Let me open right away and warn hardcore geeks to stop reading. Yeah – I know the Microsoft Zune has been out for some time, and yes – I know there is another player out there that seems to be getting most of the attention.
But for the benefit of our readers, I decided to take a Microsoft Zune for a spin to see whether I was missing something (yes, I too was guilty of being one of those geeks who ignored the Zune for too long).
A quick intro – Microsoft introduced the Zune in 2006. Interest in the player was initially very intense, but over the years things seem to have died down a little, and Zune customers seem to revolve around people who despise carrying that “other player”, or those that discovered that the Zune can actually do several things not found on most other devices.
For this product review, I decided to use the red 80GB Zune. I picked the 80GB for several reasons – the right price, plenty of storage space and a decent size screen for watching movies. I’m not going to pretend that I’m one of the first to review the Zune, so I’ll make the main focus of this review the features found on the player that can help travelers on the road.
The player looks like most other devices – you get a screen, a couple of buttons and a headphone jack. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. There are however several smart design features hidden away in the hardware. For starters, the control pad combines a 4 way button with a touch sensitive pad. This Zune Pad makes the controls surprisingly efficient.
Inside the Zune is the other innovation – WiFi. In fact, the WiFi interface is not just a second thought, it is an integral part of how you can use the Zune.
The device has a large 3.2″ color display, behind scratch resistant glass.
Included with the Zune 80 are premium noise isolating headphones, which actually sound quite amazing. They certainly are a step above the boring white things sold by that other company.
The headphones even feature small magnets on their rear to keep them together when you are not using them, preventing you from creating a tangled mess in your bag.
The Microsoft Zune does what you’d expect from a portable media player – it plays music stored in the WMA, AAC or MP3 format. Microsoft does make it very clear that “Fairplay” AAC files will not play – these files contain rights management added by the iTunes music store.
The device also supports 4 different video formats – WMV, MPEG-4, H.264 and DVR-MS (a file format used by Windows Media Center to record TV shows). One incredibly handy features is that the Zune software player will convert many video formats to a version compatible with the player.
The Zune desktop player is actually one of the parts that impressed me the most – the player is quite simply stunning. It manages to take a huge number of features and keep them all in a very easy to use and cool looking interface.
If you have ever used iTunes, you’ll know that it can be horribly confusing, and a real resource hog, using up a ton of your system memory. Even with a 17,500 song library, I had no performance issues with the Zune.
So? What makes a Zune so special, and why should you consider buying one if you are in the market for a new portable media player?
After using the Zune for close to a month, I’ve concluded that there are several very cool features that make the device my new personal recommendation for a media player in its category:
- The Zune desktop experience – As I mentioned, the Zune software is just awesome.
- The Zune WiFi features -WiFi is great, but if you can’t do anything cool with it, it becomes useless. Thankfully, the Zune designers have managed to implement WiFi in a way that makes it a fantastic feature. You can of course sync the device over WiFi to your desktop computer. But you can also access the Zune online service and purchase more music, or get access to the latest podcasts. Then there are of course the various Zune social features that let you do things like share a song with fellow Zune users or even play online games.
- Zune Pass – To me, this was the most important feature of the entire Zune package – Zune Pass is a $14.99/month service that comes with all you can eat music. With this monthly subscription, you can download as many songs as you want, from the millions of available titles in the Zune Marketplace. As with most music subscription services, once you let the monthly subscription lapse, you lose the right to all the downloaded music on your player. Music from your own collection is of course not subject to this. In addition to the unlimited downloads, Zune Pass also lets you convert 10 songs a month into a DRM free track, which means they are yours to keep.
- Video quality – The Zune 80 is the perfect balance between price, storage and screen size. The 3.2″ screen is of course smaller than your home theater, but still large enough to watch a movie on, without having to sit 4 inches away. The screen is bright, crisp and video files play extremely well. I’m also very impressed with the way the Zune desktop software converts videos – other applications (*cough*iTunes*cough) simply say “can’t transfer video” and expect you to find your own solution to converting the files.
Inside the Zune are several other features you might appreciate – not only does the device offer a well designed FM radio, but the software actually allows you to tag songs you hear on the radio for purchase in the Zune marketplace. This only works with radio stations that broadcast their track names using RDS, but the few times I found a decent sounding station RDS was enabled, and I could tag the song.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article – I’m almost feeling guilty for ignoring the Zune for so long. For some reason I just never had the urge to take it out for a spin – something I’m now regretting.
Battery life is quite impressive – the 80GB Zune is rated for 24 hours of music playback and 4 hours of video, which of course will be cut short if you use the WiFi intensively.
The Zune 80 I reviewed retails for $229, and its 120GB big brother costs $249. Each player comes with a Zune USB cable, and the 80GB version comes with a pair of premium headphones.
Yes – these retail prices are virtually the same as those of the Classic iPods, but when you look at the specifications, the Zune really does get you more for your money; a larger screen, WiFi and FM radio. I’ll refrain from comparing the Zune 80 to an iPhone or iPod touch simply because neither of those devices offer a hard drive for media storage.
It isn’t all rosy though – the Zune players suffer from a serious lack of accessories, and anyone who defects from the iTunes world will be pretty disappointed how hard it is to find affordable extras for the player.
That doesn’t mean there are no accessories, it’s just not as easy to find a $2 case or video cable on Ebay for Zune devices. The Zune site lists a decent assortment of extras, including docks, a home AV pack and an FM transmitter.
Other than that minor issue, I’m really digging the player. The features in the Zune Desktop are fantastic, the user interface on the device is cool and being able to just pay $15 a month for all the music I can handle is a much better solution than paying $1 per song (or resorting to P2P networks). The short conclusion is what I said in my title – the Zune does not suck, quite the opposite.
If you travel a lot, you’ll appreciate the good battery life, large screen and the ability to get access to the Zune Marketplace anywhere you can find an open WiFi signal.
You can learn more about the Zune players and the Zune service at Zune.net.