Review: Zune HD & AV dock and Zune Premium Car Pack

I purchased a regular platinum 32GB Zune HD on the 15 September launch day from Amazon and a few hours later order a Zune Originals device that just recently arrived. Along with the launch of the Zune HD, Microsoft rolled out a few Zune HD accessories. I purchased the DLO Action Jacket from Best Buy so I could go running with my Zune HD and will post some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks. Microsoft sent along a couple of other available accessories for me to try out. You can check out my extensive image gallery and full take on the Zune Premium Car Pack and Zune HD & AV dock.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

I purchased a regular platinum 32GB Zune HD on the 15 September launch day from Amazon and a few hours later order a Zune Originals device that just recently arrived. Along with the launch of the Zune HD, Microsoft rolled out a few Zune HD accessories. I purchased the DLO Action Jacket from Best Buy so I could go running with my Zune HD and will post some thoughts on that in a couple of weeks. Microsoft sent along a couple of other available accessories for me to try out. You can check out my extensive image gallery and full take on the Zune Premium Car Pack and Zune HD & AV dock below.

Image Gallery:Check out these new Zune accessories that work well with the Zune HD.
Image Gallery: Zune Premium Car Pack
Image Gallery: Zune menu on my 37 inch HD LCD TV

Zune Premium Car Pack

I have a rather small personal music collection and thus the ability to listen to and download unlimited music to my Zune HD with the Zune subscription is quite compelling. I also use my Zune to listen to my favorite podcasts. The Zune HD has no integrated speaker or Bluetooth radio so I was looking for a way to enjoy my Zune HD content in the car when I run my daughters around to all of their activities and spend time waiting in various parking lots. I saw that Microsoft has a new FM transmitter solution for the Zune HD and was sent one to evaluate. I tested each of the available methods to connect your Zune HD to your car stereo system with two of my cars so I will comment on the setup and performance of each method below.

The Zune Premium Car Pack came in a sturdy box with the auto adapter and a small simple directions card. The main part of the unit is long, approximately 4 inches, with a cigarette lighter/DC plug adapter on one end and an indicator light on the other end. When the unit is plugged in and active a Zune logo appears in white on the end. Towards the plug end you will find a 3.5mm audio out port that is designed to let you plug in a 3.5mm cable and then plug the other end into an audio jack or cassette adapter in your car for direct audio playback without using the FM transmitter. At the indicator light end of the unit you will find a USB port designed to let you charge up a second Zune or maybe even a mobile phone.

The second part of the unit is the FM transmitter/Zune connector piece that is at the end of a 3 foot cable. The small dongle has large rubberized buttons labeled with a 1 and 2 that are used for two presets you can establish by pressing and holding on them. There are two other areas in way of where the FM station appears where you press to change the transmitted station frequency. A press and hold of these areas enables the scan mode so an optimal frequency can be found. The included directions incorrectly state that you press and hold the 1 and 2 buttons to scan for stations. By the way, plugging the Zune connector into your Zune will also charge up your Zune device.

Using the FM transmitter After you plug in your Zune HD you are then supposed to tune your FM radio to the station shown on the Zune auto dongle. Pressing play on your selected music should start the playing of it over your car stereo. I live in an area where there is a radio station on just about every frequency/channel along the FM frequency range. Thus, it was very difficult to find a clear station to use the FM transmitter and when I did the sound was pretty poor. Then again, many of the FM stations on the stereo in my Jeep really don't come in that clear either. You can also listen to the FM radio on the Zune, but without HD capability so this makes very little sense when you have a perfectly good radio right there. If this was the only option available to me then there is no way I would buy the Zune Premium Car Pack. Luckily, Microsoft has a couple other options available for using this accessory with your car.

Using the A/V out and a cassette adapter I know that cassettes are rare, if even possible, to find on newer cars. However, I have a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee that has a cassette player so I dropped by Best Buy and bought a $25 cassette adapter. One end of the cassette adapter has a 3.5mm headset jack that I simply plugged right into the A/V out port on the Zune Premium Car Pack. When I then plugged the dongle end into the Zune HD the letters AUX appeared on the dongle/controller. Then pressing play on my music, podcasts, and HD FM radio played it extremely clearly through my stereo speakers.

The cool thing about using the A/V out port of the Zune Premium Car Pack is that you now get access to HD FM radio stations through your Zune HD. While it makes little sense to use this accessory to listen to standard FM radio, there was quite a difference in quality with the HD FM radio and I found it to be very handy to have.

Using the A/V out to connect directly with a 3.5mm cable My 2007 Dodge truck does not have a cassette player, but it does have a 3.5mm audio in port on the front panel. I simply took a $10 3.5mm to 3.5mm audio cable and plug it from my truck port to the port on the Zune Premium Car Pack adapter. Similar to the cassette adapter option, sound quality was top notch and I have full access to HD FM radio stations.

