In the war of the Personal Media Players Apple is king. Not always because they have the best product, but in terms of sheer marketing and market position. As of this writing Apple holds something like 89% of the PMP market; this is combined market share that includes all of the iPod products as well as the iPhone. Any company wanting to get into this market cannot afford to simply have a good player. They have to bring an amazing player, the product has to do things that the iPod just cannot do.

Enter Microsoft; in the beginning Microsoft sought to complete head to head with Apple. They released the Zune, which was a good player. It equaled the iPod [at the time] but it carried the stigma of being not only a copycat product but also one from Microsoft. This hurt sales right out of the gate and Microsoft?s horrible marketing did the rest of the job. In the end the Zune was a failure in terms of sales and market share. Now a few years later Microsoft is getting back into the game. This time they did their homework and pulled out all the stops [well almost all]. The enlisted the help of graphics and media giant NVIDIA and built something new and impressive, the ZuneHD. We have had one of these along with the AV Dock in our lab for a week or two and put it through its paces. But we did not simply try it out in the lab; we took it out and showed it to people to get their reaction and opinion. How did the Zune HD fair? Read on to find out.


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Packaging [Zune HD Player]

so, what?s in that little box?

One place that Microsoft has always been behind in is their shelf appeal. If you take a look at any of their products you will immediately see what I am talking about. There is nothing about their products that grab you and make you actually want to buy them. With the Zune HD MS took the Apple route. They created sexy packaging that not only grabs your eye but makes you want to pick it up. I brought just the box to work and anyone that came in my office would pick it up, turn it over and ask ?what?s this?? with a note of excited curiosity in their voices. It was an interesting thing to see.

The front of the box has the Zune logo and Zune HD in the upper left corner. It also shows a clear picture of what you are buying with only two lines of very small text at the bottom to break an otherwise clean surface.

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The back of the box tells you in block letters exactly what the Zune HD is, and what you can use it for.


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The Side of the box gives you a little more information. Here you find the capacity, the HD radio and HDMI logos. I am not sure why there is an HDMI logo on the Zune HD box as you cannot use HDMI without the AV Dock that that is an optional extra.


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On the bottom of the Zune HD box I found cause for a little humor that will become apparent very shortly. It says in bold letters ?US ONLY? which follows the current state of the Zune HD. Right now it is for US sales only. What got me and I found funny was after I opened the box.  You see once you get to the bottom of the box [after sorting through a ton of promotional material] you find a message.
?Welcome to the Social? This is in English and French. Now, I do not know about you, but I find it very funny to find a French message in a ?US ONLY? product. This must have been some marketing genius? idea of class and is a perfect example of how poorly that marketing team does its job.

 
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But all that aside, inside the box you do find everything that you need to use the Zune HD and a couple of other nice little extras. MS has included a card to with information on a free 14-day trial of their Zune Pass deal. We will cover the Zune Software and Zune Pass in more detail later. You also get a quick start guide, a small plain manual, a ?Zune everywhere? booklet, a USB cable and a set of ear bud style headphones with three different color foam covers.


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Packaging [Zune HD AV Dock]

The Zune AV Dock is also a new product but not one that is specifically for the Zune HD. You can use this with any of the Zune devices but will get the most out of it when used with the Zune HD. The packaging is not as sleek as the Zune HD though. The front does show you what you are getting but it loses out by having a stark white background instead of the flat black of the Zune HD.

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The back returns to the classic flat black and provides a little more information about what the dock is capable of.


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Once you open up the box you get a quick outline of how the Dock fits into your home entertainment system.  After you get by this and the quick start guide you get into the real meat of the dock.  MS has done a good job of loading you up with everything you might need to get the Zune HD connected providing cables, remote, power pack, and adapters for every Zune model out [much like Apple used to do for their Docks].

 

   
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The Hardware

what did you say was in there?

As we mentioned above the Zune HD has some new guts. Microsoft worked hand in hand with NVIDIA to make the new Zune he best they could. To do this they dropped an NVIDIA Tegra APX 2600 inside. This little System on Chip is a marvel of engineering. It is not a single processing chip but an entire system inside a single piece of silicone.  Measuring only 12mm^2 it has eight cores, each dedicated to a different aspect of performance. The APX 2600 contains an ARM11 MPCore, an ARM7 Core, an HD Video Decoder, an HD Video Encoder, a 3D GPU, an Image Sensor, Audio Processor, and a 2D Engine.

