Review: Microsoft Zune HD 32GB

Ah, the Zune. Born back in 2006 as Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the mighty iPod, it’s languished, largely unloved by the marketplace. Each fall since then has seen the launch of a new version of the hardware, and each has seen it quietly fade into obscurity.

But here comes the Zune HD, and this sliver of silver and black just might be the Zune that you’ve been waiting for (you have been waiting, right?). It’s a lovely industrial design, has a beautiful OLED screen, packs in HD radio and HD video out, and syncs to software that outshines iTunes in many ways. There’s a lot to love about the Zune HD — clearly the first music player that can match the wow factor of an iPod touch. And at $289 for the 32GB version, Microsoft is clearly hoping to lure iPod buyers by charging $10 less. But there are still drawbacks that any prospective buyer should keep in mind.

We’re good-news-first kind of folks here. So let’s start with the screen, a 3.3 inch OLED with a resolution of 480 x 272 pixels, for a true 16:9 aspect ratio. As you might expect, that’s a big boon for HD content viewing, where the picture nestles right to the edges of the screen, rather than having to be letterboxed. Color is very bright and vivid, with great saturation and pop.

Video from the Zune Marketplace is sold at 720p resolution, and then downscaled on the device for playback on the OLED. But pop the Zune into the AV dock (yours for another $90, which is too much), and the player outputs the full HD 720p resolution to your TV, over an HDMI connection. The video is one reason for the HD moniker for this Zune.

The other is the inclusion of an HD radio tuner on the Zune HD. Until last week, when Apple announced inclusion of an FM tuner on the new iPod nano and touch, the radio tuner had been a big selling point for the Zune. The new version keeps the FM tuner, and adds the ability to tune in HD signals if they’re available, including sub-channels. When docked, HD radios output as well.

The HD’s screen is touch sensitive, eliminate the infamous “squircle” control pad of previous Zune models. The touch screen is particually useful for the new web browser built in to the Zune HD. This browser, built from Internet Explorer for Windows Mobile 6.5, has been optimized for multi-touch, and uses the now familiar scrolling, pinching and double tapping to move you through web pages. In our limited surfing time, it handled complex sites cleanly.

On the software side, sad to say, Zune is still Windows only (although there were some hints in our conversations with the Zune team that there might be some chance of a Mac version at some point). That’s a shame, because the Zune software, along with the Zune Marketplace service, is a generally slick piece of code, and especially good for people looking to discover new music.

Take the Smart DJ feature, for instance, which builds playlists based on an initial suggestion, much like Pandora. Set up The Clash as the seed, and it will play you not only Clash songs, but related artists, including tunes not just from your local library, but also (if you have a monthly Zune Pass subscription) from the Zune Marketplace. The demo playlists we saw from this feature were fun, and surfaced music that we’d not heard of that seemed to match our interests.

One huge step forward is that the video catalogs on the Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live will be integrated. Buy a video on XBL, and you’ll be able to download it for no additional fee on the Zune (or vice versa). Unfortunately, when you rent a video, you must pick one or the other, and you can’t start on one platform, and then move it to another.

And, there’s a very thinly populated application store for the Zune HD. At launch, there are only a few apps, including a weather app and a version of Hexic for the device. By November, Microsoft is promising Twitter and Facebook applications, as well as a handheld version of Project Gotham Racing. At launch, applications are free, but we’ll see how that changes over time.

All in all, there’s a lot to like here. But there are still some big holes we’d love to see filled (Divx video support, Mac software, a deeper catalog of video content). After years of playing second fiddle, it seems that this scrappy underdog from Redmond might just have what it will take to compete with the iPod.

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