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Zune HD versus iPod Touch: Round 1, Music

Posted on 19th Nov 2009 at 10:57 by Richard Swinburne with 26 comments

Richard Swinburne
Before my job moved to central London I never really spent enough time going anywhere that justified a mobile media device, but having to spend an hour door to door to get to work and home everyday presented itself with an opportunity to kill time.

So, about 6 months ago I bought myself a 16GB iPod touch. I'm sure you're all familiar with it since it's basically an iPhone but thinner. I've always been tempted by the great press Microsoft's ZuneHD was getting though. It seemed to offer more than the iPod, and greater functionality potential thanks to its Nvidia Tegra CPU that can output 720p h.264 video via HDMI without a hickup.

On a trip to California recently (thanks again, Kingston) I managed to pick a ZuneHD up and can now do do a side by side comparison with the iPod touch.

Which is a better media device? Well, let's break down the parts:

Music

At the heart of every media player is music playback because it's generally the most-used feature. Both the Zune HD and iPod touch have their own respective music stores, although the Zune's is only available in the US: we can't buy anything online here in the UK. Not that I would anyway, my personal feeling is that unless it's DRM free I'm not interested. That basically means I just use iTunes as a bloated media loader from my PC collection, where I respect that if I did live in the States, the Zune Pass is probably the killer attraction for the Zune. For $15 a month you get unlimited access to music in the store, plus 10 tracks DRM free to keep. That's pretty damn tempting and I wish Microsoft would crack heads to get the same deal over here.

Zune HD versus iPod Touch: Round 1, Music Zune HD versus iPod Touch: Part 1, Music

On the hardware side things aren't so rosy - the music playback quality is clearly superior on the iPod than Zune, as I find myself turning it up to compensate for the distinct lack of mid-tones.

This is in complete contrast to the software and navigation on the Zune, which has a distinct learning curve but once you've learnt where everything is, it's exceptionally good. It's just not as intuitive as the iPod - scrolling between small options like Album, Artist, etc along the top is fiddly - but the Zune has nice touches, such as automatically downloading a biography, pictures and other albums of every artist you throw on it! Very cool to read on the train when you're bored!

Getting to that requires a round about trip within the music menu. For example: click the album you want to play, click the name of the band so it goes back up a level then back in again, and then scroll across. Intuitive usability was not high on Microsoft's list.

The extra screen space on the iPod allows the track lists to be far easier to read and scroll, and the iPod does widescreen whereas the Zune doesn't. This means long file names just go off the screen and there's no way to see them.

There's no "now playing" shortcut on the Zune's menu either, so you can't easily pause or skip the current playback if you've navigated elsewhere. Not to mention the fact that pulling the headphones out doesn't stop the playback as it does on the iPod, and without an internal speaker for feedback (it is sometimes useful, although never when in the hands of kids on the bus) it makes it even harder to know if its still playing in your pocket, wasting the battery.

Built-in radio is one of the few bits of hardware the Zune HD features that the iPod doesn't. It isn't a digital tuner (although since UK DAB radio isn't compatible with the US standard, and most across the pond prefer Satellite radio anyway, that's not surprising). Honestly though, I never really listened to the radio previously, however on occasion when there's nothing in your playlist that suits the fancy, it's nice to scroll the channels. Or, well, attempt to.

At best the quality of radio included could be referred to as poor. Most times I've tried in and around London I've listened to static or deafened continuing beeps from mobile phones that are within three feet of me. It has excellent phone reception and I expect the Zune Phone will be fantastic in that regard! There's also no way to disable the radio entirely, so it's constantly sapping your battery and listening out for those mobile phones.

Finally the.most.frustrating and stupid thing about the ZuneHD is that the volume rocker switch on the side doesn't actually change the volume.

Wait, what?

Yeah, it's true, two presses just turns on the screen to allow a further thumb swipe up or down to change the volume. Given that the buttons are difficult enough to press anyway, WHY have you made a simple, universally understood single action into four? The Zune HD has become the physical manifestation of Windows Vista.

This round's winner then, is the iPod touch.

