Man, this review HURTS me to write. I’m a Microsoft fangirl. I have been since before I bought my first computer with 4 mb of memory and a 40 mb hard drive that had to be partitioned so the operating system (DOS) could handle it. I even LOVE Vista. I often liked the way Mac hardware looked, but I always said that I wish I could have that case with a “real computer” inside. My only concession is for the iPod. The first time I saw an iPod, I was in love with its shiny whiteness and its tiny form. I love my iPod touch more than any small electronic device I’ve owned, except for my Sony Readers. When Microsoft first introduced the Zune a few years ago, I thought they were chunky and ugly when compared to the iPod. I wasn’t tempted to buy one because I was happy with my iPod. That changed with the Zune HD – that’s a pretty little thing, isn’t it? I was thrilled when Julie asked me if wanted to review a 32 GB Zune HD Platinum.
Capacity 32 gigabytes (GB) Up to 8,000 songs, or ten hours of high definition video from Zune Marketplace, or 48 hours of video optimized for device, or 25,000 pictures
Size and weight Size: 52.7 mm x 102.1 mm x 8.9 mm (w x h x d); Weight: 2.6 ounces (74 grams)
Battery Music, up to 33 hours (wireless off); video, up to 8.5 hours; Charge Time: Approximately three hours when connected to your PC; approximately two hours with A/C adapter
Screen Size: 3.3-inch OLED color display, 16:9 aspect ratio; Type: Scratch-resistant glass with touch input capability; Orientation: Vertical (music) and horizontal (videos) ; Resolution: 480 pixels x 272 pixels
Wireless Connectivity: 802.11b/g compatible
Wireless sync Connectivity: 802.11b/g compatible; Authentication modes: Open, WEP, WPA, and WPA2; Encryption modes: WEP 64- and 128-bit, TKIP, and AES
Audio output Analog Audio Out; Optical Digital Audio Out (requires additional dock, sold separately)
Video output HDMI or Composite (requires additional dock, sold separately)
Radio Built-in FM/HD Radio™ receiver
What’s in the box:
USB sync cable
Headphones with 3 pairs of foam covers
I couldn’t get the package opened quickly enough when it was delivered. Even the box it came in was beautiful! The Zune HD was utterly tiny and so pretty! I plugged it up using the included USB cable and started charging it – and the disappointments began. The first disappointment was the “Zune Product Guide” was little more than warranties and disclaimers and a listing of optional accessories you can buy. There is an interactive “manual” online, but there isn’t a document you can download to keep. I like to be able to peruse a manual, because I find useful information that way. You can’t find information unless you know how to look for it in this internet file.
I spent about 20-30 minutes trying to get the Microsoft driver for the Microsoft Zune to install on my Microsoft computer. Finally the computer suggested that I should let it try the installation again, using options set the way it thought they should be set – not that I had even been given an opportunity at any point to make any selections myself – and the driver finally installed. I downloaded and installed the Zune desktop software. I know Microsoft couldn’t make it too much like iTunes without risking a lawsuit, but come on! Did they have to make it so ugly?
The desktop software opens up in the “Quickplay” screen. I don’t like the look or function of the Quickplay screen. There is a huge sideways-scrolling bar showing me new files I’ve added to the library and a history of things I’ve recently played, but the scroll bar starts moving when you hover the mouse over it. Trying to click on something is like trying to shoot at a moving target. And I don’t know what the program is doing, but it is constantly flickering, and my hard disk light constantly flickers while the Zune software is open. Whatever it’s doing even affects other programs I have open at the time. While I’m typing this in Microsoft Word, Zune is flickering in the background, and it’s causing weird images to flicker in Word. They actually look like empty versions of the shapes that everything is arranged in on the Quickplay page. This is very irritating and WRONG. Luckily, you don’t have to use the Quickplay page, and I was able to find a setting that told the Zune software to always start up on the Collections page.
The software did a good job at finding all my music files and loading them up for me. It even found all the files I bought from iTunes – at least the iTunes+ files. The files were pre-arranged for me by artist, then by album. This was fine by me. Except for a couple of exceptions, all my iTunes playlists were set up by artist/album. It took about 2.5 hours for the Zune HD to charge, then I was ready to start registering the Zune and start installing music. But, not so fast!
The Zune desktop didn’t recognize that my Zune HD was connected. The connection was good enough that my computer recognized that I had connected a new device that needed a driver, but the desktop software wasn’t aware anything was connected. It took a couple of minutes of unplugging, plugging, and wiggling both ends of the cable until the software saw I had a device connected.
