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Music, MP3 and Portable Media Player Reviews: Zune

Microsoft Zune

Editor's rating (1-5):
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Reviewed Nov 16, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor in Chief

Compete with the iPod? You've got to be crazy. That is unless you're Microsoft, with huge OS marketplace dominance, brand awareness, development resources and money to jump into that game. Let's face it, iPod rules (in a rare turn of the tables where Apple is the big gun) and its momentum is so large, I'm not sure anything could change that in a few years. If Microsoft could reach double digit sales figures, it would be an accomplishment, and more than just chump change. Though Bill Gates isn't known to strive to be number two in any market, that wouldn't be such a bad hat trick when competing with the institution that is iPod.

Zune

The oddly named Zune is a 30 gig portable media player, that's priced the same as the 30 gig iPod Video and like that device can play music, videos, show photos and adds an FM radio to the mix. It also adds WiFi 802.11b/g for Zune-to-Zune sharing, a feature that Microsoft promotes heavily in the product's lovely packaging and desktop software installation screens. While Apple's marketing campaigns are memorable and ubiquitous, Zune's promotion consists of a little mystery hype (something used earlier this year for the UMPC that shouldn't have been re-used). In fact, you can buy a Zune most anywhere except a 7-Eleven it seems, yet no one knows much about it, especially the store staff. In our major metro region, we went to a Target to buy a Zune on November 14, the day it was released. The geeky young man working the consumer electronics department said "You want a what?" when I asked for a Zune. There was a large aisle facing display for Zune just 20 feet away. He recalled this and said "oh that over there". I told him I wanted to buy one and he seemed mildly surprised. He told me that he and his department-mates had received a bit of training on the Zune and had learned it couldn't play "your own music". I asked if he meant songs I'd ripped from my own CDs and he said "that's right, you can't do that". I told him that was incorrect and the Zune plays MP3s and AAC files including files from iTunes libraries other than protected content purchased from the Apple iTunes store. "Oh, really?" he said. Then he added that he still didn't care for the Zune because he didn't like Microsoft anyway. So here we have a nice MP3 player and more, but no one trained and qualified to sell it. Alas. But then, we like it when Apple is top dog and Microsoft is under-dog, right? Think again, competition is good, and Zune is giving us that. Maybe Microsoft will start advertising what Zune is instead of shrouding it in mystery topped with the "Social" buzzword (used as a noun, from what we can tell) so folks like you and me might give it a spin if we can let go of our iPods for that long.

Zune and iPod

The Zune in brown and the Apple iPod Video 5G

Zune comes in three colors (black, white and brown) and is larger and heavier than the iPod Video. That's partly justified because it has a 3" 320 x 240 color display while the iPod's is 2.5". But we're still wondering what's taking up the rest of the space in there. The Zune has a rubbery translucent layer on top that adds a secondary color tone (the brown Zune gets a bright green overtone on the edges and the black one has blue overtones) which is not only kinda neat but protects it from scratches (the iPod's bane) and fingerprints and helps keep it firmly in hand. That durable outer coating works: we've had no scratches (our iPod scratches if we look at it hard) and our Zune survived two near 3 foot drops onto low pile carpet. OK, it's not huge and it's not bad looking compared to the non-iPod media players on the market. But it's not beautiful, and pretty sells.

Microsoft claims it can run 14 hours on a charge when playing music and 4 hours on a charge when playing video. We managed 13 hours with WiFi off for music and almost 4 hours for video. That's about the same as the iPod 5G for music playback stamina, and nearly double the iPod's life for video playback. Having WiFi on will reduce runtimes by 1 hour.

DRM, Files Supported

Zune supports VBR and can play MP3, AAC (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b .mov), JPEG and WMV files. It does not play songs purchased from Apple's iTunes music store because Apple doesn't share that copy protection information with anyone. It does not play PlaysForSure content purchased from Napster because Microsoft would like you to purchase content from their own online store launched with Zune, called simply the Marketplace. Yes, Microsoft and its partners pushed PlaysForSure heavily, but it has been something of a flop, taking only a tiny share of the iPod and iTunes dominated marketplace and featuring annoying and sometimes dysfunctional DRM. Though MS' PlaysForSure partners and heavy downloaders won't agree, it's probably for the best that MS has tried something new and hopefully better.

