Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New 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.

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