Zune HD review: Excellent media player, slightly flawed

After admiring the Zune HD's slim good looks, now we've installed its software and taken it for a spin. We loaded the $290 32GB media player with music, videos, pictures and podcasts, tested out its user interface along with the Zune 4.0 software, and then we put it atop its dock and cranked out some 720p HDTV in our home theater. What did we think? Continue reading to experience it yourself.

Fantastic screen
The most arresting part of using the Zune HD is its brilliant OLED screen. We're not accustomed to this kind of contrast, and when its demo video started playing, it elicited astonishment from all who saw it. The NVIDIA Tegra processor inside cranks out crisp video on its small display, even though the 3.3-inch 16:9 OLED touchscreen is only capable of 480x272 resolution. But because the screen is so small, the video looks like HD. Indeed, that touchscreen is a bit tiny for our taste, but then, that's a sacrifice you'll have to make for such a slim music player — it's small enough to take with you anywhere.

The capacitive touchscreen is as responsive as any we've ever tested, and the user interface is the best we've seen. It takes a little getting used to, but once you learn its trick, it's easy: Instead of pushing the Back button of previous Zunes and other music players, you touch the stylish enlarged text top of the screen, and that takes you to the previous menu. The interface sprinkles niceties throughout, letting you smoothly slide through the history of media you've played recently, and control the audio by either touching or sliding your finger on the screen. We especially like the delightful screen saver that pops up when a song is playing, blending text and an album cover into spur-of-the-moment found art.

The Zune HD quickly found our Wi-Fi networks, and then we could test its excellent web browsing capability. Even though it's a variant of Internet Explorer, it's first rate, but like the iPhone, it can't play Flash video, including the Pandora website. Maybe someday.

Media monster
We're also fond of that Zune 4.0 desktop software, which quickly finds your media, adding album cover art and generally making itself as helpful as possible. Too bad it's only Windows-only for now. We're also delighted to find a nascent app store in the making, new for Zune. So far, there's only about a half a dozen apps in Marketplace, including an advertiser-supported Texas Hold 'Em application, a calculator, and a couple of basic games. Still, it's a start, and we can't wait to see what happens when this tiny acorn grows into a mighty oak.

There's a catch if you want to play the Zune HD's video in actual HD — you'll need to spring for that $90 HD AV dock, an expensive accessory that lets you connect HDMI, optical audio and component media into a display or receiver. It comes with an excellent remote that's quite powerful, not requiring you to point it directly at the dock for it to work. That dock can also function as a charging stand if you want to keep it next to your PC. However, when your Zune is plugged into this dock, you can't go online and buy movies directly from there, a slight disappointment. Nor are Microsoft's own Windows Media Center recordings supported in the Zune HD yet. Weird.

Home theater player
We downloaded a handful of HD videos from the Zune Marketplace, and took them into our home theater where we had installed our dock with its HDMI output. The videos showed up in all their 720p glory, playing smoothly and looking barely compressed. Nice.

There were a couple of disappointments, though. One was the lack of any surround sound. Microsoft confirmed to us that it's only stereo for now, no Dolby 5.1, no surround at all. And, we had an HDMI handshake issue when we connected the Zune's dock to our Sony AV receiver. An HD movie we rented from the Zune Marketplace refused to play on our HDTV when we routed it through our home theater receiver. Plugging it directly into the HDTV, it played flawlessly. That's a downside of digital rights management (DRM), because all the other HD videos we loaded played perfectly through our HDMI-equipped AV receiver.

We were also disappointed in the lack of codec support, where only Windows Media Video (WMV), MPEG-4, and H.264 are supported. What happened to DivX and Matroska files? Come on, Microsoft. Audio support is slightly better, with Windows Media Audio-standard (WMA), Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), and good ol' MP3 supported.

Music box
There's also HD radio on board, and reception was good, but we just can't get excited about radio these days when there are so many Internet stations and Pandora available. But then, none of those are possible on the Zune HD, yet.

Bypassing the radio for the most part, we thoroughly enjoyed the centerpiece of the Zune HD, its audio playback. To us, it made our variety of music files sound as good as they've ever sounded on any Apple product. Of course, this is not lossless audiophile quality audio, but it'll do.

Summing up, the Zune HD represents a remarkable feat of technological prowess. Its user interface is the best we've seen on a portable media player, its sound is admirable, and its HD playback is jaw-dropping with that tiny NVIDIA Integra processor inside. This built-from-the-ground-up media player portends great things from Microsoft, perhaps hinting that this tiny form factor might someday grow into something more. Zune phone anyone?