With previous generation Zunes being discontinued, the Zune HD will be rolling solo into the next generation of the Zune platform. This hardware along with the software and services is a walled garden approach that tightly integrates content delivery across your Zune HD, PC, Xbox, and Windows Phone. It is an approach that creates a very seamless and easy to use experience but on the flip side can be limiting on choices of software and formats.
This Zune HD review will show off the features of the HD hardware and how it meshes with the Zune ecosystem.
- Quick Look
- Capacities: 16GB, 32GB
- MSRP: $220, $290 (check latest price)
- Size: 52.7 mm x 102.1 mm x 8.9 mm
- Weight: 2.6 ounces (74 grams)
- Battery Life: 33hr Audio, 8.5hr Video
- Screen: 3.3″ 480×272 pixel OLED, Multi-Touch Capacitive
- Wireless: 802.11b/g
- Audio Support: WMA, MP3, AAC
- Video Support: WMV, H.264 (MP4/M4V)
- Photo Support: JPG
- Radio: HD Radio, FM Radio, RDS
Inside the Box / Accessories
Like most players these days, inside the box you will find only the basics: the Zune, sync cable, and earbuds with three different colored sets of foam covers.
With the last generation of Zunes there was a decent push for third party accessories beyond just cases to some nice speaker docks and alarm clocks, but for this release we will see that the breadth of accessories extend further. Expect to see things like compatible car audio head units, more impressive speaker docks, and even gaming attachments. I was told that accessory manufactures were excited to see the grooves on the sides of the device. While it was not designed for snap-on accessories, these side insets make a great candidate for these extras. For more on accessories check out the Zune HD accessories forum.
Design & Build Quality
The majority of the Zune HD’s housing is made of plastic, with the exception of the back which is made from a brushed aluminum. The screen is Gorilla Glass produced by Corning and seems to be what many of the manufactures are using. It has appeared on other players such as the Cowon S9.
When holding the Zune HD it is very obvious that a great deal of time and resources were spent on the design and build. Its assembly is very impressive; there is no give or creaking at all. The lines where one material meets another are precise and buttons have the perfect amount of travel and tactile click. Simply put, the Zune HD is a premium piece of hardware.
One of the reasons it feels so sturdy is that the center “skeleton” is made of a cast metal to which the other parts are securely fastened. One part steadfast to this skeleton is the headphone jack – something that is a common problem to 3.5mm jacks on any device. In this case, though, you won’t have to worry about future troubles. (You can look more at the insides at all these parts in the disassembly guide.) From someone who has taken apart nearly every MP3 player that’s been on the market, I can tell you that the Zune HD is just as impressive inside as out. Everything was so meticulously placed you would think the engineers had art degrees.
Moving on to the outside of the Zune, the back plate is made of a fingerprint-proof and scratch-hiding brushed aluminum. Near the bottom back is a matte plastic where the antenna for Wi-Fi is housed. On the face, the edges and main black bottom panel are made of plastic. The edges are a smooth hard plastic which seem to hide or fend off scratches well and hasn’t shown wear after two months of heavy use. The bottom panel, where the media button resides, is made of a softer, rubbery plastic. It’s nice to the touch and it does not show scratches.
Corning’s Gorilla Glass screen is a very durable glass composite and will fend off any scratches short of a pocket full of rocks. I commonly placed my keys in the same pocket as my Zune HD and not a single scratch has appeared. Many of the players use this type of glass and hold up just as well. I recently did stress tests on the Zune 120’s screen along with a few other players. They held up to keys, razor blades, and a kitchen knives. The Zune HD will perform just as well in the same test. If you didn’t get a chance, check out those stress tests here.
Just as you may have heard, the 480×272 OLED screen looks fantastic. Colors are bright and accurate and blacks are absolutely black. Pixel response is very fast and lends well to watching videos. Like any OLED screen, it can get washed out when viewed in outdoors. You must crank the brightness all the way up in order to view it on a sunny day. Even then, direct sunlight might make it difficult.
Is it the best screen out there? No, but it is among the best – meaning that it is comparable to other top performing OLEDs. In fact, it looks just as good as many of the AMOLED screens, such as the one found on the Cowon S9. If fact, you might see this exact screen or technology on other devices since it is manufactured by Samsung who produces a great deal of the screens for all brands.
