It's been a tough month for Apple fanatics. First, the Cupertino company unveiled its latest paid service pack, Mac OS X "Snow Leopard," to less-than-positive reviews and a slew of compatibility issues. Then came the muted introduction of Apple's lackluster late 2009 iPods and bloated iTunes software. But the hardest hit, possibly, happened last week with the release of Microsoft's near-perfect Zune HD and Zune 4.0 software and services. Sure, the Zune has only 1.1 percent market share, allegedly. But you wouldn't know that from the tortured reaction from Apple's biggest fans, which circled the virtual wagons and immediately began issuing FUD at a faster rate than did Pravda during the Soviet era. Oh my God, you could almost hear them thinking. Microsoft actually did it.

Yes they did. Sorry, fanbois, but the Zune HD is the real deal. And while it may not be perfect (what is?), it is more than a credible challenger to the iPod hegemony. In fact, with the Zune HD, Microsoft has finally done with its Zune devices what it did long ago with its Zune software: It has created a solution that is palpably and obviously superior to anything "designed in California" by Apple. The Zune HD isn't just competitive with the iPod from a hardware perspective. It's better. There is no longer any debate over that. Apple has been coasting on the original iPhone/iPod touch design for too long.

Now, don't misunderstand this assertion. The Zune devices have always had a number of features that were superior to Apple's offerings. It all started back in 2006 with the original Zune, which sported--get this--an FM radio receiver, a feature that was mocked by Apple CEO Steve Jobs (until, ahem, he shipped an iPod nano with the same feature ... three full years later). Over time, Microsoft further differentiated Zune with exclusive features like the superb and cost-effective subscription service called Zune Pass. It's just that with the Zune HD, suddenly, there are no excuses. If you're looking for the best portable digital media player on the market, we're done. The Zune HD is it.

\[ Read my overview of the late 2009 iPod touch. \]

 

What Apple has to fall back on is the non-digital media-related features of the iPod touch. If you like the fact that the iPod touch is, in many ways, a cool little pocket computer, and is backed by an admittedly astonishing App Store with tens of thousands of excellent games and other applications, then ... well, there's no competition. Grab and iPod touch, put up with iTunes, and get on with your life. But if you're a music lover, and want the best portable media player there is, then look no further than the Zune HD. Microsoft has finally delivered on the promises of a platform that, quite suddenly, is coming together in very exciting ways. The Zune HD is the real deal. And you're going to love it.

\[ See how the Zune HD and iPod touch tech specs compare. \]

Form factor

When you see pictures of the Zune HD, you are of course struck by how beautiful it is from a form factor perspective. And sure enough, it is a beautiful device. But what's far more impressive is when you get to see the Zune HD in person and pick it up. The device is smaller than you'd expect--it's about 80 percent the size of an iPod touch--and far lighter than seems possible. That it manages to exude so much quality as well further enhances its appeal. It's nicely constructed, made of high-quality materials, is beautiful to look at, and feels amazing in your hand. It's no nice I feel weird just describing it.

Like an Apple device, the Zune HD goes minimalist on the external buttons, and here Microsoft runs into some of the same design constraints that face iPhone and iPod users. There are exactly three buttons: an on/off button on the top of the device, a so-called media button on the left side (essentially analogous to a volume switch as it brings up the onscreen volume and media transport controls), and a Home button just below the screen. All of the other controls are touch-based and performed via the screen.

Like the iPod touch with which it competes, the Zune has a port connector on the bottom via which you can sync the device with the PC (using a supplied USB cable) or dock it via an optional dock. And there's a bottom-mounted headphone port, which sits right next to that port connector. I don't like that placement on the Zune HD any more than I do on the iPod touch or iPod nano, because it makes it hard to position the device in its normal horizontal position on gym equipment. Put simply, the headphone port should be placed on the top of the device next to the on/off button.

The overall effect here is one of elegance and quality. The Zune HD is small, light, and gorgeous, but it also seems durable. This stands in sharp contrast to virtually all Apple devices, which exude quality and great design but seem frail and easily scratched or otherwise damaged.

