Zippier Zune Takes Aim at iPod... Again

Over the years, mention of the word “Microsoft” has set off a variety of emotions. Some consider how Microsoft achieved its success, and feel anger. Some consider how Microsoft borrows other companies’ ideas, and feel indignation. Some consider recent battles with Windows, and feel frustration.

But when you try out Microsoft’s new Zune HD music/video player, you may feel a whole new emotion that most people don’t associate with Microsoft: sympathy.

Why? We’ll get to that.

Microsoft Zune
Microsoft Zune

The new Zune, which replaces the old models, is Microsoft’s version of the iPod Touch — a gorgeous multitouch screen dominates the front. Its handsome, beveled metal case weighs next to nothing, yet still feels expensive and solid in the hand.

It’s nearly buttonless; you operate it as you do the iPod Touch — you navigate by tapping things on the screen, magnify photos or Web pages by spreading two fingers apart, rotate images by turning the player 90 degrees, and so on. The software design is fluid, beautiful and incredibly responsive.

The new Zune has a bright, sharp and colorful OLED screen (organic light-emitting diode, not that that helps). Finger streaks are an ugly problem, but only when the screen is off.

The Zune HD is narrower and shorter than the Touch, and a hair thicker. It’s available in black or silver; online, you can order a Zune HD with any of several fancy artist-designed back panels. The 16-gigabyte model is $220; the 32-gigabyte model is $290. (The iPod Touch comes in 8-, 32- and 64-gigabyte models for $200, $300 and $400.)

The “HD” means two things. First, like its predecessors, this Zune can tune into FM radio (when the earbuds are attached; they’re the antenna), but now it can tune into HD radio stations, too.

HD radio was an initiative begun a few years ago by existing AM and FM radio stations to compete with the dawn of satellite radio. Today, 1,900 of those existing stations also broadcast free HD channels. These broadcasts sound better than AM and FM, and there’s no static, ever.

Better yet, many of these stations broadcast a second or even third shadow channel for added variety. New York’s WCBS-HD oldies channel, for example, has two of these multicast channels: an ’80s hits channel, and a better-sounding version of its AM news channel.

The Zune is among the very first portable radios that can even get HD stations. Still, HD radio isn’t a killer app. The stations can be hard to find — not to mention consumers who even know what HD radio is.

The Zune HD’s name also refers to the hi-def (720p) movies that you can buy on Microsoft’s online store. The store is a big new initiative for Microsoft; the same music, TV shows and movies will eventually be available for Xbox, Zune and even Windows Mobile cellphones. Buy a movie on one gadget, watch it on another.

Alas, for now, the selection is relatively puny. The store offers a choice of six million songs, 10,000 TV shows and 500 movies. Trouble is, the Apple iTunes store offers twice as many songs, five times as many TV shows and 15 times as many movies.

Meanwhile, Microsoft continues to use its ridiculous payment system called Microsoft Points. It’s 160 points for a TV show, 480 points for a hi-def movie — what are we, currency traders? (Meanwhile, you buy points in blocks that never come out even with your purchases; Microsoft pockets the remainder.)

The Zune’s own screen isn’t fine enough to show you hi-def video. But when you set the player into the $90 Zune Dock, you can play your hi-def Zune movies in hi-def on your actual TV. (Matching component and HDMI cables are thoughtfully included.)

The Dock can also play your photos, music and radio stations through your home entertainment system. All of it looks and sounds great, although rewinding and fast-forwarding video using the included remote is jerky and unpredictable.

Music is still at the Zune’s heart, especially if you sign up for Microsoft’s $15-a-month, all-you-can-download music-store plan. Now, you could argue that those subscriptions are something of a ripoff; the day you stop paying that monthly fee, you lose your entire music collection.

The Zune Pass, though, eases the sting: You get to keep 10 songs a month forever (90 percent of Microsoft’s songs are not copy-protected). Better yet, you can listen to your infinite playlist by logging into from any Mac or PC, anywhere you go. If you listen to a lot of music, this deal is becoming irresistible.

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: