Another slam-dunk Apple has over the Zune HD (or any portable media player, really) is the depth and breadth of third-party application support. At launch, the Zune HD has access to a handful of utility applications (calculator and weather) and games, with the promise of standalone apps for Twitter and Facebook on the horizon. Compared with the tens of thousands of apps available for the iPod Touch and iPhone, Microsoft has a long way to go if they plan to compete on this front. And while the majority of apps available on the iPhone and Touch have nothing to do with gaming or media playback, those that do (such as streaming Internet radio apps, streaming video apps, and literally thousands of games), lend a kind of diversity and open-ended freedom to the devices that many find irresistible.
In the end, the Zune HD's features are defined as much by what's missing, as what it includes. While the Wi-Fi equipped hardware is certainly capable of a great many things, it makes no attempt to emulate smartphone features such as e-mail, stock tickers, maps, or anything with even the faintest hint of workday productivity. The Zune HD is a portable media player, through-and-through, placing tremendous emphasis on the quality of its music and video experience.
If you're considering buying the Zune HD because it's cheaper than the iPod Touch, you're not quite seeing the whole picture. Many of the Zune's most interesting and unique features, such as unlimited song downloads, over-the-air album and song streams, playlist channels, and the seamless exploration of new music through Similar Artist links, all require a Zune Pass subscription account. At $14.99 per month (about $0.50 per day or $180 per year), the Zune Pass doesn't come cheap, and not everyone will appreciate its benefits.
Compared with other on-the-go subscription music plans offered by Rhapsody and Napster, the Zune Pass offers a comparable music selection and features, as well as an allotment of 10 MP3 downloads per month that are yours to keep, even if you cancel your membership. What the Zune Pass doesn't offer, is the broad device support for products beyond the Zune, such as compatibility with other MP3 players or streaming audio products such as Squeezebox or Sonos.
Bottom line--if you're going to buy a Zune HD, expect to shell out for the Zune Pass, as well. In the final tally, it makes the Zune HD a considerably more expensive product, but it's really one of the only ways you'll be able to solicit a jealous response from your iPhone- and iPod Touch-toting peers.
Just like an iPod needs Apple's iTunes music software to load up on music, videos, and podcasts, the Zune HD requires its own software, as well. Version 4.0 of Microsoft's Zune software client offers many of the same features and capabilities as iTunes, and presents your media collection using an interface that is arguably much prettier to look at.
Microsoft's Zune Marketplace download store has its own tab within the software, where you can browse a catalog of more than five million songs, as well as a huge library of free audio and video podcasts, and a remodeled video download section that includes TV shows, music videos, and movies that can be purchased or rented. Across all categories, we're impressed by the selection and presentation of downloadable content on Zune Marketplace; however, Microsoft still can't match iTunes' deep music and video catalog.
In spite of the improved selection and stylish interface, the odd pricing of Zune Marketplace downloads remains unchanged. For reasons we can't comprehend, Zune Marketplace downloads are all priced using a fictional currency called Microsoft Points (100 points equates to about $1.25). To Microsoft's credit, many of the songs and videos available on Zune Marketplace are priced competitively with offerings from Apple and Amazon--but you would never know it without a currency calculator on-hand. Overall, the effect of purchasing and spending "points" instead of cash feels a little childish, like cashing in tickets at a carnival.
While we're grinding old axes, it's also worth mentioning that the Zune Software is not Mac-compatible. Unless you plan to run a virtualized version of Windows, there is absolutely no way to get the Zune HD work with your Mac.
The Zune HD is a major leap forward when it comes to Zune performance benchmarks. Thanks to all the efficiencies afforded by the latest Nvidia Tegra processor and the power-thrifty OLED display, the Zune HD's battery life is rated longer than the iPod Touch battery life, boasting 33 hours of audio playback and 8.5 hours of video (both with Wi-Fi turned off). CNET Labs' test results achieved 29.5 hours of music playback with Wi-Fi switched off, and oddly enough, 30.4 hours with Wi-Fi turned on. By comparison, tests for the third-generation Apple iPod Touch scored 34.5 hours of continuous audio, which is not a significant lead, but notable nonetheless.
