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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Default Zune HD Review

I've updated my review of the Zune HD to refelct some recent changes in the firmware. My review is largely the same, but the conclusion has been reworded, and the apps section heavily revised (everything else had some minor revisions and editing). Also, removed the scores, as I agree with others in this thread - a review should highlight what a product does, and let the reader "score" it in their minds based on how the capabilities jive with what they want the device to do.

Feel free to hit me up if you have any questions or see any inaccuracies.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:47 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Build Quality:

The first thing that stuck out was the build quality of this device. In this day where plasti-chrome is the norm, seeing an industrial looking piece of aluminum, with tempered glass for the screen is like a breath of fresh air. Rather than just try to be different form Apple, as many have accused MS of doing before, MS managed to make a device all their own that truly stands out. It's very hard to tell which device is better looking, between the Zune HD and the Pod Touch. The reasons are because looks are subjective, and we also tend to devalue the looks of a device when everyone has one, as is the case with the Ipod Touch. But overall, no matter how subjective you are, it seems that both devices are on the same playing field.

The only problems that I have with the build quality would be the plastic parts. On the three Zune HDs that I've fielded, there have been severe inconsistencies with the audio controls button, home button, and the plastic face beneath the screen. On each Zune HD, at least one of these parts felt a little too loose.

The bottom line is that, in terms of build quality, I can't think of any mobile devices off the top of my head that absolutely have a better build quality than the Zune HD. For those into smartphones, the Nokia E71 is comparable.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 05:52 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Interface/Interaction:

It seems that most devices are copying the Ipod Touch's grid/icon layout, which of course is heavily influenced by the Windows Desktop (which had it's own influences as well). So I wouldn't have faulted Microsoft had they gone to this layout. Instead, they went with an interface that reminds me a lot of Sony's XMB in text form. It's simple, elegant, functional, and unbelievably intuitive. When handing this device to others who have never seen a Zune, they managed to navigate it perfectly on the first try.

The trnasitions from one UI element to the next are very smooth, and in some cases, absolutely gorgeous. Even the accelerometer response is very easy on the eyes, as opposed to the jerky, delayed way that many Android handsets respond to changing orientation.

My main concern regarding how you interact with the Zune HD is how volume controls are handled. The Zune HD has a dedicated media button on the left side of the device. Pressing this button will bring up the volume controls, as well as the forward/back controlls. From there, you just swipe across the screen in the appropriate direction to get the desired result. You can do this blindly with no errors after you get the hang of it, which takes all of one or two tries for most people. I'd still prefer to have a dedicated volume rocker, but the current implementation of the media button is an excellent substitute. Where the media button comes up short is two-fold. First, it's the most flimsy of the three plastic buttons, causing it to have a bit of a jiggle to it after awhile. Secondly, being flush with the aluminum casing, it can sometimes be difficult to press, espcially if you're using a case.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 05:58 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Battery Life:

During audio playback, I haven't had to charge the device but maybe once or twice a week. It's no Cowon on paper, but unless you're camping for a week and need to listen to this constantly, battery life is more than adequate. Battery life for video playback is also surprisingly decent. I was able to watch two full length movies (90-100 minutes each) and still have just under half the battery remaining. I also tend to mount the Zune HD on a stationary bicycle and watch music videos for an hour, 3 days a week. I still only charge it once a week between that and all of the other times I play it. The only time that the battery tends to drain fast is during significant gaming or web browsing sessions. Find me a device that doesn't have this issue. So while the battery life isn't class redefining (Cowon), it's better than just about everything else.

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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Connectivity:

Now this is the place where the wheels start to fall off. On the positive side, not only does the Zune HD allow for syncing with a PC via a USB connection, but you can also sync via wireless, a feature that is still not as common as it should be in mobile devices. I've found this particularly useful when I'm on my couch. On the downside, you're not going to be using this with Bluetooth in your car, because MS didn't include a BT radio within the device. This is a move that I do not understand. It seemed that MS's original goal was to undercut the Ipod Touch in price, as a way of showing better value. However, if you want to use your new value player in your car via wireless methods, you have to use wi-fi. Bluetooth is available now in cars that are fairly cheap (the $13k baseline Forte has it). But if you want wi-fi in your car, you're looking at a Lexus. That's quite the contradiction. Bottom line is, this common place media connection should not have been omitted.

The device is not MTP, so you're limited to using the Zune software. The focus on the Zune software seems to be the management of your device(s), as well as access to the Marketplace. It doesn't try to be the best media player for your PC, because it doesn't need to be. However, if you're one of those who absolutely cannot stand a closed eco-system, this will be a deal breaker for you.

Another failing of connectivity is with the wi-fi itself. While it will work just fine on your home network (where I'll assume that you have a PC connected as well), you can't use it for certificate-web-based logons, like my school and many others use. You can't use ad-hoc tethering, which the Ipod Touch supports. There have also been issues with WPA2 and FIOS routers. Basically, it's wi-fi, but it's limited wi-fi.