The Zune does support files protected with Windows Media Digital Rights Management 10, which is what songs sold on the Marketplace use for DRM.

 

 

Deals and Shopping

 

 

 

 

 

As mentioned, you can burn music from your CDs to your heart's content and sync them to the Zune. You can burn CD tracks with the Zune desktop software as MP3 or WMA-- your choice. You can sync non-protected MP3s and AAC files and import your iTunes library and playlists (except for the songs purchased from the Apple store). You can purchase songs from the online Marketplace, either by tune or by album and the price varies, though most songs are around one dollar. The Marketplace, for better or worse, uses the points system rather than dollar values, like the XBOX 360 marketplace. So you buy blocks of points and use those to buy tunes. You can also buy a $15/month all you can eat subscription that allows you to download as much as you like and keep it as long as you continue to pay the monthly fee. You can sync media to 3 PCs, 2 Zune players and you can share any file you wish over WiFi with other Zune players (these files will only work for 3 plays over the course of 3 days and a partial play counts). At grand opening, the Marketplace has approximately 2 million tunes for sale, while Apple has 3.5 million songs for sale. More on that later.

back of Zune

iPod and Zune

Side view of the Zune and iPod video

side

In the Box

And a pretty box it is; minimalist, brown and classy. It certainly doesn't smack of Microsoft. You get the Zune, headphones, a USB 2.0 cable that handles charging and syncing, a software CD with desktop software for Windows XP (SP2) machines, a nice microfiber bag to carry and clean Zune, a 14 day free trial for the Zune Marketplace download service, and a 3 page guide. Just like iPods currently on the market, you don't get a charger. You'll have to charge over USB using the included cable. A depleted Zune takes about 3 hours to charge over USB, and reaches 90% charge after 2 hours. In most cases your PC must be turned on to deliver sufficient voltage to charge the Zune since it requires a full 500 mA to charge. A powered USB hub should in theory do the trick but ours didn't. As with the iPod, the first accessory I got for my Zune was a charger. Not that battery life isn't good, because it is. But I find it inconvenient to keep a PC running just to charge my player, especially since I like to charge overnight when the PC is off.

Zune box Zune kit

 

OK, Enough Background— Is it Fun?

A good (and successful) portable media player must be fun. Let's face it, most of us don't buy these things based on high end specs or specific business requirements as we do notebooks, PDAs and smartphones. It has to have the features you need, be easy to use and offer a good integrated online store experience. That's been the winning recipe for Apple. There are players with many super-techno features (we've reviewed some of them) but they never get much market share. Cramming in every imaginable feature isn't the key to success or fun.

Yes, Zune is fun and it's good at what it does. The player is remarkably easy to use (I never thought a Microsoft product, let alone a 1.0 version would be so incredibly easy to use). It comes with no manual, and really you don't need one. The menus are straightforward: music, videos, pictures, radio, community and settings. Don't be fooled by what looks like a scroll wheel up front: it's really a 5-way d-pad. That said, it works well and very efficiently for navigating menus. For example, click on the center of the d-pad to select "music". Click left and right to change the sort view from songs (all songs) to genres to albums to artists to playlists. And it's fast: my Zune has about 2,000 songs on it and the song sorts change instantly as I change views. The user interface is fast, animations and all. The player downloads album track info and covers when connected via the Sync cable and it's found about 50% of my somewhat aged and obscure CD covers so far (a bit better than Apple). Strangely, the Zune Marketplace shows covers for the very same albums, but they haven't linked up to my burned CDs so far (classical covers fare worse than other genres). It does a much better job getting album and track info, managing all but two of my burned albums. When you play a song, you see a full-screen view of the album cover. When you select an album before playing it, the device shows you a thumbnail of the cover to help you ID it. You can add songs or entire albums to your "quick list". You can also flag songs and rate them. The player has a shuffle feature and you can shuffle by artist, genre and any of the categories used to sort music as well as a repeat function.

cables

Included headphones and USB 2.0 sync/charge cable

headphones

headphones

 

Flanking the d-pad are a back button, and a play/pause button. There's a hold switch up top and that's it for controls. The USB 2.0 sync port is at the bottom and the standard 3.5mm headphone jack is up top.

Does it Sound Good? How's that Screen?

