Seen as a response to Apple's iPod touch, the new touchscreen Zune HD is viewed as a major improvement over the previous hardware from Microsoft. It sports an OLED multi-touch screen, can tune into HD radio stations, offers playback of high-definition movies and TV shows, and has access to the $15/month unlimited download Zune Pass.
The hardware is available with a 16GB capacity for $220 and 32GB for $290. Currently, it is only compatible with Windows machines.
But for all its promoted advantages the Zune HD has over its competitors, the new hardware also offers many things the iPod touch introduced years ago, including a full-fledged Web browser and games and applications. On the former, it's simply playing catchup, and on the latter, it will likely never compete with Apple's 75,000 program deep App Store.
Here are some of the Zune HD review highlights:
The New York Times' David Pogue:
The Zune HD is a truly beautiful piece of hardware and software from Microsoft, but it's hard not to feel sorry for the software giant, who, despite releasing a good product, only has 1.1 percent of the music player market.
"If this thing came out in a parallel universe where the iPod didnt exist, it would be hailed as a god." The iPod catalog is "superior" to the Zune, while the Zune's reputation is "for weirdos and losers."
"The Zune HD player isnt perfect, but its every bit as joyful, polished and satisfying as its rival. The question is whether Microsoft will stick it out long enough to close the catalog gap, the ecosystem gap and the image gap."
HD radio is a plus, but not a "killer app." The Zune music store can't compete with iTunes: only six million songs, 10,000 TV shows and 500 movies. Only nine apps currently available.
Zune Pass is appealing, Application store will grow, and all available software will be free. Music player is attractive and is full of "clever features." Web browser is basic, but "works well."
"Over all, Microsoft has done a truly beautiful job of this player and its software."
Chicago Sun-Times' Andy Ihnatko:
Microsoft's style is like a reckless gun-toting Tony Montana, spraying bullets until something works; Apple is like patient sniper that takes one shot and makes it count.
"Microsoft has finally hit its target squarely. Its a wonderful player that triumphantly justifies its existence in a world dominated by iPods. This statement will come as a significant shock to folks who remember how I began my review of the original Zune a few years ago."
Zune desktop app is "useful, clean," but the user interface is a "mixed bag." "There are times when I wish that Microsoft went with a dull, utilitarian interface like iTunes."
"The Zune is paradise for musical explorers. Acquisition can be spawned by a mere vague interest, and thus a vague interest can create a passionate following for a performer. 15 bucks a month seems like short money for that kind of service."
Microsoft's "points" system used to purchase movies and music is frustrating, rather than transacting with real money.
Wi-Fi sync works well and is very convenient; Zune HD UI is "a serious leap forward" from the iPod's "dull" media player.
As a music player it's "magnificent," though the iPod touch offers more value with the App Store. "Dig a hole somewhere. Drop all of the preceding Zunes in there. Forget they ever existed. The Zune HD is all about Patience Rewarded."
The Associated Press' Rachel Metz:
One of the best parts of the Zune HD is its multi-touch screen. "Videos and photos look super crisp, and I had no problem snuggling up with the Zune HD while watching an episode of sketch comedy show 'The State' that I downloaded from the Zune Marketplace over the corresponding computer software."
With the $90 dock sold separately, 720P HD movies can be played back on an HDTV.
The HD radio receiver, though, is "more impressive," but while HD radio stations were definitely clearer than FM, it isn't a huge leap.
The browser works, but has no support for Flash videos or YouTube. "Still, it has an easy-to-use touch-screen keyboard for entering Web site addresses, and it's good for reading the news, checking e-mail or updating your status on Facebook."
"The Zune HD proves the device is starting to come into its own as a multimedia contender. It's not quite there yet, but I am curious to see what Microsoft comes up with next."
Boston Globe's Hiawatha Bray:
The Zune HD is better than Apple's 2006 iPod players. "Too bad it's 2009."
The hardware makes the iPod touch look "fat and clunky." "The Zunes sleek, angular look is made possible by a touchscreen that uses organic light-emitting diode, or OLED, technology, instead of the standard liquid crystal displays. OLEDs generate their own light, so theres no little bank of fluorescent lamps mounted behind the screen. That makes the Zune remarkably thin and light."
Zune Pass subscribers can keep 10 MP3s per month even after they stop paying the $15 subscription. "It's unlimited listening at a dirt-cheap price; Apple ought to offer something like it."
The world has "moved on" from media players in the last three years. Now the iPod touch is all about the applications.
"Microsofts built a fine product, all right. Just not soon enough."
Other takes on the Zune HD are available from PCWorld, Ars Technica, PCMag.com, and Gizmodo.