And to top it all off, connectivity with the Xbox 360 is currently a joke in progress. You can't transfer files between the two. And while you can share protected content, that only applies if the content is on both marketplaces (this is hit or miss), AND there are no errors with it. One example is the music video "Great Divide" by Linkin Park. Even though I purchased it on the Xbox 360, I cannot see it as purchased on the PC Client, so I cannot transfer it to my Zune HD.

Overall, the Zune HD gets a positive for the wireless PC connectivity, but beyond that, it's a crash and burn for the team from Seattle.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:03 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:10 PM
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Audio Playback:

The Zune HD get's a sheer "WOW" from me in terms of audio playback. Audio quality is suberb, but audio playback is also a visual feast on this device. The screen shows the album cover and relevant track information in the foreground, as well as the actual album's insert photos in the background. The screen saver is also pure eye-candy. The only drawback for audio playback is that there is no progress bar for you to quickly navigate to a specific point in a track. Really, that's the only flaw.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:03 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:11 PM
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Video Playback:

I don't think that there is any way to describe the screen and do it justice. The OLED screen is pure bliss, and here's why. With any LCD, there will be a response time that causes a bit of motion blur. We all see it, but because we're accustomed to it, we no longer notice it. However, after getting used to LCDs for years, I was easily able to see the difference with the OLED. When white letters scrolled across a black background, it was as if paper cutouts of white letters were moving across that black background. Really, the lack of motion blur is THAT noticeable.

There was only one flaw with the screen, and that was the flickering issue that will be discussed later. It doesn't affect video playback though, thankfully.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:04 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:11 PM
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Codec Support and Conversion:

The Zune HD is your typical mainstream device. You'll find support for MP3, AAC, WMA (audio), as well as MPEG-4, WMV, and H.264 (video). XViD and AVI support were added in 4.5. This means that the Zune HD also lacks in the popular open-sourced codecs, such as Theora, Vorbis, FLAC (big one), etc.

The Zune software will automatically convert a source to a compatibile format for the Zune HD, provided that source is playable in the Zune software. There are also other converters out there.

On the plus side, the Zune HD is one ov ther VERY few media player that will actually playback 720p videos (downsampled to fit the 272p screen, or output at 720p via the HDMI dock).

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:09 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:11 PM
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Web Browsing:

If we're comparing this strictly to other portable media players, and not smartphones, then the Zune HD is in second place right out of the gate. But, compare it to smartphones, and that's where it starts to come up short. The positives are that the browser is fairly quick (beating out the Iphone in a speed test that I conducted), and easy to control using your fingers. The downsides? You can't download anything (except images via a finger press), and there's no support for tabbed browsing. Even the PSP has this, ever since firmware 2.0 back in 2005. Pocket IE is showing it's age. Want to know who hasn't moved to webkit yet in the portable space? Apple, Google, Palm, and Nokia made the switch awhile back. RIM bought out Iris and are now making a web-kit based browser for Blackberry devices (slated to hit BB OS 6). Sony dropped netfont and is using Android or Windows Mobile for most of their phones, with Android now getting more focus. That pretty much leaves Microsoft. It's time to get with the times.

But, strictly for a portable media player, the browser is very good. The keyboard is excellent, although the screen flickering I briefly described earlier tends to be an issue when the website has a white background, and data is being loaded. Once the wi-fi stops transmitting, the white background goes solid. It seems to be a power draw issue.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:12 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:11 PM
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Apps:

MS is taking a different approach with apps than Apple. In fact, while there were rumors, MS never even commented about how the Zune would handle apps, if at all, prior to release. On release day, some apps went up while MS announced a few more for later in the year.

MS has decided to stick with making some quality apps for the Zune rather than open the floodgates. The strategy has worked well, because while the Zune HD has barely over 20 apps of this writing, the games released for it definitely compete favorably with the best of what's avialble for the Ipod Touch. Not other PMP comes closed in this regard.

However, given the hardware, it is a bit disappointing that MS hasn't opened the gates to other developers. Progect Gotham: Ferrarri Edition is easily the shocase of the game lineup (and for good reason), with other exellent titles out such as Labyrinth, Audiosurf, and a plethora of card games. I'm surprised that we haven't seen a Tower Defense or Tetris clone yet, but in time I'm sure that we will.

Also, this has to be mentioned. Anytime you sell a device that offers wifi internet connectivity, a web browser, apps, and is focused on media consumption, there are two apps that should be available at launch: Facebook and Youtube. MS having neither at launch is inescusable and refects poorly on their planning. Facebook did eventually come out, roughly six months after the Zune HD launched. It's an excellent app that puts the Windows Mobile version to shame. It's not quite as polished as the Ipod Touch app, but that one was made by Facebook themselves. Also, Youtube is still not available, and it seems at this time that it may never happen.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:20 AM.
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Old 11-22-2009, 08:11 PM
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Conclusion:

Microsoft has positioned the Zune HD as a media consumption device. Their intent seems to be an attempt at making a market between the Ipod Touch (the ultimate pocket computer) and the Cowon/Samsung touchscreen players. In some ways they've succeeded, and in others they've failed.

Firstly, they've made arguably a better on-device media player than what Apple has for the Ipod Touch. Audio/video quality is also superior on the Zune HD. However, the Zune HD's browser is not as capable or fleshed out, and the app selection isn't even in the same galaxy.

