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Elegant new Zune HD just a little late to the game

Microsoft offers up a great media player, but users have come to expect more

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By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / September 17, 2009

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If someone had handed me Microsoft Corp.’s new Zune HD back in 2006, he would have had to mug me to get it back. Thin, elegant, stuffed with advanced features, the new Zune is one of the best portable media devices yet. It’s certainly far better than Apple Inc.’s 2006 line of iPod media players.

Too bad it’s 2009. Someone should have told the designers at Microsoft. They have created a brilliant personal entertainment device for a world that has come to expect a great deal more.

The Zune HD is designed to compete against Apple’s popular iPod Touch music and video players. The base model Zune HD sells for $220, compared with $199 for a basic iPod Touch, but the Zune offers 16 gigabytes of flash memory, where the Touch has eight.

Ever think you’d see a device from Microsoft that would make the Touch look fat and clunky? Here it is. The Zune’s 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 there’s no little bank of fluorescent lamps mounted behind the screen. That makes the Zune remarkably thin and light. Instead of the big, round control button found on the iPod Touch and the iPhone, Microsoft goes with a thin sliver of plastic. It works just as well, and makes room for a video screen only slightly smaller than you’ll find on the Touch.

As the name suggests, the Zune HD delivers high-definition video using the entry-level 720p standard. Its own screen isn’t big enough to handle that, but for $90 more, you can buy a docking device with HDMI and component-type video cables that can be hooked up to a TV. I downloaded an episode of “Battlestar Galactica’’ from Microsoft’s online Zune store, and while it wasn’t up to Blu-ray standards, the video looked fine on a big Samsung HDTV.

HD also stands for HD radio, a technology that has been adopted by dozens of AM and FM stations, but has scarcely made a dent with consumers. HD radio offers clearer sound and lets a single station broadcast additional audio streams that you can’t pick up on standard radios. I call them “dog whistle’’ stations, because most people can’t hear them. But you can with a Zune HD. Its FM tuner pulled in such local delights as The Irish Channel and the blues channel Radio Mojo.

Of course, the Zune HD is a music player. It syncs up with Zune Marketplace, Microsoft’s answer to the iTunes Store. The Zune software seems unduly confusing, compared with Apple’s straightforward design, and you don’t pay for your purchases in real-world money. Instead, you buy Microsoft “points,’’ just as you do when purchasing gaming goodies on the company’s Xbox Live video game network. You get about 79 points per dollar. That’s enough to buy one MP3 music file.

Or you can buy a Zune Pass for $14.99 a month. It’s a sort of music rental service. Members get unlimited access to 6 million tunes in Zune’s online library. They can download what they want, and keep listening to it as long as they pay the monthly fee. In addition, Zune Pass subscribers can keep 10 MP3 tunes per month, with no strings attached. It’s unlimited listening at a dirt-cheap price; Apple ought to offer something like it.

In all, the Zune is a reasonably priced, feature-rich media player, just what the world needed three years ago. Since then, we’ve moved on. Just look at the iPod Touch. More important, look at the thousands of software applications that it can run - everything from medical reference books to financial management programs.

What does Zune have to offer? About half a dozen applets, like a weather reporting program and a few games. All were cobbled together by Microsoft, which says it has no plans to open the Zune to software from independent developers. “The goal is not to be a fitness device or a restaurant-finding device,’’ a Microsoft spokesman told me. “It’s to be a great music and video player.’’

But Apple already makes great music and video players, which also happen to be great pocket-size personal computers. Throw in a universe of iPod accessories, from carrying cases to compatible home stereo gear, and you’d need a really good reason to buy any other brand. Microsoft’s built a fine product, all right. Just not soon enough.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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Microsoft Zune HD

Music and video player

$220

Light and thin; OLED video touchscreen offers brilliant color; built-in FM HD radio tuner; plays high-definition videos through optional docking station. Very limited range of software applications and accessories.