Despite having no flashy transitions, auto-downloading biographies or pictures the iPod's inability to act like a mobile phone mast, good sound quality and usability eclipses the Zune; and that's where it matters.

Next time, I'll look at how both devices handle video.

26 Comments

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RockVJ 19th November 2009, 12:37 Quote
I'm in central London and have an hours commute (each way) too, but have abandoned my ageing Ipod Classic (which now sits gathering dust) in exchange for Spotify Premium on my Tmob G2 Touch/HTC Hero and an AC charger for my desk to keep the battery happy...

Any chance of using that as another comparison???
StoneyMahoney 19th November 2009, 13:34 Quote
The latest refresh of the iPod Touch has seriously increased it's video playback capabilities. On the Handbrake forums people are discussing how it's capable of playing back video with more encoding complexity than the Apple TV.

I don't think it's capable of HD output yet though. Guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens when the next iPod/iPhone OS release comes out.
GoodBytes 19th November 2009, 15:12 Quote
I am confused. When you tested the sound... did you try the same pair of headphone on each MP3 players, if so, which one? Did you enable equalization with iTunes on your iPod.. maybe it's on by default... was that checked? Did you try a second, and third set of headphones, every headphones is different and calibrated for a certain set of sound output.
craigbru 19th November 2009, 15:44 Quote
Odd that you thought the iPod had the better sound quality. That's one area in which the Zune has generally received higher praise. As GoodBytes mentioned, I'd be interested in knowing what headphones you were using as well.

Recently I was debating whether to go with the iPod Touch or ZuneHD myself. After much research, I went with a third option... A Cowon S9. I freaking love it!
Radical_Monkey 19th November 2009, 16:34 Quote
Ok ive got a few bones to pick with this review :p I've owned both an iPod Touch (1st Gen 8GB) and I now have the Zune HD 32GB and I live in the UK. I find the Zune is superior to the Ipod Touch.

1. The radio seems to work perfectly for me, everywhere ive been its been crystal clear and picks up all the stations my car radio can.

2. I actually find the sound quality better on the Zune, although I dont think its something that can be accurately measured as it depends on the person and the type of music. I listen to alot of rock music and some instrumental, and the Zune sounds perfectly fine with the EQ off. Where as with the iPod i had to turn on the Rock EQ settings to make it sound "better". But again I suppose this is more to do with personal choice.

3. The "rocker" is not a rocker, its just a button. One that I find quite easy to press and you only need to press it once, and it brings up the OSD for volume, pause/play and skip tracks. Fair enough the 2nd gen ipod has a rocker, but the 1st gen didnt. So it was the same thing as to Zune at the time. Perhaps a newer version will fix it.

4. The "now playing" shortcut is on the home screen, although ill admit that its not the best place to put it, and i do find the iPods little button on the top right very handy

5. Pulling the headphones out does indeed pause the music, i tested it out just now to make sure. Have you updated the firmware? Maybe that would solve some of the issues.

6. The Zune pc software. Its faster then itunes, more stable and less buggy than itunes, looks better than itunes, the mini player is super slick, and syncing stuff is super easy. In my experience, it takes approx 45mins for my ipod to load my music collection from a clean slate, it takes my Zune 20mins. Also one of the best features is the fact that you can sync you zune wirelessly. Ive found it infinitely useful when needed to sync a podcast on the go.

BUT yes ill admit there are issues, the device does indeed pick up mobile signals but ive only experienced this once. And the screen real estate is missed sometimes.

Also the hardware is much better on the Zune IMO, the IU is always silky smooth unlike the ipod and the menus looks pretty awesome. Far better than the same old Excel lookalike menu on the ipod, every page is the same with different content.

As far as the store goes, you cant buy music, but if you change your country to the US in windows it'll let you access the store and create a Zune account (altho you need a US hotmail/msn account). Allowing you to download podcasts as well as apps and games. There arent many but they are all top quality. I love the fact that theyve got AudioSurf and PGR on there. PGR even has a full single player mode with unlockable cars and tracks with pretty impressive graphics.

