When we broke news and images of the Zune HD back in April, we were more than a little excited. There had been talk -- and rumor -- of a widescreen, touchscreen Zune for some time, and seeing the fruits of Microsoft's labor made it clear that the company had done its homework. As time wore on and we reported on the official announcement, confirmation of NVIDIA's awesome Tegra chip inside, and news that the Zune Marketplace would extend into Xbox Live, we were downright giddy at the possibilities. Finally the much-anticipated, heavily lusted after micro-slab has been brought to market -- and it's not just the unit itself. Along with the release, we're seeing new desktop software, the Zune brand move towards a connected experience for Windows computers, and the expansion of the Zune Marketplace and ecosystem -- replete with applications designed just for the Zune HD interface.
So the time has come for the Engadget review. Does the Zune HD finally match up with Microsoft's ambition, and can it stand up to the heat and ubiquity of the competition? Read on for all the answers.
The first thing you'll notice -- the first thing everyone notices -- is just how incredibly sexy the Zune HD is. The sleek casing and big, glossy touchscreen is a far cry from previous devices in the line. The body of the player is a sandwich of brushed metal bread with plastic "meat" through the center. On the face of the device is a tall and thin 3.3-inch OLED display and a lean home button at the southern end of the panel. The back is slightly curved on the edges and fastened with four prominent, industrial screws. On the bottom of the device there's a Zune adapter port and 3.5mm headphone jack, while the top houses a power / sleep button, and a "media" button lives on the left-hand side of the unit (more on that later). All in all, the package is smartly put together, and while it sometimes felt a bit light (or not quite there) in the hand, we have few complaints about its build and style. It's one of the more mature offerings Microsoft has made to the gadget world -- and we're taken with it.
Inside, the ZHD is powered by the much-lauded Tegra APX 2600, a system-on-a-chip with a focus on HD video and complex graphics performance -- minus the typical battery suck associated with said activities. The 65nm CPU features eight separate cores, including HD encoder and decoders, a 600MHz ARM11 component, and a stand-alone 3D GPU. What does that mean? Well, presumably (and based on myriad demos we've seen from NVIDIA) the Zune HD is capable of some pretty fierce graphics performance, and given that Microsoft has just announced "3D games" for the platform, it's likely we'll see it put to the test. Thus far there aren't any real examples of the power of this Zune beyond the smooth handling of images and HD video (and it is smooth). We imagine this portion of the system has yet to be fully tapped.
The Zune HD comes in 16GB and 32GB varieties, and we had the pleasure of checking out both the platinum and black iterations, as our original unit was completely broken. We would have liked to see a larger option for storage, but for most users, we're guessing there won't be a ton of complaints. When paired with the Zune Pass service, it's almost an afterthought, as you'll likely be moving lots of music on and off of this thing -- we sure did.
Up top the unit boasts a stunning 480 x 272 OLED display -- still a rarity for most PMPs. The screen also happens to be capacitive (Microsoft's first foray down this road), and features multitouch input along with gesture support. The Zune HD's display is highly responsive and performance is super snappy -- if you're used to the action of an iPod touch or iPhone, this should feel about the same to you. More to the point, the color saturation and deepness of blacks is unmatched by almost any handheld device we've used. It's a gorgeous screen, and a great choice for a product so laser-focused on media. There is one minor gripe though... and you probably can see this one coming. OLED screens aren't known for their performance in direct sunlight, and the Zune HD doesn't hugely improve on that point -- the image below says it all. Just pretend it's Dracula or something.
The player comes with a few accessories as well -- a set of standard earbuds which are unsurprisingly weak (we found them to be overly bassy and muffled sounding), and a USB cable for connecting the device to your PC.
