Zune HD versus iPod Touch: Round 1, Music

November 19, 2009 | 10:57

Tags: #ipod-touch #mp3 #music #tegra #zune-hd

Companies: #apple #microsoft

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:


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.
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