Sept. 30, 2009 -- 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.
While they may improve over time, the software's recommendations are not particularly spot on, particularly compared to services such as Pandora.
While using Zune Pass is effective for discovering and enjoying lots of new music, there are plenty of tracks that were available only for purchase. Zune Pass allows for 10 MP3 downloads per month, but that seems like a pittance when you get hooked on downloading album after album at a time.
Also, while the Zune Pass service integrates well with the Zune device -- one of the rationales for the whole Zune effort -- it lacks the breadth of device support of Real's Rhapsody service, which can now stream music on demand to iPod touches and iPhones. And while there is still no Zune software for the Mac, Mac and PC users can now stream music on demand from their Zune Pass account via the Web.
Microsoft has also outfited the Zune with a Web browser based on the mobile version of Internet Explorer as well as some basic apps, all of which are free for downloading as of now. The former may be helpful for doing a quick bit of information within a Wi-Fi hotspot.
Zune Provides Fresh Music on the Go
The latter are mostly simple games for now; there is also a weather application. But in addition to being far behind Apple on this front, apps take longer to load and are far less sophisticated and plentiful than those in Apple's booming app store, which recently passed the 2 million downloads mark.
In the end, the Zune HD is the most attractive buffet table in the world of all-you-can-hear music. Microsoft continues to create inventive ways to exploit the value of subscription music.
For those who want to have as much fresh music as possible on the go, it is worth the premium over Apple's 16 GB iPod nano, but falls far behind the breadth of functionality of Apple's iPod touch.