I could say so much more but ill leave the rest for you video review :p
Blademrk 19th November 2009, 16:55 Quote
Quote:
and without an internal speaker for feedback (it is sometimes useful, although never when in the hands of kids chavs on the bus)

That is so true, and so B***** annoying. I usually listen to music on my way to work (with earphones in, don't like inflicting others with my noise ;)) but I can still hear their tin-like Nokia speakers playing their DJ rave rubbish over my earphones.
Bindibadgi 19th November 2009, 17:11 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by StoneyMahoney
The latest refresh of the iPod Touch has seriously increased it's video playback capabilities. On the Handbrake forums people are discussing how it's capable of playing back video with more encoding complexity than the Apple TV.

I haven't actually investigated this, but it's great to know. It's more the player is limited rather than bitrate.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Radical_Monkey
Ok ive got a few bones to pick with this review :p I've owned both an iPod Touch (1st Gen 8GB) and I now have the Zune HD 32GB and I live in the UK. I find the Zune is superior to the Ipod Touch.

1. The radio seems to work perfectly for me, everywhere ive been its been crystal clear and picks up all the stations my car radio can.

Where are you based?
Quote:
2. I actually find the sound quality better on the Zune, although I dont think its something that can be accurately measured as it depends on the person and the type of music. I listen to alot of rock music and some instrumental, and the Zune sounds perfectly fine with the EQ off. Where as with the iPod i had to turn on the Rock EQ settings to make it sound "better". But again I suppose this is more to do with personal choice.

I don't turn on any EQ, I don't like music fiddled with and my mp3s are all super high quality because neither does FLAC
Quote:
3. The "rocker" is not a rocker, its just a button. One that I find quite easy to press and you only need to press it once, and it brings up the OSD for volume, pause/play and skip tracks. Fair enough the 2nd gen ipod has a rocker, but the 1st gen didnt. So it was the same thing as to Zune at the time. Perhaps a newer version will fix it.

It's shaped like a rocker though, with a dent in the middle. It's misleading and goes against standard convention. It's also a pain in the arse when you cant turn in down quick enough.
Quote:
5. Pulling the headphones out does indeed pause the music, i tested it out just now to make sure. Have you updated the firmware? Maybe that would solve some of the issues.

I actually did update the firmware the day before yesterday and haven't rechecked this issue. I'm glad it's fixed if it is!
Quote:

6. The Zune pc software. Its faster then itunes, more stable and less buggy than itunes, looks better than itunes, the mini player is super slick, and syncing stuff is super easy. In my experience, it takes approx 45mins for my ipod to load my music collection from a clean slate, it takes my Zune 20mins. Also one of the best features is the fact that you can sync you zune wirelessly. Ive found it infinitely useful when needed to sync a podcast on the go.

I completely disagree, but then again I don't completely wipe it and reload it. I find it difficult to tell if stuff has actually gone on it and it's far, far too flashy and fussy to be just plain intuitive. I always plug my Zune/Ipod in every few days to charge be honest, however the Zune battery is really very good I must admit.

I find itunes complete bloatware for what I need it to do, and use neither as a media player: I already have much lighter and customised foobar and MPC-HC for those.
Quote:
Also the hardware is much better on the Zune IMO, the IU is always silky smooth unlike the ipod and the menus looks pretty awesome. Far better than the same old Excel lookalike menu on the ipod, every page is the same with different content.

I find bugs and errors in the UI all the time. It's smooth, but again needlessly flashy. The Ipod makes use of the small screen so much better than the Zune that tries to dress it all up.
Quote:
As far as the store goes, you cant buy music, but if you change your country to the US in windows it'll let you access the store and create a Zune account (altho you need a US hotmail/msn account). Allowing you to download podcasts as well as apps and games. There arent many but they are all top quality. I love the fact that theyve got AudioSurf and PGR on there. PGR even has a full single player mode with unlockable cars and tracks with pretty impressive graphics.

