Gadget reviews: ZuneHD, Lenovo S12 netbook and Umid's Mbook pocket PC.

ZuneHD.jpg ZuneHD Video MP3 Player, $220 Microsoft's ZuneHD is an excellent alternative to Apple's iPod touch, but not if you like apps or dislike the Windows-only media sync software.
The new model's 3.3-inch, 480x272 multitouch display and compact form prove that MS can get the design right given a couple of tries. ZuneHD's squared-off geometry (53mm x 102 mm x 9 mm) is trendy and unpretentious, and frames a smooth, Tegra-powered user interface. It comes in 16GB or 32GB, black and silver, $220 and $290. Once loaded with music and video, you're all set ... assuming that's all you care about. Offered with it is a convincing subsription plan: $15 for all you can eat music over WiFi, locally cached, and you get ten keep-'em-forever MP3 downloads each month. ZuneHD's ability to output 14Mbps 720p video over HDMI is a killer app: this tiny PMP, three of which may fit in a deck of cards, is also a serviceable living room media center. There are annoyances. In bright sunlight, that lovely OLED display disappears behind glassy reflections. Microsoft's bloated software reminds us why it's just not necessary to jazz-up mundane, straightfoward stuff like media organization. ZuneHD doesn't show up as a USB drive, either. Its lack of an internal speaker is a likely annoyance for those used to the iPod touch: could you imagine having to wear headphones to enjoy games or hear incoming app notifications? Moreover, the first batch of available programs are amateurish and slow to load, with interstitial advertisments playing before they open. Let's not even get started on the lack of a cellphone edition or the platform's obvious superiority to Windows Mobile 6.5. Get the ZuneHD if you like the looks, run Windows, and don't care about apps. ZuneHD [Official website] Zune HD 32 GB Video MP3 Player [Amazon] umid_15.jpgUmid mbook, $600
Photo: Umid's mbook miniaturizes the laptop to the point of near-absurdity: weighing just 0.7 pounds, it's 6" wide, 4" deep, and 0.7" thick. Smaller even than Fujitsu's U-series, it has a 4.8" display, a similarly tiny QWERTY keyboard, and netbookish hardware running Windows XP. Intel's 1.33GHz Atom, 512MB of RAM and a 32GB SSD lurk within. Outside are a microSD card slot and a single micro-USB port. Assuming you can type on it--and don't assume you'll be comfortable doing so until you've actually used it--other flaws mar it. The hinge only lets it fold back about 130 degrees, making it difficult to view and use two-handed. There's no trackpad or nub, just the touchscreen and a stylus: bearing in mind that XP is not very accessible to touch in any case, finessing that high-PPI 1024x600 display is often a chore. An option for 3G internet would have added some magic. Finally, there are better-looking MIDs about to hit stores, including Sharp's NetWalker and Nokia's N900. That said, if you want a real computer that fits in a normal pocket, this is currently the leader of that very small pack. UMID mbook M1 product page [Dynamism] lenovo-s12.jpgLenovo IdeaPad S12, $430 With its 12" display and Via Nano chipset, Lenovo's IdeaPad S12 is larger than most netbooks, but doesn't quite qualify as a mainstream machine. The 1280x800 screen resolution offers 200 more lines than most Atom-based miniatures, and the $430 price tag keeps it competitively priced against them. On the other hand, Windows XP and dismal 3D video performance suggest the same old limitations. 1GB of RAM doesn't go far these days, either. In practice, the Via processor and HD display do lift the the S12 out of accessory territory, making it a productive and useful machine with an attractive budget price. And if the choppy full-screen YouTubes and lack of HD video get you down, it can be configured (for another $70) to have Nvidia's ION graphics chipset, which adds graphical grunt and 1080p HDMI output. The design is clean and unfussy, a stout plastic chassis in black or white, with no silly keyboard shenanigans to make typing a pain. BlueTooth, WiFi, a 160GB hard drive, an ExpressCard slot and a 6-cell battery round it out. Lenovo's S12 hits a sweet spot between compact size and practicality. It'll be most interesting to those who've been turned off by the experience of cheap netbooks, but who are still looking for something small. Product Page [Lenovo]



  1. Zune’s software may suck, but it sucks a lot less than itunes. For god’s sake – what do people see in itunes? It clearly demonstrates that apple is a hardware company.

