This article was published 15 years ago

Review: Zune HD

Zune HD Microsoft Zune
Microsoft Zune HD – Image credit: Gregory Schultz / OpenBayou

Microsoft is trying again to compete with Apple by refreshing the Zune product line. It has several new features that the iPod doesn’t have: 720P high definition output, HD radio, music subscription service and an OLED touchscreen. Trying the Zune HD for a week and I replaced my iPod nano I use at the gym with the Zune HD.

Unfortunately, the new Zune HD is three years too late to compete against Apple. There might be a light at the end of tunnel: If the radio industry and Microsoft team up to promote the Zune HD on the radio, it might be a strong second place MP3 player and bring some much-needed competition against Apple.

Gone are the hard-drive based MP3 players; in are the flash-based players. The Zune HD players are available in 16GB ($219.99) and 32GB ($289.99). I’m not a big fan of the flash-based MP3 players because they can easily get filled to capacity. I have a 2nd generation and its 85% filled. Filled with what? Video podcasts.

Almost all of the video podcasts I subscribe to have upgraded to HD resolution and file sizes have gotten bigger. The main reason for moving MP3 players from hard drive to flash drives is because of battery life and a thinner design. Also you don’t hear the hard drive spinning in the background.

I’m willing to sacrifice battery life for more storage and a thicker model.

zune HD Microsoft Zune
Image credit: Gregory Schultz / OpenBayou

One of the newest, and most talked about feature, is HD radio. HD radio does not mean High-Definition radio; some speculate it means Hybrid Digital radio. It actually doesn’t stand for anything; it’s just a marketing term. The Zune HD can only receive FM HD signals, even though the HD radio ship used in the Zune can also receive AM HD frequencies.

Depending on where you live, some stations (as much as 1,900 stations across the United States) are broadcasting a HD signal. And those stations that upgraded to HD are usually owned by Clear Channel.

When the Zune HD came upon a station that broadcast a HD signal, it automatically switched to the HD feed. I noticed a little difference between the HD feed and the regular FM signal.

HD radio does have a flaw – receiving the signal. Radio stations that broadcast a HD signal are broadcasting at extremely low power, making it difficult to receive some HD signals. One station was extremely difficult to receive a HD signal as there tower was across town and broadcasting the signal at low power. Unless you love near the stations’ transmitter, you may have problems receiving a HD signal.

The new Zune HD features a beautiful touch-screen OLED screen that can easily be filled with finger prints. Video playback is fantastic – even though the player automatically downgrades the player from HD resolution to a viewable format. Even the downgraded videos look fantastic.

If there were any problems with the device – besides not being an Apple product – is the volume button. The volume button doesn’t adjust the volume; the volume has to be adjusted using the screen. Pressing the button brings up the volume adjustment on the screen. This is the most annoying feature on the Zune HD. Why Microsoft decided to control the volume on the screen and not by a button is anyone’s guess. This can be an annoyance when using the Zune HD as a MP3 player for the gym.

Besides adjusting the sound, I noticed a difference the way a song sounded when played on the Zune verses the iPod. The Zune sounded much better.

The Zune HD doesn’t have an impressive app store. The store does feature a couple of apps: some games, a calculator and weather. Don’t expect the app store to be opened to the public as Microsoft has decided not to allow third-party apps in the store.

The Zune HD is a great Mp3 player. Music sounds great and videos looks rich with colors. If the Zune were released three years ago, it could have easily defeated the dominance by the  iPod. Now Microsoft will be lucky if the Zune takes 10% market away from Apple.