updated 05:35 am EDT, Tue September 15, 2009
Zune HD and 4.0 software
Now that Microsoft has finally made available the Zune 4.0 update, users can finally unlock the Zune HD and use its full feature set. We've already taken a quick tour of the player to give readers, especially those most familiar with the iPhone or iPod touch, an impression of what the interface is like. Read on for more details and photos.
An odd element of the Zune HD is that Microsoft ships the player in a largely non-functional state: not only do you need to sync with the Zune software to expose features, you need to download a Zune HD firmware update just to start using it. Apple touchscreen device owners will know the need to sync, but it's odd that a download is required just to start.
Once in, it's evident that, for all of Microsoft's claims of new features, the Zune 4.0 update isn't a major overhaul. The organization and layout is the same, and it's mostly bolt-on features that are different; that's not necessarily a bad thing, as media playback there is simple. Quickplay we can see being useful for those who return to content on a regular basis or who purchase content from the Zune Marketplace and want to play it right away. We think more people are likely to enjoy Smart DJ. It may be mostly cloned from Apple's Genius feature in iTunes, but having a hands-off stream of related music is appreciated, especially as the Zune Pass gives it access to a much larger selection of music than what you already own.
We'd add that Microsoft's device sync page is also now slightly more Apple-like with a bar representing the proportion of different types of content on the player, though as before it's a bit more advanced than what iTunes shows: it can tell you what's been newly added or give an impression of the overall progress.
The Zune HD's own interface is intuitive, if a definite break from what Apple does. It's more album-focused (the default view in genres shows albums, for example) but it's quick. The oddest break is having to tap to bring up the play, skip and volume controls; the favorite, repeat and shuffle commands are always available. In return, though, you get much more information about the current track visible at once.
Quickplay works more effectively on the portable media player than it does on the PC. It's most useful for getting back to what you've been playing (it will even show the current radio station), but it can also be handy for Marketplace downloads or the new album you synced from your computer. No preferential treatment is given to media formats, so you'll see photos and videos show alongside music.
Video playback is still definitely the highlight of this player. Now that we have our choice of content, we can again say with confidence that OLED was the right pick from a movie standpoint. The Zune HD's display is bright, vivid and doesn't show ghosting, so it's easier on the eyes, at least in moderate lighting conditions. Photos obviously receive the same benefit, although we'd note that unlike the non-touch Zunes, you don't see your custom background anywhere but on the lock screen.
If there's a disappointment so far, it's web browsing. The interface is generally intuitive: the on-screen keyboard is almost as good as Apple's (there's no auto-correction), bookmarking is easy, and it supports multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom and flick scrolling. However, the use of Internet Explorer 6 as the basis is painfully obvious. The Zune just doesn't render as quickly or accurately as Safari on an iPod, and the double-tap zoom function is usually off. On Electronista, for example, it doesn't completely zoom into the news column, so you always need to pinch in to get readable text. There are also some instances of stuttering.
That said, the browser is infinitely better than that on the Sony Walkman X1000 and is very much usable, particularly for mobile-optimized sites like m.twitter.com. We'd also note that the accelerometer (tilt sensor) on the Zune is much more responsive than even that on the iPhone 3GS. Rotating the web view is nearly instant, and it also recognizes tilting to either side -- not just one, as with Apple.
So far, we're generally pleased, but we'll be testing the player more thoroughly over the next few days to provide a more final verdict.