I was now able to register with no problem (although Julie said she had previously registered the same device). I was told there was a firmware update available, but I decided I’d wait to install it. I’d had enough trouble installing the driver, and I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to do anything with it if the firmware failed. When I registered, it loaded up a few apps for me. The Microsoft Zune app store isn’t at all like the iTunes app store. The free apps included a calculator, MSN weather, and seven games.
I loaded up some music onto the Zune HD simply by dragging the desired artist and dropping onto the Zune icon on the software window. Dragging the artist over loaded up everything I had by that artist. I could drag over just an album or just a song, if I preferred. I could do the same for any videos or pictures.
I didn’t connect to the Marketplace or the Social networking. The Marketplace didn’t seem like much of a deal – it was $14.95 a month for unlimited listening, but I only got to keep 10 songs in my permanent collection. Having temporary access to music like that isn’t something that appeals to me. It seems too much like listening to the radio. I have somewhat peculiar and very specific taste in music, and some of my absolute favorites weren’t available in the Marketplace – and I own most of that stuff anyway. I’ll just stick to iTunes+ for my music needs.
I also have no interest in the Social aspect of the Zune, either. I have no need to let everybody know what I’m listening to, and I have no interest in what everyone else is listening to, either. Maybe I’m antisocial, but that’s just how I am.
Okay, I’m ready to try out the Zune HD itself. The desktop software didn’t let me eject the player, so I used the Windows remove-hardware utility to eject it. First, let’s talk about the hardware. As I’ve mentioned, the Zune HD is significantly smaller than my iPod touch (2nd generation). Even though the HD is smaller, it seems more comfortable to hold than the iPod. I think the squared-off sides of the Zune HD make it seem more stable in my hand. The screen is incredibly sharp and clear; it’s much better than the iPod’s screen. The earbuds are much more comfortable than the standard iPod earbuds, and they sound fine. Music sounds great, and videos are great on the Zune HD. Unlike the iPod touch, the Zune HD does not have a built-in speaker. I really miss the speaker. The photos I copied over look fabulous on the beautiful screen. Just like on the iPod, you can zoom in and out using the familiar finger pinching and spreading motions.
The Zune HD has an accelerometer that automatically senses when you change positions. However, the orientation of information on the screen doesn’t always change. The touch screen is very responsive, and it’s a fingerprint magnet, just as you’d expect. The number and placement of the buttons is very similar to those on the iPod touch. There is a power button on the middle of the top, a home button on the front under the screen, and a headphone plug and charging/sync cable connector on the bottom. The left side has a rocker button with a strange function. Pressing the rocker pops up virtual controls on the screen. The virtual control has volume up/down, play, and fast forward/reverse controls. You can also pop these virtual controls up with a quick tap near the middle of the screen. The virtual controls fade out in 2-3 seconds if you do not use them.
All-in-all, I think the hardware is very nice. The firmware on the Zune HD is a different situation. Everything was very S-L-O-W, and I hoped the firmware update would address that. After playing around with the HD for a little while, I decided to install the firmware update immediately. Luckily, it updated with no problems, and the Zune HD did seem to be a little, but only a little, less slow.
The home screen is very different from the iPod touch screen. The main menu is a list of words. There are tiny icons to the left of the screen that can be maximized by tapping on them. The top icon is the media file that is currently playing (or paused), and underneath that are quickstart items. You can add to the quickstart menu by pressing and holding an album, video, or picture.
The Zune HD works well as a music player. When you select the music option from the main menu, you are taken to an alphabetic list of artists. Scroll to the artist you want, and tap the name to see a list of the albums by that artist. Scroll to the album you want and tap it to start playing the first song. Bring up the virtual controls to manage playback. After a few moments, the display changes to a picture of your artist, and the song information randomly scrolls across the picture. Eventually, the screen will go black but the music continues to play. Once you start the music player, it continues to play or goes to “paused”. I can’t tell if the battery drains faster while the screen is black and the music is “paused.”
Videos look marvelous on the Zune HD screen. Despite the name, the Zune HD itself can’t play in HD. However, with the optional Zune HD AV dock, you can play HD videos on your HDTV. You can also send music and HD radio signals to your home audio system.
