Tag Archives | Microsoft Zune

Does the Lack of Apps Doom the Zune HD?

T-PollOver at Wired News, Brian X. Chen has posted what’s probably not the only article we’ll see in the next few days that juxtaposes the words “Zune” and “failure.” Brian talked to a bunch of Microsoft-watchers, and the gist of their consensus is that the fact that the Zune isn’t a true software platform sets it up to bomb.

I don’t agree that it’s destined to tank–I’m guessing that Microsoft would be thrilled if it sold half as many Zune HDs as Apple sells iPod Nanos, and the Nano is even less of a software platform than the Zune. But yes, the iPod Touch is core to Apple’s future, and there’s no way that the Zune in its current form is core to Microsoft’s fate. Even in a best-case scenario, it’ll just be a neat media player that sells well.

(Speaking of the Nano, MKM Partners’ Tero Kuittinen has an interesting suggestion for Microsoft in Brian’s story: Lower the price of the Zune HD so it’s a cooler, more powerful alternative to the Nano rather than a more limited iPod Touch rival.)

Anyhow, I bring this up mostly because I’m interested in what you think…


Zune HD vs. iPod Touch: The T-Grid

It’s my instinct as a writer of stuff about technology to compare Microsoft’s new Zune HD against Apple’s iPod Touch. But the more I’ve played with the Zune, the less it feels like a direct competitor to the Touch: It has a number of features that the Touch doesn’t (HD output, HD radio, an OLED screen), a significantly different form factor (much smaller), and is missing the Touch’s single most interesting feature (support for tens of thousands of third-party apps). The Zune has no direct Apple counterpart–it feels a little like an iPod Nano in some respects, like the Touch in others, and is ultimately its own unique beast.

But like I say, my impulse is to compare the Zune HD to the Touch. So here’s a first pass at a T-Grid comparing the two devices’ specs and features. If all you care about is media playback, the Zune looks like a strong competitor–but stick around until the end of the grid.

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This is Not a Zune HD Review

Zune HD(UPDATE: This isn’t a Zune review, but now I’ve written one–here it is.)

Microsoft’s Zune HD–the first touch-screen version of the company’s non-iPod-killing media player–goes on sale today. I’ve been playing with one loaned to me by Microsoft, along with the new Zune 4.0 software, and am itching to review it. I can’t yet, though–the Zune Marketplace service still seems to be down, and it’s impossible to judge most of the features that are at the heart of the new Zune without snagging audio and video content from Microsoft’s store.

It’s not too early to share some initial thoughts based on the hands-on I’ve had with the features that are up and running. Such as…

The Zune HD feels small. I mean that mostly as a compliment, it’s noticeably less of a pocket-hog than my iPhone, which is suddenly feeling a tad bulky. Fits in the hand well, too.

The screen’s also smallish, but attractive. It’s 3.3″ with 480 by 272 pixels compared to the iPhone (and iPod Touch’s) 3.5″ screen with 480 by 320 pixels. So far, the reduced inchage and loss of pixels are only an issue in the Web browser–the Zune isn’t as good as an iPhone or Touch for reading more than a paragraph or two of Web content at a time. I want to watch video from the Zune Marketplace before rendering any verdicts on the OLED display’s overall quality.

Microsoft nailed the touch interface. It’s just as fluid and intuitive as Apple’s–unlike the clunky touch to be found on Windows Mobile phones. The user interface is more exuberant than the iPhone/Touch’s straightforward menus–items fly around in 3D space. Which sounds annoying, but it isn’t.

The browser is good, but basic. Pages render accurately; zooming works; speed over my Wi-Fi network is adequate, although it feels slower than my iPhone. It doesn’t have iPhone OS’s multiple-page manager, and typing in URLs is tricky simply because the screen is small. (The keyboard is similar to the one in the iPhone OS.)

There probably won’t be an app for that. The Zune Marketplace has an apps section, but Microsoft isn’t releasing a Zune SDK, and doesn’t plan to bulk up the store with gazillions of programs anytime soon. It does say that there will be 3D games for the Zune HD (which has powerful Nvidia graphics) and that it will be releasing Facebook and Twitter apps by November. It also says that Zune could become a meatier app platform eventually, building on work done by Microsoft’s Windows Mobile team. But for now, the Zune HD, unlike the iPod Touch, is in no way a pocket computer. It’s an audio and video player with a Web browser and a few other apps on the way.

The HD radio works. But I’m still deciding whether I prefer it to the new iPod Nano’s plain ol’ FM with TiVo-like pausing and rewinding.

I don’t like the Zune software for Windows. It seems overly complicated, with a user interface that emphasizes sizzle over straightforwardness. (iTunes has a lot of features, too, but it’s easy to ignore the ones you don’t like.)

Microsoft lost its price advantage, but the Zune is still competitive, more or less. When the Zune’s price was announced, it looked aggressively lower than that of the iPod Touch. But then Apple got aggressive–and now the 16GB Zune sells for $20 more than an 8GB Touch, and the 32GB Zune is only $10 less than a 32GB Touch. Many people will opt for the Touch given that it does so much more at generally similar prices, but if you’re interested mostly in music, movies, and the Web, the Zune is a plausible Touch alternative at a plausible price.

