Pros: Sturdy, good sound, Zune/Xbox Music subscription compatible, handles most music files, fun interface, beautiful screen, Zune desktop client
Cons: Limited app choice, Zune has been discontinued
Although I love music and have historically been fond of Apple products (since the Mac Classic), I never found a need for an iPod. They seemed cool, and I sort of wanted one, but I really didn't have much use for a portable player.
When I finally broke down and bought one for the gym, I went with a Sansa Clip, as reviews said it sounded better than all but a few iPods. Later I upgraded to a Sansa Fuze, which I also liked. But something was missing. I didn't just want to load up a device with MP3s; I wanted more of a curated experience ala Apple. But I didn't really want an iPod. *Everybody* had one of those, and the iTunes store's DRM (not a problem now) and interface annoyed me.
So what to do? I searched, and I found numerous reviews touting the Zune HD as an "sleeper" of a portable audio system -- one that few people owned, but was actually a great alternative to the iPod. It had a $15/mo. subscription plan that - to my great surprise -- carried tons of music that I liked and was interested in (things like experimental rock and metal, for instance). So I found a gently used Zune HD on eBay for $200 or so. We've been inseparable since. I now own the (discontinued, but still available if you look) HD dock, as well as a car radio kit, and I use my Zune much like I suppose many people use their iDevices ... docked to my computer at home, docked in my car on my commute, and docked at my workstation at work. It's a slick setup that suits my tastes.
Quickly about the device itself: It is very well constructed, with a magnesium shell and tough glass. The OLED screen is brilliant and still impressive for an aging product. It does have some apps, but not many. AudioSurf is the best of the lot. There is also a calendar, rudimentary browser, a Facebook app, an email client, and an HD radio. Not bad for such a small device. However, if you own a smartphone, you will prefer to use that for your social tasks. Anyone with adult eyes and fingers would tire quickly of writing emails on this thing.
Unfortunately, the once-touted "social" features no longer work, as Microsoft has let them die. Same for wireless downloading from Zune (I think). I haven't been able to wirelessly download tunes for several months, and I think it may have to do with Microsoft's transformation of the Zune service into Xbox Music. [Clarification: Streaming music from Zune/Xbox Music still works via Wi-Fi; my problem is confined to Zune subscription mp3 downloads.] There is a well documented issue with the Zune's Wi-Fi not playing nicely with WPA encrypted routers, so that might also be an issue. Come to think of it, I have auto-synched tunes between my laptop and Zune in the recent past via wi-fi. It was kind of slow, though. Transfers are speedy using a USB 2.0 or higher connection.
Some good news: the Zune client is still available for all recent flavors of Windows, and it does still work (as of early 2003). I've confirmed with Microsoft that Xbox Music is compatible with Zune (via the Zune software) and should remain so indefinitely (that is not a promise, but it is encouraging). The Zune software is no longer being updated, but it is stable and very usable on my Windows 7 computers. I'm hoping for a couple of more years to enjoy this device before Microsoft pulls the plug.
Downloads using the Zune software and synching still work just fine. So does importing your own music to the player. ... Which gets to the reason I still use this thing: It's a *very* good little music player.
The sturdy magnesium shell is durable and scratch resistant, and the device has an interesting and very usable interface (it's just a touch annoying sometimes, but you get the hang of it fast) that was an inspiration for Windows Phone. The controls are all touch-based, except for three buttons, which you use to navigate and turn the Zune on or off. It stores a healthy amount of music (32 GB in my case, though a 64 GB model was sold). There is no expandability or battery replacement. It charges within a couple of hours and can run all day. I've dropped it many times (inside an Incipio protective shell) and it seems no worse for wear.
The sound is quite good. I've read it uses a Wolfson DAC and it seems pleasantly warm and detailed to my ear. There are rudimentary equalizer choices (like Rock, Acoustic, or Jazz) to tweak your sound. My unit does not carry any electrical noise. Just a very nice, clean signal. That is worth comment ... the output jack appears to be well designed. Better than any computer device I own.
Touches like this make the Zune HD seem less like a consumer audio device and more like entry level audiophile device. I've listened to it using $40 headphones and $400 headphones and remained impressed. I consider this the DeLorean of mp3 players ... not many sold, but an iconic, enduring classic. I'll use this until it wears out or Microsoft stops supporting it. By then, maybe somebody will manufacture a smartphone that caters to the audiophile crowd?