Cigar Aficionado

When Microsoft first introduced its Zune music players, you could hear the lead balloons dropping over the company’s Redmond, Washington, headquarters. But rather than cede the music player category to Apple, Microsoft persevered and crafted a second-generation Zune, a little sleeker than the first. And now, with the Zune HD, they’ve finally hit one out of the park.

For starters, the Zune HD is flat-out gorgeous. It boasts an OLED touch screen instead of the more common LCD display, providing major advantages in brightness, contrast and color. Both video and photos look amazing. Viewing your media is a breeze, as you easily scroll through long lists with a finger-flick on the very responsive screen. Combine that great OLED screen with an ultrathin, lightweight metal body and you have an aesthetic treat. Heck, even the on-screen typography looks terrific. In addition to good looks and solid audio quality, you get both FM and HD radio receivers, Wi-Fi wireless networking, 32 gigabytes of storage and a Web browser. All for $290 ($220 for the 16-gigabyte model).

The paid Zune music subscription service isn’t a requirement, but I’d highly recommend it. As with other such services, $15 a month gets you access to nearly any song that comes to mind. “But I don’t own the music that way!” detractors have cried. So Microsoft sweetened the deal, combining all-you-can-hear music with 10 MP3 song downloads you can keep per month. With downloads selling for about a buck elsewhere, I’d call that a bargain.

And the “HD” in Zune HD? High-def video output. The built-in screen resolution is 480x272, but pop the Zune into the optional AV Dock ($90) and you get full 720p video on your HDTV screen, plus wireless remote control. Movie and TV-show downloads look terrific, but so do your digital photos. Even the moving graphics displayed while listening to music are HD handsome.
So what are the downsides? First, there’s no Mac support. Second, fewer accessories (speaker docks and such) than you’ll find for Apple products. Third, there are now 100,000 apps available at the iTunes store. There are nine for Zune (fortunately one is a decent Texas Hold’em Game).

Still, for my money, I want a portable music player that works with a subscription music service. I want thin, lightweight gear that looks phenomenal. And if I’m carrying a different device than the kid fetching me a burger at McDonald’s or the grandma power walking through the local mall, that’s just fine with me.