The HD radio is a marvelous feature. I don’t listen to radio much, but I do like HD radio. It sounds better, and you can see what song you’re listening to! There aren’t a lot of non-country HD stations in the Greensboro area, but there is one decent station. You can see from the picture that you can see the multiple HD stations at a frequency, and you can see the song title and artist. Call up the virtual controls to select a station and start the station playing. Use the circle with the + beside the station name to store a preset station. Press the circle at the bottom left to see a list of your preset stations. The circle with the + and the shopping cart at the bottom right automatically adds the current song to your shopping cart for easy purchase from the Zune Marketplace. I think I’d prefer if it could make a list of songs for me, but at least it doesn’t automatically purchase the song for you. Maybe it would if I had set up a Marketplace account.
Once the radio was on, I couldn’t find a way to turn it off. The stop button in the virtual controls pauses the radio, but it doesn’t seem to turn it off. I had listened to the radio for a while, then pressed the stop control, turned off the Zune HD, and left it until the next day. The battery had been at about 75% (guesstimating from the tiny battery icon) the night before, and it was so drained the next morning that the Zune wouldn’t turn on. Pressing the power button on the top of the Zune puts it into stand-by mode, so any music you are playing or the radio continue playing. This is apparently designed to save the battery, but it’s not a battery-saving feature if you can’t turn off the playback.
Photographs display beautifully on the Zune HD. You can view them in portrait or landscape mode, and you can zoom in and out using the finger pinch method. You can view pictures using a slideshow, or you can manually browse by swiping the screen to change pictures.
The Zune HD has WiFi, and it connected easily to my home network. The internet browser is very slow. When I select the browser, it takes 20-30 seconds to start. Part of the problem is that the browser always refreshes the last page you were on. Most of the time, I don’t remember what web site I last visited, and I certainly don’t want to waste half a minute for it to be refreshed only to realize I don’t want to be on that page. The default search engine is Microsoft’s bing. I can’t find a way to change the search engine to my preferred service, which is NOT bing.
It was hard to find how and where to enter a URL. I discovered it by accident. If you tap on the screen, a transparent gray bar appears at the bottom of the screen. If you grab that with your finger and pull it up, you can enter a URL using a tiny virtual keyboard. It’s a normal QWERTY arrangement, but the keys are tiny. It’s very hard to select only one letter unless you have fingertips like a pencil point. It even takes 3 or 4 seconds to close the browser and return to the home menu – it’s not instantaneous like on the iPod touch.
In my opinion, apps on the Zune HD are a joke. When I registered the Zune, several apps were loaded onto it at that time. The calculator looks very much like the iPod touch calculator. It’s a simple calculator in portrait mode, scientific in landscape mode. It takes 8-10 seconds to start the calculator, and another 2-3 seconds to close it and return to the home menu. The MSN Weather program takes about the same amount of time to start and close as the calculator. It’s very simple, like the included weather program on the iPod touch. It just gives current temperature and an icon to show current conditions. I much prefer the Weather.com app I can get from the iTunes app store, but it’s not available in the Marketplace. The included game apps also start slowly, and they all include ads or commercial videos before the game starts. Microsoft installed the apps for me – I don’t think I should have to watch commercials in the apps they include! The app store only has a total of eighteen apps. Apparently, in the Zune world, they DON’T have an app for that!
There is one other thing about the Zune that bothers me. Many screens don’t show a battery status icon. The home screen doesn’t have one, nor does it have a WiFi signal icon. However, the startup screen (that you see for only a second when you turn on the Zune) has both.
The Zune HD was a disappointment to me. I think the hardware is great, but I think the desktop software and the firmware leave a lot to be desired. It seems to me that perhaps time was spent incorporating the Social aspects that could have been better spent making the software faster and more intuitive. I think I’ll just stick with my iPod touch.
Edited to add: I forgot to mention wireless sync. If you have a computer running Vista, a wireless network, and your computer is connected wirelessly to the network, you can sync your Zune HD wirelessly. Once you setup wireless sync in the desktop software by telling it which network to use and entering your security information, you can then sync by going into settings on the Zune, choosing “wireless”, then selecting sync. If you haven’t already opened it, the Zune desktop will open and you can monitor the percentage completed in the desktop software. I was able to add songs to the Zune wirelessly by dragging and dropping the artist onto the Zune icon in the desktop software while I was waiting for the Zune to connect and start the sync. This is a very nice feature. It’s not any faster, but it surely is nice to not have to dig out a cable to add to my music on the Zune.