The big changes here aren't just in the hardware that makes up the device, but in the totally new software which lives inside. The Zune HD features a completely revamped Zune interface, one which utilizes big text, big gestures, a multi-dimensional layout, and multitouch input to help you navigate through your media. Not only does the device provide the standard support for music and video, but it looks like Microsoft is taking a deeper dive into applications, providing a few non-game titles out of the gate, with plans for more robust experiences in the upcoming months. In addition, the company has revamped its desktop software to feel more closely in line with the new features it's providing on devices, and is pushing the Zune Marketplace out into Xbox Live for video content (soon, but not yet). Let's take a closer look at the software side of the Zune HD.
The user interface of the Zune HD is just about as sexy looking as the player itself. Microsoft continues its push towards big, big typography here, providing a sophisticated, neatly designed layout that's almost as functional as it is attractive. Like all good touchscreen devices, the Zune HD provides a lock screen which requires a swipe up to clear. Once you've pushed away the very-slightly informative page (you get the time and the battery life here), you're greeted with a clean menu of content options. Scrolling through the list is smooth as butter on the HD, but you're also able to swipe to the right, bringing up a list of "pinned" media (essentially favorites which you select by long-pressing on an item), recent selections, and the newest content that's hit your device. A swipe left takes you back to the main menu. The key to this kind of navigation is layers and fluidity -- every time you move from one place to another, you're being pulled into or out of a section... dimensionally. When you click on "music" in your list, it feels as if you're zoomed down into a new region of the device, when you click on your side menu you flutter out of one list and into another. The effect is quite different from the navigation on a touch or iPhone, where you feel like you're constantly managing lists.
One style of navigation isn't necessarily better or worse than the other, though we must say the Zune HD takes some getting used to in this department. Before you really get a feel for the flow of the UI, it can be a little confusing as to how you back out of a menu or move over to another option. Since the home button provides a consistent path to your main menu, it's not that jarring, but it does have a learning curve. The counterpoint to that, however, is that on a device like the iPod touch, a lot of your menu options are always front and center, which means you're poring through those boring lists, but you're also able to track your location and jump from A to B more quickly. With the Zune HD, it's always a few extra steps this way or that. Once you get a feel for it, however, it's quite a pleasant experience -- zooming through content on the Zune HD goes beyond simple navigation, and makes just using the device a kind of bizarre alien pleasure.
Whle the UI is mostly good news, Microsoft made what we consider to be a pretty poor hardware and software choice with the use of its "media" button. Where you would expect a hardware volume rocker, the company provides a single click button which brings up your media navigation menu. Here you get options for back / forward and volume adjustment. Unfortunately, what that means is that every time you need to change the volume, you not only have to click this button, but you have to be looking at the screen, and be able to touch the plus or minus symbols. If you've ever walked down a busy street in New York and needed to turn your volume up or down, you'd know what a backwards experience this is. Having to use a two step process and look at the screen makes no real sense for something as basic as volume adjustment -- especially since the Zune HD provides no option for leveling your audio. A standard rocker would have been a much smarter choice, or even a dual-use rocker that served both purposes.
Besides those gripes, however, getting into your content and playing back media is a cinch, and most users will take to it easily. Occasionally we felt like there one-too-many targets for us to click on (a play button, a letter, and an artist name all in one section, for instance), but generally the HD has its priorities straight.
Apps / Internet
One of the biggest issues swirling around the launch of the Zune HD was the app question. Knowing that the device had been supercharged with Tegra, had a multitouch capacitive screen, and a completely reworked OS, it only made sense. Since from almost every angle the ZHD looks like an iPod touch competitor, applications are the logical next step. Of course, how do you go about creating a new silo for applications when you've already got a dedicated mobile ecosystem and separate games console? The answer is very carefully, and very quietly. It was only upon launch that Microsoft made its intentions clear about apps coming to the Zune HD, and now it looks like we're going to see at least a handful of small programs headed to the device.
For starters, you can download a free calculator, weather app, and a smattering of games for the PMP. Nothing seems to be taking advantage of the horsepower just yet, and truthfully we felt that loading and closing times for even the simplest of applications were longer than they should be. Of course, this is a platform in the earliest stages of infancy, so we expect better things down the road. The big M has promised "3D gaming" -- which we know the Tegra is more than capable of -- so it's possible the company will choose to aim more enterprise-oriented software towards the Windows Phone platform, keep hardcore gaming orbiting the Xbox, and go after that casual market for the ZHD (which Apple is currently cleaning up on). Regardless, the Zune HD OS seems ripe for richer content, even if the device's awkward place in the Microsoft lineup doesn't make that prospect as simple as it should be.
