Zune HD Does Touch With Some Twists

PHOTO Microsoft is back with the Zune HD, a slim flash memory device with a tapered, brushed aluminum back and a touchscreen that can respond to multi-finger gestures such as "pinching" to zoom out of a photo.

Microsoft's Zune was a latecomer to the MP3 space, arriving on the scene long after Apple had established dominance with its iPod.

Its first iteration was much thicker than the iPod, didn't support many of the media types that the iPod could, and had a far inferior navigation control to Apple's scroll wheel.

And yet, Microsoft had features in that initial product that would come eventually to the iPod, including a larger screen, integrated FM radio, and Wi-Fi.

Microsoft closed the gap even further with its second-generation Zune, whih included a smaller, sleeker flash version and a touch-sensitive control pad nicknamed the "squircle" for its rounded corners, but Apple changed the game and pulled far ahead again with its iPod touch, which brought most of the functionality of its popular iPhone to an iPod.

Now, Microsoft is back with the Zune HD, a slim flash memory device with a tapered, brushed aluminum back and a touchscreen that can respond to multi-finger gestures such as "pinching" to zoom out of a photo.

OLED Technology Creates Eye-Popping Colors

The Zune HD's screen is smaller than the iPod touch's, but it uses a new display technology called OLED, which provides for crisp, eye-popping colors. However, the screen itself can't display high-definition video. For that, you'll have to connect the Zune to an HDTV with a separate docking accessory.

The "HD" in Zune HD also stands for HD radio, an upgrade from the initial model's FM radio that offers better sound quality and more stations without subscription fees.

The Zune can even detect songs being played on the radio and have them downloaded for you. However, as with earlier models, you must be using the earbuds that Microsoft supplies to receive radio signals as they include the antenna. Fortunately, the earbuds are pretty respectable.

On paper, the Zune HD sounds like a copycat of the iPod touch, with a button below the screen, a side-mounted button (which would be more effective as a split volume control as it is in the iPod touch), and a top-mounted power/display toggle button. But the user interface of the Zune HD is as quite different from that of Apple's touchscreen iPod (as well as previous Zunes).

Zune's Interface Is Full of 'Wormholes' to Shoot Through Hyperspace

If the iPod's user interface is a town filled with clearly marked street signs, the Zune HD's is one filled with wormholes that let you shoot through hyperspace. Eschewing icons, screens are generally represented by smaller versions of themselves hiding in the background.

It can make the experience cluttered at times, but it's youthful and discoverable, more efficient than previous Zune user interfaces.

The jumping-around experience of the Zune also holds true for its software, which is Microsoft's answer to iTunes. The Zune software, however, is a much more effective music vehicle, particularly when paired with Microsoft's $15 per month Zune Pass that allows unlimited downloads of (much of) the music available for purchase.

Version 4.0 of the Zune software introduces a feature called Smart DJ, which will generate a playlist of 30 songs based on a particular artist. One click and they're swapped out for 30 new songs.

'Social' Feature Lets Users Learn From Each Other

The software also features Channels (programmed radio stations that allow one to preview and skip) and, of course, "the social" -- a community of users that can learn from each other's music tastes.

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