Microsoft Zune HD – Thoughts on Integration

Disclaimer: The following are my thoughts and opinions and are in no way those of Microsoft, nor are they endorsed in any way shape or form by the company.

I played briefly with the Zune HD at the launch yesterday. Surprisingly, the events at the Microsoft campus were quite muted. There was a tent set up and quite a bit of swag given out, but the actual Zune HDs were few and far between. When I finally got my hands on one, the lady I spoke with told me that every effort was made to get as many of the devices into customers’ hands as possible. Hence, even the launch crews were short-Zuned! Given that most of the stores in the region that were supposed to be carrying the Zune HD did not have them on launch day, this course of action was probably prudent, yet still insufficient. But enough on the shortages, what about the device?

Microsoft Zune HD

The thing that strikes you first is just how light the device is. Seeing as it’s sheathed in metal, I expected it to be pretty hefty, but instead, it feels substantially lighter than my Nokia E71, which I had for comparison. A glance at the specification plays that out. At 73.7g, it’s only 1.5x as heavy as the flash-based Zune I have, or about 65% the weight of the iPod Touch. That’s a hefty difference. Still, fit and finish is great; there’s no creaking or play in the device at all.

The OLED screen is superb, with one caveat: it suffers under direct sunlight. Launch day turned out to be a scorcher, with unhindered sunlight. I started off in the launch tent, but I asked permission to take the player outside to test it in the sun. The demo lady obliged and followed me out, where the screen washed out under the sun. With no transflective property, it’s going to be pretty hard to use the device in those conditions. You can still see the screen if you try real hard, or more realistically, shield it with one hand. Still, that’s a slight downer for usability. You gotta pay somehow for the fantastic colors in less-than-direct sun, it seems.

The operating system is what I was/am most excited about, and it delivers excitement in spades. There is no sign of hesitation in any of the transitions. The fluidity creates a user experience like no other Microsoft mobile device. You saw parts of the UI design pattern in the previous generation Zunes, but the Zune HD takes it a step further, and the more natural touch interface works really well with the slick animations. The integration with Zune Marketplace is seamless, grabbing albums by the same artist, bios, photos and more. There is a big emphasis on the Zune Marketplace, something I’ll explain in a moment. I wasn’t able to try the on-screen keyboard in the web browser, as there was no Wifi available in the middle of the soccer field the tent stood on.

Microsoft is increasingly focused on the integration of the three screens (PC, TV, and mobile) and the cloud. The recent Zune development is one of the most visible products to come out of that mentality. Zune Marketplace exists on the PC and can also be accessed through the Zune. The TV will soon get Zune integration, via Xbox 360. The value proposition presented by seamless media portability across these three device types is mouth-watering. The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future. Apple was actually way ahead of the integration game with their computers, iPods and Apple TV, along with iTunes. However, Apple TV didn’t sell terribly well, so Microsoft has a chance to capture some of the home theatre market with the already established Xbox user base.

I mentioned previously that I had signed up for the Zune Pass. It was a great choice. With the focus on the Smart DJ and mix-view in the Zune 4.0 software, I’m discovering so many new artists and albums. There’s no obstacle preventing me from downloading or streaming music nearly at will. On the 10mbps+ connection we have here now, I can listen to most songs instantly. The QuickPlay screen of the Zune 4.0 software mimics the design goal of the QuickPlay feature of the Zune HD – it’s an easy way to get at your most commonly played media. Shown below is the Smart DJ listings I’ve set up. Clicking the albums below the DJ lists makes the recently played, recently acquired, and pinned content swoosh in.

Zune 4.0 software

Many people have openly questioned Microsoft for not putting a cellular module in the Zune HD and swinging for the mobile fences. Now, my immediate reaction to that is simply of a feeling that it’s really not the hardware that is the main driver behind the Zune HD, it’s the software/firmware. You can be sure that the Zune software DNA will find itself in Windows Media Center and Windows Mobile 7 (and even in small part, in 6.5). Microsoft still believes it has the correct mobile market model is in providing software for hardware partners, as they do in the PC market. I tend to believe given Microsoft’s completely different position in the mobile market (compared to their domination in the PC market) that it’s not the most effective model. That aside, the interface and user experience will carry on into devices that other companies will manufacture, which I believe will make the difference in the user perception of Windows Mobile down the road. The hardware is really nothing terribly special. That’s the really compelling part of the Zune experiment. It may not end up becoming a popular mobile media device, but it will set the tone for Microsoft’s next generation of mobile and media-centric software. In that integrating capacity, I look forward to it. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the new features of the Zune HD release.

