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.
Another slam-dunk Apple has over the Zune HD (or any portable media player, really) is the depth and breadth of third-party application support. At launch, the Zune HD has access to a handful of utility applications (calculator and weather) and games, with the promise of standalone apps for Twitter and Facebook on the horizon. Compared with the tens of thousands of apps available for the iPod Touch and iPhone, Microsoft has a long way to go if they plan to compete on this front. And while the majority of apps available on the iPhone and Touch have nothing to do with gaming or media playback, those that do (such as streaming Internet radio apps, streaming video apps, and literally thousands of games), lend a kind of diversity and open-ended freedom to the devices that many find irresistible.
In the end, the Zune HD's features are defined as much by what's missing, as what it includes. While the Wi-Fi equipped hardware is certainly capable of a great many things, it makes no attempt to emulate smartphone features such as e-mail, stock tickers, maps, or anything with even the faintest hint of workday productivity. The Zune HD is a portable media player, through-and-through, placing tremendous emphasis on the quality of its music and video experience.
If you're considering buying the Zune HD because it's cheaper than the iPod Touch, you're not quite seeing the whole picture. Many of the Zune's most interesting and unique features, such as unlimited song downloads, over-the-air album and song streams, playlist channels, and the seamless exploration of new music through Similar Artist links, all require a Zune Pass subscription account. At $14.99 per month (about $0.50 per day or $180 per year), the Zune Pass doesn't come cheap, and not everyone will appreciate its benefits.
Compared with other on-the-go subscription music plans offered by Rhapsody and Napster, the Zune Pass offers a comparable music selection and features, as well as an allotment of 10 MP3 downloads per month that are yours to keep, even if you cancel your membership. What the Zune Pass doesn't offer, is the broad device support for products beyond the Zune, such as compatibility with other MP3 players or streaming audio products such as Squeezebox or Sonos.
Bottom line--if you're going to buy a Zune HD, expect to shell out for the Zune Pass, as well. In the final tally, it makes the Zune HD a considerably more expensive product, but it's really one of the only ways you'll be able to solicit a jealous response from your iPhone- and iPod Touch-toting peers.
Just like an iPod needs Apple's iTunes music software to load up on music, videos, and podcasts, the Zune HD requires its own software, as well. Version 4.0 of Microsoft's Zune software client offers many of the same features and capabilities as iTunes, and presents your media collection using an interface that is arguably much prettier to look at.
Microsoft's Zune Marketplace download store has its own tab within the software, where you can browse a catalog of more than five million songs, as well as a huge library of free audio and video podcasts, and a remodeled video download section that includes TV shows, music videos, and movies that can be purchased or rented. Across all categories, we're impressed by the selection and presentation of downloadable content on Zune Marketplace; however, Microsoft still can't match iTunes' deep music and video catalog.
In spite of the improved selection and stylish interface, the odd pricing of Zune Marketplace downloads remains unchanged. For reasons we can't comprehend, Zune Marketplace downloads are all priced using a fictional currency called Microsoft Points (100 points equates to about $1.25). To Microsoft's credit, many of the songs and videos available on Zune Marketplace are priced competitively with offerings from Apple and Amazon--but you would never know it without a currency calculator on-hand. Overall, the effect of purchasing and spending "points" instead of cash feels a little childish, like cashing in tickets at a carnival.
While we're grinding old axes, it's also worth mentioning that the Zune Software is not Mac-compatible. Unless you plan to run a virtualized version of Windows, there is absolutely no way to get the Zune HD work with your Mac.
The Zune HD is a major leap forward when it comes to Zune performance benchmarks. Thanks to all the efficiencies afforded by the latest Nvidia Tegra processor and the power-thrifty OLED display, the Zune HD's battery life is rated longer than the iPod Touch battery life, boasting 33 hours of audio playback and 8.5 hours of video (both with Wi-Fi turned off). CNET Labs' test results achieved 29.5 hours of music playback with Wi-Fi switched off, and oddly enough, 30.4 hours with Wi-Fi turned on. By comparison, tests for the third-generation Apple iPod Touch scored 34.5 hours of continuous audio, which is not a significant lead, but notable nonetheless.
The Zune HD's video battery life held up well, with 8.5 hours of continuous playback with Wi-Fi off, and 8.2 hours with Wi-Fi turned on. The third-generation iPod Touch scored an average of 8.3 hours of video playback, making the difference negligible.
Battery hours are nice, but video quality is really where the Zune HD hit it out of the park. Everything from standard-definition video podcasts to HD Zune Marketplace movie rentals looks fantastic on the 16:9 wide-screen OLED display. And while the screen resolution taps out at 480x272 pixels, the Zune HD's video processor is capable of decoding videos as large as 1,280x720 pixels at 30 frames per second, provided that the video is routed to your TV using the optional Zune AV dock accessory. We still wish some of that video horsepower could be applied to a greater range of video formats, but with a screen this good, we'll take what we can get.
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. Aside from the differences in screen technology, the Zune's usability in direct sunlight is also hampered by interface design choices, such as the prevalent use of white menu text set against a dark background. If we were evaluating a mobile phone or a GPS, we would consider poor performance under direct sunlight a significant flaw. Seeing as portable media player use is generally confined indoors, we expect that most people will find the screen's premium video quality a fair trade for decreased visibility under direct sunlight. That said, if you're an outdoorsy type, the Zune HD might not be the best choice.
As much as the Zune HD's handling of music playback is the star feature of the device, its audio quality hasn't budged much compared with prior generations. Microsoft was gracious enough to reintroduce the handful of EQ presets found only in the first-generation Zune, but without more advanced settings for sonic sculpting, competitors such as the Sony X-Series, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3 have more to offer those with picky ears. In side-by-side comparisons with the third-generation iPod Touch heard over a pair of Ultrasone HFI-2200 and a pair of Shure SE310 in-ear headphones, it was difficult to discern any sonic characteristics one device had over the other--except to say that the iPod's headphone amp offered a few more clicks of headroom over the maximum volume output of the Zune HD. Also, as much as we'd prefer to see a custom graphic EQ on both devices, the EQ presets on the Touch outshone the Zune HD in both quality and quantity.
If you've never seen the mobile Web browser on an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Zune HD's Web browser will knock your socks off. Its multitouch keyboard is more accurate and responsive than those on many touch-screen mobile phones we've tested. Page load speeds are relatively quick on the Zune and frequently used Wi-Fi hot spots are stored in memory (along with their associated passwords). Unfortunately, after putting the Zune HD toe-to-toe with the third-generation Touch (32GB model), there's no questioning the Safari browser's all-around supremacy. Connected to the same wireless hot spot, the iPod Touch and Zune HD each loaded The New York Times Web site in about three seconds, except the Touch was able to load the full, desktop version of the front page, while the Zune HD's browser could only load the lighter, text-only version of the page designed for mobile phones. Other little factors, such as the lack of forward navigation button, auto-fill, multiwindow browsing, image downloads, and typing suggestions, all made the Zune HD's browser a little less glamorous than the Touch. Parents should also be aware that the Zune HD offers no built-in safeguards against using the browser to view offensive content, whereas the iPod Touch offers restriction controls that can block the use of the browser, YouTube, and the downloading of inappropriate apps, songs, or videos.
The Microsoft Zune HD is a beautiful device--inside and out--that presents one of the first appealing and affordable alternatives to the Apple iPod Touch. Microsoft deserves praise for taking the Zune's music and video experience beyond the standard set by Apple. What remains to be seen is whether people will value Microsoft's premium media experience enough to resist the increasingly multipurpose appeal of the iPod.