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Zune HD Review

Intro

The Zune HD was released in the fall of 2009. Almost nobody bought one. Its competition was both the newly redesigned iPod nano (the 2009 version sporting a video camera) and the iPod touch (the 3GS equivalent). Both of them handily smoked it. So, this certainly raises some points. Why a) did I buy it, and b) why am I reviewing it in the fall of 2011?

First off, a quick history lesson. The Zune originally debuted as a competitor to the iPod video in late 2006. It was a hulking, awful, ugly thing. Its only competitive advantage was the Zune Pass, a buffet-style music service that cost $14.99 a month. The Pass still exists to this day in Windows Phones, and is still only offered in the US. Two more generations of Zunes would appear in 2007 and 2008, and none of them were particularly great. The Zune 4 and 8 would compete with iPod Nano in the small flash space, but they always seemed like knockoff devices. The Zune HD finally launched in fall 2009, the first version since the original to be US-only.

Hardware

Press for the Zune HD was positive. Finally, they said, a Zune we wanted. 16, 32, and 64 gig versions, all one form factor. And what a form factor. Just a hair thicker than an iPod Nano in several layers of aluminum and glass, the Zune HD appeared like a product a company like Microsoft would never make. It was pretty, and it was pretty without ripping off Apple. The screws are visible. The Zune logo is physically etched in the back plate. There’s a little piece of rubber on the faceplate under the home button that feels not unlike the rubber on an SLR camera.

It feels indestructible in the ways iPod nanos and touches never have. I’ve never cased my Zune. I’ve dropped it, stepped on it, crushed it. It’s only sign of weather is around the edges on the top, where some of the black has chipped off to reveal the silver underneath.

Buttons are important. They define portable devices. It’s a finicky and nerdy thing, but great buttons can make a product, and poor buttons can ruin it. I still think the home button on the iPhone is its weakest aspect, and I’m not alone in that (strange, too, since Apple has always historically designed wonderful buttons). The three buttons on the Zune HD are all super crisp, and require just the right amount of effort to press. The click from all of them is satisfying, and still perfect after two years of heavy use. They feel like the buttons on a great camera. The Zune HD has never felt anything less than a premium product.

The front button takes you home” and acts just like the iPhone’s home button. The top button turns the Zune on and off. The third button, on the side, brings up player controls, which allow you to change tracks, volume, and play and pause. If you’re not listening to anything, tapping the play button will start shuffle mode.

The multi-touch glass screen is still the smoothest glass I’ve ever touched. That includes Apple’s bluetooth trackpad and the iPad 2. Whereas a little bit of sweat will make the iPad screen difficult to swipe, the Zune never seems to create friction. The screen is OLED, which isn’t a minor feature. It makes black black, and makes every single colour pop, and even in 2011 the crispness of this screen impresses people. OLED screens also have the side-benefit of being incredibly conservative on power. I am not being hyperbolic here at all: no electronic device I’ve ever used has a better battery than the Zune HD. I will often forget that I even need to charge it.

Software

Windows Phone has beautiful software, but you really only need to put a Windows Phone next to a Zune HD to see where it all came from. The Zune HD display is separated into two lists: one filled with icons, and another with a text list. The icon side shows what’s playing, your recent history, pinned items, and new additions. The text list is simply a list of the major areas of the Zune: Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, Marketplace, Social, Podcasts, Internet, Apps, and Settings. Finally, there’s a Play button next to music, which quickly enters shuffle mode.

There’s this theory of computer software design that promotes the fewest clicks to get to any task. I’ve owned three iPods in my life: the 2005 video, the 2006 touch, and the 2009 shuffle. Only the shuffle could, well, shuffle songs quicker than the Zune, because that’s all it could do. Both the Video and the Touch required more than two clicks to get to the shuffle button, which, for me, is the way I prefer to listen to my music. If you want to get to a specific album, it’s exactly the same amount of clicks (or taps) on both the Zune and the iPod.