The Zune Marketplace also launched its TV and movie download service, in conjunction with the Zune HD. This is clearly aimed at the TV portion of the equation, which will be launching in the near future.

More Zune HD Videos – I’m Excited

UPDATE Aug. 17, 2009: Microsoft updated the Zune HD battery life specifications to now show 33 hours audio and 8.5 hours video. That’s quite competitive with the iPod Touch now.

UPDATE Aug. 13, 2009: Microsoft has made the Zune HD available for pre-orders today. Over on the Microsoft Store page, you’ll find all the detailed specifications on the Zune HD as well.

Wifi is still just b/g, while battery life comes in at the same 24 hours audio, 4 hours video as the older flash-based Zunes, and is 2/3rds what Apple advertises for the iPod Touch (36h/6h). There’s also a little nugget about downloading games.

Wireless: Buy, stream, and update your music – and download free games – wirelessly via a Wi-Fi connection.

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the first hands-on video of the soon-to-be-launched Zune HD. Now, more detailed videos are starting to appear from Engadget and CrunchGear.

First up CrunchGear:

A brief overview of many of the key features are touched upon here. The interface looks great, with transitions as smooth as ever. It has been officially confirmed that NVIDIA’s Tegra is behind the action, and it does a fantastic job. Apparently packing GeForce 6000-series performance, it seems inevitable that some sort of Xbox gaming integration will come. When is the big question.

The other interesting feature is the tight integration with the Zune Marketplace. Biographical information on artists gets downloaded. Furthermore, related artists get pulled up, and at the Albums screen, you can browse for other albums directly on the Marketplace. Couple this with the attractive Zune Pass, and it’s like on-demand music where ever there’s a Wifi hotspot. Sweetness.

Engadget also put up a video:

Again, most of the core features were touched upon. Both videos also showed the browser, although neither in the entirety. However, if you watch both videos, you’ll see the keyboard demo in the Engadget one, and a sample of panning and multi-touch zooming in the CrunchGear version. Overall, the performance is very good, the UI looks absolutely fantastic (it certainly gives the iPod Touch OS a run for its money), and with pricing to be $220 for the 16GB and $300 $290 for the 32GB, not too expensive either. Launch date should be September 18th.

CNet also did a hands-on report a short while ago. Again, generally ecstatic about the device.

I hope more than ever that Microsoft will give these to interns in the fall. And if they don’t, well, I’ll probably fork over the cash for it myself.

Microsoft Zune HD

This past week, Microsoft launched the Zune HD, which won’t become available until the fall. In the meantime, a few sites (Engadget, Gizmodo) have had a chance to see the device in action. I’m not sure if these are prototype devices or actual production units, but the software seems well-polished. On the other hand, fall is quite a whiles away, so you’d imagine Microsoft wants that time to fix up some things.

Zune HD

Gizmodo posted this ‘hands on’ of the Zune HD. Unfortunately, the video camera seems to be focused on the carpet instead of the device, but you get the idea.

All the animations and transitions are oh so smooth. There’s no lag when accessing the different functions. The photo album flips to landscape mode without hesitation and extremely smoothly, which is more than can be said for the iPhone. There’s buzz that NVIDIA’s Tegra may be behind all this action, which could presumably allow some Xbox-level games to the played on the device. The most surprising aspect of the iPhone/iPod Touch has probably been its uptake by casual gamers, and I’m sure Microsoft has that on its radar. NVIDIA’s Tegra may also be why the device won’t be ready until the fall, as production of the Tegra isn’t supposed to start until this summer.

On another note, WMPoweruser.com had rumoured Zune HD specifications and a 3D render from a month and a half ago. Back then, most other sites rejected them as ‘fanboy specs‘, but now that the real deal has been launched, the available specifications as well as the render were spot on. That makes me think whoever leaked the specs knew what was going on. With that in mind, the only major feature from the rumoured specification, not yet made public by Microsoft, would be the 3D Xbox games, although even the rumour isn’t sure what form that would take.

Whatever the case, with the E71 having replaced the iPhone in my day-to-day use, I would definitely consider an upgrade from my Zune 8GB for portable music purposes.

Oh, I sure hope they give these to the interns in the fall! 😉