Just a relatively quick comparison between my Zune HD and the iPod Touch (2nd gen). More information to follow sometime later.
- The OLED screen on the Zune HD is amazing. It is quite bright, and very vibrant. When I held my ZHD up to my Touch, the display on the Touch looked, well, pathetic. It hadn't ever been so obvious how much backlight seeps through until I compared it to a device without a backlight. And as a result of the backlight, colors on the iPod look very washed out and poorly rendered when compared to to the Zune. One quick photo to compare below… The original is on the left, Zune HD’s rendering in the middle, and iPod Touch on the right.
I played with the camera settings to get a better image from the Touch, and I couldn’t do it. Its display just isn’t very good. I’ll be posting more pictures later.
- Brightness on the OLED is NOT a problem. At equivalent brightness levels (the Zune only has Low, Mid, and High to choose from) the Zune's display is at least as bright as the iPod's. The real plus side for the Zune is that picture quality doesn’t deteriorate at lower brightness levels like it does on LCD. So you can comfortably use the Low setting and it doesn’t detract from the experience.
In direct sunlight the Zune is a bit harder to see. But the difference wasn’t huge, and who attempts to use their device with sunlight falling right on it?
- I have been trying for several days to take a picture that shows a decent comparison shot. But none come out quite right. The white balance of the two displays is quite different (ZHD tracks in at D6500, while the iPod Touch is closer to D5000), so either the iPod's display looks yellow, or the Zune's display looks blue when they are in the same shot. And for some reason the Zune's display shows up a little bit blurry in pictures, which I can't explain. When you see the display IRL it is extremely crisp and sharp.
- The Apps on the Zune don't even begin to compare to those on the iPod Touch. iPod wins hands down here. Microsoft promises more apps later, and they will be free, but they’ll never catch up to where the iPod Touch/iPhone App Store is.
- The browser on the Zune is better than expected. It is a hair sluggish while a page is loading, but once the page is loading the Zune zooms and pans a lot faster than the iPod. Page rendering is fine, but it seems like a substantial number of web sites are serving up their mobile version to the Zune where they serve the full version to the iPod, so direct comparisons aren't really possible. On sites that serve the full version, though, the Zune page rendering seems fine. One obvious lacking on the Zune is that only one page can be open at a time. It doesn't attempt to mimic the multi-page capability of the Touch.
- The user interface on the Zune is much snappier and responsive than that of the iPod Touch. Where the iPod is rendering page transitions at roughly 10 frames per second, the Zune is easily doing 30 fps or more. Scrolling on the Zune is also at least 30 fps, where the iPod is less. The iPod Touch never really felt at all sluggish to me until I compared it to the Zune's interface.
- The experience of listening to music on the Zune is WAY better than the iPod Touch. Between having a more logical and flexible layout of the menu structure for finding music, and the additional features that MS has added to link between artists and provide information (and photos) about the artists in your collection, the Zune provides a much more pleasing experience. And these features are available without the Zune Pass subscription. If you add the Zune Pass subscription, the Zune leaps further ahead because you can not only download but stream any of the music in the Zune catalog in real time. So any track is available at any time so long as you have access to WiFi. And the Zune's Channels feature is a lot cooler than I had eve anticipated. It not only makes music suggestions, but it actually downloads the recommended songs directly to the device automatically so they can play anywhere even without WiFi. Apple ought to be taking notes here.
I’ll be doing a full video or blog post about this. The Zune HD changes the way you experience music.
- Video playback on the Zune is better primarily because of the better screen. It also does a better job of organizing your video collection, because you can manually tag video files as being movies, TV shows, music videos, or other. iTunes doesn't let you do that on your own; the only things tagged this way are the ones you download from the iTunes store. Letting the user catalog their own collection makes it much easier to find your way around.
- The Zune's battery capacity is technically lower than that of the iPod, but it seems to be better at managing it. After two hours of watching video my iPod Touch is dead (my unit could be an anomaly, but it doesn't seem to be). I watched more than 4 hours of video on the Zune HD and the battery meter hadn't fallen past half yet.
- The HD radio is cool, but I have a hard time picking up the HD feeds in my basement. Then again, I can't pick up stereo in my basement on any radio either. When I take the device upstairs or outside, the HD kicks in, and it is definitely clearer than the analog transmission. The primary benefit here is that all static goes away and you get a clean signal, and higher frequencies are much better reproduced in the digital feed.
- One feature on the Zune I find particularly useful is the WiFi syncing. It is very convenient to be able to click three buttons and have the device connect and download updated podcasts, music, and video from anywhere in the house.
- Another thing I noticed is that the Zune software automatically picks up on changes in files in the music and video folders, and reflects them in the software automatically and virtually instantly. So as I was moving files in and out of my music folders the tracks would instantly appear and/or disappear. It has always bugged me that iTunes doesn't automatically pick up on music or videos that I add to my folders.
- As demonstrated in my last blog post, the iPod Touch seems to have some issues with sound quality. The Zune did much better in testing.
- The Zune desktop software is also significantly snapper than iTunes on Windows. And I think I like the design and interface better. With its polished interface, it is certainly snazzier and more refined. iTunes looks relatively dated at this point.
My biggest complaint is mostly with touch-based devices in general, and isn’t specific to the Zune HD. And honestly it is something that I’m surprised we don’t see talked about. It’s the lack of physical buttons for navigating through music tracks.
Recently we have had the dangers of text messaging while driving crammed down our throats, and it surprises me that some of this hasn’t spilled over into other areas. Attempting to operate a touch-screen music player while driving is just as dangerous. In order to control the device you have to take your eyes off of the road for significant amounts of time. And many operations on both the Zune HD and the iPod Touch require two hands to perform effectively. Just adding two buttons for changing tracks would be huge in attempting to fix this problem. But the current trend is to move away from buttons, and I believe this is a mistake. I’m not asking for a device with 47 buttons for every possible function, but there really ought to be dedicated buttons for the most basic functions of the device.
I took my Zune HD with me the day I got it when I went out running a few errands. I found that it was extremely inconvenient and potentially dangerous to do even the most basic of tasks. This isn’t limited to the Zune, either; it is a problem with every touch-screen based music player, whether it be the Zune, iPod Touch, or iPhone. It’s enough of a problem that I must publicly shun anybody that operates one of these devices while behind the wheel. It’s dangerous, and it shouldn’t be done. Apple and Microsoft both really need to rethink their designs a bit to make these devices a little more friendly to situations where full attention can’t be given to their operation.
As a result of this, I will continue using my previous Zunes in my truck. The Zune HD will probably become my primary travelling device, but not the PMP that gets used the most.
So to summarize, when comparing the Zune and iPod Touch, people looking for a device primarily for music and video, the Zune will provide a much richer and more interactive experience. For people looking to take advantage of the App Store, the iPod Touch can't be touched (hardy, har, har). So if you’re buying to listen to music, I recommend the Zune. If you’re buying for the App Store, the Touch is the only way to go. For web browsing, the iPod has a bit of an edge, but it isn't much. Both will provide a similar experience there.
If someone already has a significant amount of DRM protected content from the iTunes store that they want to keep, there is probably no reason to consider the Zune (though they need to get out from under the thumb of the music industry). But if someone doesn't care much about the App Store and their main focus is music and video, the Zune HD provides a significantly better experience for both. Since the Zune can play all of the file formats supported by the iPods (plus more), switching from the iPod to Zune isn't too painful, and it’s a switch that I bet a lot of people would be thankful to have made later on.