I, like the majority of people, bought an iPod. I actually bought several of them, starting when I was 18 with a 20GB fourth-generation model of what would eventually be known as the Classic. I also had the original Nano and eventually the iPod touch, because that was cheaper than an iPhone.
The Zune never even crossed my mind, especially because it wasn't exactly readily available or well advertised product in the UK, where I live, at the time. It was all about Apple.
Only one of two Zune media players is still available today, but I recently picked up a refurbished Zune HD from Amazon for a low price. One thing became quickly apparent: I should have never bought an iPod.
Understated design and great hardware
From the start, the Zune HD feels like a quality product. This was the very first time I'd ever touched a Zune, and there's no denying the quality. It's a neat little design, with a nice sized display, and it is easily pocketable. The branding is subtle, and the design is classy. It doesn't yell about its purpose, like those shiny backed iPods of the time. The Zune HD is understated in design.
Aside from the shimmery finish covering the display, it's hard to fault the Zune HD as a piece of tech design even now. There are worse looking smartphones being sold every day, and this came to market eight years ago.
The tiny OLED display only has a measly 480 x 272 resolution, but it still looks pretty fantastic. Not by 2017 standards, but rewind to 2009 and there would be zero complaints. The dark-themed user interface is sharp, colors are bright, and for everything right down to web browsing it's a solid little display.
Oh, yes, web browsing. There's built-in Wi-Fi and a web browser on the Zune HD, though trying to load a current day website is an exercise in wasting your time.
Before Windows Phone there was Zune
The Windows Phone Metro UI that so many loved, and some still do to this day, has roots in the Zune. There are no tiles, but the similarities are plain to see. Compared to the iPod, and even iOS and Android back in 2009, this would have been a breath of fresh air.
Or it would have had it taken off as a product.
The Zune UI feels thoughtful, based on gestures rather than taps. Sure, Apple pushed multitouch from the launch of the iPhone, but you stil had to tap and tap and tap to do everything. The Zune just flows, and of course, the rest is history.
While I wouldn't entertain the idea of going back to Windows Phone for a similar experience, it still feels just as awesome on the Zune HD now as it ever did on a phone.
What about the music?
With the iPod came the (heinous) iTunes for Windows. With the Zune came the software of the same name. One of these is still updated today, but the other has disappeared into memory. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, however, nothing ever truly goes away.
Microsoft still hosts a download of the Zune software, and that means even when buying one for the very first time in 2017, it's possible to hook it up to a PC and actually use it as a music player.
In the present day, you lose all the cool features like Zune Music Pass, but as a functional interface for putting content onto the Zune HD, it still works just fine. And it's better than having to deal with iTunes.
With only 16GB of internal storage and no expansion, I won't be loading up my whole music collection, but it'll still hold a good chunk of it. When you consider that for most of us our smartphones have become our media players, many are still sold with only 16GB of internal storage for everything.
The music player is a lot like the one that came on Windows Phone after it. It looks fantastic to this day. It is unique, and stylish, but function is front and center. The Zune HD even has a radio. (I still like listening to my local radio stations.)
The wrong one won
The iPod and its creator, Apple, were the undoubted winner of this war. Apple is still winning to this day, and I've contributed enough of my own cash to that end in the past. It may be a lot of years too late, but by picking up a cheap, refurbished Zune HD it didn't take long for me to realize that I was wrong. A lot of other people were wrong, too.
I should have bought a Zune.
It's too late for it to matter now, but even today this little music box is a tremendous device and a much earlier example of Microsoft's strength in design. Portable music players are mostly pushed out now by smartphones, but I'm going to keep using the Zune HD. It's small enough to fit in any pocket or bag, won't sap my phone's battery when I'm on the road and is just a nice thing to have. It found its way into my heart.
Your Zune love stories
If you're a Zune fan, old or new, share your story with us in the comments below. Bygone it may be, but when you remember something it never truly goes away!
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Richard Devine is a Managing Editor at Windows Central with over a decade of experience. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently, you'll find him steering the site's coverage of all manner of PC hardware and reviews. Find him on Mastodon at mstdn.social/@richdevine