The brains inside of the Zune HD is the ARM 11, this runs at 600MHz, has 32KB of L1 cache [both I-cache and D-cache, and 256K of L2 cache.  The ARM7 provides extra support for audio and video processing.  Each of the other processors do pretty much what they say the names imply. To improve battery life NVIDIA did something very cool; the developed the Tegra with the ability to completely shut off portions that are not in use. This means that if you are listening to an MP3 the HD Video processors and 3D GPU are not using any power at all. They did this by dividing the Tegra into power islands and domains to remove the possibility of leakage between the separate cores/components. In its idle state the only items that are drawing power in the Tegra APX 2600 are the power management controller, the keyboard, and the real time clock. Microsoft one upped this by using an Organic LED screen which not only provides a cleaner and richer display but uses much less power than a traditional LED.

For graphics processing, the Tegra APX 2600 uses an ultra-low power device that is capable of OpenGL ?ES 2.0 support.  The rest of the graphics specifications are shown below:

47M Triangles / Sec (peak)
24M Drawn Triangles / Sec (peak)
600M Pixels / Sec (Peak Z-reject)
240M Textured Pixels / Sec (peak)
Programmable pixel Shader
Programmable Vertex and Lighting
CSSA Support
2k x 2k Texture and 4k x 4k render resolutions supported
Advanced 2D Graphics Engine
The Tegra APX 2600 also has support for a digital camera and can handle up to a 12MP camera. This is great for future products [maybe a Zune HD with a camera is in the future].  

As mentioned in the product name the Zune HD is capable of displaying up to 720p video through an HDMI 1.3 compliant output. Of course, you have to use the Zune AV dock to get this but still it is nice to know the Zune has the power to handle it. For the other HD capability Microsoft included an HD radio tuner. This couples nicely with the built in FM tuner and is one of the features [along with 720p HD out] that the Zune HD has that the iPhone/iPod Touch does not have at all.

Another more ?normal? features of the Zune HD is its 802.11g wireless; this matches what you would find in the iPod Touch. Encryption support for the wireless connection covers the usual range of standards; WEP, WPA, WPA2 and both TKI and AES encryption. Unfortunately it does not allow for WPA2 enterprise with a RAIDUS server using certificate based encryption, but then again you probably should not run your Zune [or any PMP] on your corporate network.

The Zune HD Player

Now that you know a little about what is under the hood; let?s talk about the actual player. My first thoughts when I pulled the Zune HD out of the box was; ?Wow, Microsoft has done a good job here?. The player was small, light, crisp and just plain sexy to look at. For years the Apple iPhone and iPod touch have been labeled as sexy hardware but when you put these two players side-by-side the iPhone looks old and outdated. The Zune simply stands out despite its smaller size.


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The front of the Zune HD is clean. The 3.3-inch OLED is set inside a small frame that is barely visible when powered off. I would have liked to see an edge to edge screen here as it would have allowed for a larger viewing area but sadly this did not happen. Below the screen is a simple thin button that acts as the ?home? button for the Zune HD. Below the home button is a small area of dead space that allows you to hold the Zune HD without getting too many finger prints on the screen.


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The sides are interesting in that they have a thin inset piece on each side. This offers a very cool visual effect and has the added benefit of giving a better grip on the Zune HD. We also see that the Zune HD is very thin; it is thinner than the iPhone and iPod touch. Granted not by much but it is noticeable.

 
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Along the left side of the Zune HD we find the Media button. The single button brings up the player controls on the screen. These controls include Volume up and down as well as pause/play and track forward/back. This will take a little getting used to and could steer some away from the Zune HD. You can also access these controls by taping the screen during playback.


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Also along the left hand side is a little note from the MS team. It simply says ?hello from seattle?


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Looking at the bottom we see the Zune HD connector; here MS is following Apple and uses a proprietary connector. Although it would be nice to see a standard Mini-USB port here, sadly using one would prevent much of the player interaction that the larger connector offers.  We also see a departure from the norm here with the headphones port on the bottom of the player right next to the player connector. This placement may seem odd at first; however as soon as I put it in my truck it was not. It allowed both [Power and Headphones] cables to run side by side unlike using the iPhone where I had to have a cable at both ends. This made it easier to place in my dashboard tray and looked much cleaner than when I have the iPhone in there.  One thing missing from the bottom is any form of external speaker. The Zune HD simply does not have one. The only way you are going to listen to the Zune HD is if you have headphones or external speakers plugged in.


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The top of the player has a single button that when pressed once puts the Zune HD to sleep and when pressed and held allows you to power off the Zune HD completely. Pressing it once when powered off will power the Zune HD back on again.


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The back of the Zune HD is also impressively done. They used a black, brushed aluminum surface for the upper portion and a darker lower section [much like the original iPod]. Microsoft has left the screws visible giving the Zune HD an industrial look to it.  The sample that we received came from NVIDIA as such it proudly proclaims that it is powered by Terga on the back. Normally this area would be blank [unless you customize if at Zune Originals] except for the small embossed Zune Logo.

