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 ($219) and 32GB ($289) Zune HD also includes a unique stable of features worthy of Apple's envy.
The Zune HD measures 4-inches tall by 2-inches wide by 0.3-inch thick, making it slightly more compact than the iPod Touch. It also weighs 1.5 ounces less, helped in part by the use of aluminum instead of the chromed steel of the iPod.
We instinctively thought the button on the left edge of the Zune HD worked to adjust volume. Instead, the button works to call up touch-screen controls for both media playback and volume, but fails to let you turn down your music without looking at the screen.
The Zune has come a long way from its days as the brown, brick-like player Microsoft launched in 2006. While the hardware has changed dramatically, the Zune's unique take on presenting and organizing music still remains.
Only three buttons have made their way into the Zune HD, including a large power/hold button on the top edge (shown above), 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.
You can display the Zune HD's music, video, photos, and HD Radio tuner to your television using Microsoft's $89 AV Dock. The package includes a remote control, charging adapter, HDMI cable, and composite video cable. It also unlocks the Zune's capability to output high-definition (720p) video.
The back of the Zune AV Dock includes an HDMI output, digital audio output, analog AV output, and a black wire antenna for picking up radio reception.
The Zune HD's onscreen keyboard works in both landscape and portrait views. Here we see it being used for a Web search in landscape mode. You can see the "search with Bing" branding in query box. Also, notice how the letters of the keyboard bulge out when pressed, giving an indication of the key you're pressing while your finger is obscuring it.
Here we have the Zune HD's mobile Web browser, which we're told was engineered by Microsoft's Internet Explorer team. The browser displays Web pages in a similar fashion as Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch, using pinching and flipping gestures to zoom and scroll through content. Pages also reorient themselves based on the position of the device, flipping from landscape to portrait view depending on the tilt of the screen.
The Zune HD is up against some stiff competition. On the left, you have Apple's iPod Touch with its larger 3.5-inch display and iPhone app compatibility. On the right, there's Sony's X-Series Walkman, which includes integrated noise cancellation, Slacker radio support, and a gorgeous OLED display that rivals the Zune's own OLED technology.
Microsoft's Zune HD will ship this fall with two color variations: silver with black trim, or black with silver trim. Like its competition, Apple's iPod Touch, the Zune HD uses a glass-covered touch-screen display. To access the main menu from the opening screen, you'll first need to swipe upwards to unlock the device, just like lifting a curtain.
The OLED screen technology used in the Zune HD offers many advantages over the more common backlit LCDs found in most mobile phones and portable media players, but potential buyers should be aware that OLED performs poorly in direct sunlight. Testing the iPod Touch and Zune HD outdoors on a sunny afternoon, with both players set at full brightness, we found that the Touch offers noticeably better visibility than the Zune.