Andy Ihnatko on the new Zune HD.
Microsoft has finally hit its target squarely. It’s a wonderful player that triumphantly justifies its existence in a world dominated by iPods.
Whoa! Astute, unbiased observation, or pure sacrilege? How did Andy feel about the original Zune and how does he feel about the Zune HD?
I wrote that the overall user experience was like having an airbag deploy in your face… Setting up the first generation Zune was like trying to stuff a cat into vet carrier.
What’s changed in the Zune HD? Zune Marketplace (iTunes Store) and the Zune Pass (subscription music service).
But for fifteen bucks a month, you can get a “Zune Pass” which buys you a subscribscription to the Marketplace’s entire library of millions of songs. You can browse and grab tracks and whole albums at no additional cost. They’ll live on in your music library and synced to your Zune player … so long as you keep paying fifteen bucks a month, of course.
Subscription music is not new but has never become the dominant way to listen to music. Buy and own vs. rent.
With the Zune, I can download Imogen Heap’s entire latest album moments after David Letterman is done thanking her for playing on the show. With iTunes, I just bought the one song she played and sat on it for days while I mulled the expense of downloading the rest of the album.
That sounds plausible, but is it a selling point that, you know, sells?
That’s already a hugely desirable feature. And it’s another serious Envy Point for iPod users… Thus 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.
Why have subscription music services not become the de facto standard? There must be some kind of well hidden gotcha in how Microsoft marries the Zune HD to the Marketplace.
I can’t move on without pointing out a huge drawback of purchasing content from the Zune Marketplace: it’s always at least a partial ripoff. The iTunes Store accepts real money. The Marketplace only takes “points,” which you can only buy in bundles, and it’s impossible to buy only the amount of points you need to buy the thing you want. So in effect, you’re always paying Microsoft a tax in the form of surplus points that you have no hope of ever really using.
See? I told you so. Any other enviable moments in there? How about the Zune itself?
Onward, at last, to the actual Zune HD … which can sync wirelessly, via WiFi. Another Point Of Envy. Apple argues that an iPod WiFi sync feature would be ungodly slow.
The Zune HD is a touch screen. Apple’s iPod touch is a touch screen. Apple’s user interface is considered excellent. What of the Zune?
The Zune UI is magnificent. It’s visually exciting without placing style over substance. It’s easy to drill down into each feature without losing sight of the thing you need to touch to get back to where you were, or access the feature that’s on your mind at the moment. User-interface elements slide in and out smoothly and responsively.
But is it so much better that customers will prefer a Zune to an iPod touch? After all, an iPod is part of the Apple ecosystem—iTunes Store, App Store, accessories… Has Microsoft gone feature heavy with the Zune HD?
There’s an onboard web browser. It’s handy, but not up to the standard you’ll find on the iPod Touch or major smartphones. It’s slow and doesn’t always render pages correctly. But it’s a nice freebie. There’s an App Store, too. But I don’t know what to make of it yet. At launch, there are a handful of arcade games available for free download (only via the desktop Zune app), a calculator, and a weather app. Microsoft promises a few social-networking apps in the next couple of months.
As an all-purpose, handheld, in-your-pocket device, the iPod touch reigns supreme. The Zune HD?
The Zune is all about the music. The Zune Marketplace offers buffet-style music consumption via the monthly Zune Pass subscription. Related tracks and recommendations from friends are always within easy reach. And the player represents a more pleasant music-playing experience than anything that iTunes or the iPod can offer. It’s a fine pick.
Zune HD plays music and movies on a screen that is worse than the iPod touch. The price is about the same. The size is a bit smaller. No apps, no utilities, no games. Subscription music vs. music ownership. Should you consider a Zune HD?
But if you want a device that’s only mostly about the music and you want to get some cool additional features, an iPod is still the best value. It’s a little cheaper and it does so much more. Even if you have no interest in reading ebooks or managing a shopping list, there are hundreds of iPhone/iPod apps for listening to streaming music from Pandora, Last.fm, and just about every other major music service and streaming radio station you can mention. The iPod Touch is a device that redefines itself with every app you install.
It seems to me that Andy was impressed with the Zune for two reasons. First, a few features exist that do not exist in the iPod touch. Second, Microsoft made the Zune good enough to look at, but not compare too closely. We may flirt with what’s new and different, but home is where the heart is.