Power Button: The Zune HD has three buttons and a touch screen for input controls. The top button is the power and lock button. If you are using the player, press this button and the screen will shut off. Your music will continue to play, but this puts the Zune into a lock mode. In order to get out of the lock mode, you can press ether the media button (the one right below the screen) or the power button again and then slide the lock screen up on the touch screen.
There are two different off states: off and power down. If you pause the music or remove your headphones, the Zune HD will shut down into a sleep mode and will only require you to press one of the buttons to be instantly ready to play; just flip up the lock screen. In order to power the Zune completely off, you need to hold down the power button for a few seconds. This will give you an off screen that you need to slide down then to power it completely off. The difference here is that when the Zune HD is in sleep mode, it is sipping the battery in the back ground. You cannot, however, run the battery completely down when in sleep mode since it will eventually power off after a day or two (I don’t know what this exact time is).
Side Button: The side button spawns a quick button menu for the volume, skip/scan, and play/pause. I have heard that some people wanted this to be a volume rocker button or a three way button verses the single one as it is now. I thought long and hard about this control element: did they indeed take the best approach? After few months of using the Zune HD and thinking about this, I do believe this single button was the best choice. It simplifies, but not overly so (ie Apple) the full functionality, allowing you to use the player while it’s in your pocket. To better understand this let me tell you, then show you, how it works.
You can press this side button even when you are in the lock screen or the screen is off, and it will bring up a set of controls arranged in a “plus sign” configuration: volume +/- on the top and bottom, skip/scan on the right and left, and pause/play in the middle. If you are using this button while you are looking at it, it is pretty straight forward. However, there are gestures built into the screen that are useful when you are not looking at the player. Sliding your finger vertically up and do
wn will adjust the volume like a slider control. This works on any part of the screen as long as the gesture is vertical, so you can side over the other controls without activating them. Similarly, the horizontal swipe will change the track. So if your Zune HD is in your pocket, it is easy to reach in, press the side button and slide your finger up and down on the screen to adjust the volume and then then another quick press on the side button again hides the controls so that they don’t accidentally get pressed again.
This side button was very well thought out and it seems the hard ware and UI design team had the “pocket use” scenario in mind when devising this simple approach.
The only thing I want to see added to this to make it 100% pocket friendly is to add a pocket-friendly pause/play. You can do this most of the time in the same fashion by guessing where the middle of the screen is but it’s not perfect. What would be nice here is to add a pause/play/resume short cut on a long press of the side button.
Media Button: The button below the screen is called the media button. This will turn the screen or player on from sleep, taking you to the lock screen. This button will always bring you to back to the main menu or toggle between the quick launch and menu list on the front screen.
Here is a video showing the use of these buttons.
Touch Screen: The responsiveness of the capacitive touch screen approaches perfect. It is easily better than the iPod Touch and just barely better than the Sony X-Series. What would make this better would be to add haptics or vibration feedback on button presses. However, this is something that needs to be done perfectly in order to get a good haptic experience. Most, if not all, haptic devices are not convincing enough, and to add a far-from-perfect haptic experience would have done the player an injustice. Maybe we will see it the next gen Zune players.
The UI feels like a next generation Zune UI should, built specifically for a touch interface. The same basic menu structure is shared with the older Zune UIs where the main home screen menu is a vertical menu and the submenus are selected horizontally. This a familiar “panel” feel to many of Microsoft’s other products such as Windows Media Center, Xbox, and now Windows Mobile.
The user interface is clean and easy to use. The learning curve may be slight and most will take to it in a few sessions. I tested this out on someone unfamiliar with most gadgets and a touch screen device noob. She was able to heuristically take to the UI within a matter of 15 min.
Home Screen: The home screen is separated into two lists. The main list is what you would typically find on an MP3 player- your basic activities such as music, video, podcasts, apps, etc. Then there is a second list of icons to the right showing newly added and history of recent media or apps. It also shows currently-playing or paused media at the top and pinned media below that. The pinned list will allow you to bookmark any media, application, or even website for quick access.
Browsing Media: Browsing media first appears to be like any other list type browser, but there extended features in some of the lists that make browsing a richer and easier experience. For example, some lists such as genre, artists, or playlists have a play button icon before the lists. This will immediately play the entire subset, or alternatively, you can press the text and dive into that submenu to play individual items. Similarly there is a play icon next to “music” on the home screen, a quick access to immediately play and shuffle all music. Another nice touch to browsing media is the use of alphabet boxes to mark the start of artists or songs beginning with that letter, but even nicer is when you tap one of these letters. It takes you to a full screen alphabet that allows you to quickly jump to media beginning with that letter. This is extremely useful for browsing songs when the list can be a few thousand songs long.