The Zune HD's video battery life held up well, with 8.5 hours of continuous playback with Wi-Fi off, and 8.2 hours with Wi-Fi turned on. The third-generation iPod Touch scored an average of 8.3 hours of video playback, making the difference negligible.
Battery hours are nice, but video quality is really where the Zune HD hit it out of the park. Everything from standard-definition video podcasts to HD Zune Marketplace movie rentals looks fantastic on the 16:9 wide-screen OLED display. And while the screen resolution taps out at 480x272 pixels, the Zune HD's video processor is capable of decoding videos as large as 1,280x720 pixels at 30 frames per second, provided that the video is routed to your TV using the optional Zune AV dock accessory. We still wish some of that video horsepower could be applied to a greater range of video formats, but with a screen this good, we'll take what we can get.
The OLED screen technology used in the Zune HD offers many advantages over the more common backlit LCDs found in most mobile phones and portable media players, but potential buyers should be aware that OLED performs poorly in direct sunlight. Testing the iPod Touch and Zune HD outdoors on a sunny afternoon, with both players set at full brightness, we found that the Touch offers noticeably better visibility than the Zune. Aside from the differences in screen technology, the Zune's usability in direct sunlight is also hampered by interface design choices, such as the prevalent use of white menu text set against a dark background. If we were evaluating a mobile phone or a GPS, we would consider poor performance under direct sunlight a significant flaw. Seeing as portable media player use is generally confined indoors, we expect that most people will find the screen's premium video quality a fair trade for decreased visibility under direct sunlight. That said, if you're an outdoorsy type, the Zune HD might not be the best choice.
As much as the Zune HD's handling of music playback is the star feature of the device, its audio quality hasn't budged much compared with prior generations. Microsoft was gracious enough to reintroduce the handful of EQ presets found only in the first-generation Zune, but without more advanced settings for sonic sculpting, competitors such as the Sony X-Series, Cowon S9, and Samsung P3 have more to offer those with picky ears. In side-by-side comparisons with the third-generation iPod Touch heard over a pair of Ultrasone HFI-2200 and a pair of Shure SE310 in-ear headphones, it was difficult to discern any sonic characteristics one device had over the other--except to say that the iPod's headphone amp offered a few more clicks of headroom over the maximum volume output of the Zune HD. Also, as much as we'd prefer to see a custom graphic EQ on both devices, the EQ presets on the Touch outshone the Zune HD in both quality and quantity.
If you've never seen the mobile Web browser on an iPhone or iPod Touch, the Zune HD's Web browser will knock your socks off. Its multitouch keyboard is more accurate and responsive than those on many touch-screen mobile phones we've tested. Page load speeds are relatively quick on the Zune and frequently used Wi-Fi hot spots are stored in memory (along with their associated passwords). Unfortunately, after putting the Zune HD toe-to-toe with the third-generation Touch (32GB model), there's no questioning the Safari browser's all-around supremacy. Connected to the same wireless hot spot, the iPod Touch and Zune HD each loaded The New York Times Web site in about three seconds, except the Touch was able to load the full, desktop version of the front page, while the Zune HD's browser could only load the lighter, text-only version of the page designed for mobile phones. Other little factors, such as the lack of forward navigation button, auto-fill, multiwindow browsing, image downloads, and typing suggestions, all made the Zune HD's browser a little less glamorous than the Touch. Parents should also be aware that the Zune HD offers no built-in safeguards against using the browser to view offensive content, whereas the iPod Touch offers restriction controls that can block the use of the browser, YouTube, and the downloading of inappropriate apps, songs, or videos.
The Microsoft Zune HD is a beautiful device--inside and out--that presents one of the first appealing and affordable alternatives to the Apple iPod Touch. Microsoft deserves praise for taking the Zune's music and video experience beyond the standard set by Apple. What remains to be seen is whether people will value Microsoft's premium media experience enough to resist the increasingly multipurpose appeal of the iPod.