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The overall look and feel is simply stunning. It is a clean winner in the looks contest between the Zune HD and the iPhone/iPod Touch. There are a few things I would have liked to see done differently but after playing with the Zune HD for a few minutes those things quickly fell out of my head.

Zune AV Dock

After pulling the dock out we find that it is a nicely heavy item that should be able to keep your Zune HD steady when inserted. The front is sloped and has the Zune Logo on it, this lights up when a Zune is plugged into it.

The back of the dock is the more exciting area though. Here you will find all of your outputs. MS has included an HDMI port, a Toslink Optical out port and an 1/8-inch mini A/V jack for use with the Component cable.  The thin wire that extends from the back is an FM antenna that improves the Zune?s reception in-doors quite a bit. The other attached cable is a USB connector that can be used to connect to a PC or to the power pack. Here I have to say that the USB cable and antenna cable should be removable. By making them pre-attached it limited the portability of the AV Dock. These connected cables also make the AV Dock a little ungainly to use in some cases.


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The remote that is included give you the same control over the Zune that you would have if you were using the device directly. This is a nice feature but I was sort of hoping for something a little more. It would have been nice to see one or two ?Dock Only? controls or features to make the dock just a little more attractive.


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The power pack provided is a bonus in more than one way; it allows you to plug your Zune AV dock directly into wall power as well as allowing you to plug your Zune HD into wall power.


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In reality the Zune AV Dock, while nice, is not as clean and well-done of a product as the Zune HD is. Microsoft may want to put a little more thought into this and release and updated version to attract more buyers.

Zune HD User Interface and Screen

The Zune HD interface differs dramatically from the Apple UI. This is not a big surprise really and a smart move on the part of Microsoft. It is a text based UI supplemented with graphics in the form of album images, application ?icons? and more.  When you are on the home screen you can see the main headings. These are all text based and touching any of them will get you to the desired area. Like the iPod Touch and iPhone the Zune HD has a lock screen that you have to slide to open. Unlike the Apple devices the Zune HD you have to slide up. If you have a PIN  on the Zune HD the lock screen will ?bounce? and reveal the key pad if you leave the player on the lock screen for too long. The lock screen can be customized with a picture of your choosing and also displays the time and battery status. You will also see a play or pause sign to indicate the status the player is in which is good as there is no external speaker.


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Floating just to the left of the main text headings is a row of graphical icons. This is part of the Quick Play menu that is in the UI. To access this you just need to press the home button while on the home screen.


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Once you are here you will see anything that you have active [or paused] as well as anything you have chosen to Pin as a favorite. I know you are thinking, wait? Um, Pin as a favorite?  Well you can do that. Any application, song, video, HD station, pretty much anything at all can be pinned here by pressing and holding that item. On the Quick Play menu you can also view a short history of items that you have used. You can also see a list of new items added to your player here.  

The Quick Play menu is simply a great idea; what?s more its ability to have any item added to it makes it more powerful and flexible than the iPod?s favorites menu.

Heading back to the Home screen you have a few options here. You can select from your music library, videos, pictures, radio, and applications and settings. If you are connected to a WiFi network you can also access the Zune Marketpalce, the Social, and the Internet. These options are all visible you just will not be able to use them if you are not connected.  Under some of the menu items you will see what sub-menus are available immediately under the top level.

The Settings menu is one of the first places you will want to visit. Here you can customize you Zune HD and setup items like Wireless Sync, Radio location where you can chose North America, Europe and Japan [again this is odd as it is a US only player,] Display features such as time out, brightness tilt and screen saver, music equalizer and how your albums are listed.

Other items let you set preferences for the Internet, language, screen lock [PIN] and view general information about your Zune HD.

After you have setup your Zune HD the way you like then you can move around the UI and check things out. Heading over to the music section the Zune HD gives you a couple of options here that in our opinion out do the current iPod controls.

 
 
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What you see are the actual album covers for each album, right next to it is a small listing of the actual tracks. If you click on the album cover you start playing the album from track number one.  If you click on the tiny listing next to the cover you will get a listing of the track and you can select the one you want.  Once you are in the play screen you can set the player to shuffle, repeat or rate the song. You can also switch to the track listing view pretty easily by touching the small listing at the bottom.  If you are in the listing you can chose from play, add to now playing, or e-mail/Zune tag a track or album.  Selecting send an e-mail brings up the virtual keyboard for you to type an e-mail to someone [using their e-mail address or Zune tag] about the album in question.

