Microsoft is back around for one more go at the Zune platform, this time all bets are off! The new generation of the platform offers a long overdue hardware refresh and some very nice additions to the software as well.

The first thing you’ll notice after you free the Zune from its impressive packaging, is the how compact the device really is. Sure you’ve seen plenty of high res pictures of it before, but there is still an initial shock when you actually see and hold it for the first time. It’s a real pleasure to hold in the hand. Its angled edges and thinness really make this thing feel special. The weight of the device is also a pleasant surprise. Weighing in at only 2.6 ounces, the Zune feels exactly as you’d expect a portable device to feel.

The screen will be without doubt the next attention grabber. When you power on the device, expect to be awed in every sense of the word. The Zune is out fitted with a gorgeous 3.3 inch OLED captive screen. No amount of videos or still images could ever capture the beauty of this screen. You really have to see it in person to understand its awesomeness. When the Zune logo appears for the first time on boot up, you’ll hear someone in the back of your head saying “see, I told you, look how black those blacks are.” I never really cared to find out what all the fuss was about when it came to OLED and the definition of its vivid color displays. After the first few seconds of looking at the Zune boot up, I didn’t have to. I immediately knew what the fuss was about. Just in case I didn’t mention it before, anything black on the screen was really black! So much so, that it was hard to tell where the screen ended and the brim around it began. And the colors where equally breath taking, if not more impressive. The OLED screen is just a treat to look at.

It was just like the first time you saw an iPhone. The icons seemed as they were popping out of the screen somehow. And on top of that you could touch the screen. It’s pretty much the same experience here. After you’ve stared at the screen for a few seconds, you say to yourself “oh, I forgot its touch screen now.” And so, you touch it! And the magic continues. It’s almost surreal to see everything on such a beautiful screen move with such fluidity. The interface is every bit of responsive to your touch and instructions as anything you’ve ever used before. I’ll even go out on a not so far-fetched limb and say; you probably haven’t seen or used anything this fluid and responsive before. Microsoft didn’t stop at the OLED screen; they also made sure it was of capacitive display technology as well.

This may not be anything new to the iPod crowd, but aside from the fact this is the first touch screen Zune; capacitive displays are brand new to Microsoft. They’ve been heavy adopters to the resistive technology for many years now, so it’s really nice to see Microsoft heading in the capacitive direction. The nature of the capacitive technology really lends a hand to excellent experience that is created on the Zune HD. It’s hard to see the Zune HD being as responsive to the user’s touch as it is now, had it been a resistive screen.

You quickly become addicted by the UI’s response to your touch, so you touch it some more. While in the middle of doing so, you notice another piece of magic. The UI! The UI is not only gorgeous and flashy, but it is very well thought out. The media categories such as music, pictures, podcasts etc. are all appropriately labeled and grouped. Within each category, the sub menus all appear as you would expect. The views for the music sub categories are well done and very useful. The picture views are pretty much the same.

If I were to pick a bone here, it would be with the video category. There is still only one view for your videos and still no video playlists. That may not mean much so most people, but there are always a handful of die-hard people who find video views and playlist a must have. The absence of video playlists is just a minor thing compared to the device’s video capabilities. While the Zune is branded as Zune “HD,” and it is capable of outputting HD video, you’re not actually watching HD video on the device itself. The resolution is simply too low to satisfy such a feat. But this doesn’t mean video isn’t amazing on the device. The screen coupled with the video acceleration provides a mobile video experience that is second to none. Videos played on the device itself run really smooth. I’ve yet to see any type of slow down or choppiness. When the device is placed in its cradle (available separately) the HD in the Zune HD comes to life. When the cradle is connected to a HD TV, the Zune outputs 720p video. As if I needed to tell you, the video output is amazing!

Podcasts and audio books are laid out as well as you can get. The radio category hasn’t really gone through much change besides the new HD radio functionality. You’re still able to tag music from the radio and purchase it on the marketplace. The app category may need some work depending on how deep Microsoft goes with the idea. As it is, the apps are laid out in a list view. But as time goes by and more apps becoming available, that list view might not be the best way to navigate the apps on the device.

So what’s the deal with the apps? It’s hard to mention apps and no draw some sort of comparison to Apple’s monster platform. I’ll save you the trouble and just let it be known there is no comparison. There is only a hand full of apps available for the Zune HD right now; some of which is a weather app, a calculator and some games. There is “no app for that” Here. Microsoft has publicly announced they’ll have a Facebook and twitter app available soon however. No one really knows how far Microsoft is willing to take this app idea on the Zune platform, but there is definitely potential to make it worthwhile.

