Microsoft Zune Still Playing Catch-Up

Why have Microsoft’s Zune media players failed to make even the tiniest of dents in the iPod’s market dominance? There are multiple reasons, but one stands out: They’ve been stuck in a hopeless game of catch-up, and they’re always way, way behind.

The original Zune was a hard disk player that debuted in 2006–right when Apple’s flash-based iPod Nano was becoming the world’s best-selling MP3 player. In 2007, Microsoft announced Nano-like Zunes that used flash storage–a couple of months after Apple shipped the sexier touch-screen iPod Touch. And now Microsoft is releasing the Zune HD, a touch-screen model, but one without the awesome power of the iPhone/iPod Touch App Store. To riff on the famous Wayne Gretzky quote, Microsoft is like a hockey player who keeps skating to where the puck was…not to where it is right now, and certainly not to where it will be.

But wait. The Zune HD may be a mere media player, but it’s anything but a retread. It packs worthwhile technologies that no iPod does, such as an OLED screen and HD output. It’s very much its own device in terms of industrial design and user interface, both of which are nicely done. In short, the Zune HD is cool in ways that no previous Zune has been. And even though the HD has its share of imperfections and limitations, it’s easy to imagine some folks preferring it to any media player that hails from Cupertino.

Sizewise, the new Zune is noticeably more pocketable than the iPod Touch and its soulmate, the iPhone–it’s a midsized gizmo, in an aluminum-and-plastic case that fits your hand easily and looks good in it. (The jokes about the homely brown Zune can end now.) Here it is flanked by the new iPod Nano and an iPhone 3GS:

Naturally, a noticeably smaller player is going to have a noticeably smaller screen: The Zune’s is 3.3?, vs. the 3.5? display on the Touch. The difference is more striking than those two numbers suggest: The screen is plenty big enough for tasks like managing audio and video, but movies feel less expansive than on the Touch, and the on-screen keyboard requires that you tap with more precision. Some folks are bashing the HD for its lack of the Touch’s embarrassment of app riches, but even if it could magically run all 70,000-odd iPhone OS apps, it wouldn’t run many of them very well–the screen is too little.

Which is not to say that the 480-by-272 pixel screen looks bad. The OLED display boasts vivid, bright colors; it’s not a total revelation compared to the LCD on my iPhone 3GS, but it’s pleasing by any standard, and particularly nifty for video content. The nicest thing about it isn’t how it looks, though–it’s the multi-touch interface, which is every bit as fluid as that on the iPod Touch and iPhone. Just as with Apple’s interface, you use your fingers to scroll, tap, pinch, and pull; it’s smooth, responsive, and fun, and the fancy animated menus you use to jump from feature to feature are as intuitive as Apple’s equivalents even though they don’t look or work like them.

As a music player, the most interesting thing about the Zune HD is a holdover from previous Zunes: Microsoft’s Zune Pass subscription service. For $14.99 a month, you get full access to Microsoft’s entire catalog of music; you can download albums and tracks directly to the HD, via its built-in Wi-Fi, or download them to a PC first and then sync them to the Zune via USB cable or Wi-Fi. You can also stream unlimited music in your Web browser (even if that browser is on a Mac–a platform which Zune doesn’t otherwise support).

Of course, when you subscribe to a music service you’re renting, not buying: If you cancel your Zune Pass subscription, all this music goes away. But in an obvious response to the utter domination of iTunes’ pay-per-track pricing, your fifteen bucks also lets you download ten DRM-free MP3s a month that are yours to keep and will play even if you dump your Microsoft audio player for a competitor.

Consumers have consistently failed to show much enthusiasm for subscription music plans, so it’s possible that real people won’t find Zune Pass a significant point in the HD’s favor. Then again, the HD is probably the best subscription-music player ever; it may help subscription music’s cause simply by being a device that people want.

If you still don’t want to commit to Zune Pass, you can buy songs a la carte from the Zune Marketplace, as you would from iTunes. (Microsoft continues to needlessly complicate matters by pricing everything in Microsoft Points, which are worth 1.25 cents apiece in real-world currency, and which you buy in blocks.) Or you can rip songs from CD using the Zune software. Or listen to the player’s built-in HD radio receiver, which provides static-free reception and extra variant versions of some stations. (Too bad the radio doesn’t offer the new iPod Nano’s TiVo-like pausing and rewinding of live radio.)

When the first Zune showed up back in 2006, one of its biggest differentiating points compared to the iPod was supposed to be the Social, its social-networking features. They’re still there, letting you share music and recommendations with your Zune-using pals (assuming you have any–but perhaps the Zune HD will sell well enough that Zune fans won’t feel so lonely). In 2009, the Social feels a tad long in the tooth: It’s a separate menu on the Zune and in the device’s PC software, and even if you have Zune-loving friends, it’s too hard to find them. You have to enter their “Zune Tag” nicknames or e-mail addresses one by one; it would be way easier if the Social, like other social networks, could scan your e-mail address books and lists of friends for folks who are already using it.