   

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The HD Radio feature is very simple to use. You simply slide the tuning point to the desired channel and listen. If there is an HD channel available for the station in question you will see the available options for HD listening. You can also add channels to favorites inside the radio app. Once added you can also Pin these to the Quick Play menu.

The Marketplace is exactly what it says. It is a smaller mobile version of the Zune Marketplace. You have to be connected to a wireless network and to use this feature. Once you are connected you can view an abbreviated listing of songs, and applications that you can download from the Zune Marketplace. If you have not already setup your player to auto sync with your account you will need to log in at this point. I would recommend you not allowing auto sign in for kids as this can lead to accidental paid downloads once the market place opens up. Once you have downloaded an album or app to your Zune HD it will also show up in the Zune 4.0 Software as an item in your cart. This means that you can place it into the Zune HD and the software at the same time instead of needing to sync after the fact like you have to with the iPhone and iPod Touch. Thankfully as of this writing you cannot purchase videos or points from the Zune Marketplace as these cost money, but that may change in the future.

Inside the Social menu you can view any friends you have made using the Social tools in the Zune 4.0 software. You can also read any messages that are synced from your Inbox on your PC.

Now we come to one place where we feel Microsoft might have done much better on the Zune HD software. The internet experience is not what it could be. With such a revolutionary SoC under the hood and an OS that is slick and clean I was expecting much more than this. With Tegra under the hood MS could have made a robust, full featured browser to really set the Zune HD apart. Unfortunately it is not the case. Microsoft is using a tweaked version of its Mobile Internet Explorer that is found in Windows Mobile 6.5. It feels slow to render [we will cover load times in the performance section] even if it is better looking once rendered it makes it clunky to use. There are no tabs, history or major navigational features to speak of.  As with most mobile devices there is no support for Flash Video yet. In all we were disappointed by the Internet experience.

One thing I want to stop and talk about here is the keyboard on the Zune HD. It is simply fantastic. I found it easy to use even with my thick fingers and clumsy typing. The way the letters bounce and stretch it also nice to see. It makes typing something in very simple. Microsoft has also included both a portrait and a landscape version making it much easier to use regardless of the orientation of the Zune HD.

Navigating around the Zune HD player will take a little getting used to as there is no evident back button on many screens. Instead you have to tap the upper section of the screen. Here you will often see the letters from the menu just before as a visual indication of what to do.  However all that aside the UI fits the absolutely gorgeous OLED screen. It is this screen coupled with the NVIDIA Tegra that gives the Zune HD its power and attractiveness.  The OLED allows for very deep blacks, crisp text and sharp graphical images. The way the menus flip over or seem to descend into each level is also very clean and quite simply cool to watch. It gives the UI a three dimensional feeling that draws you down into each new level of the player.

But of course there are always downsides to anything. One of the bigger complaints I have is that none of the major menu headings or submenus will work in landscape mode. You have to keep the player upright to navigate. This would have been nice to have and is something that you can do on the iPhone/iPod Touch.  One other problem was application load time and pre-app adds. I was not impressed with the amount of time it took to load most applications.  Also there are ads that you have to view before any of the ?free? apps will launch. It takes away from the sleek and classy feel of the player when you are subjected to this.  Still the Player OS are new so it could be that performance improves in later versions and [fingers crossed] the pre-app ads go away.


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The last part of the Zune HD Software that I will cover is the Wireless Sync. This functionality is simply cool. I love not having to plug my Zune HD in to sync up with my PC. To enable it you have to turn it on for both the player and the Zune desktop software with the player connected.  Once enabled it you can manually sync the player or allow it to automatically sync on a regular basis. The Wireless Sync options are in settings menu under wireless, sync.

We are working on video of the Zune HD UI and will have that online as soon as we finish with it.

The Zune Desktop Software 4.0
I want to start off my coverage of the Zune 4.0 Desktop software with a slight warning. If you use this and setup a credit or debit card for easy billing you will want to keep an eye on your account. We had an issue where 4000 points were billed to use without us ever having purchased anything.  The issue is being resolved through our bank but is something that everyone should be aware of. The problem is that while you think you are dealing with the Zune Marketplace, you are really dealing with the Xbox Live system. This system is controlled by a third party and not Microsoft. As such when you call them for support or with any incorrect billing issues there is nothing they can do. As such you have to open a dispute with your bank [do not worry they are used to it] to get the charge off of your account.

Now that all that is out of the way lest talk about the good parts [and there are many] of the new Zune 4.0 Desktop Software.

