Microsoft Zune HD: The Technologizer Review

Microsoft's first touchscreen media player is slick and capable, but holes remain on the service side.

By  |  Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:45 am

Then there’s video. Like I said, movies and TV shows look good (although small) on the OLED display. Invest in the optional $89.99 AV dock, and you can connect a Zune HD to your TV via the included HDMI or component cable and use a remote control and menus on your TV’s screen to control it–it makes the Zune feel a bit like a tiny Media Center PC. The Zune outputs video in the 720p resolution that helps to give the it the “HD” part of its name; the dock also lets you listen to music from your collection or the HD tuner. High-def content looked crisp and eye-catching on my 42-inch LCD HDTV–at a distance, I’d mistake it for the HD I get via cable–and even standard-def video was presentable.

But for video, the Zune is hobbled by the so-so state of Microsoft’s video store. The Zune Marketplace offers movies (for purchase and rental) and TV shows (for purchase) in standard- and high-definition. (I’m sorry to say that they too are priced in those dreaded Microsoft Points.) As with iPods, you buy and download video for the Zune via its PC software, then sync it over to the player; it’s also possible to buy or rent content for viewing on a PC, but if you choose Zune versions you can’t watch them on your computer.

The big problem with the Marketplace’s video offerings is selection, or lack thereof. It doesn’t compare with the iTunes lineup–it’s a limited, scattershot assortment of new and older titles, and major chunks of what you might want to watch are missing, such as Disney releases). Even when the Marketplace did offer a particular title, I had trouble finding it: Searches I did for film titles didn’t pull up anything even when the items in question were there.

Microsoft says it’s working to offer a more comprehensive unified collection of video for Zunes and the XBox 360, and to let you pay for content once and watch it on both platforms.  For now, the Zune Marketplace’s skimpy video offerings may be a bigger disappointment than the Zune’s lack of a true application store, given that HD video is one of the device’s primary selling points. (The player supports video in the WMV, H.264, and MPEG4 formats, and I suspect that many owners will end up acquiring most of the stuff they watch from sources other than Microsoft.)

Speaking of apps: The Marketplace does have a section for them, but the Zune HD is launching with only nine programs (a weather app, a calculator, and seven games) versus the tens of thousands that run on the iPod Touch. Microsoft says it’ll bring more free software to the Zune (including clients for Facebook and Twitter in November, plus more games). But it has no concrete plans to let third-party developers write and distribute apps.

Of course, you can get to Facebook and Twitter and a whole lot more right now via the Zune’s Web browser. It does a more than respectable job of squishing sites to fit on its screen;  just as on the iPod touch, you can zoom in by dragging with your fingertips, and the Zune’s accelerometer adjusts the browser to landscape and portrait mode on the fly. Overall, though, it’s much more bare-bones than Apple’s Mobile Safari: It lacks that browser’s tab-like support for multiple pages, doesn’t autocorrect or autoremember anything you type, and can’t handle embedded YouTube clips. And while many sites deliver optimized versions to the iPhone and Touch, the Zune tends to get generic mobile versions. (The version of Gmail for iPhone OS is amazing; the one you get on the Zune HD is surprisingly crude.) Assuming that Microsoft releases a software update for the Zune in the coming months, job one should be to beef up the browser.

The Bottom Line

From a hardware standpoint, the Zune HD is terrific. Other than the too-basic browser, its software is generally impressive. It’s the service side of things where things get complicated: Zune Pass remains an excellent deal, but the Zune’s video store is a disappointment, and its app store is a non-entity. The best thing about Apple’s iPod/iTunes platform is that it’s a beautifully integrated system; for all the major advances of the Zune HD compared to earlier Zunes, it remains a laggard on that front.

Should you consider buying a Zune HD? Absolutely, if the hardware design appeals to you and you like the idea of feasting on music for fifteen bucks a month. The video features are another major attraction if you plan to supply your own content from (ahem) ripped DVDs or other sources rather depending on Microsoft’s offerings. But the HD isn’t a pocket-sized computer like the iPod Touch–as I said at the start of this review, it’s a mere media player, albeit a (mostly) neat one.

And despite all the time in this review and elsewhere contrasting the  Zune with the Touch, that leaves me thinking that the HD’s most direct competitor is not the touch-screen iPod but the new Nano. For $40 more than the 16GB Nano, the $219 16GB Zune HD gives you a bigger and better screen, a much slicker interface, HD radio, HD video output, direct access to content and wireless syncing via Wi-Fi, basic Web browsing, and the subscription music option. Yes, you give up Nano features such as the video camera, pedometer, much better video store, and Mac compatibility. But if I were buying a portable gadget today mostly to listen to music, I’d probably spring for the Zune over the Nano and sign up for a Zune Pass.