I never knew this! Awesome!
Radical_Monkey 19th November 2009, 17:48 Quote
Im based in london, NW to be exact and travel to central for work. Again it could be a firmware thing. Also you probably have, but have you changed the radio region setting to europe?

The button on mines is a single button, there isnt a dent in the middle, do you have the 16GB one? Its a smooth button with 5 little grey circles, weird :S

Also i dont wipe it and reload it all the time, i just meant to say that it appears to be faster as transferring music. As soon as i connect it it syncs and if its only a few songs its done in a matter of seconds. I just look at the Zune to see if its synced. Theres a little icon in the bottom left that shows if the zune is still syncing or not. If its idle then the zune has definitely synced. I'll admit that its not as intuitive for a first time user, but like you said, once you figure out where everything is, I find it a joy to use. My sister, whose 14, and doesnt know anything about technology, figured it out in about 20mins.

I suppose youre about the zune being overly flashy for what it needs to do, but i like that its overly flashy. I always get looks of envy from people on the train when i bring it out on the train. Thats one of the things I love about it most, its not an iPod so everyone looks at it and goes "wooooooow". Ive always wanted to get away from the iPod but there was never anything close to it until i saw the Zune HD.

Oh and you can buy from the store, you just need a US address which unfortunately a Windows trick cant help with :(
knuck 19th November 2009, 18:01 Quote
I use a third gen Zune 16GB like this one : http://www.slashgear.com/gallery/data_files/7/4/Zune_16GB_unboxing_2.jpg



It's freaking awesome. The sound is clearly better than on any ipod i've tried (I use Sennheiser CX-300-II), the screen , even if small, is great and the colors really come out alive (does that even make sens?). The menus are also 10 times better looking and more intuitive than all the regular ipods.

The volume is easily accessible, you can go back to what is playing in 2secs by two different ways depending in which menu you currently are. The music also pauses if the earphones get disconnected

The zune software is gorgeous and just cannot be compared to iTunes. Granted the zune store is not available in Canada either so the ipod does score major points there but other than that iTunes itself is a complete piece of trash compared to the zune software.

The library is updated in real time as you make changes to your mp3 files. For example, if the album name of 10 of my mp3's is wrong and I batch edit them using the file properties of windows, Zune updates the library instantly, which is very appreciated.

When I browse my library and see albums I want on the zune, I can just right click on them and sync them. What's nice is I don't have to wait for the sync to be over so if I see another album i'm interested in having, I can tell the zune to sync it too and it'll get in line with the rest. Last week end I synced for about 300 songs, I was adding them faster than they were syncing and the software never complained.

I've used the zune for 6months now and the screen is still like new, free of scratches... I don't thihnk anyone can say that from their ipods unless they use some sort of case, which I don't.

The only complaint I have is the battery life which is fairly short. Forget to turn it off once and before you go back home at the end of your day it'll be dead (5-6hours max)

Other than that, for the 150$ I paid, it's incredible AND i'm not on the Apple bandwagon ! double win !
Cupboard 19th November 2009, 19:15 Quote
I would be surprised if the player didn't mute when the earphones were pulled out as the original 30GB Zune had that feature right from early on.

And Ghys - 5-6 hour battery? That must be with WiFi on right? because thats awful and again worse than the original one!
GoodBytes 19th November 2009, 19:24 Quote
I seriously think that bit-tech got a fake Zune HD. It's the only explanation.
Actually no their is another explanation. Because you use iPods since ever, as soon as something is different.. like the Zune, you freak out and don't like it. Like my brother when he first saw my Zune 120, he picks it up and instead of sliding the thumb to slide in s list, he does circles like the iPod, and goes "Dude you Zune is broken!". A better example of this, is when a Mac user which used a Mac all his life touched Windows/Linux, or the other way around.

I dont' know about you, but Zune software runs perfectly smoothly on a AMD Athlon XP 2500+ with 512MB of RAM and a Geforce FX 5900 SE (Sucky Edition), running Vista 32-bit. While iTunes doesn't smoothly on any system I own, including my laptop which features a Intel Core 2 Duo P8600, Quadro NVS 160M, Win7 64-bit Pro (initially came with Vista 64-bit Buisness), 4GB of RAM.
I REALLY feel that the fastest Core i7 with 12GB for RAM, still won't be enough to run iTunes.

