Sunday, October 11, 2009

Zune HD Review

[AUTHORS NOTE: This is a tremendously long and in-depth review. I have tried to highlight what I feel are important and key phrases as well as break the review up into sections. Your comments are most appreciated.]

I received a 16GB Zune HD in the mail about a week ago. It was sent to me as a gift/compensation for creating a new opening for the Geek News Central Podcast. My first impression was that it was thin, light and sleek. I was excited for two reasons. First, it had enough capacity to carry as much content as I had put on my salvaged iPod (that's another story). Second, it is a Zune. I have really enjoyed the experience of my Zune 4Gig (which I coincidentally received from the same source) but I needed something with more space.

After turning it on, I quickly realized that some of the other reviews I read were accurate: The Zune HD is not a direct competitor to the iPod Touch. The Zune HD is a completely different experience. The only things the two devices have in common are that they both play digital media and they both have a touch screen interface.

If you want to read more of my first impressions, check out this post.

This will be an in-depth explanation and review of the major functions of the device. Scroll down to the summary section if you want to skip all the details.

Zune Desktop Software 4.0
Let's start this review with the Zune 4.0 desktop software. The Zune software has much the same look and feel as previous versions but there are two new features/functions that I really like.

First is the mini player. I don't generally use the Zune software for media playback and I don't generally play music directly from my computer but the mini player makes the playback experience much more unobtrusive. It's a bit like a mini Zune HD screen and allows you to shuffle all of your music or play Smart DJ playlists or pinned items. The Now Playing screen echoes the device display as well.

The Smart DJ feature is also a plus. It is much like the iTunes Genius Playlist feature that I like very much. Unlike the Genius, however, the Smart DJ is not configurable. You cannot specify how many songs or what length of time you want to fill the list and you cannot specify whether to pull only from your list or from the marketplace as well (it appears to pull only from your list). Plus, in examining the lists I just created to test it, I am not sure of its accuracy in selecting similar songs to the "key" song.

The second new feature I really like is the Mini-Player toolbar mode. I keep the Zune software open and running all the time so that podcasts are updated on a regular basis. I have a bargain-basement DSL connection so downloads aren't exactly speedy. Previous versions of the software would minimize to the taskbar as would any other program so I would constantly have this 2" wide tab on the left side of my taskbar that said "Zune." Now when you minimize the Zune software it becomes an additional toolbar with simple playback controls. Clicking on the Zune icon restores the software window. The best part of this is that the toolbar is positionable. It now sits unobtrusively on the right side of my taskbar and actually serves a purpose in that mode.

-- The Basics --

Physical Characteristics and Buttons
The Zune HD is 52.7 mm wide x 102.1 mm high x 8.9 mm thick and weighs a svelt 2.6 oz (74 grams). I measured it against my HTC Fuze/Touch Pro and it is approximately the same height and width.

On the top of the device is an on/off button. When pressed, it puts the device into a standby mode or simply turns off the screen if you are playing music. Pressing it again wakes it up. When it wakes up it displays a graphic/photo that you "push" up to the top of the screen to be able to interact with the device. This is designed to prevent accidental activation of any of the functions (more on that later). If you hold down the button for 3-4 seconds, the graphic covers the top half of the screen. If you "pull" it down to the bottom, the device turns off.

On the left side of the device at the top is the media button. The sole purpose of this button is to bring up the media controls of play/pause, prev/next and volume up/down. The only useful scenario for this is that it will bring up the controls over the standby graphic and you can operate them without having to "unlock" the device. On the bottom left side is a cryptic engraving that reads, "Hello from Seattle."

The bottom contains the standard Zune docking connector and what I have always thought was an oddly placed headphone jack. Placing the headphone jack at the top just seems more practical to me. There are no buttons or additional engravings on the right side.

The front face of the device is the 3.3" 480 x 272 OLED display with 16:9 aspect ratio. The screen is touch-sensitive and is the same technology (capacitive if I'm right) as the iPhone/iPod touch, meaning that you cannot use a stylus or gloves. And if the difficulties I have with my left thumb are any indication, callouses may interfere with functionality as well. Just below the screen is the home button which toggles between the main menu and the quick links (more on that later as well).