This software has been completely redesigned for the Zune HD and follows its clean and simple lines.  When the new software was out and we had received the Zune HD I stopped using iTunes as my media player [I mostly use it for back ground music and audio books while working] and started using the Zune software. I was pleasantly surprised at is functionality, audio quality, and flexibility. By default, when you open up the new software you see the Quickplay screen. This is like the one on the Zune HD but includes three favorites that you pick during the initial setup. You can also see items that you have listened to or added recently. This is presented to you in a clean and classy looking UI, opaque white text on a glossy black background.  Full color images [if available] are used as icons for the all of the links on this screen and only add to the overall look.


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The collection page is where you will find all of your media. There are separate areas for each type; music, video, pictures, podcasts, channels, and apps.  In each section there are tools to arrange your media to your tastes. As you can see in the screen shot below we have arranged the artists [using the Artists view] from A-Z in the left column, the Albums by Date added, and the songs by their rating. This type of flexibility is not really present in iTunes [in this manner] you have to choose the format that suits you most and cannot have all of them present at once. 


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Playlists are still present and are easily created by clicking on the paper icon in the lower corner from there you have a few different options for creating new playlists as well as a list of existing playlists.


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Another thing that I like about the Zune software is the channels. Channels are specific genres that you may be interested in [comedy for me] you select the channel and it will go out and get media that you might want. It will list them for you and you can listen to them straight from the player without the need to purchase or download them. If you like them you have the option to add them to your collection. If not you do not have to do anything as the channel will automatically update. It is a great feature and one that I plan to use more in the future. Apple has something like this in the Genius Bar, but you have to buy those suggestions and have no option to listen to them and make up your mind beforehand.


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Heading out of the collection and into the Marketplace we find the Picks screen. This is pretty cool and much like the Genius Bar is based on the tracks you listen to as well as the three favorite artists you chose when setting up the software.  As you listen to more and more music the picks chosen by the Zune software will be come closer and closer to your tastes. I found that after only 200 plays the picks section was very close to offering me items that I would actually want to listen to.  Picks also includes a list of people with similar listening tastes to your own. You can click on each and see what music they have in their collection and can even download them [if available].  Again this is another nice feature of this software. 

 
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The music section is pretty straight forward, if you have a Zune Pass [which we will cover below] you can simply grab all the music you want [but not videos those cost you] from this section and either listen to them on your Zune/Zune HD or using the desktop player. Of course as the Zune desktop software places all of the music in a folder on your PC there are ways to? Um get around this limitation. We will leave those to you to find though.


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Once you leave the freedom of the music area you enter the ?oh so costly? video section. Here is the place where you have to break out the gift cards or your credit card. There are a few free items in this section but for the most part you are going to be buying point [in some fashion] to get anything here.

The selection is also pretty extensive and nice. If you have the Zune HD you can chose from an SD version for playback on the PC [according to Microsoft] or HD version for playback on the Zune HD with the AV Dock. One downside to any purchase [as we mention above] is that there are no refunds at all. Additionally Microsoft warns that you might not be able to re-download this in the future if it is deleted.

 
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You also have the option to rent movies and TV shows this is much less costly and lets you view the movie within 14 days. And as many times as you want within the first 24 hours after you first view it. If paying for movies is not your thing you can add your own collection of videos [after you transcode them using something like Videora Zune HD Converter] to your Zune by choosing the folder they are in while in the settings menu.

 
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Podcasts are just what they say they are and for the most part are completely free, even the video ones.
You can subscribe to them as normal and the Zune software will keep you up to date with new episodes.


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Skipping over channels [as we have already covered what they do] we move on to apps. This section of the Zune Marketplace is rather bare.  Despite being hailed and built as an amazing mobile gaming and entertainment platform the App area of the Zune Marketplace remains bare even a couple of weeks after the launch. True we have been told that amazing Apps and games are on the way but they have yet to materialize. The Apps that are here are basic games and a couple of boring utilities [Weather and a Calculator] will not interest most consumers.  A couple of the games are fun to play but quickly lose their ?new car smell? after playing them a few times. Unless Microsoft can fill this section with quality games and Apps [and allow third party open development] they will have a rough time competing with the iPod Touch and iPhone.


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The Social is the last of the main sections found in the Zune software. It allows you to communicate with other Zune software users and recommend media.  It is also useful for the Picks portion of the software. It can use people with similar preferences to you to create more accurate picks. While I personally would not use the social much, it is still a nice feature and will allow people to have another outlet for their Internet socializing needs.


