Archive for September 19, 2009

First Look: The Microsoft Zune HD

Microsoft Zune HD

Microsoft Zune HD (Click to enlarge.)
[PHOTO: Courtesy of Microsoft]

This third-generation Zune is a significant, and largely successful, facelift of a media player that has ranked towards the middle of our Ratings of MP3 players, available to subscribers. The upgrade begins with its appearance; measuring 4 x 3.5 inches, the Zune HD is noticeably thinner and more elegant than the first, boxy, and drab-colored Zune models.

Available now, the Zune HD costs $220 in the 16GB version, $290 in the 32GB version.

We'll be adding the Zune HD to our Ratings in a few weeks. Meantime, here are our first impressions of the player:

The display is sharp. The 3.3-in. multi-touch-screen display was quite responsive. And with its 170-dot-per inch (dpi) resolution, it's about as sharp as the 160-dpi display on Apple’s iPod Touch, the closest counterpart to the Zune HD in Apple’s lineup.Colors on the Zune display, which uses organic light emitting diode technology, appeared vibrant.

The Zune HD also shares these other capabilities with the Touch: You can zoom in on photos by widening your fingers, or double-tap the screen to return them to original size. The screen reorients Web pages and photos when you tilt the player. And there’s a virtual keyboard to facilitate searches on its Web browser. Unlike the Touch and other players, however, the Zune HD doesn't support streaming video.

HD Radio is a plus. True to its moniker, the Zune HD is the first portable player with a built-in HD Radio. (Besides simulcasting their main signal digitally, with better sound quality than the analog broadcast, FM stations that broadcast HD Radio signals provide information on the music that’s playing and often offer additional programming through what’s called multicasting.) Like the new iPod Nano, the Zune allows you to tag songs you hear on its radio for later purchase. And, as promised, you can use the Zune’s Wi-Fi capability, a feature the Nano lacks, to download purchases directly to the player, or to wirelessly sync the player to your PC.

Navigation is fairly easy. The Zune HD's Quickplay menu makes it easy to find the music, videos, podcasts, and other content. It allows you to create shortcuts, called "pins," to any item in your collection and also displays your playback history and recent purchases. You can peck your way down the menu tree to find a song, album, video, etc. The display also duplicates the appearance of the Zune software on your PC desktop. But that trick can sometimes be a problem, we found, because some elements get squeezed or cut off on the display.

The music never stops. The Zune HD has a Smart DJ feature, akin to iTune's Genius, that creates an "endless playlist" of songs based on your tastes and how the songs are related musically. For $15 a month, you can add the Zune Pass service, which offers users unlimited access to many songs in the Zune Marketplace catalog.

The Zune HD packs a lot of smart, powerful features into a relatively small and sexy package, and may even turn some Zune mockers into admirers. Mac owners won’t be among them, however, since the Zune remains Windows-only, even in this new version.

Another drawback: Songs you buy on your Zune account can't be played on other players or unauthorized computers. And Microsoft's payment method remains batty. Instead of currency, you pay for things with "points," which you have to buy in $5 increments. And because the points don't match currency, its hard to tell how much you're spending. —Mike Gikas.

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Nikon S1000pj projection digital camera spotted in NYC

Sony Bravia VPL-VW85 front projector

One of the Nikon reps projected my image onto his friend's back. (Click to enlarge.)

Although it’s not yet available in stores, Nikon’s projector camera, the Nikon Coolpix S1000pj, $430, was on display last night at a Pepcom trade-show event in New York City. Slated to be available in stores later this month, this new point-and-shoot certainly caught my attention and for the most part, I liked what I saw and thought the feature was pretty intuitive:

  • To activate the projection feature, you press a button on the top of the camera. I was happy to see there was no need to drill down into a menu to use the feature. There’s also a manual focus control that you’ll need to use depending how far you are from the surface on which you’re projecting your image. Again, I found this control pretty easy to use.
  • Although I was impressed with the still-image projections (right), I think it’s even cooler that you can project standard def video. It’s just a shame the video isn’t high def.
  • It was hard to get a sense of how bright the projections might be in a typical home setting from viewing them on the brightly lit trade show floor. The Nikon folks told me that the projector’s light source is an LED that produces 30 lumens of light.
  • Although it wasn’t displayed at the show, the camera ships with a small support stand. The Nikon rep told me this orients the camera at a slight slant for optimal projecting.

After seeing the Coolpix S1000pj in action, I think this camera will be quite popular at family and social gatherings. Check back here for our assessment of this unique point-and-shoot.Terry Sullivan

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