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Zune HD hands-on look, impressions, tears of joy

CNET's Donald Bell gets hands on with the Microsoft Zune HD MP3 player and shares his first reactions.

Photo of the Microsoft Zune HD MP3 player.
Do you believe in miracles? Donald Bell/CNET

I'll admit right off the bat that I've been a pretty big fan of the Zune ever since I bought my first one back in 2007. I've also had some disappointments, which I haven't been shy about sharing--and last year's half-hearted Zune hardware refresh had me losing faith that Microsoft would be able to steer this one out of the ditch.

Well, having just geeked-out with a pair of Zune HDs for about an hour, I am tentatively reaffirming my faith in Microsoft. This thing was worth the wait, folks. Mind you, it's not going to crush the iPod Touch--a product that for all intents and purposes is more mobile computer than media player--but it's safe to say that the Zune finally has the power to make good on the promise of delivering one of the richest music experiences on a portable device.

How are they going to do it? Let's start with hardware. The Zune HD feels expensive, solid, and sexy. The metal enclosure is a little more angular than the curvy chrome of the iPod Touch, but feels just as nice and has the advantage of laying flat instead of teetering around. The body is just a little thicker than the iPod Touch, and not nearly as wide (as seen in this photo).

The front includes a 3.3-inch capacitive OLED touch-screen display covered with glass, and a single home button beneath it that behaves just like a normal button and doesn't replicate any of the Zune Pad functionality of previous models. The top edge includes a power button that also triggers the lock screen, the left edge has an iPhone-like volume rocker, and the bottom carries the headphone jack and Zune dock. For all you sound nerds out there, the Zune HD's DAC is the same Wolfson one used on previous models--which is good news in my book.

While we're talking output specs, here's something else to note. The Zune HD supports 720p video content, which you'll be able to purchase directly though the Zune Marketplace software. Video content purchased (or rented) through your Xbox can also be downloaded and transferred to your Zune by checking for them in your Zune Marketplace purchase history. The only hitch to this arrangement is that the Zune's screen doesn't natively support 720p playback, so content does get scaled down to 480x272 pixels. However, videos still look outstanding and if they had told me it was native 720p, I would have believed them. You can get 720p natively out of the Zune HD, but you'll need to dock it into the optional HDMI Zune dock and run it to your TV.

Another fun little fact for Zune fans is that the Zune HD has ushered in the return of EQ. I guess now that the thing is running on an Nvidia Tegra chip, they have a little extra battery life to burn with an EQ DSP. It's nothing fancy--just a handful of presets (rock, acoustic, hip-hop, and so on) with no user setting--but I'm happy to see it come back.

Some other cool stuff happening on the music front: recently added tracks are now grouped together a little more prominently using a more visual music submenu (shown here), along with a new feature called pins, where frequently accessed content can be bookmarked.

The music playback screen has also been given a lot of work. Without the benefit of a navigation pad or playback buttons, users will need to tap the middle of the screen once to access a large four-direction onscreen cross for play, skip, reverse, volume. Controls for favorites, shuffle, and repeat are found conveniently near the bottom of the screen, instead of buried in submenus.

The Zune's coolest music trick, though, is that it automatically pulls in a gallery of band photos, biographical information, and similar artist recommendations for any currently playing song--regardless of whether the track is from Zune Marketplace, your friend's hard drive, or torrents. It's feels a little more like digging through now, instead of just a straight-up music directory. If the Zune's connected to Wi-Fi, listings of related artists will link though to the mobile version of Zune Marketplace, where tracks can be streamed and purchased directly.

Speaking of Wi-Fi, the Zune's new Web browser smokes. Not since first using the iPhone have I been this impressed with a mobile Web browser. There's no branding on the browser, but I was told it was cooked up by Microsoft's Internet Explorer team (makes sense). Page load was snappy, and pinching and reorienting pages work just like the iPhone and iPod Touch. You also get a fast onscreen keyboard with a nice little magnifier effect with each keystroke. The only bad news on the browser is that there's no support for Flash audio and video content. So Pandora and YouTube are out, but I was able to get onto Facebook and Twitter.

I didn't have time to go too deep with features such as video, Social, HD radio, photos, and Marketplace, unfortunately. I also couldn't shake a price out of the Zune representatives, although I was reassured by the incredulous looks I got when I told them how much Sony is charging for the X-Series Walkman. I also couldn't nail them on battery life, but it's safe to say this is going to be a big step forward for Zune users accustomed to daily charging breaks.

Another big unknown is the extent of the updates the Zune team have made to the Zune software. My sense is that the updates are fairly significant, but only time will tell.

For another hands-on take with the Zune HD, check out Matt Rosoff's Digital Noise blog. Also, stay tuned for a formal, full-blown CNET review once the product hits stores this fall.

Update: The Zune HD is now officially available for ordering.