Review: Can the Zune HD close the iPod gap?

Microsoft's Zune HD offers some useful features that could make it compelling -- for some users.

Microsoft's new Zune HD is an innovative media player, but the obvious question remains: Has Microsoft finally matched or even surpassed Apple's iPod/iTunes juggernaut?

What is it? The Zune HD comes in 16GB and 32GB versions, for $220 and $290, respectively. Overall, it is roughly .3 inches narrower and shorter than the iPod Touch and just a hair thicker. It also is noticeably lighter (2.6 ounces vs. 4.05 ounces). It has a 3.3-inch organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display (compared to the 3.5-inch display on the iPod Touch).

The Zune HD is tightly linked to Microsoft's iTunes equivalent, Zune Marketplace. Unlike iTunes, which operates on a song-by-song basis, Zune Marketplace offers a subscription service (Zune Pass) for about $15 a month, with which you can download and listen to as much music as you want, as long as you keep paying the monthly fee.

How does it work? Perhaps because I'm not used to handling such a light device, the device felt a bit flimsy to me at first. And the plastic display cover, undoubtedly selected to save weight and money, showed fingerprints far more readily than devices with glass display covers.

Like the iPod Touch and iPhone, the Zune HD has two primary buttons, one on the top that turns the device on and off, and one below the display to return to the home screen. It also has rocker buttons on the left edge of the device for controlling playback.

The Zune HD's multi-touch interface is very similar to Apple's. You move to a new screen or scroll up or down by flicking a finger, and you zoom in or out with pinch motions. The device seamlessly switches between portrait and landscape modes when you rotate the device 90 degrees.

Playback quality for audio and video is exemplary. Sound quality is clear and video (and still images) are bright, well defined and richly colored.

Zune HD
Can the Zune HD come close to matching the success of Apple's iPod?

Why it's cool: Thrifty users will appreciate the Zune HD's price -- the 32GB version is about $20 less than the comparable iPod Touch. (Unlike the iPod Touch, Microsoft doesn't offer 8GB and 64GB versions -- only 16GB and 32GB.)

For some, the Zune Pass subscription service, which lets you download and listen to all the music you want, will be compelling, even though services such as Rhapsody (owned by Real Networks) and Napster (owned by Best Buy) haven't garnered nearly as many customers as iTunes.

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