Katherine Boehret

Microsoft Packs The New Zune HD With Bells, Whistles And Plenty of Style

At long last, Microsoft has made a portable media player that you can be proud to carry around: the Zune HD.

This fourth-generation Zune (Zune.net) is ultra thin and has a stunningly vivid 3.3-inch touch screen that covers most of its surface, doing away with the old device’s touchpad. It comes in one small size rather than the older large and small versions, and has capacities of 16 and 32 gigabytes for $220 and $290, respectively.

The Zune HD does a nice job of integrating and artistically displaying content about an artist, song or album whenever possible. It has an acceptable built-in browser that surfs the Web using a Wi-Fi connection, and a customizable Quickplay menu on the home screen that displays your content using tiny, stylish tiles. The corresponding Zune Marketplace finally offers movies—about 500 for renting or buying, half of which have HD resolution. And a $90 docking station works with the device to display its HD content on your HDTV.

Given all the improvements of this new Zune, it’s a shame that this makeover stopped short of revamping its commerce system, which is still too confusing. Rather than inviting newcomers to the Zune and its online store by allowing them to use real money to buy content, it is still tied to the points system made popular by Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox gaming console. In this gamer-friendly system, the cost of one song is 79 points, roughly the equivalent of a dollar, and users must buy points in buckets ranging from 400 for $5 to 5,000 for $62.50. People who are trying to watch their budgets don’t need the hassle of calculating points per purchase. And Amazon’s (AMZN) Kindle e-reader and Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes Store have proved that using dollars and an uncomplicated one-click system is a successful strategy.

The way I prefer to get the most out of the Zune system is by using the Zune Pass for $15 monthly. This charge allows free continuous streaming of music from any computer’s browser as long as you log in, and includes 10 free MP3 downloads a month that are yours to keep even if you bail on using the Zune software. The Zune Pass lets you listen to Smart DJ playlists that can be built in one of three ways: using your own library; using a mix of Marketplace content and music from your library; or using only songs from the Marketplace. These also can be set to last for a certain amount of time—say for a 30-minute jog or a two-hour party.

I created several Smart DJ playlists including one using Dierks Bentley as the seed artist from which other suggestions were generated. This country singer was a good test for the Zune software because Mr. Bentley’s music blends new and old country sounds. I set the Smart DJ to produce a mix using only content from Marketplace and it returned a great list that included songs from newer group, Little Big Town, as well as older stuff like Joe Diffie’s “John Deere Green.” Any Smart DJ list can be dragged onto the Zune HD.

Apple’s iPod Touch is the Zune HD’s biggest rival and its iTunes Store has much more content in all categories compared with Zune Marketplace. But let’s put music, movies, TV shows, podcasts and music videos aside and say we’re satisfied with the amount of content offered by Zune Marketplace.

One of the iPod Touch’s best features is its ability to access Apple’s App Store, a catalog of 75,000 applications. The Zune HD only dips its pinky toe into a pool where Apple is already swimming laps: Only nine apps can be downloaded from the Zune Marketplace (all are free). They’re colorful and simple to use, but nine apps won’t be enough to compete head on with the iPod Touch.


The Zune HD uses Quickplay (shown on second player from left) to instantly display certain content.

It would be a real boon to Zune if it somehow inherited the gaming genes of Microsoft’s already-established Xbox, especially considering how Apple has heavily marketed the iPod Touch as a portable gaming system. Microsoft will only say that later this year Zune will offer apps for Twitter and Facebook as well as 3-D games like “Project Gotham Racing: Ferrari Edition.”

The only same-capacity model in the Zune HD and iPod Touch is the 32-gigabyte, which costs $290 and $299, respectively. The Zune HD is smaller than the iPod Touch so its organic light-emitting-diode touch screen is 3.3 inches compared with the Touch’s 3.5-inch screen. The Zune fits easily in any pocket and is just 0.35-inch thick. A thin horizontal button on the face of the device takes you to the home screen, and a hidden button on the left side pulls up an on-screen menu for volume and playback controls—or just tap the screen when content is playing. It doesn’t have a speaker like the iPod Touch, so you’ll always need earbuds to hear anything that’s playing.

Quickplay is one of my favorite features on the Zune HD. It uses tiny tiles to visually represent your content in four categories: currently playing; anything pinned (or labeled with a shortcut tile) to Quickplay; a history of recently opened content; and anything that’s new to the player. This includes all of your photos, videos, music, Web pages and apps. I easily pinned AllThingsD.com, a “Saturday Night Live” video and a favorite photo to the Quickplay menu. Clever animation sends this menu to the background of the home screen or swiftly pulls it into the foreground when needed.

I rented and downloaded the movie “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and opted to pay 360 points for the HD version rather than paying 240 points for the standard-definition version. A helpful on-screen explanation described the advantages of each according to where it would be played. Movie rentals last for 14 days or 24 hours after you first press play.

Listening to music on the Zune HD is a lot of fun—and even educational. Whenever the screen goes idle while playing a song, large images of the artist and album cover fill the entire screen while text—album name, artist name, song name—scrolls across these images. With one touch, I saw a list of other albums and songs by that artist, an artist biography, related artists, and pictures of the artist. This is a lot more interesting than staring at one image on the screen, and I learned a lot of new information about musicians I’ve been listening to for years.

The newly added Web browser on the Zune HD gets the job done, but has downsides. Its on-screen keyboard for entering names of Web pages has very small keys and doesn’t use predictive typing to fix your mistakes. Some Web pages rendered normally on the browser, but a couple—like Georgetown.edu—looked normal only when I turned the Zune HD horizontally.

As with other Zunes, this Zune HD has a radio receiver and now uses HD radio for finding more stations with clearer signals. If you like a song, an on-screen button tags it for buying and downloading immediately or later.

The Zune HD is a great-looking little player, and users will especially appreciate its Quickplay menu, rich collection of artist information and mesmerizing screen. If its points system was scrapped and its Zune Marketplace was filled with more content, I’d like it better.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com

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