Text Input / Keyboard
I have a hard time with touch screen keyboards, no matter how much I use them and no matter which device, I always find them to be inaccurate. For me, no touch screen keyboard can replace a nice tactile thumb QWERTY like the one found on the Blackberry Bold. So take that into consideration with this part of the review.
One of the things I like about the Zune HD’s keyboard is that it locks your finger to a row of keys so that it makes it more difficult to hit the wrong key in a different row. However, this doesn’t keep you from pressing a key beside; with such a cramped keyboard it can prove to be difficult to input text. Landscape mode is tolerable, but for me, the portrait mode keyboard is rather frustrating. It has the potential to be a great virtual keyboard, but it would have to be on a much bigger screen.
See browser video below for demo of the on screen keyboard.
The Zune HD, like all the other previous generation Zunes, requires the use of the Zune Media Player so if you are accustomed to a media player to sync your files or just want to drag and drop files to your player, you will be disappointed. If you don’t mind the limitation, the Zune Media Player is actually a really nice application. I personally am more disappointed about the limitation in the other direction, in that I cannot use the ZMP with other MP3 players. The software’s UI is very different from a traditional media player so it may take some time to get used to it, but once you do you may find it easier to use than most.
Marketplace / Zune Pass
Built into the software is the Marketplace. This is where you can purchase content for the device such as TV shows, music, movies, games, and apps. One of the things that makes the Zune HD a great music experience is the Zune Pass. This $15/month subscription service will allow you to download and listen to a huge catalog of music. As long as you keep paying that $15 per month, your collection will continue to play.
Discovering new music with Zune can be downright fun- this is one of the best aspects of the Zune. But do keep in mind that in order to get the full enjoyment out of these discovery features, you need to pay the $15 per month for the Zune Pass. These following features are specific to, or heavily rely on, having a Zune Pass:
h=”150″ height=”120″ class=”right” alt=”zune-hd-channels.jpg”/>Smart DJ: One of the new features to arrive in version 4.0 is the Smart DJ playlists. This feature creates a playlist of similar songs based around an artist. If you are familiar with Rhapsody, this is the same thing as Rhapsody Channels. Comparing the two, I do find that Rhapsody Channels did a better job at playing music that I wanted to listen to. As more play data is collected, it may eventually catch up.
Channels: Basically channels are auto updating playlists that are preprogrammed and dynamic. These channels can be based around a theme such as the many different fitness channels for workouts or might be picked by the staff. Others are sponsored channels, and there are top played songs for each genre. Finally some channels are customized based on what you rate and listen to. So you can pick a Hip-Hop channel and it will dynamically give you songs you might like in that genre.
Browsing: The simple way to discover new music is by simply browsing the Marketplace. On the home screen are “Picks for you” based off of your play and rating data, top songs, new releases, features. Features can be music that is centered around the latest pop culture reference, promotion, or even Xbox themed.
One of the discovery methods I like and that works great at places like Last.FM, is browsing though genres and subgenres. Zune needs a massive overhaul in this respect. Diving into a genre in the Marketplace you will find that it is very much unorganized. There are not enough subgenres and much of the music is miscategorized. Introducing user-generated subgenres and tagging to the Marketplace would help tremendously, but it needs to be done in a more guided way so as to not create too many misspelled or duplicate tags like Last.FM.
Social: Social is Zune’s biggest MO and tag line. The Zune software and website make it very easy for you to interact with other Zune users. You can view what your friends are listening to or who their favorite artists are. These are not dependent on having a Zune Pass. If you or your friend doesn’t have a Zune Pass you can still send song recommendations, but if you don’t have the pass you can’t listen to what was sent. It still works fine; you’ll just have to manually find the songs sent or buy them ala cart. This doesn’t just work in the software, you can send songs from the device as well.
On Device Marketplace: You are able to browse all the music content from the Marketplace from the device over any Wi-Fi connection. This is great if you are traveling without your laptop and can find access to a wireless network. A video demo of this feature is below in the media playback section.
