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Microsoft's Zune HD player: It's still no iPod

The latest run at Apple dominance shows some nice capabilities, including radio and video access, but it falls short on software and apps.

September 16, 2009|David Colker

In a public demonstration that hope springs eternal, Microsoft on Tuesday introduced the latest version of its Zune portable player.

As mighty as Microsoft is, the odds are not with it in this venture. If the Zune were an ancient myth, it would be Sisyphus forever trying to roll a giant stone up a hill. If a comic-strip character, Charlie Brown trying to kick a football, and if a politician, Ralph Nader running for president.

All have little hope of triumphing, but they try over and over again.

The new player, called the Zune HD, is the latest in the line that was launched with much fanfare by Microsoft Corp. in 2006 to compete with Apple Inc.'s iPod.

Several upgrades have been issued since then, but in the first six months of this year, according to NPD Group, the Zunes had only 2% of portable player sales in the U.S. Apple had 73%.

The Zune HD cannot be dismissed, however, as just another update. With its touch screen and ability to browse the Internet, it's clearly targeting the iPod Touch. Also, it differentiates itself in the way that it handles the medium that portable players were all about at their inception -- music.

It also includes an FM radio that can access HD radio channels and is altogether missing from the iPod Touch.

And with the addition of its AV dock -- sold separately for about $90, it can show its video content on an HDTV screen in quite respectable 720p resolution.

As hardware, the Zune HD is just fine. It's packed into a thin case that might not have the design flair of an Apple player, but it's efficient, and the one button on the front does the all-important job of returning you to the main menu from wherever you are in on-screen functions.

The truly notable achievement is the screen, which uses organic light-emitting-diode technology to bring forth a stunning image. The stills and videos displayed on the screen have depth and wonderfully vivid colors.

But as lovely as that screen is, it's not likely to make the Zune HD the player that saves the line.

That's because the software, which is used to run the player and guide users, is not nearly as accomplished. And it's about as user-friendly as a pharmaceutical insert.

Its difficulties are apparent right from the beginning with the setup of the device. It took more than a couple of hours to get it functioning after the software was released Tuesday morning (without the software download, it's just a dead brick).

At one point the player died completely and there was no obvious way to revive it. And the instructions that came with the device were scarce to the point of being frustrating. I was lucky to reach someone at Microsoft, who took me through the process of doing a complete reset, which brought it back to life.

Frustrations continued on the website that loads music and other content onto the player. It was exasperatingly difficult to use. Even the labels on the various sections of the site were misleading.

Which was a shame, because Zunes have a music service that could be attractive to many people if easier to use. It's a subscription service that, for $14.99 a month, lets you choose from millions of songs to listen to (but not own).

Although that fee is off-putting, it comes with 10 free downloads a month -- so for heavy music users who buy a lot of tunes online anyway, the real cost is only about $5.

The service, which also comes with a potentially cool Smart DJ feature that chooses related music for you to sample, is slow, difficult to use and instead of being cool, adds to the aggravation. It will probably not finally be the salvation for music subscription services, which have been around for years but have never widely caught on.

But perhaps the fatal flaw of the Zune HD lies in its applications.

There are seven apps that come with the device, including a calculator and games such as Sudoku and Texas Hold 'Em. The plan, according to a Microsoft spokesman, is to add more, but they will come only from the company.

Huge mistake, given that the truly wonderful array of creative and useful apps for the iPod Touch, as well as the iPhone, were developed mostly by outsiders, from individuals to major companies.

Microsoft made its vast, vast fortune from software, but it has to trust that sometimes, work from enterprising folks outside its corporate culture is just what's needed to bring freshness and wonder to a product.

It was that sense of wonder we all felt the first time we held and tried an iPod. And for those of us old enough to remember, the same was true of the Sony Walkman when it came out.

The Zune HD comes to the table with some nice ideas. But the only wonder is wondering why this product isn't better.


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