Zune puts out very good sound that's certainly on par with the iPod 5G. The included stereo earbud headphones are also on par with Apple's which is to say better than the average bundled pair but not on par with $100+ models (duh). They aren't that cool iPod white that lets everyone in the NYC subway system know you're a good mark and scores points with schoolmates in safer locales, but they look nice in black with a shiny metal strip. The left and right indicators (L and R) are interlocking when the earbuds are placed back to back and have a very small magnet that holds them together. Nice touch for us neat freaks.

The player has EQ and you can select from acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, rock, or none. There is no roll your own customizable EQ. Music is overall rich and full with good separation, and the default EQ is a bit fuller than the iPods (more mid-range and bass) but has a tad less clarity in delicate passages for classical music. Zune can get loud enough to compete with your surroundings but not deafeningly loud-- it's about the same as the iPod 5G. I'm pretty picky about audio gear and music quality and I'd be equally happy with Zune and iPod.

The screen is really lovely. It's sharp, bright and larger than most recent PDA phone screens. Its QVGA (240 x 320 pixels, same as the iPod Video) resolution display works in both portrait and landscape modes. The screen is viewable outdoors. Menu navigation, the FM radio and music operate in portrait mode. Photo viewing and video playback are in landscape. Zune has brightness settings (low, medium and high) with the default medium being bright enough-- nice. You can set the display backlight timeout (the default is 1 minute), turn on TV-out (NTSC and PAL are both supported) and select one of three pre-installed themes. You can set any photo on your Zune as the background image (also nice).

You can view photos one by one or in a slide show format (with adjustable transition time). The player offers sort by folder and date. At installation you can tell the desktop software to search your My Pictures and My Videos folders in the My Documents folder and add them to the library and Zune player (be careful if you have thousands of photos in your My Pictures folder unless you really want them all on Zune). Photos look great and the desktop application resizes them to fit on the Zune's QVGA display before syncing them.

Wireless Why?

Gee, WiFi is a way cool feature and we thought, here's a way for MS to offer something the iPod doesn't have. Well, it's an under-used feature at launch. In fact, the first crop of Zunes shipped with 1.0 firmware and on first sync the desktop application upgrades it to 1.1 which ads WiFi tune sharing. That's it for now. We know MS wanted to keep it simple at first, but we really, really hope they add a streaming feature, download from Marketplace feature and WiFi sync feature soon. Do I want a web browser in my Zune? Probably not. I have devices that are likely going to be better at that with the same screen resolution such as PDAs and smartphones. My PSP has it but I hardly use it.

Sharing with Whom?

Microsoft thinks that sharing tunes in a killer feature. They couldn't push that any harder or use the word "Social" more times in packaging and advertising. But it's a chicken and egg issue: who are you going to share with unless lots of folks around you get a Zune? And if you're at that super-social school age where peer pressure weighs more than a Hummer, you've got to get an iPod or you're definitely not cool enough for school. Very nice feature? Yes. Killer feature? Not yet. As mentioned, shared tunes expire on your pal's player after 3 plays or 3 days, whichever comes first. That's pretty harsh-- give us more plays and more days! Your pal's Zune retains a marker so s/he can go look for the song in the Marketplace. Shared photos do not expire.

Zune also connects with the XBOX 360 so you can play Zune tunes when playing games (sure cure for games with dull tracks) and you can control Zune's playback using the XBOX 360 remote.

Desktop Software and Marketplace

The desktop software requires Windows XP with service pack 2. If you run Mac OS, Linux or Windows 98, you should probably run to the store and return Zune now. The software installed easily for us on a Mac Pro running Boot Camp and Windows XP Pro. We thought the Palm, Windows Mobile, and Nokia USB sync agents running on that machine might cause problems, or even Adobe Photoshop Album which likes to get too up-close and personal with most of our USB storage devices, but we had no problems at all installing and syncing. The software isn't yet compatible with Windows Vista, which seems funny... but then again Vista isn't sold retail yet. We hear it can get cranky with Windows Media Center Edition, but we don't have an MCE setup here in the office to test that out.

wecome screen

The installer's welcome screen. The software tries hard to be hip, colloquial and not techie. Did we mention that it says "hello from Seattle" on the back of the Zune?

install options

Installation options where you can check out privacy settings.