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For getting your own CDs into the Zune Desktop Software you simply insert the CD that you want to RIP and click the CD Icon. It will rip them according to your settings and even import album art and information.  You can also use this Icon to Burn playlists or albums to CD or just an inserted CD. The last of the Icons is the Zune Player Icon; this icon is an outline when you do not have the player connected and filled in when it is. Clicking on this Icon takes you into the player through the software. Here you can view and play any of the media you have on your player. To leave this area you can click on the small PC icon [Looks more like a laptop to me]

 
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Zune Pass

$15 monthly for unlimited listening

Ah the Zune Pass, possibly one of the best things that Zune HD and Zune players in general have going for them. The concept is simple, you pay $14.99 and get unlimited downloads of music that you can listen to on your PC or sync with your player. As an added bonus with your Monthly Zune Pass payment you can pick 10 songs to keep each month that are yours forever. It is a brilliant concept [and yes I know that Microsoft was not the first with this] it trumps the iTunes Store completely even with the lack of Video and App support.  I do hope that Microsoft does extend the Zune Pass to include more than just music in the future. It would be worth it [even if the cost goes up slightly] to be able to rent a selection of new releases per month with maybe one keeper and a few Apps thrown in.  That would bring in quite a few new subscribers, and that is really where the money is at.

Performance [Zune HD and Dock]

As with any other subjective subject we will try not to just give you our opinion but at the very least a small sampling of people. This should give you a better understanding of how a device such as the Zune HD really performs. For this we had to break things down into segments. We wanted to make sure that we covered all of the aspects of the Zune HD as well as the Zune AV Dock.

Zune HD:
This was a very fun test for us. It just happened that while performing my subjective testing I was in Saint Augustine, Florida. This happens to be one of my favorite cities in the US and one that we got to as often as we can. I was able to get a very large sampling of people from all over the world to thrust the Zune HD at and see what they thought of it.  I ended up choosing about 10 people at random; from shop owners, to store employees, to random people on the street. I asked them to take a look at the Zune HD then let them listen to a couple of musical tracks and watch part of a movie that I already had converted and synced.  I then asked them a few questions without telling them it was a Microsoft product;

What is your overall impression of this new player?
Give me a number between one and five to rate its appearance, ease of use and quality.
Give me a number between one and five to rate its audio quality.
Give me a number between one and five to rate its video quality.
Would you buy something like this?
Is there anything you would like to see in this product?
Please give me one word to describe this new media player.

Everyone that I showed the Zune HD to liked it; they loved the screen and found the UI to be ?very cool?. There was one universal question that seemed in many cases to kill the glowing feeling; this was a lack of a phone feature. As they were looking at the Zune HD and marveling over the way it felt and looked they would ask it. ?Where is the phone at?? when I explained to them that there was no phone and it was just a media player more than half immediately handed the player back. The rest sort of looked at me then kept looking the Zune HD over. You could tell that the lack of a phone was a problem though. Eight out of the ten said they would buy something like this from a store or online. Seven out of the ten said they wanted to see a phone in this as it would make it a much more desirable product while the remaining three said they wanted a phone AND a built in external speaker. It is interesting that none of the people that I talked to were concerned about the lack of tabs in the browser, only having g specification wireless, or any of the other shortcomings that I felt would be big problems. Instead they all seemed to be disappointed by the lack of a phone.

High points that were talked about by the group were the clean and sharp display screen and the full and spacious sound. I used a pair of decent headphones that fit in the ear canal for my testing [Icematt Siberia].

The numbers give are shown below:


Zune HD Stand Alone Performance

The words used to describe the Zune HD were:
Very Nice [5 people]
Cool! [3 people]
And one each of Sleek and Clean

My personal impression of the Zune HD player is that it has significantly better audio and video quality over the iPhone 3G S that I own. Even playing the same music or video, the Zune HD simply walks away from the iPhone.  Yes the Zune HD has a smaller screen but the color saturation and black point is so much better that I found I would rather watch the smaller Zune HD than the larger iPhone 3G S.  Audio quality was also cleaner and fuller; the iPhone has a thin, weak and reedy sound. There is an overabundance of upper midrange and high sound. This makes the iPhone sound small while the more spacious and full sound from the Zune HD is easily noticeable to anyone that listens to high quality audio equipment.  As an example when watching the movie I used for testing [Iron Man] I found that even small sounds, like bullets whipping by were easily audible on the Zune HD while they were not on the iPhone 3G S.

For my last test I played the Zune HD out through my Tecon Model 55 Tube Amplifier. This test showed off the Zune HD?s ability to reproduce sound in a much more significant way. Playing Stevie Ray Vaughn?s version of Jimi Hendrix?s Little Wing using that clean and powerful tube amp was something.  As an encore I treated myself to Jimi Hendrix Cross Town Traffic and Are you Experienced.