Screen

The big deal with the Zune HD is its multi-touch, OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen. Sure, Apple's had multi-touch on its devices for a few years now, but it's interesting to see how Microsoft takes those controls to the next level and then improves on the overall aesthetics with a better physical screen and better UI.

And that screen, my god, that screen. Comparing the screen on the Zune HD to those on Apple's devices is like seeing HDTV for the first time and realizing that the right screen seems to actually improve your vision. There is no comparison at all, not really, between the gorgeously bright colors and deep, dark blacks of OLED versus the comparatively washed out LED employed by the iPod touch. This is particularly apparent when you view the screen off-center. Unlike with the iPod touch, where you're always fumbling to turn the device so that the picture looks decent, the Zune HD screen looks just as beautiful no matter how far you tilt it in any direction. In fact, you lose the picture visually before the quality ever suffers.

Zune HD review
Viewed side by side, you can see that the Zune HD screen is dramatically better than that of the iPod touch, from any angle.

The only time the OLED really suffers is in direct, bright sunlight, but in such conditions the iPod touch is worthless for watching video as well. The Zune HD screen is also a bit smaller than that of the iPod touch, but the sheer quality of the viewing experience quickly overcomes that minor issue. And at 480 x 272 resolution, the Zune HD offers a true 16:9 aspect ratio. This should seem like an advantage, but the reality is that TV shows and movies come at various weird aspect ratios anyway.

And of course from a technical perspective, OLED just blows away yesterday's screen technology. There's no backlight needed, so OLED screens don't just look better and offer better contrast, they also draw less power and take up less space. Less power equates to better battery life, and as you can see just looking at and holding the Zune HD, it also means a thinner, lighter device.

Using the touch screen

In use the Zune HD screen is a wonder of usability and design. When you bring the machine out of sleep, either by clicking the Home button or on/off button, you'll see the system wallpaper (user configurable, of course) on a software shade of sorts that sits over the Zune HD home screen. To access the home screen simply slide the shade up with your finger.

Zune HD review
Zune HD wallpaper shade.

The home screen is beautiful to behold and as with the new Zune 4.0 PC software, it works in two ways. The default view is a text menu similar to that seen on the previous two generations of Zune devices. You can scroll up and down and then tap menu items with your finger as you might expect, and if you've had any touch screen experience at all, it will be quite intuitive.

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The Zune HD home screen.

But the Zune HD also offers a Quickplay view just like the Zune PC software. To access that, slide the home menu off to the right. Replacing it will be a set of icons for Now playing content, pinned items, history (recently played content) and new content. As with Quickplay on the PC software, this interface provides a handy way to bypass navigating around what could be a very large media collection and just see that content that is most relevant to you. It's even more handy on the device than it is on the PC.

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Quickplay interface on the Zune HD.

The basic Zune HD navigational actions will quickly become obvious. To enter into a media experience (say, Music), simply tap that entry in the Zune home menu. There, you'll see submenus arrayed left to right across the top, using the familiar "crossbar" interface from previous Zune devices and from Windows Media Center. As you flick from left to right you can access (in Music), items like Albums, Artists, Playlists, Songs, and Genres. Within each, you can of course navigate up and down through the actual content. Some of these lists are textual--like Artists and Genres--while others, such as Albums, are graphical.

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Graphical and textual Zune HD menus.

To get "out" of the current view, you always tap near the top of the screen. This has the effect of "going back," and it overcomes the fact that the Zune device itself does not have a dedicated Back button. Because it works the same in all views, it's immediately obvious and consistent.

When you select audio content to play, the new Now Playing screen appears. This is modeled after the Now Playing screen in the PC software and closely resembles the mini player mode in Zune 4.0. You'll see a prominent Back button at the top of the screen, the name of the artist and album, the album art, the name of the song, and, at the bottom, a set of three software buttons for Shuffle, Repeat, and Rating. What makes this screen magical, however, is that it appears to float, visually, over some often stunning artist photography. The effect is amazing and hard to capture in a still picture.

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The Zune HD Now Playing screen.

