The Microsoft Zune HD is a portable digital media player like no other, with the ability to display video, play music as well as explore the Internet — all at a simple touch on the screen.
Oh yes, it also tunes FM analog and HD Radio, making it a product of more than usual interest to radio broadcasters.
This unit weighs a mere 2.6 ounces. The included USB cable allows the user to charge the device and sync with its Zune Software from a computer. Fully charged, it will provide just under 24 hours of constant play, well beyond the endurance of other MP3 players in my experience. (Microsoft states on the Zune Web site that it can deliver 33 hours of music play.) Other players have given me about 12 hours or so of use.
The Zune unit retails for just under $220 for the 16 GB unit and around $290 for the 32 GB version from Best Buy. Prices vary with other retailers.
The day I got home with the Zune HD, I opened the box, followed the instructions, installed the software on my computer, let the unit charge and started playing around with it.
The touchscreen is a selling point of the product but my frustration began to rise when the screen did not work properly; it would stay on only intermittently and finally stopped working altogether.
I returned to Best Buy that night; they had their people look at it before allowing an exchange. Thankfully, the problem remained apparent while I was in the store. They provided another that I took home and charged. The replacement worked fine. I loaded my music onto the unit, as well as some pictures.
One can load any kind of music files using the associated software. It is a process similar to iTunes, with the difference that the Zune software does not save the music in a format that only it can read.
I've been able to download music easily through Zune Marketplace and then burn it in MP3 format to a CD for backup purposes. However, you cannot choose the quality of your audio downloads. I like 256 kilobits per second audio quality; this sounds like CD quality to me. From what I hear when listening to the music I have downloaded through Zune, it has to be less than 256 kbps because I can hear a few artifacts in certain songs.
Overall, my experience with the Zune software was a good one. The Marketplace portion of the Zune site is easy to navigate and you can purchase music with a simple click of a button.
FM and more
Now it was time to play.
The screen is easy to navigate. I immediately went to the "Music" section to see how everything looked. You can view stored music based on "Artist," "Playlists," "Songs," "Genres" and "Album." Within the "Artist" category, you are given other options of what to look at.
You can view albums and songs by artist, associated artwork, a biography of the artist and a list of related artists. The system is simple to maneuver through. Simply slide a finger across the screen to allow the categories to scroll.
A "Videos" category allows you to watch movies, TV shows, music videos and more. To get these on the Zune you have to purchase them. Many movies can be rented for a short time as well.
The unit came with a three-minute video that shows off the ability of the device. It can also play HD Video, though not on the unit itself. An optional dock and cable to hook it up to your HDTV are available for purchase.
The author with her Zune HD. The "Pictures" category is something that continues to astound me. I uploaded several pictures of flowers that I'd taken earlier. On a computer, the color and clarity of these pictures are remarkable; you can see the dew on the petals and the hues are distinct. On the Zune, it's the same. I can even zoom in on each picture. (The Zune HD itself does not include a camera.)
What about the radio?
The unit includes an FM tuner, but no AM. The antenna is the headphone cable. I have read various reviews recommending that people use a long headphone cable to help provide better reception of stations.
Scrolling through frequencies is simple. Just slide your finger across the "dial" on the screen and watch the frequencies roll by.
If you come upon an HD Radio station that airs HD2 or HD3, this information shows up as text under the frequency. You then can select the HD channel to which you want to listen; the song or program title is displayed. The unit also displays RDS of FM analog stations that are encoding.
You can bookmark your favorite stations for easy tuning later as well.
I did a drive-around while listening to local stations and found that once the station locked in HD, it stayed locked for the most part. The unit was connected to the Aux port of my JVC AHD39. The only time it would lose the HD signal was when I got to an area where the analog signal normally is weak.
I would also listen to music while doing various work around the office over a few days. I like to lock in HD on my Boston Acoustics HD tabletop radio, which does have the rat-tail antenna attached. The Zune HD does find stations in HD better than the Boston Acoustics does in my office building. However, although I can find all the same stations, the BA in my office does not pick up many multicast channels.
The analog experience also was good. In my office there is a local FM station whose signal gets noisy if I don't put my rat-tail antenna on the BA in just the right place. With my Zune, I did not have this problem. The performance was crystal clear.
After purchasing the Zune HD, I also decided to try out the new Insignia Portable HD radio, another recently introduced product of interest to broadcasters.
I did a quick reception comparison and found that the Insignia receiver has better sensitivity, making it easier to find and lock to stations than the Zune HD. I compared many of the same stations, and while the Insignia would find an HD2 or HD3 for a particular station, the Zune HD often would not.
A Zune category called "Marketplace" allows you to browse for music and apps that can be downloaded from your PC or from the unit using a Wi-Fi connection. There is also a "Social" category that allows you to sync with your friends' Zune HD players and send messages.
There are different "Settings" to adjust in the unit as well. Here you can tell your unit what wireless connections to connect to and change the display settings, music, radio, the clock, screen lock, Internet and language.
