October 19, 2009

Zune HD Review

Troy Benedict Says In 2001 Apple introduced the iPod and iTunes Music Store, and it revolutionized not only how people listened to music, but it also helped legitimize the digital distribution of music. Buying music couldn't have been quicker or easier!

Apple upped the ante in 2007 when the iPhone was unveiled. Much like the iPod, it, too, revolutionized the cell phone market, with its slick touch-screen interface and the very popular App Store. Apple released an iPod version of the iPhone, called iPod Touch, in September 2007 due to popular demand.

There have been a lot of iPod clones that have attempted to unseat the Apple giant, and none of them have come close. Microsoft attempted to make its mark in the MP3 player market in 2006 with its first line of Zune products.

Now in 2009, Microsoft has released the Zune HD, a vastly improved model with a touch screen. The comparisons between it and the iPod Touch immediately sparked a lot of interest and debate. Would this be an iPod Touch killer?

Will the Zune Kill the iPod Touch?
Let's begin with the obvious comparison between the Zune HD and iPod Touch.

Microsoft has placed itself in this awkward position of "we're competing with the iPod Touch but not really." Simply putting a device on the market with any sort of semblance to the iPhone or iPod Touch will immediately infer speculation from consumers and media alike.

Whether or not the Zune HD was originally created to compete directly with Apple's iPod Touch, the iPod name alone, is such a juggernaut that competing directly with Apple's popular hand helds could not possibly result in a win for Microsoft.

While the Zune HD is a very cool device, it is certainly no iPod Touch killer. There is no debate to that statement. However, the Zune does do a lot of things different than the iPod. Some of those different things could be perceived as being better.

When it comes to playing music and watching video, the HD and Touch are pretty much equal. The screens are both bright and large enough to comfortably watch video content. The Zune HD can output HD video (720p) to an HDTV with an expensive accessory, it almost seems pointless to put this in the Zune's favor, simply because the cost of the cable is so costly. Besides, who really plays HD content on their HDTV from a handheld device?

The Zune HD also has a very sparse number of applications and games. More on that in a moment.

In might be more accurate to compare the Zune HD as a mix between the iPod Nano and the iPod Touch.

Where the Zune HD excels is it's MP3 player functionality. Not only is the Zune HD an awesome handheld music device, its data integration with album and artist information is worlds better than what Apple offers. An artist biography, additional marketplace albums, and photos of the band are also synced up.

Zune Apps and Games
The Zune applications and games were completely under wraps until the day that the Zune HD was released. Media journalists and enthusiasts were aware of the existence of an "Apps" menu option, but nobody could elaborate on what that meant. Could Microsoft offer a competitive alternate to Apple's App Store?

The answer to it is, well... no. Not really. However, there is promise behind Zune's apps.

A handful of games and applications were available free of charge on launch date, but none of them will blow your mind or offer any really unique or interesting features. Existing Zune users may recognize the updated touch-interface versions of already available Zune games like Hexic, Space Battle, Sudoku, and Texas Hold 'Em. New to the Zune HD are Chess, Goo Splat, and Shell Game... of the Future! -- that's the actual name of the game!

Also available on in the Zune apps is a calculator and a weather application.

That's it.

The games are purely casual in nature, and do a decent job with the touch-screen interface, but none of them show off the power of the Zune's Nvidia Tegra graphics chip.

More Zune apps and games are planned for release through the end of the year, including Twitter and Facebook applications, as well as 3D games like Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition, Vans Sk8: Pool Service, and Audiosurf Tilt, which will hopefully show off more of the Zune's power.

Currently, Zune is keeping the game and app development on a tight leash, focusing primarily on first-party development. Hopefully, once the Zune apps grow, we'll see more third-party offerings, too.

Overall impressions
iPod rules the MP3 market, but the Zune HD is a very good alternative. The touch screen interface is very responsive, and the design is very slick and stylish. The device itself is very thin and light and fits easily in a pocket. Its uniqueness makes it stand out amongst the competition, and that's about as good as it's going to get for Microsoft and the Zune HD. I doubt we'll see any increased marketshare for Microsoft, but hopefully enough people support the device to help in its continued development.

I am hopeful that Microsoft will support more open development using their excellent XNA software development kits, and get more casual game developers on board, but until then don't expect much in terms of applications and games.

It's certainly not going to dethrone the iPod or the iPod Touch, but the Zune HD is an acceptable and slick alternative to Apple's popular MP3 lineup, and one that I would highly recommend to others!