The Zune HD is light, compact and slim. The back is made of black (on the stock 16GB model) brushed aluminum. Combined with a beveled design (it slopes off to the sides), it gives it a very stylish look and keeps it from being a total fingerprint magnet.

The buttons are well placed and push easily. Because they are all flush, with the exception of the home button which is only slightly raised, it is difficult to push the accidentally. The screen is crisp, clear and bright. It literally wowed me when I first turned on the device (and that was just looking at the menu). It is very responsive to touch although, as mentioned, it seems to have difficulty with callouses. The only drawback, and I don't know how you would avoid this on a touch interface, is that it collects fingerprints that are problematic to photo and video viewing.

Setup and Sync
Most of the functions of the device do not work until you synchronize with the Zune software for the first time. There is a demo video loaded that you can play but that's about it. Loading the driver took a protracted amount of time under Windows Vista Ultimate and the first thing it wanted to do was update the software to version 4.1 before it would do anything else. Seriously? It sounds like someone didn't get their code changes in on time when the final version was rubber-stamped. Other than that, synchronization and interaction with the Zune software is similar to other Zune models.

Audio/Video Support
The Zune HD supports WMA, WMA Pro, WMA Lossless, AAC-LC, mp4, m4a & m4b w/o FairPlay DRM, and MP3 audio formats. Image support is limited to JPG and it supports WMV, MP4, M4V, H.264, DVR-MS video formats.

-- Zune Device Firmware --

Main Menu
When you first turn on the device, the initial home menu shows selections for Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, Marketplace, Social and "More." Looking at this I immediately noticed that Podcasts was not among the selections. Once I loaded a podcast onto the device it thankfully appeared.

If the device is in standby or the screen has turned off, the device displays a default or user-selectable picture that you have to slide up to get to the menu. This supposedly stops accidental control activations but the way the hardware buttons are designed they are not easy to accidentally actuate so the picture seems to be more eye candy than anything else. This is further reinforced by the fact that the menu sits atop a black screen instead of a background graphic. Of course, the first thing I did was create a custom graphic supporting my college Alma Mater.

Pushing the home button on the main screen toggles between the menu and the quick links. You can also slide your finger left or right as appropriate. The quick links are a set of graphical shortcuts that include the item that is currently playing or paused, Pins (favorites), History (recently accessed), and New (recently added). I have found that they actually come in handy.

One thing they seem to have regressed in the software is that the clock and battery status are not persistently visible and this is not configurable. The way the navigation works, you touch a top portion of the screen that shows an enlarged portion of the menu choice or graphic you selected to move backward through the system. As such I can understand why these items are not visible everywhere but why can't they be shown at the top of the main menu? Plus, the only place the clock shows up is over the "standby" graphic. Why bother?

Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of the touch interface. It has certain shortcomings that, to me, make the device more complicated to operate. I was honestly contemplating selling the Zune HD on eBay and buying a 120GB 2nd gen. Zune until I discovered two very cool features just last night.

When you are browsing your music collection by artist you are taken to a screen that lists all the albums you have for that artist on the device. You also have an option of viewing the marketplace discography at the bottom of the list. The discography list appears whether or not tracks are available for purchase (i.e. The Beatles) and it doesn't always get the tracks right. While I was writing this, for instance, I brought up the track list (requires wifi connection) for "The Best of 38 Special" and they're all Christmas Songs. Presumably, you can purchase the tracks right from the device itself. If the tracks are not available for purchase, the titles are grayed out and it says "This item is not available at Zune Marketplace" above the list.

But wait. There's more. Much more. When identifiable and available, the Zune HD downloads additional information about the artists. You will notice that there is a picture of the artist as a background behind the album/song list (it also appears whenever a track by that artist is currently playing). You will also notice that there are additional choices along the top after albums and songs.

You are first presented with pictures of the artist. If there is more than one, they appear in a two-column grid. The pictures are viewable full-size in the picture viewer by tapping them. It would be nice if you could add your own to your device or even select which picture to use as the background for the Now Playing view but that is not an available feature (it has been requested in the forums).

After the pictures is the biographical information. This is the really cool part. It gives you background and in-depth information about the band. The entry for .38 Special, for instance, is eight screens long. They're also very well written. They read like a VH-1 Behind The Music voice-over. Here's an example:
Initially, /38 Special were one of the many Southern rock bands in the vein of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd; in fact, the band was led by Donnie Van Zant, the brother of Skynyrd's leader, Ronnie Van Zant.
I did not know that.