Available apps for the unit include games, a calculator and a weather app. A wireless Internet connection is required to download these through the "Marketplace," as mentioned.
I've seen criticism about a lack of apps compared to other popular devices, though more have come out recently. Certainly, the available Zune games are nothing compared to those for the iTouch. Chess, Goo Splat, Hexic, Shell Game of the Future, Space Battle 2, Sudoku, and Texas Hold 'Em look like basic cartoon games. Microsoft needs to create or encourage that to better compete with iTouch.
Internet browsing on the unit is simple. Connect to your local Wi-Fi and you're off to the races. I found the on-screen keyboard a bit difficult to use. If you don't hit the letter you want just right, it doesn't work right.
At 3.3 inches, the screen is not really big enough for useful browsing. I have found it comparable to a Blackberry or other smartphone screen in size. For a brief view of a page, keep the screen vertical. This makes the font very small, to the point that you cannot read it. Turn it horizontal and the letters become bigger and you can see what you are looking at.
The unit keeps a history of what you have done. If you want to listen to an artist you heard not that long ago, you can easily find that song without having to browse through everything. You can also "Pin" items to the home screen for easy selection and browse for anything new on the player. It also shows whatever is playing at the time, if anything.
I have found in comparison that the Zune HD is easier to navigate than the Apple iPod. The main thing that sets apart the Zune from the iPod for me is the fact that I can create a playlist from the player as I go. Instead of having to add an entire album, I can add one song. Then I can easily tell it to save the playlist.
How does the Zune HD compare to the iTouch?
According to its Web site, the iTouch comes in 8, 32 or 64 GB. The Zune HD comes in 16 GB and 32 GB. There is not much difference between the graphics on the iTouch and Zune HD. The iTouch also includes maps, serving as your own personal GPS navigation unit. The iTouch also includes a Voice Control that allows you to do just that, control its functions vocally.
The iTouch has earphones that come with a remote and mic to use with voice memos. Both players will play video and can download TV shows or movies for later viewing. The big feature that sets the Zune HD apart from the iTouch are its HD Radio and video capabilities.
PRODUCT CAPSULE Microsoft Zune HD 16 GB
Wireless Internet (with local Wi-Fi connection)
Downloadable movies/TV shows
FM radio, analog and HD
Long battery life
On-screen keyboard doesn't always do what you want
Touch screen can be too sensitive
Tuner not always sensitive enough to pick up many multicast signals
Price: List price just under $220
Availability: Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Amazon.com and Microsoft
Info:www.zune.net/Zune HD As far as I can tell, Microsoft delivers on its promises for the Zune HD (see www.zune.net/Zune HD).
The most surprising thing for me was the touchscreen (once it worked). The company tells buyers that "Enhanced entertainment is vivid with a 3.3 inch touchscreen." I agree. As I noted, the graphics from personal photos of mine look just as great on the Zune HD as they do on a PC.
The Wi-Fi also was a surprise. Microsoft says you can buy and stream music as long as there is a Wi-Fi connection and you can also sync it with a PC through Wi-Fi. After going through the steps and setting it up to sync wirelessly, I tried it out and it worked great.
I found the Internet browsing feature lacking, particularly because of the small font size. which made it difficult to navigate Web pages.
The most notable thing advertised is that the unit lets you "live your life in HD." Although I was unable to test the HD video, the radio performance was what I expected, if not better.
To read what others have said, I went to Amazon.com, did a search for Zune HD and read the worst, one-star reviews of the 16 GB model I'd purchased.
Several people have had a defective headphone jack; some don't like the ear buds. Others beef about a lack of apps. While I agree with that, it is a new player and it will take time to get new apps created.
Some consumers complained about the unit not having speakers. It is an MP3 player. I have never had a player with speakers. Why would this be any different? You wear headphones, that is your speaker.
Screen brightness seems to be another common issue. When used outside, people say it is hard to see the screen. While I had this problem at first, I was able to fix it by adjusting the brightness of the screen to its highest setting. Now when I am outside I can see the screen with no problem.
This unit ended up impressing me a great deal. I came into the Zune HD expecting that the company would use an audio format exclusive to the unit, as Apple does. I also did not expect the radio to be anything to write home about. I was wrong about both.
Also, this is not a bulky player. I can store thousands of my favorite songs on the unit for play later on. I can view various movies and TV shows. If I am in a place where there is free Wi-Fi, I can surf the Internet. This is by far better than the Blackberry Curve I have.
The main reason the Zune HD is of interest to Radio World readers, though, is the HD Radio capability.
Microsoft may have helped prompt the market with FM-HD in a handheld MP3 player; we'll see now if other companies follow its path with HD Radio. Skeptics wonder if the Zune line has the market penetration to make much difference, but HD Radio proponents believe the addition of digital radio to Zune is an important step.
In my opinion, if the Zune HD had a phone in it, it'd be the best thing in the market right now. This unit is definitely worth the cost.
Amanda Alexander, CBT, is chief engineer for Crawford Broadcasting's four-station Denver cluster.