  2. I’ve got a Zune HD, and I have to say that I love it. I bought it because I wanted an MP3 player and apps weren’t a major concern of mine. The built-in web browser works well, and handles sites designed for full size screens with no usability issues. Finally, although I’m no audiophile, the sound quality coming from the Zune is phenomenal compared to other devices (ranging from other MP3 players to computers) that I’ve used these same headphones in. I don’t know what to attribute it to, and I can’t give quantifiable data, but the sound sounds like it has a broader range and more clarity than what is normally sent to headphone jacks.

    One of the reasons I didn’t buy an iPod touch is iTunes. I’ve never really liked the iTunes interface, and two of my friends have recently had iTunes-only crashes that wiped out significant portions of their music collection.

    A third contender was the Creative Zen X Fi or X Fi 2 player. My two previous players were Zens, and I’ve liked them a lot. A nice feature of the Zens is that you don’t have to use any special software to add music, you can just drag and drop onto the device as if it’s a drive. If you want automatic synching, you do have to install their software, which is a little clunky and doesn’t have as much polish as iTunes or the Zune software. In addition, only the X Fi 2 has wireless, but it can only be used with their proprietary chat program, or to stream audio from your other computer if you’re on the same network. All in all, it feels like Creative is about a half step behind the other guys right now.

    1. nd MS pd y hw mch t wrt tht lttl rvw?

      …although I’m no audiophile, the sound quality coming from the Zune is phenomenal compared to other devices…

      It’s a long time since I met anyone who could tell the difference in sound quality between different MP3 players. Headphones can make a difference, but the player?

      1. No need to get all paranoid, I have used my Creative earphones with a couple of different players and I can tell a difference in sound quality.

      2. GyroMagican, isn’t it possible that Zune tweaks the equalization? A little boost at low bass and high treble (a la the old “loudness” switch) might account for Scuba SM’s experience. But I would expect that to be widely reported, so it seems a bit unlikely.

      3. GyroMagician,

        MS didn’t pay me anything to write that review. I was passing along the information that I had gathered when doing my research into buying a new mp3 player, and also added my experiences with the device. I believe you can check my post history here on BoingBoing if you suspect me of astroturfing or somesuch.

        As for the iTunes crashes, I can only report what I was told and observed. I don’t use iTunes, I don’t know how it organizes it’s library, etc.

        One other thing about the Zune that wasn’t mentioned in the BB review: It has a built in HD radio tuner, for what it’s worth.

  3. You know, the Zune HD is not bad looking, but the lack of apps is astonishing; the Apple hataz who whine with every Apple release/upgrade about how some trivial featurette or legacy port is missing should try to explain how one of the biggest corporations in the world can’t keep up with the status quo after more than twelve years of farting around with mobile operating systems. Since I’ve started tracking and charting my blood glucose levels (and emailing them directly to my doctor) with my iPhone, I literally depend on the thing. Zune is still just a toy.

  4. You know, I’m certainly no fan of itunes and the Zune HD has some impressive hardware, but I’m going to call bullshit on this right here:

    “I’ve never really liked the iTunes interface, and two of my friends have recently had iTunes-only crashes that wiped out significant portions of their music collection.”

    Itunes does two things with your mp3s:
    – copies them to the itunes music folder
    – creates an entry in its database with date last played, number of times played, etc

    If itunes crashes, it will not take out the mp3s. The mp3s are still there, on your disk. It might take out the database or the xml with the metadata and that can be very annoying, but you can just re-import all your music and it’s there again.

    So unless this is some mp3-eating bug in itunes, you may want to go over to these 2 friends of yours and apologize.

    1. Remmelt, iTunes most certainly can lose / delete music because of a bug or crash. I don’t know of any bugs with the current version, but version 7 had some nasty habits that would lose files – and the bugs stuck around for the better part of a year. Here’s something from a few years back about it:

      Gyromagician, different players have completely different output circuitry so I have no idea why you think a player couldn’t possibly make a difference in audio quality. The output is not digital, and every step in the chain converting from a digital stream to an audible output is going to influence the sound. So it’s actually very odd to me that you would think a given player couldn’t sound better or worse than another. I have no opinion on the Zune, having never even touched one, but I know my 2nd gen iPod sounded much better to me than my newer one does. I think it had a higher quality DAC, but I could be full of it.

      1. Different players do have different output circuitry, true. But modern output amps, combined with some digital pre-emphasis, are all very capable. Their response is accurate enough that most of us (all?) can’t tell the difference between them. If you’re hearing the DAC then somebody should shoot the designer. The very cheapest PC audio card is good enough (in terms of low power audio quality) for the same reason.