As with the PC software, if you leave the device alone for a few seconds, the Now Playing screen begins animating. If you're used to the PC software, this will be quite familiar, though the scrolling text appears super-smooth, with no jaggies at all, and of course, it also appears to visually float above the background imagery, a cool side effect of the amazing screen.

Zune HD review
The Zune HD Now Playing screen begins animating after a few seconds.

You can navigate to the next song be swiping the screen from the left to right (and do the reverse with the reverse swipe). To display the onscreen media controls, tap near the center of the screen. When you do, the Zune HD display changes to provide a Play/Pause button in the middle, volume up and down at the top and bottom of the screen, and Previous and Next buttons on the left and right side. (You can also cause this interface to appear by tapping the Media button on the device.) And in a fun nod to the capabilities of the touch screen, you can swipe to change the volume: Swipe up to increase the volume and down to decrease it.

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The Zune HD on-screen media controls.

The interactivity of the screen is impressive. To access a list of all the albums and songs by the currently playing artist, click their name. To access the list of songs in the currently playing album, click the song name. From either screen, you can then access a host of information about the artist, including albums, songs, pictures, bio information, and even related artists, using the familiar Zune crossbar UI. This is a huge boon to media lovers, and it highlights the differences between Apple's and Microsoft's approaches nicely. In iTunes 9, Apple introduced a feature called iTunes LP where you can learn a lot more about the current band or album but only when sitting in front of your PC. On the Zune, all of the associated information about the currently playing media is available whether you're at the PC, on the web, or using a device. And no special new feature--that works in only a single place--is required. The Zune is simply a better platform for music lovers than what Apple offers.

Using the Zune HD

Looking at the Zune HD home menu, you will see some familiar choices as well as some new entries. If you've been using the Zune for a while, choices like Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, Marketplace, Social, and Podcasts will be old hat, and aside from the new touch-screen support, they all work largely like they did before, and offer similar choices. But there are a few changes.

HD Radio support

While Zune devices have always supported FM radio, the Zune HD takes it up a notch by offering HD Radio support as well. HD Radio stations offer crystal-clear digital signals and thus sound much better than equivalent FM stations. They also offer two or more audio streams, which is quite interesting. Here in the Boston area, for example, WBZ-FM ("The Rock of Boston") offers two HD streams. One is for sports talk radio and the other is dedicated to music.

Zune HD review
HD Radio offers multiple media streams for each station.

HD Radio has other benefits, especially if you're into discovering new music. As with its FM radio tuner, the HD Radio stations on the Zune HD integrate with the Zune Marketplace, allowing you to buy the song you're currently listening to. But because of the way that HD Radio identifies what's currently playing, this information is far more accurate and consistent than is the case with FM. So you'll definitely be able to purchase songs you like if you're listening to HD Radio, assuming that content is available on Zune Marketplace. (Which, of course, it usually is.)

Social

While the Zune Social capabilities on the Zune HD are similar to those on previous devices, there is one major difference: Unlike all previous Zunes, the Zune HD does not support Zune-to-Zune sharing, a feature known as "squirting". According to Microsoft, few people took advantage of this functionality, and of course the Zune Social features make it easier to share content with your friends since you don't have to be next to someone to make it work.

Web browser

In a nod to Apple's iPhone and iPod touch devices, the Zune HD is the first Zune to include a bundled web browser. It's a custom job based on Internet Explorer 6 for Windows Mobile, and it works surprisingly well. Placed head to head up against the Safari browser on Apple's devices, it's comparable but less useful, since it can't integrate with any other useful applications on the device (because there aren't any). Like Safari, it doesn't support Flash, so you can't access popular web videos, such as those offered by YouTube.

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The Zune HD's bundled web browser is surprisingly good given its heritage.

What it does support is all the custom multi-touch functionality you'd expect, like pinching for zooming and reverse-pinching for zooming out. You can scroll around by flicking your finger and activate hyperlinks by tapping. It includes Bing search and bookmarks and a basic but decent web browsing experience. Again, the Zune HD is more of a pure media player than the iPod touch, so this functionality is really just like icing on the cake, and not meant to constitute Microsoft's move into yet another mobile platform. It's better than nothing, and certainly better than any previous Microsoft mobile browser. But it's just additive, a little bonus extra.