The last of the artist information screens is titled "Related." This screen lists bands with similarities to the selected artist in, perhaps, a "you might also like" fashion. You have to wonder about some of the selections, though. For .38 Special, for instance, Night Ranger is listed among Charlie Daniels and The Marshall Tucker Band.

These same screens can also be accessed by tapping the artist name in the Now Playing view.

The second "Oh, I'm keeping this!" feature is being able to create playlists on the device. If you hold your finger on an artist, song or album, you are offered a choice of adding it to the Now Playing list. You can also click the + symbol wherever it appears at the top of a list to add all the items from the list. You can then just play your ad-hoc playlist or, if you open the Now Playing list from the playlist view, you can save it as a permanent playlist. This is something the iPod has been able to do for a while. I am glad to finally see it in the Zune.

The Now Playing (playback) window is fairly standard but with a few nice touches. At the top left is a "back" button and on the right is the battery icon and play/pause status indicator. the screen lists the artist and album then the album art. One change from previous versions is that if you do not have album art you get a black square rather than your background image. Immediately below the album art is the time status display then the song title.

Below the song title is a list of the next 3 songs coming up in the playlist. At the very bottom are buttons to toggle shuffle and repeat as well as the favorite status. Even though I still think the favorite marker is too limited, the position of this button allows me to easily mark bad tracks during playback. As a background, where available, is a picture of the band. This stays onscreen as the player goes into a screen saver mode slowly scrolling the artist, song title and other information across the screen in varying sizes of type in various directions. It looks very similar to the funky playback mode the desktop software switches to. The only drawback is that the device stays on and constantly shows the screen saver if the device is plugged in. This includes when it is drawing power from the car kit and the screen saver can be distracting while driving.

To change tracks, you either swipe the album art to the left for next or right for previous or you can bring up the player controls by pressing the media button or tapping the Now Playing screen. The player controls also have a big play/pause button in the center. You can either bring up the controls and tap the button or a quick double-tap on the Now Playing screen will pause or resume playback. Finally, the player controls include volume control. You can either tap/hold the + or - buttons or swipe your finger up or down.

One thing I would change is to add hardware volume buttons. Changing the volume means a series of 3 to 5 gestures. At its most complicated, you have to wake up the device by pushing the power button, swipe off the lock screen, tap to bring up the volume controls (assuming you start in the Now Playing screen), then adjust. In the car, this is overly complicated and distracting. You can also use the media button which will bring up the player controls over the lock screen. Even then, it's a push then a tap or swipe. Hardware volume controls would take out the extra steps (handy if you were blasting through a stereo and forgot to turn it down before plugging in the headphones).

To make the experience more personal, the ability to customize the screen saver would go a long way. Imagine being able to choose which information the screen saver does or doesn't show. Better yet, imagine being able to run a screen saver that has nothing to do with the music being played (Flying Toasters, anyone?). Maybe there will be an app for that. I would also like to see a simplified Now Playing view that shows artist, title, larger album art and the playback timers.

Video Player
The video player is fairly straightforward. Choose your video and it starts playing in landscape mode. You might want to wipe down the screen first. The fingerprints left by all that tapping and swiping tend to obscure the view.

There is one cryptic control for the video. In the upper-right corner is a circle with four arrowheads pointing outward. If you tap it, the arrowheads point inward and the image stretches to fill the screen. Why not just stretch the image to fit and maintain the aspect ratio? Maybe it's just cryptic to me because everything I've transferred to the player so far is in widescreen (16:9) format.

Photo Viewer
Also fairly straightforward. Turn the device to portrait or landscape mode and the accelerometer quickly and smoothly changes the orientation of the image and zooms appropriately.

Speaking of zooming, the photo viewer (and the web browser) include multitouch zooming capabilities. Place two fingers on the screen and move them apart and you zoom in toward the point where your fingers first touched. Squeeze them together and you zoom back out.

There is also a slideshow mode but the timing and transitions are not configurable.