What’s next for Zune? Your guess is as good as mine, but I hope that this model sells well enough to end the ongoing speculation over whether the brand is toast. It’s the first genuinely interesting media player from Microsoft, and if the company develops it rather than mimicking last year’s iPod, the name “Zune” just might stop sounding like a punchline to a bad joke about Microsoft’s inability to compete with Apple in digital entertainment.



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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Chip Says:

    You wrote: “As with iPods, you buy and download video for the Zune via its PC software, then sync it over to the player.”

    While you can do this two-step process, I know my teenager had downloaded movies directly to my Touch over wi-fi. This one-step is much faster and more convenient, particularly if you’re away from the computer.

    Any chance the Zune can do this, but you didn’t mention it?

  2. ediedi Says:

    All the shortcomings will be corrected in time I think, but the deal breaker is the smaller screen – both physically and resolution-wise. If they wanted to take on the touch – bigger screen, (gaming) physical buttons and a better browser. A pleasant surprise though is the well designed and snappy interface.

  3. John Says:

    @Chip: Yup, you can sync over wi-fi, there’s the article .

  4. iphonerulez Says:

    I get a kick out of the Zune HD commercial with the white duck and Yogi Berra.

    When Yogi asks about the Zune HD, the duck is always yelling “App-lack, App-laaaaaack!” That is so funny.

  5. DaveZatz Says:

    I can deal with the minimal apps and smaller screensize. But the iPhone/Touch browser would be VERY hard to give up. Also, I don’t need a stand alone Internet slate or PMP – build all of this into Windows Mobile. Then we’ll talk, Microsoft.

  6. Limeybloke Says:

    You say that the Zune’s competitor is the Nano, yet they meant it to compete with the Touch, then you state that it lacks many of the features of the Nano.

    You then say you would buy the Zune (if you wanted to play Microsoft -hobbled DRM – madness poorly – converted files) so, do they pay you for this rubbish or are you actually an idiot?

  7. Relyt Says:

    Harry, are you sure that the Zune HD can’t pause live radio ‘TiVO-style’? Because Dan at Gizmodo says it can – “Like the Nano, the Zune HD can pause and cache live radio, a great function, though it also cannot record.”

  8. Harry McCracken Says:

    I don’t think I’m an idiot–others may disagree and often have–but I’m pretty confident I’m not a jerk. Some people who are jerks, I’m told, aren’t aware of that fact.

    I’ll also cheerfully admit when I’m wrong and/or conflicted. Almost everyone who writes about the HD is going to compare it to the Touch (including me!) but I think there are two kinds of handheld devices in the world: Those that are app platforms and those that aren’t. The HD’s lack of an SDK puts it squarely in the the latter category, along with the Nano.

    I know that the Nano has some features that the Zune doesn’t have, and vice versa; if they had exactly the same features they’d be exactly the same device, and everyone involved would be really confused.

    On the Zune’s copy protection: Most of the time when I write about copy protection it’s to complain about it. Maybe I should have written about this in the story–or should do so in another piece–but subscription music is an instance where DRM doesn’t strike me as an affront. They’re not claiming they’re selling you the music, for one thing–your access to it is by definition limited. And providing access to an entire music catalog for one price that’s about what we used to pay for one CD strikes me as a reasonable deal.

    If you’re utterly opposed to copy protection on philosophical grounds, you’re going to hate Zune Pass. But as I’ve said many, many times, I don’t hate DRM for religious reasons–only because it so often causes problems for paying customers.


  9. Daniel Says:


    I generally feel that your assesment of the Zune was really how you felt about it. In trying to convey what market the Zune was trying for I believe you were right to pick on the Nano. @Lymebloke, was out of line to call you an idiot without at least trying to justify his comment, which he couldn’t cause no can. What MS just put out there can not be defended when it stand next the the iPod touch, so it’s why I believe lymebloke can come up with anything better than name calling. So though you didn’t have to respond to such idiotic comments it’s was the polite thing to do.

    What I really am interested to know is how is using the browser on the Zune? I didn’t believe I would use the browser on my iPhone as much as I do, but I like so many find it a very good experience. I’d like to see how you veiw the Zune after having to use for several day to see what is really annoying or really great.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    Hi, Daniel,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’ll continue to use the Zune browser for a few days. It does a good job of rendering sites and is respectably fast, but could definitely use support for multiple pages and a better keyboard…


  11. gala Says:

    I just got a 32gb Zune HD, (i love the zune pass)… and i also have a 8gb 2nd gen ipod touch, and yes the touch has thousands of apps, but 80% of them are worthless junk, i got bored of apps after a while and just didn’t feel like searching for more..

