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Review: Hands On With Zune HD

Update: Why Software Is So Important

While we initially tested the device to see how it works in the lab, over the last few days we've considered real world challenges. Here, we discovered the Zune HD’s greatest successes and faults.

On the software front, the originally difficult-to-navigate menu system has already become simple and intuitive to use. We don’t particularly like navigating through artist names using the lettering-search system, but it does work efficiently. One missing feature is the ability to skip sections of a song with a graphical control, something the Touch has done since it was first released. Furthermore, videos have this option. Why music doesn’t is beyond us.

The browser, which we originally found to be fast and powerful, has some serious limitations and is clearly not meant for heavy web use. There is no tabbed browsing, meaning users can only have one web page opened at a time. As mentioned earlier, the browser acts like a mobile browser, meaning it will load mobile pages when available. There is no option to open pages fully, to limit what is viewed, or any browsing options whatsoever. The only functions the browser has are the ability to store cookies, a brief and slow-to-render history, and bookmarking.

In terms of speed, the browser is fast. Loading mobile pages took almost no time at all, with pages like NYTimes.com loading in 2-3 seconds. Heavier pages, such as our own Tomsguide.com, are fairly quick as well, averaging 17 seconds, but it’s not faster than the iPhone 3GS/iPod Touch, which renders the pages slightly faster.

Further use of the HD radio revealed a few important details. The radio itself does not have a powerful antenna, so each user will have to gauge how good their reception is before purchasing if the radio is crucial. The HD radio has slightly better quality than standard analog radio, but driving around we found that more often then not, the Zune HD couldn’t maintain its HD connection, though the analog radio worked fine.

The Social network is, while small and growing, an extremely powerful function, should you have friends on it. Xbox Live or MSN/Windows Live users will undoubtedly find friends with “social cards”, which keep track of the latest music they have listened to and their favorites. Zunepass users will be able to listen to all their friends’ music, either through the Zune HD over a Wi-Fi network, or through the Zune PC player. There is also an option to send songs to specific Zune users or email addresses.

As mentioned earlier, the current applications are meant to demo what the Zune HD can do, but most fall short compared to what Microsoft says is in the future for applications. All games come with a complimentary commercial prior to opening (one video ad stops music playback until the video, and its audio, is complete. It isn’t a horrible annoyance, especially if the advertisement is shown in place of a loading screen, but we’d still like to see a loading bar so we know we’re not just reading an ad).

All of the game apps are frightfully slow, and do not look or feel optimized for the device. Force-exiting them will literally stall the screen for at least five seconds, though audio playback will continue. No other built-in functions cause such a slowdown. The few available apps run well enough alone, but once again, they are very lacking.

New applications will be slow to come, as Microsoft is currently managing all new applications itself and has not released an open SDK. We will see new apps, such as Twitter and Facebook, apps this November, as well as more games. These are expected to be free. There is no set release date for the SDK, which is rumored to be free to download.