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Review: Hands On With Zune HD

New Ways To Play Music

The original Zune was made to share music between Zunes, but that never caught on because for every Zune owner there were at least 100 people with an iPod instead. Even today, you’d be lucky to find a fellow Zune owner in the wild unless you work in Redmond. Microsoft’s initial failure seems to have inspired its developers to give new Zune owners the best possible music experience without actual music ownership. Just stay with us, it’ll all be clear soon.

First among the Zune’s music sources is the HD radio, an excellent addition not only because few personal media players come with it, but because this HD Radio comes with many layers of content, meaning local radio stations can broadcast multiple stations over the same signal. For example, in Los Angeles we have 95.5 KLOS, which appears in HD1 and HD2, where HD2 is actually the company’s AM station KFI 640. Whether a frequency has multiple channels depends on the radio station and the maximum is three different channels per frequency.

The radio app is innovative, but a little slow to start and reception gets weak. Driving around the LA area, several radio stations, which played clear in the car radio didn’t work at all on the Zune, which uses the headphones as an antenna, though they aren’t required to use the radio. Of course, this practice limits the radio’s use when using speakers, which do not make a good antennae.

If the reception is clear, HD radio shows the music playing and Zune owners can click to bookmark songs for later purchase from the store, which is a very handy add-on. Controlling the radio is a hassle, though, both because it’s slow and because preset stations can only be accessed by going back and forth between the preset button on the bottom left of the screen. There is no option to add preset hotlinks to the screen. Once a radio station is visited, its information will be saved if it’s a preset. The radio also works in Japan and Europe.

Besides the radio, Microsoft wanted people to get away from listening to just the music they own and to try out new tunes that they may like. The company made a Pandora-like algorithm (Pandora is a popular Internet radio service featuring "stations" based on your likes and dislikes), which determines what type of music you like based on your music collection. There’s also an option to download “channels” from other users or companies, like KROQ or other radio stations. If you’re a Zunepass subscriber, which is $15 a month (we discuss exactly how Zunepass works on page 8), you can download these channels  as play lists associated with specific types of music. We set one up and were immediately pleased with the music selection it gave based.

The most convenient part of all this is that while you don’t own those songs, they are still on your Zune to listen to at your leisure, until you sync and change the mix or delete it altogether. Of course, if you don’t like the song (or if you love it), you can rate it and when you next sync, it’ll upload that data to Zune and it’ll remember what you liked and didn’t like.