Apps

Zune HD owners can optionally install a small selection of free applications, as could previous generation Zune users. This time around, the apps are mostly casual games and utilities like MSN Weather and Calculator. As with the browser, none of these are particularly special, and Microsoft sees them as little time wasters that people can enjoy while commuting or standing in line. They're not meant to compete with Apple's vast Apps Store, which is convenient because they don't. And it's unclear whether this small collection of apps marks the start of yet another platform.

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The available free apps are nothing special, and no reason to choose a Zune HD.

What is clear is that Microsoft will continue providing free games and utilities to Zune HD users over time. They'll always be free, which is good, but most of them also come with mini-advertisements before loading, which is bad. Some of them, like MSN Weather, take a shocking amount of time to load, but then when loaded, they do look quite nice. I guess I just don't see the point. The Zune HD apps stuff seems like a half-baked, last minute add-on, and it's not even clear that Microsoft knows where this is heading. Certainly, they are no reason to consider a Zune.

Accessories

As with previous Zune devices, the Zune HD can be extended with a small selection of accessories, including FM-based automobile stereo playback devices, cases, and the like. The biggest news this time around, of course, is the HDMI-based HD dock, which lets the Zune output in true 720p HD to an HDTV. This solution provides a way to access your device-based music, videos, pictures, radio, and podcasts on a bigger screen.

Zune HD reviewThe Zune HD docks sports an HDMI interface for true HD playback.

Now, Zune devices have long sported this capability via previous generation docks, minus the HD playback, but there's more going on here. This time around, instead of simply transmitting the actual Zune user interface onto the TV screen and letting you navigate around with a remote, Microsoft has instead created a simpler, and unique, UI that's designed only for the TV. (You do use a special Zune remote control, as before.)

I like the new menu, but it's missing some crucial bits, including most obviously Zune Marketplace access. Microsoft tells me that the TV interface is designed for media playback only, and that full Zune Marketplace access will occur over time via the Xbox 360, which we might see as the premium way to access Zune content via HDTV. I guess this makes sense, but the issue here is timing. The first Xbox 360-based Zune content won't ship until November and that will be for video content only. When the full Zune Marketplace experience arrives is unclear.

Here's a video showing off the Zune HD's special TV-only user interface:

Availability and pricing

The Zune HD is available in various versions, with either 16 or 32 GB of solid state memory capacity. At retail, the 16 GB version is available with a black body for $219.99, while the 32 GB version comes in platinum for $289.99. (Compare this to the 32 GB iPod touch, which sells for $299.99.)

However, you're not constrained to these color choices. If you order via Zune Originals online, you can choose between different color in either capacity. With the Zune 16, you can order platinum, blue, green, and red online. Or with the Zune 32, you can order in black, platinum, red, or green. (It's unclear why blue is not available for the Zune 32.) And for any of the colors, you're welcome to choose between different etched patterns from various artists, soccer teams, or Xbox 360 games. You can also etch an inscription on the case, as you can with an iPod. These additions are absolutely free.

If there's a downside to the Zune HD, it's that the device is only available in the United States. This has been a sticking point for the Zune overall since its launch three years ago, but least previous versions shipped in Canada as well. No more, and Microsoft isn't interested in talking about when, if ever, the Zune HD will go international. It can't happen quickly enough in my opinion.

Final thoughts

The Zune HD is an absolutely stunning portable digital media player. Whether it competes with the iPod touch at all depends on how you intend to use such a device. The Zune HD offers nothing compelling around the iPod touch's application and gaming capabilities, so if this is a big concern for you, feel free to head on over to your local Apple Store and go nuts. But if you're into this for the music, videos, and other content, what Microsoft has accomplished here is impressive. The Zune HD is the best digital media player I've ever seen, offering a stunning form factor, beautiful user experiences, deep integration with the Zune PC software and web services, and HD playback functionality via an optional dock. And it's much, much nicer than Apple's offerings, while costing less. The Zune HD is highly recommended. It's my own portable digital media player of choice, and I can't wait to see this platform extended across Microsoft's other offerings.