Once the software is mostly installed, it will ask you to create an account using a Windows Live ID (e.g.: Hotmail address) or to create one if you don't have one. The Zune Marketplace uses this to create your online ID for shopping login. You do not need to enter any financial information to install the software and browse the Marketplace. Obviously, if you wish to buy or subscribe to music after the 14 day trial expires, you'll need to supply credit card info. The installer will automatically search the My Music folder in the My Documents folder and add those tunes to your library. Optionally, you can check boxes to add all compatible content from the My Pictures and My Videos folders in My Documents as well. Once the software is installed and you reboot your PC (hey, it's Windows, what do you expect?) you can plug in your Zune using the included USB cable and start charging and syncing.

The desktop application is clean, attractive and easy to use. It's also quite fast, even when searching for tracks (it brings up partial matches as you type). Now if MS gets 2 million users on board, their servers certainly might slow down, but for now it's fast-moving over a 2MB connection. Surprisingly, Microsoft didn't totally rip off the iTunes look and feel. Yes, there are similarities with playlists, library content and your Zune's contents listed in the left-most column, but I'd say that's more a logical location than a copy-cat effect. The main window shows you your current selection, be it album view, artist view, the entire library or the online store. You can right click to do various things with albums and tracks. I really like the local content views with album art to help you visually ID your music and hey, it looks nice too.

Zune Marketplace

The Zune Marketplace view.

artist view

Album view.

 

The software supports playlists, can import existing playlists and music library from iTunes, has a marker feature to flag tunes but no bookmark feature. Similar to Windows Mobile and ActiveSync, your Zune gets a sync relationship to your PC of choice and you can set other Zune's as "guest" devices. So if you and your partner, pal or dear old mum want to share music, you can. This music won't expire and you can put your music on 2 or 5 Zunes, depending on whether you've purchased it or gotten it via subscription. That content stays on your friend's Zune but doesn't sync up to their desktop.

The desktop app can burn your CDs in MP3 or WMA format (you can set the quality level), and has a bunch of settings for useful things like adding new folders to import to your library, XBOX360 music sharing, settings to make (or not) the Zune app your default player for supported media types and more. One annoying thing: you can't interact directly with the Zune while it's connected via USB cable to your Windows machine, even if it's not syncing. Argh. You can interact with it if the computer is turned off (but then it might not charge) or if plugged into the charger (purchased separately).

Available Accessories

To say that there's a cottage industry of iPod accessories is an understatement. Folks like to accessorize and personalize their portable electronics devices. Zune launched with about 40 to 50 accessories as far as we could find including the must-haves. There's Microsoft's own AV kit which includes RCA cables to hook Zune up to a TV, remote, a charger and docking cradle (you can buy these separately as well). There's a 3rd party slim charger from Monster, several cases for folks like DLO, Speck and Vaja, an FM transmitter so you can use Zune in the car. And yes, there's a car charger, several speakers from the usual suspects such as Altec Lansing and headphone splitters.

What's not There?

The Zune does not act like a hard disk and mount as an external drive. Ironically, it can't sync your MS Outlook contacts or calendar information as can the iPod, and there are no games.

library options

What Should You Buy?

Forgive us if we've barraged you with iPod comparisons, but as the holiday season approaches you'll likely be considering these two players first if you're in the market for a high capacity player with video playback capabilities that's easy to use. We've provided a few basic comparison points below which don't address more volatile topics such as your feelings about Microsoft and Apple as companies or what's more cool for school. If you love or hate one company, your decision is already made. If you're of school age and feel lots of pressure to own an iPod (or you're buying a player for someone who fits that description); once again your decision is made-- get an iPod. And if you're already an iPod owner with lots of money invested in purchased iTunes content, you won't want to leave. If you're a PlaysForSure customer from Napster (among others) who's purchased lots and lots of tracks, don't look at the iPod or Zune since neither will play your purchased tunes.

