After weeks of writing about it, I finally got my hands on a Zune HD yesterday, courtesy of Microsoft’s Open House on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. That event was designed to show off the products that Microsoft hopes will be sales hits during the holiday season. One of which, obviously, is the Zune HD, the 16GB version of which was distributed to journalists in gift bags.

Just as a bit of background, I own an iPod Touch. And until I accidentally sat on it the other week, shattering the screen, I also owned the iPod Nano. Apple’s mobile-device ecosystem is one I’m familiar with, and enjoy for its relative ease-of-use. That being said, you’ll never find me lined up outside an Apple Store at 3 a.m. to buy the next Steve Jobs Wonder Device; I consider myself music-player agnostic, and the iPod–at least in my opinion–has for years represented the best of what’s around.

The Zune HD makes a solid run at the iPod Touch. Indeed, if Microsoft’s device had made its debut a few years ago, then the handheld media player landscape would likely look very, very different.


The Zune HD boasts a slightly narrower width and shorter length than the iPod Touch, although both devices have roughly the same thickness. The multitouch screen on the Zune covers a slightly higher percentage of the device’s face; but nonetheless, the presentation for both players is remarkably similar.

Zunevipodtouch - image 1.jpg Where the devices differ most, physically, is in terms of weight. The Zune HD clocks in at 74 grams, while my third-generation iPod Touch weighs around 115 grams. Not much of a difference, true–except that when you hold both, Apple’s offering feels heftier and weightier, and not in a bad way. The Zune HD, on the other hand, feels more throwaway or disposable.

The Software

Microsoft has absorbed what allowed Apple to succeed in the music-player ecosystem. I actually somewhat prefer the Zune’s desktop interface to the latest iTunes update, which to me feels aesthetically cluttered; maybe it’s all the white space, but Zune’s offering feels cleaner.

The Zune software itself was easy to download and install, even on a dinosaur of a ThinkPad T41 running Windows XP. (What’s the fun, after all, of testing something on a Dell Adamo laptop running Windows 7? In the spirit of Fall, I wanted to see something potentially smoke and burn.) On your first run-through, the interface asks you to choose three music artists you like, so it can attempt to calibrate your tastes; I chose ‘Emily Wells,’ and Zune had no idea who that was. That could be a problem if Microsoft wants to bank on the angel-headed hipster demographic.

Device Interface

Both the Zune HD and the iPod Touch require you slide a finger along an onscreen bar in order to open up the device. Apple’s start screen presents colorful blocks of Apps, with a lower gray bar with Music/Videos/Photos/iTunes.

Zunevipodtouch - image 2.jpg

The Zune HD’s interface is much simpler: an up-down list of Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, Marketplace, Social, Internet and Settings. Touch the words, obviously, gives you access to sub-categories, and from there you can begin to access your content.

After years of using the iPod Touch, it took a little time to get used to the Zune HD’s interface, but after around half an hour it proved just as intuitive as Apple’s offering.

Tomorrow: But How Does It Play?

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