Zune HD: possibly the nicest portable media player on the market today

Thanks to my lovely wife, I am now the proud owner of a Zune HD.  I must say, this is one sexy device.  Thin, sleek, beautiful screen and great sound all add up to a device worthy of the words sexy, great and killer.  I’ve been a fan of the Zune since I got my 30gb, 1st gen Zune a couple of years ago.  The Zune HD is the device that Microsoft should have released then. 

tech_zune The Zune HD is one of those devices that you must experience to appreciate just how nice it really is.  Everything about it, from the packaging to the setup is well done.  Setup was very easy, much easier than the first gen device.  I, literally, connected it to my computer, which already had the Zune 4 desktop software installed.  It installed a driver, which took about a minute.  After that, the Zune software asked me for a name for the device and then asked me if I wanted setup the wireless sync, which I did.  It detected the wireless network in my home and sent everything that the device needed to access my network.  In just a few minutes, I went from a boxed Zune HD to one with a handful of songs, a few photos and a video and was ready to rock and roll.  I set it up on my laptop, which is why there weren’t many songs to sync.  I’ve got it on my desktop and syncing my content.  I found out that 32gb is easy to fill.  They need a higher capacity device as  I am sure most will have a much larger library than I currently have.

The Browser

One of the first things I had to try was the browser.  Having a device with a larger screen and decent keyboard that I could carry with me and get online is a huge plus and my Palm Pre was serving fine, but the Zune HD, with it’s larger screen, should fit the bill perfectly.  However, my first look at the browser was a bit of a let down.  All I was getting was these limited mobile phone pages.  My Pre gets the full desktop experience and I had thought that the Zune HD could come close.  Happily, it does.  I needed to go into the device setup and tell the browser to render the full pages and not the mobile versions.  Once I did that, I was good to go.  The browser works fairly well and is pretty quick.  There are a couple of things that were a bit unintuitive and a couple of nagging items, but, overall, the browser is nice and works well.

The unintuitive aspects of the browser include bringing up the on-screen keyboard and the fact that you have to backspace over the address in order to enter a new address…unless I am just dense, there’s not an easy to do this.  Bringing up the keyboard involved to taps: once on the status line and once on the line that pops up under the status line.

The nagging items include the fact that this browser is, apparently, based on Internet Explorer 6 and, as such, you get warnings from some sites that support ‘for your browser is being phased out’ or some similar message.  Also, no Flash means that some sites, like YouTube, are pretty useless.54647704

As I said, though, most sites render fine and pretty quickly too, so the browser is a very useful addition to the device and works better most portable browsers do, especially those in Windows Mobile phones, the BlackBerry and other portable devices.

The User Interface

The user interface on the device is excellent.  It is all gesture driven, like the browser, and easy to pick up.  The one mistake I kept making was to hit the one physical button on the front of the device to go back to the previous screen or menu.  The button takes you all the way back to the top level menu.  To go back one screen, you simply tap the top of the screen, which is generally the menu name.

Certain aspects of the desktop software made it into the device’s UI.  For example, the mix view is there and you have the ability to pin things to the menu.  There are lots of nifty animations for the menu and other functions, all of which add to the user experience.  The UI maintains the flavor of the previous gen menu system while adding device specific features.  One change that I’m not overly wild about it the omission of the user selectable backdrop.  You can still pick a photo for this, but the only place I’ve seen it is the ‘lock’ screen.  Once you are back into the menu, the background is black.  I think that is OK, but I’d still like to pick a photo for that purpose.

The Screen and Video Playback

Photos and video, by the way, look stunning.  The screen is bright and very sharp.  In fact, the sharpness of the screen will make you think that the resolution is much higher than it is.  I’ve not used it in the sun yet, so I cannot comment on the complaints from some that the screen washes out in direct sunlight.  I’ll report on that once I try.

Video playback is smooth and the color is excellent.  The playback on my old Zune was less than stellar, mostly due to the decoding and color limitations of the device.  Zune HD handles many more formats and is capable of millions of colors. I could not try the video out since both of the docks that I have only handle composite or component video out, neither of which are supported by the device.  I was hoping I could use them, but it looks like I need to buy a new dock.  Also, it looks like video out from the earphone jack is not supported.  Oh well.

Applications

The few games that I have tried are pretty impressive.  Project Gotham Racing looks and plays great.  The device has an accelerometer built in and this game, as well as others, takes full advantage of it, better than some Wii games.  PGR relies on the device itself for steering.  To turn right, you tilt the device to the right and so on.  The game is fast and the graphics are outstanding, better than a comparable game on the iPhone or Nintendo DS.  I’m a huge fan of the DS, but Zune HD’s graphics are much nicer.  I think the only hand held with comparable quality is the Sony PSP. 

For now, the apps are free.  The games are ad supported in that you have to sit through a 10 second ad before the game starts.  Most of them, so far, display a quick ad for the Zune Marketplace, but a couple that I tried had Ford adverts.  The adverts are not obnoxious and if it means I don’t pay for the game, then I can sit through a short ad.  However, I do hope that Microsoft wakes up and really promotes development of third party games and apps for this device.  It is a great platform for both games and applications.

Once I have had more time with the device, I will post more thoughts and some tips and tricks that I’ll have picked up.

Microsoft is one company that just blows my mind, but not because of the great products they produce, though a few are mind blowing. No, they blow my mind over those products that they produce that truly are great but get little or no promotion from the company.  Products like OneNote, Windows Home Server, its Live Essentials Suite, Media Center and, of course, the Zune, are all great products that receive little or no promotion.  In my mind, each of those products are tops in each genre, yet few people even know they exist.  When my wife purchased the Zune HD, for example, the clerk did not even know what she wanted.  They had to be shown.  That just blows my mind.

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