One item that bears mentioning: Microsoft is sticking interstitial ads on the player when you load applications. It's a bit jarring and a bit off-putting to see an advertisement on your device when you're trying to get into an app, and we think the company may want to investigate some other options here -- it just feels sleazy.
Beyond the application situation, there's also the small matter of the web browser which the Zune HD ships with. Built upon the existing mobile Internet Explorer, but sufficiently tweaked, we found it to be mildly useful, though sorely lacking in key features. It's clear that Microsoft had some trepidation about putting anything too robust out there. The browser renders pages nicely and utilizes pinch zooming like a champ, but there are no tab options, no history, and hardly any navigational elements at all. Additionally, the performance on page loading and rendering wasn't even in the same league as most webkit-based mobile options (Android browser, iPod touch / iPhone, Pre). Forget about YouTube or other rich media as well -- it's just not happening here. On the plus side, the included on-screen keyboard is surprisingly accurate, and we're not-so-secretly hoping that we see this QWERTY pop up on future Windows Mobile devices -- it's actually quite good. But good keyboards notwithstanding, at the end of the day the browser is still barebones... no matter how smoothly it renders pages.
Microsoft has made some decent changes to its Zune software, but while the headliners like Smart DJ and a new Zune HD-style "Quickplay" home screen might grab all the attention, we're most enthused by the general speed and stability improvements. When it came to Zune 3.0 -- particularly when searching the Marketplace (a constant for Zune Pass subscribers) -- there were some incredibly annoying hangups and delays (or even outright failures) in populating search results. We'd bugged Microsoft about it, and the company claimed to be working on the issues. Well guess what? Zune 4.0 indeed solves most of these problems. In fact, the interface from top to bottom seems accelerated and a bit more logically laid out, though in general Zune's desktop software continues to defy most traditional interface paradigms.
The new Quickplay screen basically duplicates the functionality on the device, letting you pin favorites, check out a "history" of plays (which wasn't populating very frequently, to our eyes) and peep the newest additions to your library. Below that is a row for your favorite Smart DJ artists. If you're using a Zune Pass (and let's be honest, you should be) you're not getting just a mix of your own tracks, but of anything in the whole Marketplace. Honestly, we expected better playlists out of the feature -- Jack Johnson and The Fray tracks in a MGMT mix does seem a bit odd -- but perhaps Zune is just going for irony. The Mixview feature still seems mostly useless to us, and the Marketplace "picks" still vacillate between oddball and insulting, though we're working on a fresher machine without our full play history, so perhaps 4.0's picks will improve in time -- 3.0 only seemed to get worse.
Syncing content was mostly painless, though we did run into a few snags when trying to dump big stacks of files onto the device. More than once we had to erase our syncing items and re-download, or quit the app and reboot in order for all the bits to fall into place. We're not sure if it's a simple communication issue between the player and software, or if there's a more complicated answer.
Overall, however, the software seems mostly unchanged both in interface and functionality (outside of the odd tweak or there). Aside from the considerable speed improvements we're noticing and the Quickplay option, it's essentially the same. If you never liked Zune 3.0, Zune 4.0 won't do much to change your mind, but for existing users it's a big leap forward in frustration-free usability.
Zune players have always been known for their stellar audio, and the Zune HD is no exception. Forget about using the included earbuds -- they're pretty much junk. When we tested with decent in-ear buds, however, we thought the quality was rather excellent. Compared to the touch or iPhone audio, the Zune HD seemed to have a wider stereo field and deeper, more resonant low end. Where other players seem crunchy and muffled, the Zune HD feels expansive and open -- like someone popped the top off of a soda can. It's not such an outrageous difference that most people will notice, but those who listen closely should be able to hear it, and we're certainly not complaining about better audio when it comes to the realm of the digital.