Your next option on the Zune HD’s main menu will be the internet browser. I have a love, hate relationship with the browser. First off, it’s a tweaked out version of mobile Internet Explorer 6 offered on the Windows Mobile 6.5 platforms. This really isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t good thing either. The browser itself is solid. It does a fantastic job at rendering every site you throw at it, but it all goes downhill from there. If you were to stack this up next to safari on the iPod Touch (and lets be serious here…that’s what you’ll be doing!) you’ll notice a speed difference. Safari is noticeably faster, we’re talking times of up to two seconds faster. While the Zune HD’s browser renders the pages much better, speed is really what you need on a mobile device. While the ability to save bookmarks and cache sites are available, there is no option to save passwords. It is highly annoying to enter my Facebook password every time I hit m.facebook.com. These two issues aside, the browser does a decent job.

The social category has some potential for fun. Here you’ll find the friends and inbox categories. Under friends, you’re able to view the Zune cards of the friends you’ve selected to sync to your device. For the Zune fans among us, the Zune card feature remains relatively the same. But for the new comers, you may find this feature to be somewhat amazing. By syncing a friend’s Zune card to your device, you can listen to music they’ve recently been playing, their favorite songs and even their top artist. In case you’re ever dumb founded as to what to listen to, you could always tap in to a friend’s musical taste. And then there is your inbox. You can view any messages or friend requests you have pending. While we’re on the topic of social, Microsoft has removed the ability to “squirt” or send a song via Wi-Fi to another Zune nearby. Even though it was a feature we can all admit we haven’t used much, it was still nice to have it. But there was a huge caveat attached to squirting. Whatever song you squirted, it was tagged for expiration of three plays or three days. Needless to say that was an annoyance. The good folks on the Zune team thought up a new way to share songs. Now you have the ability to send or email if you will, songs to your friends. So you can select whatever song you want, send it to their Zune tag and they’ll receive it in their inbox. Once you’ve sent the song, it’ll send the next time you sync to the computer. If you’re connected via Wi-Fi, it’ll send the song right away. What’s even cooler, if you’re connected to Wi-Fi and you receive a song, you can access and download the song right from the marketplace on the Zune itself. It’s a really seamless process, and there is no need to worry about 3 days or 3 plays.

Aside from the main menu, Microsoft has implemented an alternate menu of sorts. This alternate menu or quick play menu, sits off to the left of the main menu. You’ll find your now playing item and three other categories here. First is the “pins.” You now have the ability to pin any media type or bookmark to the alternate menu for quick access. This is done by clicking and holding on the item you wish the pin, and selecting add to pin. After your pins, you will get “history.” History is a great in many ways. Not only does it let you see what you’ve been up to on the device, but it lets you get right back to something you were previously doing. And last will be the “what’s new” category. Here you’ll be able to see anything that was recently added to the device. This is great for those times when you really didn’t have time to set up a playlist for that new album; so you take a peek at the what’s new section, and there it is.

So what about actually listening to music? The Zune HD is exactly where it needs to be in this category, at number one! If nothing at all, Zunes have been known for their audio quality. The Zune HD is no exception. Your Highs and Mids are all represented very well. If you happen to have some good headphones, the lows are also a treat to hear. Too bad the ear buds shipped with the device suck, but hey, that’s something everyone else does right? Wrong! The Zune 80 shipped with the premium ear buds, and they were actually pretty good. Sad to see Microsoft not following through with a little consistency. Back are the preset HQ levels many fans have been missing when the Zune 80 was introduced. Personally I don’t use these defaults because I find they all suck. I’d love to have the ability to create my own presets. Crappy ear buds and HQ settings aside, the Zune HD’s audio quality is matched by none. And when I say none, I am including the king of portable media, the iPod.

Even though Microsoft did a number on the device itself, they didn’t stop there. They also did a number on the software itself. For starters, the quick play menu from the device is present on the software as well. You have the same pin, history and what’s new options that are present of the Zune HD. You also have a new feature called “smart DJ.” This feature creates a playlist based on any artist of your choosing. This concept might be familiar to people who have ever used iTunes Genius feature. Once the playlist is created, you have the option to save it for syncing to the device. There is then an additional option to have the music on the playlist automatically refreshed. These options can be tweaked to your liking as well.

The “picks for you” and marketplace screens have gone through some minor refreshes. Some new channels have been added. The video library has been increased a bit and the podcasts section remains pretty much the same. The social section of the software remains the same at its core with a few minor tweaks. The collection part of the software is still as excellent as ever. Media is discovered almost instantly after it’s been added. They’ve even added a “mini” mode to the software; you might remember this from windows media player.

Microsoft did one more thing that is worth noting, they’ve made a huge portion of the marketplace’s music available on the Zune.net website. It’s even assessable from browsers other than Internet Explorer.

It’s easy to see Microsoft was hard at work on this platform. They’ve managed to improve the platform from not only a hardware and software stand point, but they’ve even added another element with the Zune.net features. They’ve clearly been taking notes for some time, and have delivered a product that reflects such. The platform itself is not as perfect as you’d hope, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s important that you measure up the Zune HD for what it is. Bundled with the Zune Pass, excellent software and outstanding hardware, you’d be hard pressed to find another pure media device that can match its experience. If your media means the world to you, and you’re not too worried about “an app for that,” then the Zune HD and its platform is exactly what you’ve been looking for. Microsoft delivers once again!

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