The idea of the Zune software is to be like a Media Center application but optimize for a mouse. It does this well. Granted the only downside is at first glance you don't know what is click-able and what is not. But once you pass that, it's a great software.

I saw the iPod touch and I am sorry, the layout is all army like. It has no life. This is an MP3 player, now an office level software.
Bindibadgi 19th November 2009, 20:01 Quote
I bought it from Fry's in the US and I've been using the Zune for 6 weeks every single day.

After checking the side button is actually flat! It's deceptive because the dots and angled edges make the ends look enhanced. My mistake!

5-6 hours.. Maybe. I dont surf the net on it, I find the screen just too small tbh, but it'll play video for hours and hours.
Quote:

When I browse my library and see albums I want on the zune, I can just right click on them and sync them. What's nice is I don't have to wait for the sync to be over so if I see another album i'm interested in having, I can tell the zune to sync it too and it'll get in line with the rest. Last week end I synced for about 300 songs, I was adding them faster than they were syncing and the software never complained.

You don't know it's in line though - you don't know what it's syncing. It's just a percentage in the bottom corner.

The library might be updated in realtime but you can't drag things in from elsewhere - that's a big fail. Not to mention that you have to make it look at only one directory at a time, which completely makes the library function in Win 7 defunct :( It does have the multi-display view which is kind of nice I suppose, but everything you click to albums, artists, genres it changes the display.

Right now I've got it "downloading items.. 6%": WHAT? WHAT ARE YOU DOWNLOADING? It cant just tell me at a glance, I have to click it. Again, Microsoft doesn't understand usability > flashiness (and that's from someone who liked the visual change from XP to Vista).
GoodBytes 19th November 2009, 20:06 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bindibadgi

You don't know it's in line though - you don't know what it's syncing. It's just a percentage in the bottom corner.

If you click on the Zune icon above the percentage sign, you have the history of your Zune session of what was added/removed (deleted songs/videos/pictures, old viewed podcast, etc.) in an organized fashions, where sections can be expended or collapse.
knuck 20th November 2009, 00:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bindibadgi
I bought it from Fry's in the US and I've been using the Zune for 6 weeks every single day.

After checking the side button is actually flat! It's deceptive because the dots and angled edges make the ends look enhanced. My mistake!

5-6 hours.. Maybe. I dont surf the net on it, I find the screen just too small tbh, but it'll play video for hours and hours.



You don't know it's in line though - you don't know what it's syncing. It's just a percentage in the bottom corner.

The library might be updated in realtime but you can't drag things in from elsewhere - that's a big fail. Not to mention that you have to make it look at only one directory at a time, which completely makes the library function in Win 7 defunct :( It does have the multi-display view which is kind of nice I suppose, but everything you click to albums, artists, genres it changes the display.

Right now I've got it "downloading items.. 6%": WHAT? WHAT ARE YOU DOWNLOADING? It cant just tell me at a glance, I have to click it. Again, Microsoft doesn't understand usability > flashiness (and that's from someone who liked the visual change from XP to Vista).

I don't need to know what's in line while syncing.. why would you ? You can make it look at two directories and I don't see why you would want to drag anything into zune ? Aren't all of your mp3's in one big folder ? (with subfolders for albums or whatever)
jamosony 20th November 2009, 01:57 Quote
The music quality on the Zune HD is FAR FAR FAR better then the Ipod touch. The Zune music is played back with a warm natural feel unlike the the hard uncrisp sound to the Ipod. Music playback quality was the main reason I switched to a Zune HD.
knuck 20th November 2009, 04:02 Quote
cupboard : yes, 5-6 hours max but I have a feeling it charges up real quick (I never really tested)
xaser04 20th November 2009, 09:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by GoodBytes


I dont' know about you, but Zune software runs perfectly smoothly on a AMD Athlon XP 2500+ with 512MB of RAM and a Geforce FX 5900 SE (Sucky Edition), running Vista 32-bit. While iTunes doesn't smoothly on any system I own, including my laptop which features a Intel Core 2 Duo P8600, Quadro NVS 160M, Win7 64-bit Pro (initially came with Vista 64-bit Buisness), 4GB of RAM.
I REALLY feel that the fastest Core i7 with 12GB for RAM, still won't be enough to run iTunes.