Zune HD in the AV Dock
After playing with the Zune HD out of the dock I took it home and plugged it into my Magnavox HD TV. I ran this HDMI out for video and Toslink optical to my surround sound system.

For my testing here I gathered 5 people and asked them to rate the quality from One to Five again for both Video and Audio playback.  As you can see below the Zune HD does an excellent job of living up to its boasts of providing a clean portable HD media experience. 

Zune HD in AV Dock Performance

For my part I found the Zune AV Dock to be very well done indeed. You do not get all of the options when plugged into the rock with only music, radio and video available to you.  The downside is that if you playback any media that you place on your Zune HD on your own using Videora Zune HD converter you will notice the lower quality.  I played Iron Man back on the HD TV and found it pixelated and muddy. The audio was also not as good as it was when watching it directly on the Zune HD. We will have to play around and see if there is a way to overcome this issue by adjusting settings on Videora. We will follow up with what we find out.

   

   
Click to Enlarge

Of course there is a downside to everything; with the AV Dock it is when would you honestly use this. I have an HD TV, HD Cable access, and a Bluray Player.  This type of setup is not uncommon these days, where in that setup does a device that allows for 720p playback fit? Maybe as a dock for the HD radio to be used in the home or as a method to listen to MP3s over a home audio system, but if have an HTPC then it would be used even less.  As I mentioned above; if Microsoft made the dock more portable [removed the permanently attached cables] and more hotels gave you access to HD [or any] inputs on the TVs in room it would be more usable. Sadly this part of the equation, while nice and fun, just does not fit right now.

Battery Life
NVIDIA estimates the Tegra Battery Life at 10 hours of HD Video playback [at 720p] and 110 hours of MP3 playback. In our testing we found that even after eight hours of movies we still had plenty of juice left over. Music playback ran into multiple days before we needed to hook up the Zune HD to a power source. When not running anything the Zune HD simply sips power. Application power usage is the dark cloud in this sunny picture. When we played any of the games the Zune HD seemed to eat up the battery. With a full charge we played Space Battle 2 for 30 minutes and noticed that we had used up about 1/4 of the battery. Playing Goo Splat for another 30 minutes killed off another 1/4.  This gives you an estimated 2 hours of gaming life on the Zune HD. This is with games that are not even that demanding too. With more demanding games your battery life could be even worse. I hope that Microsoft and NVIDIA can tweak this to improve power consumption soon as it does not bode well for the Zune HD as a mobile gaming platform if they cannot.

Value
As with anything value is a subjective issue. What to me is a good value might be bad to you. As such we try to look at value from two sides. The first is in simple terms of how much money are you spending. The second is, what do you get for that money.  

You can buy the Zune HD Black 16GB like the one we tested here for $219.99 and the 32GB Platinum for $289.99 The AV Dock will set you back an additional $89.99.  The price for the 16GB mode is excellent for a media player considering you pay $199 for an 8GB iPod Touch.  For the 32GB the price is more in line with other players as the 32GB Touch is $299.99. When you consider the Zune HD?s better display and more spacious and full sound it really shows off the value of the Zune HD. The extra feature of an HD Radio Tuner in the Zune is only icing on the cake. Unfortunately the AV Dock throws a wrench into the whole concept of value for the Zune HD. In order to take advantage of the ?HD? part of the Zune HD?s video output you need this. While this extra is very nice and cool to play with, it adds an extra $90 to the cost of owning the Zune HD. It also has negligible value in terms of actual use. I honestly cannot think of when I would use this on a regular basis. It does have potential for use as a dock for the HD Radio Tuner and on the road, but I do not see this accessory selling all that well to be perfectly honest.

Conclusion
As with all products that include subjective topics we try to break out our conclusion into separate part to give you a better idea of how the product fairs. We split this into three parts. What they did wrong, what they could have done better, and what they did right. With these three sections we offer you the best impression of the product and where it falls in the market.

What they did wrong,
This is a touchy subject but one that needs to be covered. The first thing that Microsoft did wrong was to keep the Xbox Live system for the Zune Marketplace. That system is buggy and does not offer any good representation of the dollar value of the items you are purchasing. Most people do not want to worry about points. They want to know that movie X cost this much in dollars and cents. The whole points system is plain broke and needs to be dumped. Someone buying a movie cannot just buy the points they need but must buy them at the next highest block. As an example if you want to buy a movie for 830 points you have to buy 900 points. This means that you are actually paying more for the movie than you should or need to. Add to this broken system of purchasing you have a ridiculous system for getting any parental controls [plus the complete lack of them on the actual player] this is a glaring problem. The PMP market is aimed squarely at teens and pre-teens.  Parents need the ability to control the content their kids have access to. Microsoft?s solution of giving them their own Live ID is a joke. As a parent I would not want my 10 year old to have their own Live ID that they can run with. This opens them to Messenger, Hotmail and a ton of other web based, single sign on applications that kids of that age should not be using.  In fact these complaints are some of the same ones that Apple had to deal with in iTunes and the iPod/iPhone. You would think that as Microsoft is trying to compete and pull people away they would have gone all out on the parental controls for this. Sadly they did not.