        Anon – you got me with the equaliser – that could be the difference.

        Scuba SM – sorry if that was a bit too aggressive (too much coffee?). I think you brought out my audiophile slapping instinct. Oops, I take it back.

  5. I dunno about whether it takes a crash for Itunes to decide to delete mp3s or not, but I’ve had the same problem (not hearing of something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist). The Itunes on my old computer not only deleted songs, it also appeared to be doing it based on playcount (i.e., the surviving songs on an album were only songs I’d heard a thousand times, and the rest were gone). What’s more, Itunes did this to my IPOD as well, whilst periodically refusing to let me add tracks to it. I asked what this was about, and was told that it was a “software compatibility issue”, nevermind that I had updated it from Apple right before. Now I use a third-party program that works just fine.

    That being said, Zunes *are* toys.

  6. I have a ZuneHD and I love it for what it does perfectly – music. I don’t want apps on my iPod. I have a G1 for that. I prefer to keep my two devices separate for battery life reasons, stretching the Zune for a long time. I switched from my iPod Touch to the Zune and never looked back.
    Also, I actually like their software much more than iTunes. iTunes on my PC was always a bloated piece of crap that would mysteriously take 15 or 30 seconds to open for the first time. The ZuneHD software is fast and responsive for me, even on high quality interface settings. The software can be as pretty as you want, changing out settings to turn of the fancy gradients and animations. Secondly, the sync via WiFi means I never have to plug it in to my computer, only ever to charge. I can sit on my couch, sync up the channels that grab a bunch of intelligently selected music, and keep on listening.
    Lastly, and the place where Zune really wins for me, is the $15 Zune Pass. I can listen to anything in their marketplace streaming with it, from wherever I have internet. No longer is my music tethered to the one computer or network, but I can listen to it at work, home, wherever. It’s changed the way I listened to music and definitely for the better.

  7. I love my (old) Zune. It is like a toughbook Mp3 player. I have dropped it and the brick will not break.
    Plus, I can leave it out in plain sight in my car. No one would ever break into a car to steal a Zune. It is theft-proof!

  8. Hello, sorry for the really silly questions, but I have two of them, and can’t seem to get good answers via normal message board searchs.

    1. Does the cheaper ZuneHD offer a usable web browser? (Can I type in URL’s? Can you access webmail?)
    2. Can I stream Pandora, or other net radio type services?
    3. Can I use it as a portable storage device? (I have no desire to load music or videos on this device.)

    Thanks for any help that can be provided.

  9. I own a 32gb ZuneHD, and I have to say that I’m quite happy with it. It does lack a few features that I wish it had, such as a Random Playlist, or Play Everything on Device button, which requires me to fiddle with playlists, or decide on one artist or album to listen to only.

    The Zune Pass seems like a good deal, but I’m not sure in the long run how valuable that’s going to be. They, apparently, are going to be doing things with that on XBox Live, so I’ll reserve my judgment until then.

    The apps, as of right now, suck. But I didn’t get this as a portable computer, I got it as a music player. I’ve got plenty of apps on my G1, and that will do anything I want, other than storing and playing a lot of music. I’ve also heard rumors about app integration with XBox Live, but I haven’t heard any plans for any of that, so, it may just be rumors.

  10. FnordX: You can shuffle any playlist with the little crossed arrows at the bottom of the now playing screen. You can also play (and shuffle) every song on the Zune HD by pressing the play button next to the MUSIC entry on the main menu.

  11. Normally, I’m a lurker. However, I felt it important to clarify some points on the Lenovo Ideapad. (I’ve been watching for it for months so…) The product page is a little misleading, which may be the reason for your article confusing some facts. The first 3 laptops on the S12 site use Intel or VIA integrated graphics chipsets. Which accounts for that $430 price tag your referred to. However, only the $600 29595FU includes the Atom chipset.

    This explains the mixed reviews on the Netbook’s graphics performance. Mind you using the N270 vs. the N330 on what is supposed to be a “performance” netbook (if that isn’t an oxymoron I don’t know what is) seems absolutly ludicrous to me.

    What’s really sad is Lenovo’s marketing choice to include the new Netbook in the S12 line. It’s confusing at best, misleading at worst, and has been the cause of the lack luster interest in the line. Sad, because the little box showed promise.

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