If you live in an area with few FM radio stations then this accessory may work just fine for you without any other cables or adapters. If you live in a heavily populated area like I do then you will need to find a cassette adapter or 3.5mm cable that works with your car. In addition to listening to content over your car stereo system you get the ability to keep you Zune charged up in the car and a USB port to charge other devices (I use it to charge my phones). The Zune Premium Car Pack is priced at $80 from the Zune store.

Zune HD & A/V dock

There are a couple of reasons that HD is included in the name of the new Zune and one is for the HD FM radio support (mentioned above). The other is due to the capability to output HD video content from the Zune HD. However, in order to enjoy the full HD out experience you will have to pay $89.99 for the Zune HD A/V dock kit (can be found for about $75 online now). Watching HD content directly on your Zune has no benefit over standard SD formats so if you plan to watch movies on your Zune and not output that video content then buy or rent the cheaper SD versions in the Zune Marketplace.

The Zune HD A/V dock comes in a sturdy box with the dock, Zune adapters, USB power adapter, remote control, HD cable, and composite cable. The dock has a 3 foot USB cable attached that is used to plug into the USB power adapter (or your computer) and then into a standard wall socket. You will also find a thin antenna cable attached to the dock so you can enjoy HD FM radio on your TV thanks to the Zune HD capability.

The Zune adapters are for the Zune HD, original Zune, and Zune 4GB/8GB/16GB units. You can use this dock with any Zune, but you will only see HD content output with the new Zune HD. The adapters fit over the Zune connector on the dock and pop off for easy replacement.

The remote control is powered by an included CR 2032 battery and is about 4 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. There is an upper directional pad and a lower control pad for play/pause and forward or backwards. There is a button for returning to the home screen and for going back one level at a time. You can skip songs, move around the radio dial, navigate the menu structure, and more with the remote. Pressing and holding on the left or right lower button will move you quickly forward and backwards within a song, photo collection, podcast, or video.

There are two cables provided for you to connect to your intended video output device, a composite cable and an HDMI cable. There are ports on the back of the Zune dock for each of these so choose the one that fits your video device. The best quality will be seen with the HDMI cable so use this if your TV supports it. I have a 37 inch Vizeo with HD support and tested out my Zune HD with this TV. You will need to use the AV cable for 480P content if your TV does not support 720P HD or higher.

After setting your Zune into the dock and selecting the proper source on your TV or monitor you will then need to go to Settings>Display>TV Output on your Zune HD. I then selected HDMI auto (HDMI 720P, 480P, and Composite-Video are the other options) from this screen and a reduced Zune HD display appeared on my television. You can then tap on the display to disable the TV output and regain local control on the Zune HD. I also just discovered (after placing my new Zune Originals device in the dock) that updates for the Zune dock come through the Zune HD and when I placed it into the dock the update appeared with a prompt to tap OK. I tapped OK and the dock was updated. After that I didn't have to touch anything and the dock was activated with my Zune HD and outputting automatically so you may not have to go to the Settings again on your Zune HD.

You will find menus for Music, Video, Pictures, Radio, and Podcasts appearing on your video output device. There are no options for Internet, Apps, Marketplace, or Settings through the dock. I would like to see the Marketplace supported in the future where you can find music and choose to download it from the comfort of your couch and TV. I also think there may be a market for enabling the web browser with a wireless keyboard accessory so you can have a browsing device for light couch surfing.

Music played back well, especially if you have a set of speakers hooked up to your entertainment system. I especially like the now playing animations that flow on the screen when music is playing and my daughters thought this was one of the coolest things ever. I enjoyed viewing photos in slideshow mode and plan to load up my Zune HD and share photos at future family gatherings. HD FM radio is supported and sound so much clearer than standard FM radio. Unfortunately, I don't see anyway to add songs you hear on the radio to your cart for purchasing and downloading like you see with a Zune HD that is not in the dock. I am a huge fan of podcasts and with our highly connected church that provides sermons via video podcasts I will never miss another of Pastor Roger's sermons, even when I am on the road.

I have a HD DVR via Comcast cable, but that is the extent of HD video content I have viewed on my high definition TV. The HD video support is the primary reason to take a serious look at the Zune HD & AV Dock and I thought rented HD video content looked fantastic. Who needs a Blu-ray player when you can get a Zune HD and this dock to enjoy HD content? I am very impressed with the quality and playback from the Zune HD and enjoy using the device more every single day.

The Zune HD & AV Dock is a very functional accessory that I see has already dropped to $75 on Amazon ($89.99 suggested retail price). I think it is worth the $75 price and you may even be able to find it for lower soon. Remember, the Zune dock also charges up your Zune HD while docked in place. I plan to take it on business trips with me so I can enjoy my own personal content on the road and use it as my HD movie player in the future. There are a couple of missing features (Zune Marketplace and Internet support) that we might see added in a future update and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

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