Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hands-on with the Zune HD

It's thin, light, and gorgeous, with super-slick menus and eye-popping video capabilities to boot. Take a gander at our exclusive interface snapshots and my initial hands-on impressions. Also: FCC filings reveal 16GB and 32GB versions of the Zune HD.

Microsoft reps were kind enough to give me about an hour of quality time with the new, touchscreen Zune in a Manhattan conference room Monday, and so far, so good. Set for the release in the fall—no pricing details quite yet [update: possible pricing and release date info have just been leaked]—the Zune HD may finally inject some much-needed excitement into Microsoft's troubled Zune line, thanks to some killer features that even the mighty iPod Touch can't match yet. (That said, please note that this post is in no way a full review; that'll have to wait until I have a final review unit in-hand.)

First of all, let's just say that the Zune HD makes for the sexiest Zune yet. A little taller and wider than the flash Zunes yet stiff wafer thin (official measurements have yet to be released), the new Zune feels way light to the touch—between three and four ounces, if I had to guess—yet solid enough not to feel chintzy. Indeed, the Zune HD feels as good to hold as the original iPod Nano did; you just don't want to let it go.

The 480 by 272 OLED screen is an eye-opener, as well, boasting vivid colors and deep, dark black levels. Zune users of old will be familiar with the HD's handy "twist" interface, which lets you flick up and down between main menu options, then side-to-side for submenus.

Microsoft reps cautioned that the Zune HD's menus are still being tweaked, but they looked impressively polished to me; the interface reacted almost instantly to my taps, with menus that subtly fade, zoom in and out, and slide over and away in a pleasing but not overbearing manner.

The Zune HD version of the "twist" UI also has a few new tricks up its sleeves. Starting from the top, right behind the main menu (just flick to access), is a cool innovation; a thumbnailed column of your oft-used Zune content, starting with favorites (or "Pins"), followed by your most-recent "History" items (including songs, videos, and even Web pages), and finally your "New" tunes, videos, and podcasts. Love it.

Another new touch is the Music interface, which (as first described by Donald Bell at CNET) automatically pulls in artist bios, pictures, and "related" music from the Zune Marketplace.

Select a given song, album, or artist, and the artist's picture fades smoothly into the background, then tap for biographical info or to look up related albums or artists—and if you're connected via Wi-Fi, you can start downloading relevant music immediately.

Videos on the 720p-capable Zune HD also looked startlingly good. I didn't get to watch any movies or trailers (HD movie rentals from the Zune Marketplace are in the cards, although I didn't get any more details during Monday's meeting), but a brief 720p demo video showing a massive optical telescope sure hit the spot, even when downscaled for the Zune HD's 480 by 272 display. When connected to an optional A/V dock, the Zune will be able to output video to an HDMI-enabled HDTV at full 720p resolution—a trick I'm looking forward to seeing for myself.

I also gave the Zune HD's much-vaunted Web browser a brief spin, and I liked what I saw. Based on the Windows Mobile version of Internet Explorer (not my favorite mobile browser, mind you), the Zune's full-screen browser handled full HTML pages—including the tricky Yahoo! Tech home page—with ease, and you can zoom in and out of Web pages using two-finger multitouch gestures, such as "pinching."

You can also enter URLs and other text with the Zune HD's virtual, on-screen keypad. Touch a key, and the letter and its immediate neighbors pop up, with the middle letter bulging up and out; slide your finger left or right, and the "bulge" follows along, selecting different letters as it goes.

In theory, the bulging effect is supposed to help you pinpoint the correct key; in practice, though, I found the curvy pop-up letters tricky and distracting. That said, it's not clear if the keypad interface I saw today will survive in the final, shipping Zune HD.

Back on the music side, I liked the Zune HD's easy-to-use touch playback controls (you can pretty much just tap the left or right side of the screen to skip tracks, for example), but in terms of physical controls, there's only a volume rocker (besides the single "back" button below the touchscreen), and the Zune HD's headset won't ship with an in-line remote. In other words, if you're out and about with the Zune HD in your pocket, you'll have to take it out and unlock the screen to pause your music or skip tracks. Bummer.

Microsoft reps wouldn't discuss storage options or pricing during our meeting Monday, but CNET just found these FCC filings for the Zune HD that reveal both 16GB and 32GB versions—not bad, but the lack of a larger, 64GB model will be problematic when it comes to HD movies and TV shows. (Feature-length HD movies, for examples, generally range between 4 and 6GB.)

Overall, though, the Zune HD is looking mighty promising. Stay tuned for a full review—plus full pricing and availability details, I'd hope—in the coming weeks.

Correction: In my original post, I mistakenly wrote that the Zune HD would be the first to support WEP and WPA encryption for Wi-Fi hotspots—not true at all, of course. Sorry for the goof.

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