When compared to the Cowon/Samsung touchscreen players, the Zune HD offers some limited web browsing and app selection for those who want a little more than just media playback. However, the locked in nature of the device (requiring Zune software), as well as the more limited codec selection makes it less powerful as a media playback device.

Bottom line is that, before considering the Zune HD (or any PMP), you need to analyze where you stand and what features you want. If you want a do-it-all pocket computer, the Ipod Touch is literally the only game in town (outside of a smartphone). If you want something that is strictly for media playback, a Cowon or Samsung will be a better buy for you. If you're looking for a little of both, that's where the Zune HD comes in. Also, if you're like most of the Apple crowd that prefers form over function, there's another reason to buy the Zune over a Cowon/Samsung. The Zune HD positively oozes style with it's looks, build quality, and intutive and smooth UI while still offering excellent audio and video playback.

Last edited by medion; 06-19-2010 at 06:28 AM.
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  #12  
Old 11-22-2009, 08:48 PM
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Wow, you seem to have a lot of reservations...

...for future use.

In all seriousness, great review. I would personally take the music playback score down a notch for the lack of a robust (emphasis on "robust") playlists feature, and make note somewhere (in a separate section, perhaps) of the general dearth of configurability, but that's just me.
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Old 11-22-2009, 09:08 PM
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I really like your review, the only thing I would do would be move the connectivity score up a bit, now I know that there is no drag and drop functionality but that is all that I miss. It is very connectible and syncs like a charm. It even wirelessly syncs which is wonderful.
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Old 11-22-2009, 10:05 PM
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I don't really mind on the video codec supports actually, most of my videos are in PSP format anyways.
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Old 11-22-2009, 10:54 PM
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Nice, fair review. I would've rated a few categories higher, but nobody's completely alike. Good job.
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Old 11-23-2009, 08:24 AM
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I would have docked the zune for not having better resolution. For a device touting to have superior visual, granted the OLED screen, it should definitly have better than 480x272. Imagine how good that would look combined with the OLED screen.
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Old 11-23-2009, 08:41 AM
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excellent review..

BUT for anyone with huge collections, file management is a nightmare.
i've had to tag and correct hundreds of files. and make playlists..

also, each video that is entered had to have all the fields corrected
to put them into proper categories .. 1 at a time!!!!!!!!
i had to put 17 episodes of the original prisoner onto it, and
edit each file, what a waste of time...

later
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Old 11-23-2009, 09:50 AM
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Great Review! I agree with connectivity score, lack of drag and drop almost stopped me from getting the Zune HD. Wireless sync part of the way made up for it.

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Old 11-23-2009, 10:57 PM
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Very good review all around, but one point that irked me in your review was the one regarding media controls. It is very much possible to control volume and go forward/back without looking at the screen. I've seen so many reviews dock points from this area of UI because they were too lazy to experiment or read the manual. If you didn't know about it, then fine. But please fix it if you consciously docked points from it because of it. Other than that, it was a good read. =)
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Old 11-24-2009, 02:38 PM
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I appreciate the feedback guys, and I do have some immediate responses to a few things.

Quote:
I would personally take the music playback score down a notch for the lack of a robust (emphasis on "robust") playlists feature, and make note somewhere (in a separate section, perhaps) of the general dearth of configurability, but that's just me.
I think that this is a great idea, and in my next update, I'll definitely add something about this.

Quote:
I really like your review, the only thing I would do would be move the connectivity score up a bit, now I know that there is no drag and drop functionality but that is all that I miss. It is very connectible and syncs like a charm. It even wirelessly syncs which is wonderful.
If the only two concerns were wi-fi sync and MTP/MSC, yes, it would have a higher score. However, it gets docked further for pitiful implementation of wi-fi for data usage, no bluetooth, and disappointing connectivity with the Xbox 360, another of MS's products.

Quote:
I would have docked the zune for not having better resolution. For a device touting to have superior visual, granted the OLED screen, it should definitly have better than 480x272. Imagine how good that would look combined with the OLED screen.
When you're already best of class, why dock points? What PMP on the market currently has a screen better than the ZHD's 480x272 OLED? The X-series is lower resolution, the Ipod Touch is LCD, and the Cowon S9 uses the same screen. When PMPs start coming with capacitive 800x480 OLED screens, then yes, we can dock it, in comparison.

Quote:
but one point that irked me in your review was the one regarding media controls. It is very much possible to control volume and go forward/back without looking at the screen. I've seen so many reviews dock points from this area of UI because they were too lazy to experiment or read the manual. If you didn't know about it, then fine. But please fix it if you consciously docked points from it because of it.
I'm sorry bud, but there really is nothing to fix. scores are in relation to competing products, whee 5.0 is considered average for the intended market. Every other player of note has dedicated volume controls, while the ZHD does not. And while I agree that you can train yourself to use it blind, it's not something that everyone has the skill or coordination to do. A dedicated volume button makes this easier. So, I'm sorry that you are irked by a part of my review, but I'm equally irked at MS's decision to be different for the sake of being different. The button that was in place of where the volume rocker should be is just redundant.
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