The HD designation on the Zune HD signifies not only its ability to play 720P HD video (HD dock sold seperately) but also its ability to receive HD radio signals. I am about 60 miles away from any of the stations in my area transmitting HD streams and have had difficulty picking them up. I did finally manage to pick one up by using a set of headphones with a long cable. Unfortunately, the cable had to be stretched out and I wasn't able to listen and watch the display as the HD signal appeared and disappeared.

Also presumably because of my distance from the signal, I originally thought the Zune HD was incapable of receiving RDS (Radio Data Stream) information. This seems to have been in error since, during my HD reception experiment, I was able to pick up station identification (at least) from several of the stations.

Using the marketplace to purchase content from your device requires a WiFi connection. The on-screen keyboard can be a bit clunky so it's nice that the software pops up suggestions as you type. One question, though. What's with the picture of the random rapper dude as the background image for the marketplace? (edit: looks like it changes. it is currently showing me Mariah Carey)

The one other person I know and have contact with that also owns a Zune I am sure does not use this feature. I am also not active in the online experience. I have therefore never used this function. Now that I have two Zunes I do plan to check out the content transfer feature at some point.

This item does not appear on the main menu until and unless you have podcast content loaded on the device. Subscriptions and settings are mostly controlled via the desktop software. I have seen some comments in other reviews and forum posts that podcasts do not automatically sync with the device via wireless. This has not been my experience. The podcast synchronization via wireless works just like it did with my 4gig. Maybe those that have been having difficulty with it have not set up the wireless sync in the desktop software or have not made the initial transfer of the podcast to the device. I don't know but it works just fine and dandy for me.

It goes (almost) without saying that the internet function requires a WiFi connection. One of the cool things about the wireless radio is that it is only active when you need it. It can be disabled in the settings but it will turn itself on and off.

The browser is very simple. On the bottom are buttons to go to the previous page, open favorites, and view the address bar. There is also a built-in search function (via Microsoft bing, of course). There is no refresh function. There is no flash (sorry, no YouTube) or any of the other add-ons so the experience is limited. The feature is obviously designed to be utilitarian but I'm okay with that.

The web browser responds to the accelerometer to view the pages in portrait or landscape mode. You can double-tap the screen to zoom in on the page or you can use multitouch gestures.

When you bring up the address bar or search or you enter an input field on a page, the virtual keyboard comes up. I'm really terrible and slow at typing on it and I often make mistypes (E and R in particular) but it gets the job done. One nice touch is the addition of a ".com" button when you're in the address bar. Unfortunately, if you turn the device to landscape mode, the keyboard doesn't get any bigger (you might want to address that, Microsoft). Two things I would add are an exit button, although that may have been omitted to avoid accidental activation, and a password bank.

By the way, any music or radio station you happen to be listening to continues to play while you are using the browser.

The currently available applications are very few (only 9 total at present) and very simple (but they're all free at the moment). I find the weather app and the calculator particularly useful. They add some nice additional functionality to the device. The other seven are games like chess, sudoku and goo splat, whatever that is. New apps are added via the desktop software or the Marketplace link in the main menu. I eagerly await additional applications. It will be cool to see what people do with this device.

-- Wireless: Similar to previous models. A nice (and necessary) addition is the ability to connect to wireless networks directly from the device. The sync option includes entries for channels and Zune cards (must be related to social functions). It also shows you the MAC address of the device.

-- Display: Allows you to adjust settings for video output, the timeout for going into low-power, screen brightness, tilt on/off and screensaver settings (always, never, only when powered).

-- Music: Includes a worthless EQ setting. Maybe if I always listened to the same kind of music all the time but while it may shape the sound nicely for the current song it invariably distorts the next. The other setting is Artists which includes settings for song and album or album only. I have no clue what this changes. This entire menu option might as well not even be there.

-- Radio: Allows you to set your region for HD radio reception.

-- Clock: 12/24 hour toggle and set time. You cannot view the clock except on the lock screen. What good is it, then? Let's make it visible in other areas. Is there a technical reason it can't sync to the PC clock?

-- Screen Lock: Reset the lock image to the default and enable the PIN to unlock. It should also include a function to select the lock image and disable the lock screen altogether.

-- Internet: Delete history, Cookies on/off, Script on/off. Pretty simple.

-- About: Allows you to view storage numbers and reset the accelerometer. All the other stuff is readme quality.

