve when it comes to the Zune HD's video capabilities. If you have an extra $89 to spend on a Zune AV Dock, the Zune HD will output high-definition (720p) video to your TV via an HDMI connection (composite output is also available). Compatible HD videos can be purchased or rented from Microsoft's Zune Marketplace download store, or created manually using a DVD ripper if you know what you're doing. It's also worth mentioning that videos downloaded using the Zune Marketplace on Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console can be redownloaded to your computer's Zune software and synced with the Zune HD, although the process is far from automatic.
Radio has always helped to define the Zune HD against the iPod. And while there is some irony in the fact that Apple's latest iPod Nano is now imitating the RDS FM radio and song tagging capabilities that the Zune put on the map, Microsoft continues to innovate with the addition of an HD radio broadcast support to complement the existing FM radio tuner. HD Radio broadcasting is still in its infancy, but most major metropolitan areas offer a handful of HD Radio channels. Aside from improved sound quality, HD Radio stations often offer multiple subchannels with additional content. Another advantage offered by HD Radio signals is improved broadcast metadata, letting Zune HD users view information on the currently playing song, as well as tag the song for download. Overall, the Zune HD's combination of FM radio and HD broadcast support makes it one of the best radios we've used on a portable media player.
The Zune HD's Web browser rounds off its main feature set. The browser is a cleaner, leaner offshoot of Microsoft's mobile Internet Explorer browser, complete with a multitouch onscreen keyboard, and persistent icons for navigating backward, bookmarking, and Bing-powered Web search. Just like Apple's iPhone, the Zune's browser uses a built-in tilt sensor to orient pages in portrait or landscape views, pages can zoomed with a double-tap or pinch of the fingers, and scrolling is so smooth and responsive that it feels as if the page is floating on water. Compared with the browsers we've seen on similar products, such as the Sony X-Series Walkman or Archos 5 (Opera), the Zune HD is miles ahead of the pack. Unfortunately, the browser is still crippled by a lack of support for Flash Web content (sorry Pandora and YouTube), and an absence of many features that smartphone users have come to rely on, such as auto-fill, copy-paste, and multiwindow browsing. Sure, you can update your Facebook status, check your Gmail, or read the latest news, but pitted head-to-head with the iPhone's Safari browser, the Zune HD falls short.