Microsoft's Zune player has gotten steadily better since it was first released in 2006. Its latest effort, the Zune HD, gets several things right, including video and music playback. Still, there's still plenty of room for improvement.
The Zune HD (not available in NZ stores, but sells for about US$220 (NZ$310) for a 16-gigabyte version; US$290 for 32 gigabytes) is packed in a slim, silver-and-black case that sports a fairly generous 3.3-inch touch screen.
The screen is one of the new Zune's best parts: It's very responsive to finger swipes and taps, and, as with Apple's iPod Touch, you can pinch photos to zoom in and out.
Videos and photos look super crisp, and I had no problem snuggling up with the Zune HD while watching an episode of sketch comedy show "The State" that I downloaded from the Zune Marketplace over the corresponding computer software.
The latest Zune includes a high-definition video function, so you can buy high-def movies in 720p resolution from the Zune Marketplace, and, if you shell out $90 for a dock, watch them on a high-definition TV. You can also watch them on the Zune, but the resolution will be lower.
More impressive was the addition of an HD radio receiver for accessing radio stations' digital HD radio content, which is transmitted alongside their regular analog broadcasts. HD stations sounded clearer than standard FM stations on the dial, but since the Zune already has a good FM radio I wasn't blown away.
I was pleased to see Microsoft finally built a web browser into the Zune, which you can use when you're in a Wi-Fi hot spot. The Zune always had wireless capabilities, and the company seems to revel in rolling out related functions as slowly as possible. On the last Zune, users gained the ability to download Zune Marketplace songs straight to the device when connected to a Wi-Fi network.
The browser, which is based on Microsoft's Internet Explorer, isn't nearly as good as one you'd use on your computer. Given the screen size it was sometimes easier to view mobile versions of websites (sometimes you're automatically directed to them anyway), and there's no support for Flash videos like the ones on YouTube.
Still, it has an easy-to-use touch-screen keyboard for entering website addresses, and it's good for reading the news, checking e-mail or updating your status on Facebook.
One neat feature is the ability to assign "pins" to content you like - basically, quick links that are kept in a side menu off the home screen. This made it easier to quickly access the Obi Best and Lady Gaga songs I can't stop listening to, along with my favourite websites.
Of course, Microsoft has heard the siren song of Apple's online App Store, and has added an "Apps" section to the Zune Marketplace, which you can access through your computer or the device itself. There are only a handful of applications available now - I downloaded two games that didn't really impress - but they are all free, and Microsoft plans to roll out Facebook and Twitter applications soon.
The Zune HD proves the device is starting to come into its own as a multimedia contender. It's not quite there yet, but I am curious to see what Microsoft comes up with next.