    I say microsoft has made an excellent media player, they do need to hurry and get custom facebook, twitter, maps, fandango, email and most important (for the public anyway) YOUTUBE apps and then the zune will truly be in the game, point is they need to develop the apps that we come back to on the touch i don’t think this wouldn’t be too hard for them to accomplish..

    and on a side note… how come no one talks about the one thing i hate about the iPods… the sound quality or to put it better..the lack of it, i just don’t understand why apple still don’t bother with focusing on better sound, the zune smokes the iPod in sound quality and that for me is the main reason i get a pmp and it doesn’t hurt that the zune’s OLED display is quite attractive.

  12. SallyRemo77 Says:

    :o)) There’s one in every village.

  13. SallyRemo77 Says:

    …’zune’ owner that is!

  14. airhead190 Says:

    ok on best buys website they have the 32 gig listed for 289 and the 16 for 219. whos right?

  15. Dongobob Says:

    I noticed the week M$ ‘invented’ the wii controller. So I guess this week their ‘inventing’ the iPod touch – just not as good and 3 years too late. what a joke!

  16. gala Says:

    The week that M$ “invented” the wii controller? ….

    have you even looked into project natal? it’s a completly different beast than the wii (gamecube with motion control) i was really impressed by it…
    the wii on the other hand, i was never impressed, i actually have all three consoles the one i use the most is the ps3, and the wii is inside it’s box in my closet, what a waste of money that was!

    now i’m not saying that the zune is a better portable mini computer device, because it’s not aiming to be that, but as a persnoal media player it’s top of the line

  17. gala Says:

    airhead190 Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 6:58 pm
    ok on best buys website they have the 32 gig listed for 289 and the 16 for 219. whos right?

    ^^ Best buy has it right, they don’t make an 8gb version of the zune hd

  18. Brian Davis Says:

    Fistly, it’s $219 for 16GB, $289 for 32GB. Second, can Zune HD owners trade songs with people with older non-HD Zunes?

  19. Daniel Says:


    or any owner of the new Zune HD, it’s been close to five days since it’s been out and I want know how the battery performance? Are the controls become easier to use. It has taken a while to use the iPhone keyboard, but I’m very pleased with it. On the Zune any take on their keyboard?

  20. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Daniel: I don’t have a good sense of the battery life. On the keyboard–it’s nowhere near as good as the iPod Touch keyboard, both because it’s smaller (an understandable tradeoff) and because it doesn’t have the iPhone OS’s pretty sophisticated spelling correction (less necessary on a device as limited and focused as the Zune, but it would still be nice).


  21. hank hauffe Says:

    I heard that MS was just showing off the screens in unusually dark rooms and that the colors wash out pretty badly under normal conditions. Did you try it in a normally lit room and outside where portable devices might go and be used on occasion?
    I’s also heard that their screen actually consumed More power when rendering most white space filled webpages as opposed to their own unusually dark (but not unattractive) interface.

  22. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    > have you even looked into project natal?

    Please no vaporware. If product demos counted for anything at all, Microsoft would be Apple and vice versa.

    > the wii on the other hand, i was never impressed

    You were impressed by a vaporware product demo but not impressed by a shipping product that has thrilled millions of people? I think your priorities are impractically oriented.

    > the browser is basic

    The browser is a striped-down IE6, that is archaic. There are major websites which already block this browser because its engine is so old, and Microsoft is charging people money for it today? The mobile Web is ahead of the desktop Web in technology and the Zune HD is behind. There are so many pocket-sized websites that run on iPhone, Android, Blackberry, Nokia handhelds and they don’t run on Microsoft handhelds.

    WebKit is free and open source and licensed for commercial use. Google, Nokia, Blackberry, Palm, Apple and others all use WebKit. So what is Microsoft’s excuse for shipping a 10 year old browser? There is none.

  23. Emille Says:

    Microsoft did an outstanding job with this media device. It is far sleeker than my iPod touch. Having used an ipod touch, the interface and the features on the Zune HD are far better. You get impressive features on the Zune. HD radio sounds great. OLED Screen is fantastic. The device is extremely light and very well built. Battery life is great as well. I have no complaints about this device. I purchased it with the dock, and man does the picture look great on my TV. The Zune outputs videos without any problems or hesitation. Truly a great device. I highly recommend and definitely recommend that you play around with it for yourself, because pictures truly don’t do it justice.

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