Like I say, I can’t review the Zune HD until I can try all its core features. But so far, mostly so good–the Zune HD seems to be well thought-out from both a hardware and software standpoint. It’s not entirely clear that the world still needs ambitious media handhelds that don’t try to be little computers and/or telephones, but if there’s still a place for them, the Zune HD looks like it’s going to provide genuine competition for Apple. This gizmo is most definitely not an iPod Touch knockoff–it’s a different kind of device with a different set of pros and cons.

More once I’ve had a chance to put the Zune HD through all of its paces…


Microsoft’s Move to Axe Much of Zune Line Risky

Zune HDMicrosoft is going full-bore when it comes to the Zune HD, due out in stores September 15. Redmond apparently believes so much in the product that it is willing to axe the entire line to focus on the device, if reports from Paul Thurrott are to be believed.

Now Mr. Thurrott does not necessarily have the best track record in being accurate in predicting or reporting future Microsoft moves, but if he’s actually talking to executives you have got to think they aren’t blowing smoke. If true, it’s a pretty gutsy move on Microsoft’s park to put all their eggs in one basket.

[UPDATE: Microsoft has now confirmed that the original Zunes are dead. See this PC World story.]

Even though Apple seems to be focusing on touch as of late, the company still carries an expansive line of models to suit users tastes. Simply put, a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work well in this market.

Apple’s Shuffles and Nanos work good for athletes — look no further than the Nike+ add-on for the Nano as evidence. For Microsoft, the Zune 8 fufilled this niche. With it gone, the company is forcing users to upgrade to the much larger (and about 2 1/2 times more expensive) touch-based model.

In Microsoft’s defense, we all shouldn’t forget though how much ground the Zune needs to make up. Even though this latest round of Zunes sold slightly better, there is still a 20-25:1 ratio of iPods sold to every Zune  Microsoft is focusing its efforts where the market is going.

Regardless, a large portion of the market will be underserved. Many consumers prefer smaller and cheaper players (anecdotal evidence seems to indicate this may be a fairly large chunk of all players sold). I can understand Microsoft’s desire to focus on the Zune HD, but deciding to axe the rest of your product line before you have any alternatives seems way too risky for a platform that is hanging on by a thread so as it is.


Does the Zune HD Stand a Chance?

Zune HDMicrosoft has announced that the Zune HD is hitting stores on September 15th at prices that significantly undercut Apple’s iPod Touch, Microsoft has begun showing off the media player to journalists (not me, alas, but those who have seen it are enthusiastic). As before, it’s impressive from a specs standpoint, with 720p video output, HD radio capability, an OLED screen, and potent Nvidia graphics. In short, it’s promising. Does it have a shot at being what no Zune has been before it: a product that sells well enough to provide meaningful competition to the iPod?

I can’t provide a fully-baked take on that question until I’ve tried the Zune HD, but the most obvious and daunting challenge it faces is the fact that the iPod Touch piggybacks on the iPhone platform and therefore unlocks access to an amazing array of tens of thousands of applications. The Zune HD, if it lives up to its potential, will be what the iPod Touch was before Apple released the iPhone OS 2.0 software and opened the App Store: a slick media handheld with access to the Web via its browser.

I’m guessing, then, that for many follks who are drawn to the Zune HD’s hardware virtues and aggressive price enough to consider buying it instead of a Touch, the decision will boil down to this: App Store, or no App Store? It’ll be fascinating to see whether enough people don’t care about third-party programs to give the HD critical mass.

Apple has already inoculated the iPod Touch against unfavorable comparisons to the Zune HD to some extent through advertising that’s almost exclusively about the diversity of third-party apps–especially games. And we still don’t really know what the Zune-vs.-Touch comparison will look like, since Apple will almost certainly announce a new iPod Touch in September. It could be a little different from the current model or a major advance. (Side note: I think it would be kinda cool if Apple took the Touch on its own design journey over time rather than keeping it as “an iPhone without the phone”).

Then there’s the question of the Zune name. I sort of admire Microsoft for sticking with it–if nothing else, it shows persistence. The current Zune is a respectable old-school media player itself, but the Zune name feels permanently tarnished. It not only never acquired a tenth of the iPod’s coolness, but came to be associated (at least in the echo chamber of tech pundits) with failure. I still think it would make sense for the company to broaden the not-at-all-tarnished Xbox brand to encompass entertainment on devices of all sorts. But if that’s going to happen, it’s not happening now (even though there is evidence that Microsoft does want to broaden Xbox).

Of course, the best way to make Zune cool would be to release a cool Zune. What’s your take on whether the HD is, indeed, that Zune?


Seven Questions About the Zune HD

Zune HDBack on April 10th, our own Ed Oswald reported that he’d confirmed that the rumored Zune HD was real and would ship in the fall.  He spoke the truth–as Cnet’s Ina Fried is reporting, Microsoft confirmed today that it plans to release an iPod Touch-like Zune then. (The company has confirmed it’s called the Zune HD hasn’t yet said what the product’s name will be, or but hasn’t disclosed how much it will cost.)

The new Zune will have:

  • A touchscreen;
  • A 480-by-272  OLED display;
  • The ability to output HD content to a TV;
  • A built-in HD receiver.

That’s an intriguing list of specs, and enough to make it clear that Microsoft is building an iPod Touch rival, not a wannabee: While the form factor shown in the art Microsoft released is extremely Touch-esque, no Apple handheld has an OLED screen, HD radio, or HD video output.

Microsoft pre-announced just enough detail about the device to whet the appetite, so I’m left with more questions than answers. Such as the seven I ask after the jump.

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