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?
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.
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.