October 25, 2009 in News

Zune makes gains but not there yet

Doug Dobbins Special to The Spokesman-Review
Video: Zune HD
Colin Mulvany photo

Tia Porreca, a Best Buy employee at the Spokane Valley store, prepares a Microsoft Zune music player for display.
(Full-size photo)

With the launch last week of Windows 7, Microsoft officials can hold their heads up, having produced an innovative operating system that wipes away the taint of Windows Vista.

Over the past few years, however, the guys and gals in Redmond have struggled to catch up with Apple’s music and media players.

For many consumers, the iPod is the epitome of the complete digital media player. The success of the iPhone and iPod in the marketplace has reaped vast profits for Apple and left Microsoft wondering if it can ever approach that level of consumer love.

The answer is: maybe. With the recent release of a new and improved portable player, the Zune HD, Microsoft hopes music fans will revise their “iPod-rules” assumptions.

With this latest third-generation Zune, Microsoft has given up on the value segment of the market to capitalize on the HD buzz, and to provide users a high-end experience. Microsoft has rolled out a single design that uses flash memory in two capacities, 16GB at $220 and 32GB for $290.

The HD — high definition — part of the name is earned with support for both HD radio on the FM band and support of HD video.

The Zune HD build quality seems quite good. It is about the size of a USB flash drive and as wide as a credit card. While light, it feels very solid due to its solid metal body.

The Zune HD comes with a 3.3-inch OLED (organic light-emitting diode) 480-by-272 pixel screen. Its touch screen is easy to use but lacks an auto-brightness setting. The color depth and sharpness put my iPod Touch’s screen to shame.

The power of the NVIDIA Tegra CPU means the Zune HD can play video at the 720-progressive standard.

Unlike the Apple iPod or iTouch, the Zune HD can load and play HD video. But the viewing of HD video on the Zune screen is limited to a down-converted standard definition quality. By buying a separate audio-video dock, you can connect the Zune to an HD TV and watch that video in true high-definition.

The audio output is vibrant, clear and with no background hiss even at high volumes.An equalizer with several presets is included. On the downside the Zune HD does not have a microphone input for recordings. This means popular apps, like Skype and Shazam, cannot be used with the Zune HD.

The Zune manages to one-up the iPod with customizing options. In addition to engraving the player’s back, you can also choose from multiple colors, artistic designs and logos. Go to http://www.zuneoriginals.net/ to learn more.

While you can have a text engraving on an iPod, Zune has upped the customization by offering five exclusive colors, or your choice of an engraved artist design, Xbox 360 game logo, or Major League Soccer team logo. Yes, you can still have a text engraving on back, as well. Go to http://www.zuneoriginals.net/ to learn more.

Apple’s iTunes software is considered by many to be the reason for the iPod’s success. With the new Zune software, Microsoft has turned from having what was, at best, a poorly done “me-too” store and media manager to now offering the only real competitor to iTunes. Unlike iTunes, Zune’s software is Windows-only.

For $14.99 a month you can get the Zune Pass that provides access to almost the entire online Zune music collection. It also lets you download 10 free songs a month in mp3 format that you can keep forever. Just make sure to do it each month, since the song credits do not roll over from one month to the next. If you want to purchase more songs, you use Microsoft points, the same ones you use to purchase items from XBOX Live.

There is also the Smart DJ feature that can leverage your Zune Pass subscription for an unlimited on-demand music streaming experience that gives more control over your streaming music than possible with Pandora or Last FM. You get steaming stream music over the Web by logging into your Zune.net account via a web browser on a PC, or even a Mac.

The Zune 4.0 software works fine with Windows XP and Vista, plus it takes full advantage of Windows 7. The new Zune software works with Windows 7’s new feature called Jump Lists, which give very quick access to music and playlists from the Taskbar. Previews let you glimpse and control media by hovering your mouse over the Zune button on the Taskbar.

Despite those advantages the online Zune Marketplace lags significantly behind the iTunes store when it comes to movie and video content. Microsoft needs to get more partners in the mix.

Of course, the new Zune software has plenty of “social” components. Back in the day, I found people who enjoyed the same kind of music by going to Mirage records and talking to Mike or the other customers. Today it is done via social networks on the Web.

If you choose to use the Zune social tools, you can share most-played artists, favorite songs, your recently played songs and friends with the other users.

You can even take your Zune info to other networks via the Zune card. It is a Flash-based widget that can be embedded into Facebook, MySpace or personal Web sites.

The Zune HD has an easy-to-se Web browser. Even my wife who strongly prefers physical keyboards found the touch screen easy to use.

I hope that Microsoft, in a future update to the Zune HD, will ship Flash and Silverlight (Microsoft’s competitor to Adobe’s Web video format) for the browser.

Doing so will put it ahead of the iPod for general Web browsing and video watching on a pocket device.

Where the Zune comes up short as a PDA is in the application department. There are only a handful of apps now, compared with thousands for the iPod.

Microsoft is working hard with developers to help them make apps for the Zune HD. Microsoft promises to have apps for Twitter, Facebook and more games soon. For now, it is like the moon — nice to look at but not much there.

Sadly there is no e-mail program on the Zune — not even for Hotmail or Exchange. But you can use the browser to view Web-based Hotmail or Outlook messages.

If you want a premium media experience you owe it to yourself to look at the Zune HD. If you need your media player to function as a PDA too, the Zune is not there yet, and you’d still be better off with an iPod Touch despite the new benefits of the Zune HD.

Doug Dobbins, who worked for Microsoft from 1994-2003, is a freelance tech writer and tech consultant. He can be reached at Doug.dobbins@gmail.com.

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