-- Conclusions / Summary --

To me, any media player is pretty much as good as the next. If all I want to do is listen to music in random order while I drive, an iPod shuffle will work. What makes the Zune HD stand out are the extras that make it go beyond being a simple media player. The desktop software, although not outstanding, also adds value to all of the Zune models.

I'm not a big fan of the touch interface but it is starting to grow on me. In a geeky sort of way it is just plain fun to slide things around on the screen. A sort-of symbiosis between man and machine.

Where the Zune, all of the models, falls short is in accessories. Microsoft started off at a disadvantage to the iPod in this arena and has continued to fall behind the curve. I can walk into almost any store that sells any sort of electronics and find a variety of cases, cables, docks, speakers, portable radios, and portable video systems for the iPod. In the same stores I am lucky to find even the limited selection of overpriced Microsoft-branded accessories and I am usually shocked if I find a single third-party speaker dock for the Zune. Maybe their rarity accounts for their pricing? I managed to find a bargain on a v2 A/V dock pack while I was still using my 4gig Zune. Can you believe that the original MSRP on a set of cables, an IR remote and a docking base was $79.99? Microsoft needs to stop being so proud of their branded accessories and open up the market for third-party accessories.

Right now I own the v2 A/V dock and a v2 car kit with the FM transmitter. The A/V dock is partially compatible with the Zune HD. It powers it and allows it to sync wirelessly. The only functions that work on the remote are play/pause and prev/next. I can accept that because of the differences in the interface. At least it allows me to play content through my stereo. I don't know about video output since I'm pretty sure I never connected that cable in the first place.

The car kit works just like it did with the 4gig. Pretty much all it does is provide power and a line-level out to the FM transmitter so that's not a surprise. I have seen the new premium car kit and think it's a nice update. I would NEVER pay $80 for it but it has some nice features.

In the interim between outgrowing my 4gig Zune and getting the Zune HD, I rescued a 30gig 5th gen iPod video* (I replaced the hard drive) so I now have some experience with the competition. I think the iPod has a serious basic design flaw. When you transfer media to it, the device (or iTunes) changes the file name and places it in a random folder. What this does is open wide the possibility of duplicating media files. Not just duplicating titles, I mean truly transferring the exact same file to the device multiple times. That's just a waste. You can manage your media in a way to minimize this possibility but why should you have to? The Zune wins hands-down in my book for that reason alone every time. That's not to say I'm ready to give up the capacity available in my iPod nor the ability to dock it to my clock radio (see previous accessories rant).

Overall, I like the Zune HD. There are some tweaks and improvements I mentioned above and we might see several of them in subsequent software updates. There are a couple of improvements I did not mention above that I would like to see.

First and foremost, add a bluetooth option or, to keep the same price point, create a bluetooth add-on. The dongle/plugin would need to have A2DP and AVRCP capabilities as well as power pass-through capabilities. This would allow me to operate my Zune HD completely wirelessly via my Motorola stereo bluetooth headset or any of several automotive add-ons (thus making it safer to operate in the car!!).

Make the media button multi-functional. A single press brings up the media controls but subsequent presses could change the display, bring up ID3 tag information or any of a variety of other things. the middle button on an iPod can do it, why can't this?

So there you have my long-winded tour, commentary and review of the Zune HD. Hello? Please wake up.


*I was originally trolling eBay for an 80 or 120 gig Zune. The only way I could afford it would be to fix a broken unit. The iPods are cheaper to obtain and, through some internet research, I found out that they are much much easier to repair. I therefore purchased and rescued my iPod.


nukexxx said...

Pretty good review. However, does the Zune HD have the capability to play songs in the same order that they appear on the CD from which they were ripped? I can't seem to get ripped songs to automatically play in the album order.

Bubby said...

I generally keep mine on shuffle but in looking at the album view it looks like it does (providing your ID3 tag has correct track # information). One way to guarantee it, though, is to create a playlist in album order. Easy enough to do since I know the software will list in track order.

Prateek said...

Nice review.

I am much impressed with microsoft for creating Zune HD

brokgirl07 said...

can u tell me how to sync it to the net? the zune hd 16 gb? Its bothering the shit out of me!

Bubby said...

The wireless sync is configured through the Zune desktop software. Plug in the device, go to the device summary and click settings in the upper right of the window.