Microsoft Zune HD MP3 player

While the first Zune was just another MP3 player to many, the same can't be said about the Zune HD, the follow-up player from Microsoft. Could the Windows maker finally have a device that will give a new impetuous to the MP3 player market? We've been living with one for the last month to work it whether the hype is justified.

Coming in two sizes - 16GB and 32GB - the Zune HD is sleek, solid, and well-made, with plenty of wow factor. It is light years ahead of the original model: it's Schwarzenegger to Danny DeVito in Twins. It really is that different.

Now you get a thin player, dominated by the 3.3-inch OLED screen with a single button underneath. The screen, which is capacitive, multi-touch and gesture-enabled is crisp, bright and clean in its performance. It will make your video and images come alive to an extent that we haven't seen on a PMP before. It's impressive.

The rest of the design is equally minimalist. The single button is rectangular as not to be confused with another more popular MP3 player on the market, while the power button can be found at the top. A 3.5mm headphone jack can be found next to the dock connector at the bottom, which is used for charging and plugging into accessories. Placing it at the bottom means its ready to use when you pull it out of your pocket - a nice touch. For those who like buttons there is a further side button that gives you direct access to the player controls.

The metal casing, which is held down by four mean looking screws is tough and all in all this is one good looking device.

Power it up and you'll quickly find that it's made by Microsoft. Why do we say that? Well because before you go anywhere you have to sync it with your PC. Once synced, you've then got to update it with the latest firmware version and that's after you've downloaded the Zune software to get the thing working in the first place. It's not the end of the world, but you expect gadgets these days to just work, not to have to be updated from day one.

Mac users with the urge to sign up, take heed: the Zune software isn't Mac compatible and therefore you'll either have to find a friend to install the software or invest in virtualisation software to run on your Mac. If you don't it's a charming looking paperweight. Microsoft has teased with the promise of Mac software, but don't hold your breath.

So you've updated the software and you're up and running. The Zune's interface is stunning: graphically luscious and very fast thanks to the Nvidia Tegra chip inside. That means rather than a 2D menu interface that sees you scrolling from left to right, things pop, slide, shizzle and generally pazzam their way around the screen.

The touch interface only helps in the day-to-day control of the player and we found it incredibly responsive to use, Apple responsive to use.

The Zune HD offers two menu systems to get to your music, pictures, videos and apps quickly. The main menu gives you an overview of what is happening now with a "Now Playing" box starting proceedings. Then there is something Microsoft has called "Pins" that allow you to Pin something to the menu.

The idea, and it's one that works, is if you have a favourite album or video you can "pin" it to the menu for quick access. After "Pins" comes "History" so you can see what you've been listening or watching and then "New" which lists the latest tracks you added to the player - handy if you are wanting to go straight to that new funky track you just bought.

While the system works incredibly well it does look complicated if you don't have all the album art in place - you just get placeholders.

A more traditional menu system, and the one you are more likely to use on a day-to-day basis is the list menu that lists the core functions and features of the player. Here you get access to music, video, pictures, radio, Marketplace to buy apps, social aspects of the player, the Internet browser, apps, and settings.

The main focus here is the music, although it's not the only focus. Pressing the music button whizzes you into the your music collection and you can, as you would expect, list songs as Playlists, Songs, Genres, Albums, and Artists. 

If you don't have your own music collection, or are just bored with it, then you can sign up to get a Zune Pass. Think Napster or Spotify for your MP3 player. For $14.99 you can access thousands of songs to download them on to your Zune HD and swap them out when you are bored. It's not a new idea, but it is a great way to get unlimited music with minimum of fuss, if you are happy to pay the price of two new albums a month. Within the deal you also get to keep 10 tracks a month, so when you exit the programme you at least have something to show for it.

With your Zune Pass sorted (you get a 14 day free trial in the box) you can then go about creating Smart DJ lists. Basically they are like Genius lists from Apple, created in the accompanying PC software rather than on the player itself.

When you think you're just about done on the music front, the player then smacks you with what Microsoft call HD radio. In reality it's a standard FM radio, but the reception is excellent (we tested it in New York). If the radio station provides track details then you get that information on the screen, and the player allows you to seamlessly pause the radio so you don't miss the best bit, be it a song or documentary. 

Better still if you really like the song, and it is recognised, you can add it to your "cart" to buy the track from Marketplace. Clever.

Marketplace is where you spend your money. With a music and apps store, the offering isn't massive at the moment from the player itself. It's more of a "glance" rather than a compressive offering on the go, and you get access to top songs, top albums, new releases.

Apps are a combination of games, productivity tools and bits and bobs. So far there are just 10 available, eight of which are games. The other two are a weather app and a calculator app.

Of course this will grow in size and scope as Marketplace gains momentum. At the moment you can only search via New, Update and All. If you had 85,000 apps in there it would get very complicated to find relevant apps.

With a multi-touch gesture-based screen and a Tegra graphics chip, this should, if the Marketplace can get momentum, have huge potential. But for now it is a bit of a damp squib. Why Microsoft didn't allow developers to port games from Windows Mobile is beyond us. Apps is definitely one to watch, but for the moment not something you would base your purchase on.

Something else you shouldn't base your purchase on is the browser. It might say internet browser on the box, but it is very basic experience. Utilising the on-board wireless connectivity you get a very simple browser based on Internet Explorer. On the plus side it's quick and you can zip around the Internet checking out your favourite websites like Pocket-lint.

There is an on-screen keyboard (portrait and landscape) so you can enter the URL, there is a favourite button so you can access your favourite sites, and finally a Bing search button so you can search the web. There isn’t multiple tab browsing, history, and any navigation elements apart from refresh and back. There is no Flash support for watching video, YouTube or not.

As for the software, the interactive interface is easy to use allowing you to manage your syncing options, and follows the same flow based interface found on the device. It owes more to Microsoft's work with the Xbox 360 rather than PowerPoint.

Verdict

As a music player this is a pretty compelling offer. The player is small, well priced, and sexy enough to impress. The music, HD Radio, video and image playback on that OLED screen is very cool, and the Zune Pass if that's what you want, is great. However that's where it stops. The Internet browser is pretty worthless for anything other than checking the odd web page and the app's offering at the moment is heavily unrepresentative of what it could be.

So where does that leave you? If you are anti-Apple and just want a decent MP3 player that will grow over time then this is a great choice. If Microsoft had released this as the first Zune it's market share would be very different. Compared to the competition, other than Apple, we would put this in second place.

However just as Microsoft catches up with Apple and it's iPod touch, Apple moves the focus towards gaming and being a device that's more than just music. If you are looking for something more than just a music player and more along the lines of a games console, come internet browser, come app device, come music player, then while the Zune tries, it falls drastically short.

It's a shame, because combined with the Zune Pass, the Tegra 3D chip, and OLED screen the Zune HD has the potential to be so much more than it currently is. The good news for Microsoft is that its a lack of software that's the problem, not something lacking with the device itself.

Lots of potential, but at the moment very much a wait and see unless that Zune Pass really is what you are after.

Sadly, it's only available in the US, starting at $219.99 for the 16GB version.