Then there’s video. Like I said, movies and TV shows look good (although small) on the OLED display. Invest in the optional $89.99 AV dock, and you can connect a Zune HD to your TV via the included HDMI or component cable and use a remote control and menus on your TV’s screen to control it–it makes the Zune feel a bit like a tiny Media Center PC. The Zune outputs video in the 720p resolution that helps to give the it the “HD” part of its name; the dock also lets you listen to music from your collection or the HD tuner. High-def content looked crisp and eye-catching on my 42-inch LCD HDTV–at a distance, I’d mistake it for the HD I get via cable–and even standard-def video was presentable.

But for video, the Zune is hobbled by the so-so state of Microsoft’s video store. The Zune Marketplace offers movies (for purchase and rental) and TV shows (for purchase) in standard- and high-definition. (I’m sorry to say that they too are priced in those dreased Microsoft Points.) As with iPods, you buy anddownload video for the Zune via its PC software, then sync it over to the player; it’s also possible to buy or rent content for viewing on a PC, but if you choose Zune versions you can’t watch them on your computer.

The big problem with the Marketplace’s video offerings is selection, or lack thereof. It doesn’t compare with the iTunes lineup–it’s a limited, scattershot assortment of new and older titles, and major chunks of what you might want to watch are missing, such as Disney releases). Even when the Marketplace did offer a particular title, I had trouble finding it: Searches I did for film titles didn’t pull up anything even when the items in question were there.

Microsoft says it’s working to offer a more comprehensive unified collection of video for Zunes and the XBox 360, and to let you pay for content once and watch it on both platforms. For now, the Zune Marketplace’s skimpy video offerings may be a bigger disappointment than the Zune’s lack of a true application store, given that HD video is one of the device’s primary selling points. (The player supports video in the WMV, H.264, and MPEG4 formats, and I suspect that many owners will end up acquiring most of the stuff they watch from sources other than Microsoft.)

Speaking of apps: The Marketplace does have a section for them, but the Zune HD is launching with only nine programs (a weather app, a calculator, and seven games) versus the tens of thousands that run on the iPod Touch. Microsoft says it’ll bring more free software to the Zune (including clients for Facebook and Twitter in November, plus more games). But it has no concrete plans to let third-party developers write and distribute apps.

Of course, you can get to Facebook and Twitter and a whole lot more right now via the Zune’s Web browser. It does a more than respectable job of squishing sites to fit on its screen; just as on the iPod touch, you can zoom in by dragging with your fingertips, and the Zune’s accelerometer adjusts the browser to landscape and portrait mode on the fly Overall, though, it’s much more bare-bones than Apple’s Mobile Safari: It lacks that browser’s tab-like support for multiple pages, doesn’t autocorrect or autoremember anything you type, and can’t handle embedded YouTube clips. And while many sites deliver optimized versions to the iPhone and Touch, the Zune tends to get generic mobile versions. (The version of Gmail for iPhone OS is amazing; the one you get on the Zune HD is surprisingly crude.) Assuming that Microsoft releases a software update for the Zune in the coming months, job one should be to beef up the browser.

The Bottom Line

From a hardware standpoint, the Zune HD is terrific. Other than the too-basic browser, its software is generally impressive. It’s the service side of things where things get complicated: Zune Pass remains an excellent deal, but the Zune’s video store is a disappointment, and its app store is a non-entity. The best thing about Apple’s iPod/iTunes platform is that it’s a beautifully integrated system; for all the major advances of the Zune HD compared to earlier Zunes, it remains a laggard on that front.

Should you consider buying a Zune HD? Absolutely, if the hardware design appeals to you and you like the idea of feasting on music for fifteen bucks a month. The video features are another major attraction if you plan to supply your own content from (ahem) ripped DVDs or other sources rather depending on Microsoft’s offerings. But the HD isn’t a pocket-sized computer like the iPod Touch–as I said at the start of this review, it’s a mere media player, albeit a (mostly) neat one.

And despite all the time in this review and elsewhere contrasting the Zune with the Touch, that leaves me thinking that the HD’s most direct competitor is not the touch-screen iPod but the new Nano. For $40 more than the 16GB Nano, the $219 16GB Zune HD gives you a bigger and better screen, a much slicker interface, HD radio, HD video output, direct access to content and wireless syncing via Wi-Fi, basic Web browsing, and the subscription music option. Yes, you give up Nano features such as the video camera, pedometer, much better video store, and Mac compatibility. But if I were buying a portable gadget today mostly to listen to music, I’d probably spring for the Zune over the Nano and sign up for a Zune Pass.

What’s next for Zune? Your guess is as good as mine, but I hope that this model sells well enough to end the ongoing speculation over whether the brand is toast. It’s the first genuinely interesting media player from Microsoft, and if the company develops it rather than mimicking last year’s iPod, the name “Zune” just might stop sounding like a punchline to a bad joke about Microsoft’s inability to compete with Apple in digital entertainment.

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

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