In regards to music, photos, podcast, and video playback, the Zune HD is still just a player. Things sound, look, and play great. Using Windows, the Zune will play anything that Windows Media Player can play. On the Mac, The Zune will play anything from iTunes. When you’re playing an mp3, the cover art shows in the middle, with information surrounding it, and you’ll often see a photo of the band in the background to give the thing a little extra context. It’s a great detail.

Where things get weird is exactly what you get in regards to extra context. If you sync to Windows and live in the states (or tell your computer that you’re in the states), you’ll get the ability to read a bio of the band, photos, and links to related artists in the Zune store. Canadian and Mac-syncing Zune’s don’t get these little extras. Videos and pictures look incredible on the OLED screen. There’s more detail in this screen than any iPod.

Speaking of OS differences: Windows users get wireless syncing, which has always been a feature of Zune going back to 2006 (iPhone users are finally getting this feature this fall). Mac syncing, which only showed up in 2011, is tether-only.

Apps are a mixed bag. Some of them are very cool, fun, and useful, and some are just bizarre. There are 62 apps in total, all made by Microsoft, and all for free. Most of them are games, like Hexic, Sodoku, and Texas Hold’em. There is one racing game and one skate-boarding game that both look graphically impressive, but many are simply and sharply designed. Believe it or not, there are email, notes, and calendar apps, and shockingly, all three of them showed up in the last month. One of the reasons I decided to do this review now was the influx of these new apps (around 20 others showed up recently), which tells me that either Microsoft is planning on entering new markets with the Zune (perhaps outside the US) or they’re simply releasing ones they figured they’d release at some point. They have said that they plan to port Zune HD apps to Windows Phone, but I honestly can’t think of many that don’t already have equivalents.

Pins, History, and New

I wanted to talk about these things in their own space because they really make the Zune for me. New and history are easily explained: it’s a small icon set of what you just listened to and recently added to your Zune. New is perfect for when you add three or four albums and you don’t want to have to search for them in the music set. Pins is like a curated shortcut list that can hold anything on the Zune. Currently, I’ve got the Notes app and the podcasts I want to listen to this week in my pins. It’s a feature that not only still isn’t in the iPhone or iPod, but actually isn’t even in Windows Phone. Instead, the entire phone’s front screen is a series of pins. If you want to pin an album in Windows Phone, it goes all the way to your front screen, not just in the Zune app. It’s a sticking point, but if you haven’t noticed, the Zune is full of personal sticking points that keep me using it.

Downsides

The internet is very, very basic. The screen is really too small to read much, and it feels like an afterthought. I have used it maybe four times.

The keyboard, with it’s very odd bounce, is still something I haven’t used much or become accustomed. It’s why I haven’t used the Twitter and Facebook apps that much (which aren’t bad, by themselves).

The Social” function is essentially useless. I live in a country where the Zune Pass isn’t supported, and not enough people use Zunes for it to ever feel social’.

I have the 16gig Zune, and 12 gigs of that is music, but it’s never enough’ music for Smart DJ (the equivalent of a genius playlist) to work. And yet, whenever I’m on American soil, the feature works great.

Summary

To answer the question, a) why did I buy one of these things, I’ll essentially give you three points, and I think they still hold up in 2011:

The second question, b) why am I reviewing this in 2011, well, that’s harder. The days of the dedicated music player are essentially over. Not only are smartphones taking their place, but streaming services are becoming increasingly seductive. Rdio, iCloud, Amazon and Google streaming all offer your entire library and more on offer at all times, often with some kind of offline syncing. With that, what’s the point of a thing that only plays things you manually synced from your machine, that can only hold a certain amount, and is a separate device from a phone you already own? The Zune HD was probably the last device I’ll ever buy that’s dedicated to playing my stuff. It’s an entire class of device that’s just been sucked into an on a phone, and while that’s not sad per se, it means I’ll probably never get a chance to review another one. I wanted to at least note the best one I’ve ever used.

Posted on 4/8/2011   #technology  






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