Hands On With the Zune HD

Microsoft's Zune HD -- the first touchscreen version of the company's non-iPod-killing media player -- goes on sale today. I've been playing with one loaned to me by Microsoft, along with the new Zune 4.0 software, and am itching to review it. I can't yet, though-the Zune Marketplace service still seems to be down, and it's impossible to judge most of the features that are at the heart of the new Zune without snagging audio and video content from Microsoft's store.

It's not too early to share some initial thoughts based on the hands-on I've had with the features that are up and running. Such as...

The Zune HD feels small. I mean that mostly as a compliment, it's noticeably less of a pocket-hog than my iPhone, which is suddenly feeling a tad bulky. Fits in the hand well, too.

The screen's also smallish, but attractive. It's 3.3? with 480 by 272 pixels compared to the iPhone (and iPod Touch's) 3.5-inch screen with 480 by 320 pixels. So far, the reduced inchage and loss of pixels are only an issue in the Web browser-the Zune isn't as good as an iPhone or Touch for reading more than a paragraph or two of Web content at a time. I want to watch video from the Zune Marketplace before rendering any verdicts on the OLED display's overall quality.

Microsoft nailed the touch interface. It's just as fluid and intuitive as Apple's-unlike the clunky touch to be found on Windows Mobile phones. The user interface is more exuberant than the iPhone/Touch's straightforward menus-items fly around in 3D space. Which sounds annoying, but it isn't.

The browser is good, but basic. Pages render accurately; zooming works; speed over my Wi-Fi network is adequate, although it feels slower than my iPhone. It doesn't have iPhone OS's multiple-page manager, and typing in URLs is tricky simply because the screen is small. (The keyboard is similar to the one in the iPhone OS.)

There probably won't be an app for that. The Zune Marketplace has an apps section, but Microsoft isn't releasing a Zune SDK, and doesn't plan to bulk up the store with gazillions of programs anytime soon. It does say that there will be 3D games for the Zune HD (which has powerful Nvidia graphics) and that it will be releasing Facebook and Twitter apps by November. It also says that Zune could become a meatier app platform eventually, building on work done by Microsoft's Windows Mobile team. But for now, the Zune HD, unlike the iPod Touch, is in no way a pocket computer. It's an audio and video player with a Web browser and a few other apps on the way.

The HD radio works. But I'm still deciding whether I prefer it to the new iPod Nano's plain ol' FM with TiVo-like pausing and rewinding.

I don't like the Zune software for Windows. It seems overly complicated, with a user interface that emphasizes sizzle over straightforwardness. (iTunes has a lot of features, too, but it's easy to ignore the ones you don't like.)

Microsoft lost its price advantage, but the Zune is still competitive, more or less. When the Zune's price was announced, it looked aggressively lower than that of the iPod Touch. But then Apple got aggressive-and now the 16GB Zune sells for $20 more than an 8GB Touch, and the 32GB Zune is only $10 less than a 32GB Touch. Many people will opt for the Touch given that it does so much more at general similar prices, but if you're interested mostly in music, movies, and the Web, the Zune is a plausible Touch alternative at a plausible price.

Like I say, I can't review the Zune HD until I can try all its core features. But so far, mostly so good-the Zune HD seems to be well thought-out from both a hardware and software standpoint. It's not entirely clear that the world still needs ambitious media handhelds that don't try to be little computers and/or telephones, but if there's still a place for them, the Zune HD looks like it's going to provide genuine competition for Apple. This gizmo is most definitely not an iPod Touch knockoff-it's a different kind of device with a different set of pros and cons.

More once I've had a chance to put the Zune HD through all of its paces...

Harry McCracken is founder and editor of Technologizer. For more smart takes on technology, visit Technologizer.com.

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