Video quality on the Zune itself is handsome, which should come as little surprise. You don't combine that kind of small screen, tight pixel density and OLED technology and not end up with some solid results. HD content we threw onto the device was clear and crisp, though when we used the A/V dock, we found the 720p content to be a bit more compressed than we'd like. Overall most video was fine, though we had some maddening issues with trying to get video from other sources playing. The Zune software isn't exactly a whiz at finding media from outside the Zune ecosystem, so if you're fresh to the platform, you may find yourself scratching your head while hunting around for the videos you downloaded in iTunes (or from Amazon, or anywhere else). Once you solve that problem you should be good to go... unless you want to get down and dirty with any even remotely weird format. If that's your endgame, you're going to have to figure out some more creative ways to get video onto your Zune HD. For all it's awesome media functions, it's not really a jack of all trades. For instance, there's no DivX support here (as other reviewers have noted), and you're definitely out of luck with the more modern formats such as MKV.
Microsoft was kind enough to send along the A/V dock and remote (MSRP $89.99), which puts the Zune HD in a whole new context. The dock worked beautifully out of the box -- we just plugged it into the wall and into our HDMI jack and away we went. As soon as the ZHD was slotted it brought up a familiar looking menu which is navigated rather simply using the included (tiny) remote. What's intriguing about the dock is that it transforms the Zune HD into a kind of mini all-in-one STB, allowing you to pull video, audio, radio (HD or otherwise), still images, and podcasts from an easily accessible location which requires zero setup.
Audio and video out of the dock via HDMI seemed more than sufficient, though as we said previously, we thought some HD content we'd purchased in the Marketplace was a bit more compressed than we would have liked. Overall it's a fairly compelling package to have, though it comes at a not-insignificant cost to the end user, and it's obviously not going to appeal to everyone (especially when you've just shelled out for the player). It does, however, seem like an ideal setup if you're a student or someone with limited space, as it solves quite a few problems all at once.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to buy a Zune HD right now isn't the gorgeous screen or forthcoming apps, HD radio, or slick design. Make no mistake about it -- this is a fine, fine device, and no one would fault you for buying one -- but it's not the device itself that is the most attractive part of this package. To us, it seems like the single most compelling reason to choose this device over something like the iPod touch can be boiled down to one thing: Zune Pass.
We know what you're thinking -- that's crazy fanboy talk. But look at these facts: as of right now there isn't a huge price advantage to purchasing the ZHD over a touch (in fact, $199 gets you into a lower capacity touch, while you're looking at $229 for the base Zune), you don't have access to more media (certainly in the video department) or applications, the sound quality isn't so much better that we'd ward you off of another product, and there are generally major deficits in the utility of the Zune HD versus Apple's player (like that web browser). The Zune HD is a great media player, but we can't pretend it's the only PMP on the market.
But the one thing that Microsoft has that Apple doesn't is Zune Pass -- and that's a major "but." We won't bore you with the details of this service, though you should know that for $14.99 a month, you can basically enjoy all the music you can find in the Zune Marketplace (and download ten tracks on the house every 30 days). The Pass should appeal to both casual and obsessive listeners alike, since it provides benefit to either. Whether you're gobbling up music or just snacking, having an all-you-can-eat buffet in front of you is handy.
So let's pretend for a moment that these players are exactly the same in every way except for how you get music on them. In that scenario, we think Microsoft's angle has some real advantages. Of course, these players are different -- you're still sacrificing a lot for that $15 subscription -- and even though the Zune HD is a tremendous media player with a lot of great features, we still don't think it competes 1:1 with a device like the touch. Still, it competes, and for Microsoft and the Zune brand, that's a major leap forward.
Note: In the coming days, Engadget HD editor Ben Drawbaugh will be taking a deeper look at the Zune HD's integration into the rest of the Microsoft ecosystem, including Media Center and Xbox Live.