New Microsoft Zune HD is lovely, but not perfect

Brier Dudley
The Seattle Times (MCT)

SEATTLE — Apple fans can't sneer at the Zune anymore.

The new Zune HD is the latest evidence that Microsoft can design and produce lovely hardware, especially if it's given a few tries.

Zune's machined aluminum case just feels right — elegant, balanced and taut.

Compared with a lot of plasticky music players, it seems almost worth the price — $220 for a version with 16 gigabytes of storage, or $290 for 32 gigs.

The Zune HD's bright touchscreen and bold menu design are refreshing and easy to use without squinting.

In short, it's a very nice music player and its companion software jukebox is an attractive and decent tool for handling a music collection.

But it's still not perfect.

While the main features are polished, a few secondary ones feel like works in progress.

There are also annoying reminders of Microsoft's broader business ambitions, beyond selling MP3 players.

The bare-bones browser is designed to primarily search with Bing. That's fine, but it's so limited the Zune won't become your "pocket browser."

Most obnoxious is the revelation that free games from Zune's fledgling "apps" service display video ads before you can play.

No wonder Microsoft's not saying much about these apps yet. It turns out they're not completely free — you're paying with your time and attention, and your Zune is connected to Microsoft's clever ad-delivery system.

You don't see ads when using the device to play music, unless you count the usual promotions of the latest commercial albums that appear in the desktop software.

Lots of Zune HD reviews compare the device with Apple's iPod Touch, which is comparably priced and has more apps available.

Yes, the Touch is a more versatile device if you want to load it up with different programs.

They're equally good music players, but Zune's screen is nicer, it displays background pictures and graphics of bands you're playing, and its case has a better fit and finish than a Touch I bought recently.

They both have a common shortcoming, though. With either one, you're not just buying a Wi-Fi music player. You're buying into a complete system that reorganizes your digital media and tries to establish itself as the gateway to all your music and video.

Microsoft is following Apple's playbook here, but it tests the edgy, alternative vibe that Zune marketing tries to project.

This rant isn't new, but the appearance of those pregame ads on the Zune fires it up again.

I still prefer the look of Zune's minimalist desktop software to iTunes' relatively busy design. But those ads and the listening statistics Zune displays make me a little nervous about Microsoft's intentions.

Speaking of which, I suspect the Zune HD is more than just Microsoft's latest attempt to crack the digital-music business.

Zune is morphing into a music-and-video-delivery platform that Microsoft is adding to the Xbox this fall and probably mobile phones next.

The Zune HD is built on Nvidia's new Tegra chips for smartphones and mobile computers. I think Microsoft is using Zune to showcase how well its software runs on this hardware, potentially encouraging phone and device makers to embrace the upcoming version of Windows Mobile and Zune software.

Meanwhile, Microsoft seems to be putting less effort into Zune retailing. Zune displays were mostly empty at several local stores after the HD launch on Sept. 15, except for marked-down old accessories.

Tegra is impressive, powering a 3.3-inch OLED display and running for up to 33 hours on a charge, all within an 8.9 millimeter thick case.

Nvidia's chip also supports a 12-megapixel camera but Microsoft didn't put one in this version. That would have given the Zune HD huge bragging rights over Apple's latest iPods and made it a steal at $220.

Zune HD's name refers to its HD radio capability and video output. In addition to tuning HD radio, it displays what's playing and lets you tap the screen to buy a song, but only if the station is broadcasting song information. It was hit or miss as I explored the dial.

If you buy a $90 dock accessory, the Zune HD can output 720p video to a TV with an HDMI cable. You also have to pay extra to download high-def video from the Zune Marketplace.

Be aware that if you're running an older computer, Zune software — like iTunes — will tax your processor.

I couldn't get the software to install on a Windows XP Pentium machine I use at work until I made a few trips to Microsoft's software-update service. Then it used at least a fourth of its processor capacity to run, with spikes to 100 percent, which is about the same as iTunes.

Perhaps the message is that you should be sure your computer is reasonably up to date before splurging on a fancy new MP3 player.

But the heft of these media software programs is a concern, especially now that the fastest-selling consumer PCs are netbooks running wimpy mobile processors.

Pretty soon the music players in our pockets are going to be as powerful as the netbooks on store shelves today, and the Zune HD already has better graphics.

More people will consider this Zune a nice alternative to brand A. I just wish it had that camera.




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