The Zune HD was Microsoft’s take on the portable media player back in 2009. It’s been 10 years since its release and many things have changed from a decade ago. In this article we will revisit what the Zune HD had to offer back then and what it means to use it in 2019.
Zune HD in 2009
Zune HD in 2009 – MP3 and iPod Touch
In 2009, the norm of the day to get music on media players was via MP3 files. MP3s were the means of choice so much so that even Spotify, which launched their music service in March 2009, offered not streaming but music downloads initially. And there was ever only one popular media player in town; the iPod Touch. It became so popular because users now had a choice to buy a device that’s purely for media consumption that relied on Wi-Fi rather than cellular data. It set the standard for ease of use, build quality and portability when it came to media players.
Zune HD in 2009 – Enter Microsoft
Microsoft had earlier released the original Zunes (First, Second and Third gen) starting from 2006 with each iteration getting smaller in size. The culmination of these iterations was it’s fourth generation Zune, which was the Zune HD. The Zune HD had a 3.3 inch OLED display with a resolution of 480 x 272 (167 ppi). It came with two configurations; 16GB and 64GB.
It was running on the Nvidia Tegra APX 2600 chip, had 128MB of RAM, Wi-Fi connectivity and powered by 660 mAh battery. Two main things set the Zune HD apart from it’s competitors; the design and the user interface.
Zune HD in 2009 – Design
What made the Zune HD unique was for the casing, instead of a flat back, Microsoft chose to go with a geometric design (is that what you call it?), which was bold at the time. Because the back of the Zune HD is made of aluminium, just looking at it from all angles under the light really highlighted its shape. With the ‘curved’ back, holding it was natural as it fit comfortably in your palms.
How about the front of the device? While Apple chose LCD screens for the iPod Touch, Microsoft opted for OLED for the Zune HD. And the advantages of OLED could be seen from the get go; blacks were totally black and colours were crisp. The Zune HD also had a slight advantage in terms of ppi compared to the iPod Touch (2nd/3rd gen) with the former having 167ppi and the latter having 163ppi. Could anything get better? Of course. The display of the Zune HD was Gorilla Glass from Corning.
Zune HD in 2009 – User interface
The user interface of the Zune HD was a pre-cursor for Windows Mobile phones. It was here that Microsoft experimented with something that was non-conforming. In the Zune user interface, Microsoft replaced icons in favour of words. So instead of having an icon representing Music, Video, Pictures, Settings, the Zune user interface had words like, you guessed it, ‘Music’, ‘Video’, ‘Pictures’ and ‘Settings’. The next thing to know is that there is no back button. So question is how does one navigate through the Zune HD?
When selecting an option, the transition plays out in such a way that you’re ‘entering’ into that layer. For example, if you tap on ‘Music’, the word ‘Music’ flies above your head while you enter into the contents of ‘Music’ which is displayed on the screen. Now the word ‘Music’ hasn’t really flown above your head if you noticed. Depending on the item that you’ve selected, part of the letters of that word will remain at the top of the screen. This is the clue it gives it users that by tapping on part of the letters, you’re essentially accessing the previous option. And this is how the back feature is implemented.
With all of this in place, how was it like to actually use it? Well, it was elegant. Everything seemed to flow with grace and fluidity. It was such a joy using it and you never got tired of the transitions no matter how many times you used it. And there’s something about only using words in big bold letters that makes identifying the menu items clear and fast.
Zune HD in 2009 – Album background and playback visuals
Another subtle touch was displaying the album’s artwork at the background. You could see this when accessing a song title or an artiste. It was way better than having an empty background. Although trivial, having the album’s artwork at the background made the whole experience ‘complete’ if you know what I mean.
And to top it all off is the playback visuals. I have to say that I’ve never seen any playback visual that’s so simple yet effective in communicating the music. All it is was the song title and artiste entering in and out of the screen at various speeds. To be honest, every time a song started playing, I had a tendency to stare at the visuals for a few minutes. To an extent, it was that engaging.
Zune HD in 2009 – Zune Desktop Media Player
Let’s not forget that the Zune has it’s own media player which ran on the desktop. The highlight of the media player? You guessed it, the visuals during the playback. It was simple. It had a mosaic of album images based on your library and displayed it at random.
Zune HD in 2019
Zune HD in 2019 – Streaming & Ownership
Much has changed since 2009. MP3s are nearly dead and replacing it are streaming services. Music streaming services have evolved and advanced that for USD$9.99 (MYR14.99) per month, you get to listen to over 40 million songs on Spotify (Premium membership). 40 MILLION SONGS at high quality, at your fingertips. How could you not pass up that opportunity? Realistically, you’re most likely to listen to the same songs you had on your MP3s anyway, so what’s the real value here? I think the real value of streaming services is this: Discovering new music and adding it to your library with a click. It’s these conveniences that’s putting MP3 players to sleep.
To be fair, there are still MP3 players in the form of Cowon (Plenue series) and Sony (Walkman series). But unless you still keep your MP3s and they’re of good quality, then getting an MP3 player in this current day is a tough sell.
In terms of ownership, using a dedicated MP3 player like the Zune HD in 2019 makes me feel proud. Proud because those songs have been curated with blood and sweat and are ultimately mine to keep. No restrictions on how I’m supposed to use it, and no strings tied to any streaming subscriptions. This is what I miss most using the Zune HD.
Zune HD in 2019 – Screen
The main area that pulls you back to earth is the screen size. At 3.3 inches, it’s something that’s bewildering in the current landscape where 5.0 inch and above displays are the norm. Placing it side by side with my Mi 5S Plus (5.7 inch), the Zune HD suddenly looks like a cute relic from the past. Staying on the display, 186 ppi on a screen just won’t cut it. Again comparing it with my phone (386 ppi), the Zune HD looks pixelated. The difference is day and night.
Zune HD in 2019 – Software
I think two questions come to mind with software. First: Is the user Interface still usable? The answer is yes. A tech savvy person would take minutes to figure out the menu with the occasional question marks thrown. Second: What else can you do? Not much. Since the discontinuation of any form of Zune development and support, there’s no way to download any apps. Even if the Zune app store was still running, a small screen display (3.3 inches) would limit the types of apps that are usable. And judging from the small pool of Zune app developers in 2009, that number would have disappeared by now. Well you could still surf the Internet, but the built-in browser is slow and clunky. So the only area you’re left with is media consumption, which is what the Zune HD was made to do from the beginning.
Zune HD in 2019 – Ol buddy ol pal
So taking everything into account, what’s it like using the Zune HD in 2019?
Usable – but for old times’ sake.
Where can I get a Zune HD?
Although Microsoft has discontinued production of the Zune HD, you can still find it online if you do some hunting. A check on Amazon revealed limited quantities. Do also check out eBay.
Where can I download the Zune Desktop Media Player?
Fortunately, Microsoft still has the installer package on their website. To download go here.
Beyond Zune HD
Enthusiastic fans will tell you that there’s nothing like the Zune HD. It dared to be different and was something special. What does the future hold for Zune? A hope. A hope that Microsoft will come up with an updated version of the media player. With their recent resurgence of quality products like the Surface laptops, desktop and headphones, it’s only logical and right that a portable media player be added into the list. A Zune HD incarnation as one would put it. What I think is the most realistic offering is having a streaming service with the Zune user interface in the body of a Surface product line. NOW THAT – I would buy in a heartbeat. Until then my Zune HD will stay with me as long as it continues to function.