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Review: Hands On With Zune HD

A Smaller, Simpler PMP

If the Zune HD’s design says anything, it says “compact." The iPod Touch is meant to fit in the hand comfortably and show off a large screen, and in comparison, the Zune feels small, light, and small-screened. However, holding the Zune and using it feels just right. The ridged sides are easy to grasp and much more comfortable than the Touch’s rounded sides. A larger screen would have been better, but considering how good the screen is, we’ll still take it over the Touch’s screen any day.

The Zune has three buttons: a power/sleep button on top, a home button below the screen, and a volume and music control button on the left side. Forgoing the standard volume controls (two volume buttons, for louder and quieter) feels like a mistake, since the new layout forces you to touch the screen often, which causes unsightly smudging. It also means that changing the volume requires users to look at the screen, but at the same time it’s now easier to play, pause, and switch tracks. But, including this volume control was excuse to remove the volume rocker altogether. We see no problem with including a volume rocker either around the current volume button, using a 3 button system, or putting a volume rocker on the opposite side of the device. Being forced to look at the screen while adjusting volume is a nuisance.

That top power button does not stick out (like the Touch’s), and is still easy to press. This makes it excellent for keeping it in your pocket because nothing will catch the button. The home button sticks out slightly, but is rounded off and is much more comfortable to press than the Touch, iPhone 3GS, or previous models are. A satisfying click for every press gives users confidence, instead of Apple’s quiet, depressed button. The area underneath the home button, which is just a plastic covering, is useless except for a thumb rest. That is, until a video is played and suddenly it’s the area where users are meant to hold onto the player. This is very convenient and comfortable and reduces the need for extra screen smearing.

Smearing, however, is a bit of a problem. Like earlier Touch and iPhone models (before the 3GS’ oleophobic oil-resistant screen), the Zune HD attracts fingerprints easily. The screen is bright enough to make sure you’ll never see smears when watching videos, but the standard black background of the operating system means smears are visible the rest of the time, so it does tend to look dirty on the front.

A metal plate is screwed into the back as a battery cover, though it is replaceable with soon to be released customizable backplates. Our device came with a simple Zune logo laser-etched into the back panel, though right now online buyers can pick between 20 different designs and, for the 32 GB model, four colors. The 16 GB model now only comes in Onyx black.

With its flat bottom, the Zune HD can actually stand on its own. The bottom houses the 3.5 mm audio jack and proprietary connector input. Like previous Zunes, this one includes the fun-loving “hello from seattle” logo.

One major hardware oversight on the Zune HD: Not including speakers, which are the simplest way to share music. It is perhaps the single greatest crutch the device has, a mistake Apple learned from with the first generation Touch. We’d contest that speakers are so important that users would be willing to pay an extra $10-15 for a decent built-in set.