The first dock to turn a media player into a home theater. (September 26th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: Microsoft
- Ready to go for power and HD video out of the box.
- Great as a wireless sync station.
- Simple, custom interface that directly parallels the Zune HD.
- Good image quality with high-bitrate video.
- Supports most older Zunes.
- Need to pause to get full music/video options.
- Inherent storage limits reduce usefulness for movie viewing.
- Shows weaknesses of low-res or low-bitrate art and video.
Although it's named the Zune HD, Microsoft's touchscreen media player is really a standard-definition device until you attach it to the AV dock. But it's here that the new Zune potentially has the edge over the iPod as a TV-friendly interface and features transform its role entirely. Our review takes a tour around the dock to see if it's worth the effort.
what's in the box, setup and ports
The $90 price tag on the Zune HD's dock seems exorbitant for a single-purpose accessory, but it's when you open the box that you realize that Microsoft's goal was to cover every conceivable need in a single pack.
Besides the dock itself, which has adapters for all second-generation Zunes as well as the HD, you're well taken care of: there's both a decent-length HDMI cable and a composite (RCA) cable, so users can display either HD or analog out of the box. More significant might be the AC adapter; it makes sense to avoid draining the battery, especially during 720p playback, but it's also especially convenient for the Zune's wireless sync. Once you've performed the first sync, it makes transferring new albums or podcasts much easier as you can simply leave the Zune docked in your living room most of the time.
Setting the dock up is very straightforward, as could be expected, but there's one unique caveat. Just as you have to update the firmware on the Zune through your PC just to start using the player itself, you also have to install firmware to enable the dock. That's not so much of a problem as it is a nuisance; shouldn't this installed as part of the initial setup? We also had a minor scare when the Zune didn't start back up automatically after the update, although toggling it on ourselves brought it up normally.
There aren't many ports to speak of beyond the obvious power and video ports, but one touch that's absent on an iPod dock is an optical audio output; those who have receivers and other more elaborate home audio setups than a basic stereo system will appreciate the added quality.
the interface and the remote
Perhaps the greatest feature of the AV dock is just that it has a dedicated TV interface at all -- this isn't simply a mirror of what's on the player's own screen. It's optimized for 720p and is both large and crisp. We had no problems navigating content from across the room.
The on-screen elements are ultimately a simplified version of the regular player controls, which in our minds is a good way to ease the transition; you already know how to find your way around. Everything is organized very visually and in straightforward categories. If anything, it's even more appealing as all the visual content that may be crowded on the regular player gets more room here. Background artist art appears in its entirety and album art is much clearer.
It's not perfect, though. The actual biographical data itself isn't accessible (admittedly less of a concern in these situations), and some of the artwork is revealed to be low resolution. We also had issues with what you could do while music or a video was in action; it was often necessary to pause before you had the full range of settings, particularly for scrubbing video with a visible timeline.
The remote itself is equally simple, though thankfully not as overly simple as Apple's remote for the iPod or Apple TV: there's one five-button pad for menu navigation, one for typical play, skip and volume controls, and buttons to go back in the menu as well as to the home screen. Other than the buttons not being color-coded for easy use in the dark, it was hard to complain about the remote itself. We do wish there was integration with universal remotes like Logitech's Harmony line so that owners didn't have to use Microsoft's option alone.
Ironically, the dock is inevitably going to be a partial step backwards in visual quality just because of the display type; since most don't own OLED TVs as of this writing, the colors will never be as completely saturated or the blacks as deep as on the Zune's own screen. Even so, we can say that colors do still "pop" on a good quality LCD and should do at least as well on a sufficiently advanced plasma set.
At the larger physical size of a TV, though, it really is a question of getting what you give in terms of visual quality. Any flaws in the video that might be hidden on the Zune itself are magnified here: compression artifacts or low bitrate are all too evident. Videos from the Zune Marketplace will look good, as will videos you've encoded with an attention to quality, but some video podcasts are deliberately produced at a low bitrate to save space; we noticed color splotches and pixelated streaking in a 720p version of the (otherwise fine) HD Nation podcast, for example.
That also raises the question of whether owners of older Zunes should even use the dock. They already lose the custom interface and HD support, and standard definition content will appear that much worse unless using a small TV and the composite output. It may be time to replace the player itself if you have an older model but intend to use the dock for a large part of your viewing.
wrapping up and the question of storage space
As an accessory by itself, the AV dock is hard to fault. It's attractive, simple to set up, and is rare in offering a genuinely living room ready interface. We could see many using the dock as a shuttle for their Zune Marketplace videos or their podcasts. Arguably, it's easier and more cost-effective than a dedicated set-top box. It's expensive, but then so is a $230-plus Apple TV that can't be carried with you.
If there's a reason for pause, though, it's simply the nature of the players themselves. We've already discussed the limited usefulness of the dock for older Zunes, but the initial wave of Zune HDs can't help but be limited by their low storage. A typical 720p movie can consume between 4GB and 6GB of space; that's more than a quarter of the entire space available on a 16GB Zune HD and still takes up a large amount of space on a 32GB version. Until 64GB and larger versions arrive, it will simply be impractical to store even your favorite movies permanently on the Zune. For now, then, the dock is best used for playing rentals or podcasts; but in that role, it excels.