Comparison Points Winner

1 Here's the easy one: if you're a Mac user and have no Windows PC handy, get the iPod.
2 Both sound good and come with equally good headphones.
3 Both are very easy to use and have very good online store and desktop software experiences.
4 The 3" Zune display beats the iPod Video's 2.5" display.
5 The iPod is smaller, lighter and more attractive.
6 The Zune is more rugged.
7 Apple's iTunes store has 3.5 million songs while the Zune Marketplace has 2 million.
8 Zune has themes, you can use any photo as a background and display brightness adjustable.
9 The iPod Video and iTunes Store get you music, podcasts, audio books, TV shows, music videos and movies. Zune Marketplace has only music and music videos for the time being. This is a big deal.
10 Zune has WiFi, iPod has no wireless. Given current use for WiFi, we're not sure how much of a plus this is.
11 Zune has an FM radio.
12 Have it both ways: Zune Marketplace sells content and also offers and all-you-can eat plan for $15/month.

iPod
Draw
Draw
Zune
iPod
Zune
iPod
Zune
iPod

Zune
Zune
Zune

Though it might look like a draw, the iPod still has the edge because of 5 and 9 which are more important than some of our other criteria. Looks and size are extremely important for personal electronics, and there are many more kinds of content available on the iTunes store. Once again, we're assuming MS is going to put some video up on Marketplace real soon or that 3" display and strong video playback performance won't be more than conversation starters. Or worse yet, you'll feel a strong need to burn illegal copies of your DVDs to WMV format, heaven forbid . And no audio books? Hmmm... One strong point in Zune's favor is the Marketplace's $15/month all-you-can-eat subscription option, something conspicuously absent from the iTunes store. As an iPod Video owner who's looked longingly at subscription services from afar, I find that very attractive.

Conclusion

We didn't expect to be at all impressed by Microsoft's first effort at an iPod competitor. Boy, were we pleasantly surprised! The device is well made (OK, that we expected), is packaged very austerely and attractively (shocker) and is superbly easy to use (pick us up off the floor). It's fun to use, easy to use and sounds great. Finding your tunes and playing them is quick and painless, creating playlists is no problem and the desktop software really rocks. Video playback is very good, though you'll have to roll your own content since the Marketplace has none so far. Overall, an excellent first attempt at jumping into a mature market.

Pro: Very good sound, extremely easy to use. Large and lovely 3" display. Textured outer layer protects the device from scratches and fingerprints, and adds a bit of drop protection. Zune Marketplace and the Zune desktop software are also very easy to use, look good, and show useful contextual information. 2 million tracks is a lot, and I found even my favorite obscure fingerstyle acoustic guitar and world music albums there. WiFi for sharing is a great idea, as long as you can find buddies with Zunes. Upgradable firmware means new features and bug fixes can easily be piped to the Zune though the desktop application.

Con: The Zune Marketplace has 2 million tunes vs. iTunes' 3.5 million. The player is larger and heavier than the iPod 5G. The large and luscious screen and no video store in the Marketplace makes me weep. No audio books yet in the Marketplace. WiFi just begs for more uses: we want to download stuff directly from the Zune Marketplace using the player and wireless sync would be cool.

Price: $249

Web Site: www.zune.net

Comparison Shopping: Where to Buy

Specs:

Display: 3" Transflective TFT color LCD. 64K colors. Resolution: 240 x 320, supporting portrait and landscape orientation.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. Battery is not user replaceable. Claimed battery life when playing music: 14 hours (13 hours with WiFi on). Claimed video playback time: up to 4 hours . Full charge time 3 hours using USB, 90% charged after 2 hours.

Supported File Formats: Audio: Windows Media® Audio Standard (.wma): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate.MP3 (.mp3): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate. AAC (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b, .mov): Up to 320 Kbps, Low Complexity (LC), up to 48-kHz sample rate. Video: Windows Media Video (.wmv): Main Profile, CBR or VBR, up to 1.5 Mbps peak video bitrate, 320 x 240 pixels, 30 frames per sec., with Windows Media Audio up to 192 Kbps, 44.1 kHz, stereo audio; Simple Profile, CBR, up to 736 Kbps video bitrate, 320 x 240 pixels, 30 frames per sec., with Windows Media Audio up to 192 Kbps, 44.1 kHz, stereo audio. Pictures: JPEG. Zune desktop software can import audio files in unprotected .WMA, MP3, AAC; photos in JPEG; and videos in .WMV, MPEG-4, H.264.

Size: 4.4 in. x 2.4 in. x 0.6 inches. Weight: 5.6 ounces.

Wireless: WiFi 802.11b/g (claimed range up to 30 feet).

Computer compatibility: Works with Windows XP running service pack 2.

 

 

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