ITunes runs smoothly on both my laptop (Q9000 , 4GB memory, HD4850m, Vista 32bit) & my main desktop (i7 910 @ 4ghz, 6GB memory, GTX260-216 SLI, Vista 64bit).

It has crashed once on me but that was probably my fault (I attempted to update whilst synching).
Sebbo 20th November 2009, 13:58 Quote
i'm very much with Radical_Monkey on this, i bought a Zune 120 off ebay (i live in australia) have loved both it and the Media Player, to the point its become my media player of choice. Aside from not having access to the full service (will be seeing if Tor will help with this, as it seems to use IP logging on the site, and a simple proxy doesn't help), my only gripe is that the touch pad can be a little oversensitive. Aside from this, i find both the device and software to be easy to use, and a helluva lot better looking than ipod and itunes (not to mention Zune won't break your carefully organised music folder. i spent a solid day with mp3tag before the mistake of letting itunes organise it was solved). my iphone is now my backup for when the zune's battery is flat
can't wait till zune is released in europe and australia, i'll be able to use it to it's full capabilities
knuck 20th November 2009, 16:36 Quote
I heard the zune hd was the last zune they would make ... :(
GoodBytes 20th November 2009, 16:38 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ghys
I heard the zune hd was the last zune they would make ... :(

I heard that Windows XP was the last Windows that Microosft would make.
knuck 20th November 2009, 16:42 Quote
but microsoft didn't release windows XP only in the states without telling anyone about the future of its other OSs
plageclochard 20th November 2009, 19:58 Quote
I'd also like to repeat the question presented originally by GoodBytes and craigbru, did you use the stock headphones for each device (which are terrible), or did you use the same after-market headphones for both the iPod Touch and Zune HD?

It would also be nice to see more than a single sentence concerning the audio quality (though I know the quality of the interface and ease of use with the device are important). And it is odd that you find the quality to be so inferior, as the Zune HD (and really the Zune line as a whole) is pretty widely regarded as having better audio than the iPods (which are generally accepted to be average, but it is all subjective anyway).
williewillus 24th November 2009, 15:40 Quote
Zune's screen is 480 by 272 right?
That reduces to 16 by 9!
iPod's 480 by 320 screen reduces to 3:2!
Apple lies
ZhoRZh 25th November 2009, 01:41 Quote
Quote:
Actualy, Zune HD DOES pause the music when headphones is plugged out, You CAN by music bia Zune software outside US and there IS now playing icon...

BTW, iPod sounds better than the Zune?!? R U def?!? what headphones are U using, get some B&O

This test SUCKS!!!
GoodBytes 25th November 2009, 03:52 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by ZhoRZh
Actualy, Zune HD DOES pause the music when headphones is plugged out, You CAN by music bia Zune software outside US and there IS now playing icon...

BTW, iPod sounds better than the Zune?!? R U def?!? what headphones are U using, get some B&O

This test SUCKS!!!

It's ok... this whole Zune vs iPod Touch is all paid by Apple. In fact, each page that you see is not from bit-tech, but a text ad. Like in some newspaper, some companies places a page full ad that looks like it's part of the newspaper which present a product as being great, but in reality is just an ad for their own product.

Hopeful this will be the exception.. because if I wanted to read Gizmodo.. I would.
knuck 25th November 2009, 04:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by ZhoRZh
Actualy, Zune HD DOES pause the music when headphones is plugged out, You CAN by music bia Zune software outside US and there IS now playing icon...

BTW, iPod sounds better than the Zune?!? R U def?!? what headphones are U using, get some B&O

This test SUCKS!!!

lots of credibility there for a first post. Thanks for your input
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