Marketplace Catalog: If you are considering a Zune HD and your decision is based heavily on the Zune Pass, I would highly recommend downloading the software and giving the Zune Pass a test drive (There is a 15 day trial). I like the Zune Pass a lot, but I often get disappointed on the lack of catalog breadth. Either an older album is not available or the label will only decide to release tracks 1,2,4,6,7,8,9 to Zune Pass and make you pay for the popular tracks 3 and 5. Do note who to blame for this: the greedy record labels that still don’t understand digital distribution. If you could download truly anything (as in P2P Napster of the 90’s or Audiogalaxy of that time) then the Zune would be the end all music devices. Sadly, this will never happen and the Zune must play by the rules of the record labels. Don’t get me wrong, the $15 per month for the Zune Pass will be worth it to most people, but I caution those who want an extensive catalog and really like to dig in the “dusty record crates” for music.
With the very clean UI navigating and playing back your music is a breeze with the ability to download content directly to the device and automatic artist bio information.
Playlists: The Zune software some advanced auto playlist features are great for creating dynamic playlists based on your collection. For instance, one of the autos I like to create is a “Favorites” playlist, so that anything I tagged with a heart will be on it. You can even filter this further by making Favorite playlists in particular genres. If you wanted to listen to all of the music you hearted in the Electronic genre, you can make a playlist for that.
From the device you can also make an unlimited number of playlists and name then individually. The one thing missing here is the ability to reorder the list. Once that is added, the playlist function on the Zune would be near perfect.
Artist Bios: When you synch your Zune HD it will automatically pull down artist graphics, pictures, bios, and a list of related artists to view on the device. Additionally these artists’ graphics become part of the screen saver.
Sound Quality: The Zune HD is the best sounding hardware to date. The sound is even throughout the spectrum adding more clarity to the mid-range and mid-bass compared to the Zune 120. Compared to the Sansa Clip+ it is a little bit more on the warmer side. It does not suffer from the hard drive background noise like the Zune 30 / 80 / 120 did with background noise near non-existent. With the Shure SE530’s that typically hiss with all players since they are so sensitive, the Zune HD’s background noise is among the lowest with the SE530s ranked there with the Clip+. Overall it’s a very clean MP3 player sound wise.
Then there is the EQ. Last generation Zunes did not have one but back on the Zune HD they have added EQ presets. This is still not good enough. It needs a full customizable 5 or 7 band EQ. The reason the last generation didn’t get an EQ was due to battery drain issues, but with great battery life in the Zune HD there is little to excuse to exclude a full on EQ. Don’t get me wrong, the Zune HD sounds great as it is but in order to sound outstanding and tune your headphone’s audio characteristics to the Zune an EQ is needed. For
a device that touts the music experience its disappointing they only came half way towards a legitimate EQ- perhaps in a future firmware update.
Video looks fantastic on the OLED screen. Its fast, colors look great, and it outputs nicely to 720p via the separate dock. If you want to get all of your content from Zune Marketplace, it is incredibly easy to do with the software and it is an overall great experience. You can get nearly any TV show or movie from the marketplace in a matter of minutes and play it on your Zune or TV; however, you will pay for that convenience. At about $4 per HD show, purchasing through the marketplace can get rather expensive, not to mention that you have to use real money first to purchase Microsoft funny money (Microsoft Points) to buy the content. This is the single biggest thing that aggravates me the most about the Xbox and the Zune. Microsoft points are confusing and incredibly anti-consumer. Virtual currencies suck; let me pay with real money!
This rant is a good transition to the bring-your-own-content scenario. Overall video playback performance is excellent, however, there are players released over a year ago that beat the overall video experience hands down. What it really comes down to that ruins the Zune HD’s video experience, is that it is very difficult to bring your own content. Native codec support is very limited to a specific size of WMV and M4V. If you do want to provide your own video content, you will have to use a third party transcoder to do so since AVI files will not convert, let along show up in the Zune Media Player Software. If you are one to bring your own content and don’t want the content that is offered though Zune Marketplace, here is one of the darker sides of the Zune ecosystem.
Will the Zune ever support more file types? I don’t have an answer to that, but the hardware will allow it. The Xbox and now Windows 7 natively supports codecs such as Xvix/Divx right out of the box, the Zune should too. In the mean time check out the Zune Video Conversion forum for tips and tricks on adding media to your Zune HD.