What they could have done better,
First thought here; put in a phone. If anyone at Microsoft is reading this, or if you are reading this and know someone there tell them that everyone that I have shown the Zune HD asked about a phone for it. IF Microsoft could work that in [say in six months to a year] the Zune HD would take off like a rocket. Next on the list of wishes, is a little bigger screen.  The OLED screen is excellent but as it is smaller than the iPhone/iPod touch it take a little away from its impact. A bigger screen would also help with the Virtual Keyboard and if a Phone or camera is ever dropped in. An external speaker would also have been nice and again would be a must for any future phone plans. Stereo Bluetooth support would also have been a very nice touch and one that I hope will show up in later models. Rounding out or list of hardware desires is of course a camera. Again if this had been put in it would have given the iPod touch another reason to be jealous. After all the disappointment over Apple not putting one in the Touch, a camera in the Zune HD would have been great especially given the Tegra?s built in support for up to a 12MP camera.

Software improvements that would have helped the Zune HD right out of the gate are pretty easy to see. Open up the App section of the marketplace, it would have also been a good idea to have a few more offerings here before launch. Microsoft needs to improve the browser on the Zune HD. It should support tabbed browsing, have a history and will someone, once and for all, just figure out how to get flash on one of these things??!! I mean really, how long has it been since this was asked for? The lack of flash locks out youtube, and most other video content sites Microsoft needs to fix this as it would give them a HUGE advantage in the market if they can get this running. The media button should also probably be replaced with a volume rocker or made into one that also supports a single press feature that can bring up the on-screen controls.

The AV Dock also needs some work before it is a more useful and attractive product. As it stands the hardwired cables make it clumsy. Also the usefulness of 720p video when we are on the cusp of 2k and 4k HD video in the consumer market is dubious at best.  

What they did right,
The first and biggest thing that Microsoft did right was to drop Tegra into the Zune HD. This was a masterful stroke as it allows for a lot of maneuvering room for the Zune HD. As it stand right now the software in the Zune HD is barely taping the power of the Tegra.  As Microsoft continues to work with and improve the Zune HD they can expand the performance [including adding in a camera] and include 3d gaming offerings that no one else in the market can compete with right now.

Using an OLED screen was a great idea, it gives a cleaner picture while using less power and generating less heat. Next on our list of good ideas is the addition of an HD radio tuner. It provides something that as of this writing Apple cannot. It puts and extra into the Zune HD that people would actually use and want [I listen to the HD tuner in my truck every morning].  The sleek design of the Zune HD is also a plus, it is eye catching and just plain sexy.  It makes the Zune HD stand out and shows how old and dated the design of the iPod Touch is becoming.  The UI on the Zune HD is also a great idea; it is clean, and unique. It is just plain cool, even if it does take a little getting used to. The last item that sets the Zune HD [and indeed most of the Zunes] is the ability to sync wirelessly, this is simply put a wonderful thing. I can add music and videos to my Zune HD without the need to tether it to my system.  It will also sync the Zune HD with the Desktop software on its own [if you grab something from the marketplace on the Zune HD it will sync it with the desktop over the air] you do not even have to have the Zune Desktop software open and running to do this.

Overall Conclusion
Over all the Zune HD is hands down still the best Personal Media Player that I have ever worked with. In fact let me say that again, over all the Zune HD is hands down still the best Personal Media Player that I have ever worked with. The display is clean and sharp with smooth playback. The audio is spacious and full [sounds simply amazing on my tube amp] The UI is sexy and cool. Items such as Quickplay, Album Art, HD Radio Tuner, the Social, Channels, and the Zune Pass make it a great product. Yes there are things that are wrong, but they can be fixed and do not take away from the experience of the actual hardware.  The price of the player is great for what you get and beats the competition by a good margin.

If Microsoft would drop in a Phone, a Camera, and improve the Software [getting rid of the points system would be a start] and Dock this product would simply stomp the iPod touch and iPhone. The App issue will gradually correct itself as more developers begin to code for the Zune HD. Microsoft has even demoed some very impressive 3D games for the Zune HD that are going to be coming soon so that is being handled.  In all we can and do highly recommend the Zune HD as a product, just be aware of the hidden issues with the Marketplace and you will be ok.