Photos look great on the OLED screen. It is a solid picture viewer with thumbnails, folder browsing, and a slide show feature. Flipping though photos is done with a horizontal swipe and will rotate with the accelerometer when the player is turned. The quickness of the rotation with the accelerometer is the fastest I have seen on any device to date. Pinch zoom is also enabled on the touch screen; the Nvidia Tegra processor really does and amazing job with this. Response is immediate.
The radio feature on the Zune HD is one of the most advanced FM radios on an MP3 player. It supports HD Radio and RDS (Radio Data Service) that shows the current song playing provided the radio station that you are listening to supports it. What is also cool is you can purchase the song you are listening to by pressing the “add to cart” button. If you have a Zune Pass it will likely be a free (included in your monthly subscription) or about a dollar if you pay with points.
As far as the radio’s performance, reception is just okay. I had issues with picking up stations in my house when it would be crystal clear outside. In other places like the gym I could only pick up the very local stations. Its FM radio, what do you expect? It was able to do a bit better when connected to the AV dock that has a separate antenna wire for reception. When I could pick up an HD station it sounded like anything I would play from a digital file. It was like radio without static. Honestly, take this with a grain of salt; the only time I listen to corporate preprogrammed Clear Channel, advertisement-ridden FM radio is when I test it on MP3 players. So you may want a second opinion.
The software makes it very easy to discover, automatically download, and synch all of your favorite audio and video podcasts. Podcasts like the video section on the player have auto resume per file. There are not bookmarks available on the Zune, but this will automatically save the spot where you left off. The big feature missing yet is the ability download podcasts directly to the device from Wi-Fi like marketplace does for music. You can still sync podcast over Wi-Fi, but it has to be on your network with the computer you sync with the Zune.
Audible and Overdrive provide audiobooks for the Zune HD. They are separate programs that you must download in addition to the Zune Software in order to sync your purchased audiobook content. I have only used Audible and it is a pretty straight forward experience: sign up for an account, download, then synch with Audible Manager Software. I had no issues. The playback on these books is similar to podcast where it automatically will resume where you left off, no bookmarks needed. Though there is support for chapter skipping, you use it just as you would skip to the next track in a music album.
Browsing the internet is a pretty good experience, but the browser does need a lot of work. There are plenty of rending problems and the browser will seemingly arbitrarily select the mobile version of the site. Granted, a simple mobile version of a site is better to view on a small 480×272 screen, but not having that option is disappointing. I do find that many complex websites with certain scripts will crash the browser and is much more common than it should be. Flash and Silverlight are also absent from the browser, so don’t count on checking out YouTube or other video sites.
As far as features, there aren’t many – just a basic Favorites lists where you can bookmark your favorite sites. Additionally, you can pin one of you favorite sites to the home screen. The default search is Bing when you tap on the search icon, but if Google or Yahoo is your thing, then you can always book mark those search pages in your favorites.
At the launch of the device the apps are sparse, with only a few simple games and basic weather and calculator apps. Right now the apps and the app store just feels like a proof of concept, but a more extensive library is promised in the near future. Future games and applications will include the use of the accelerometer and Nvidia Tegra chip for 3D gaming. For updates on the latest, check out the Zune HD games and apps forum.
The Zune HD is not too friendly with a bring-your-own-content scenario with limited audio and video codec support. It really hurts to see the most powerful mobile processor, the NVidia Tegra, being underutilized in a device without native video support. The walled garden ecosystem approach will not bode well with some being that you must use the supplied software and are encouraged to purchase content from the Zune Marketplace. To get the most out of the Zune HD and to take advantage of some of its best features you will have to purchase the $15 per month Zune Pass. With the Zune Pass you may find that it is not as all-encompassing as a music catalog should be with newer and older content.
The Zune HD might have a bit of a commercial music feel to it and limits your choices but you cannot ignore the sexy hardware, incredibly responsive touch screen, killer UI, great sound quality, and connected features other players just don’t have. For those looking for
a very easy and seamless experience between devices, software, and services the Zune HD may be for you.
- Clean and easy user interface
- Great looking OLED screen
- Very responsive capacitance touch screen
- Great sound quality
- Solid design and build quality
- Limited codec support
- Many of the features rely on the subscribing to the Zune Pass
funny moneypoints required to purchase content
- No custom EQ, presets only
- No drag and drop support
You can usually get free shipping and avoid sales tax if you get the Zune HD and its accessories from Amazon. They also have the best return policy from my experience.