Zune – So Nearly Perfect, it Hurts

UKZuneSkin For a while now, I’ve been listening to the BBC radio on my MP3 player – even wrote a program to download the audio of various programmes and convert them from RealAudio to MP3 so that I can listen to them on the bus or in my car on the way to and from work. First it was a 512MB Creative Muvo, then a Sandisk Sansa at 2GB.

Then on my birthday, my wife surprised me with a 30GB Zune, just what I wanted. I know there are other more recent models, but I can’t justify the expense of a 120GB model, and the others are too small of a display to be interesting. The Zune HD seems like it would be perfect, but I bet it’ll be too expensive for me to justify.

I really enjoy the Zune, and it solves many of the problems I’ve hated about the Sansa – the biggest being, as I described before, that it requires me to install (and carefully watch for sneaky encroachment) Quicktime, and to run the video/photo converter as an administrator.

So, now that the Zune solves the big problems, I’m starting to become aware of the less horrifying aspects of media player ownership.

Here are the first few little problems (note that this isn’t entirely insurmountable):

  • Playing a video, or a podcast, kills off the “Now Playing” list.
  • While you can resume a video, or a podcast, you can’t resume a playlist.
  • You can’t create a playlist on the device – although you can add Music selections to “Now Playing”, you can’t rename the list, and “Now Playing” gets killed off so easily.
  • You can’t resume a music item after you’ve paused it and played another. This makes the music folders useless for my radio programmes.
  • When playing an MP3 file in the music folder, if the MP3 file has a picture (in the ID3 Picture tag), the picture is cropped to fit the display – I’d rather see it shrunk.
  • Pictures from MP3 files are not displayed individually – one of them is selected as the “Album Art”, and is then displayed for all subsequent MP3s with the same ID3 Album tag. I’d rather see the pictures from the individual MP3s (who knows, maybe they’re important?)
  • MP3 files from the music folder appear in the “social” under your tag, and the system tries to guess what you’re listening to. Usually appallingly badly. For instance, I play “The Eureka Years”, a radio programme from the BBC, recorded as an MP3 file with appropriate Author and AlbumTitle tags – it lists as the song “Eureka” by “Jim O’Rourke”. I haven’t found where you can correct this, or delete it – goodness only knows how you cope with embarrassing selections made by this guessing algorithm.
  • You can’t delete a music MP3 file from the device without using the PC. Not much use when I’m on the bus and want to say “yep, I’ve heard that, now delete it”.

Like I said, those are the first few problems I’ve encountered.

Most of these problems seem to be solved by turning my recorded radio programmes into podcasts. Apparently you do this by moving the MP3 files into the podcast directory prior to syncing, and by changing the ID3 Genre tag to “Podcast”. That’s certainly far better, but there are still more problems I’ve encountered with that:

  • Podcasts without an accompanying XML RSS feed don’t sort right. They should sort primarily by the MP3’s ID3 track #, then by date and time, and finally by name. It appears that the Zune is sorting them primarily by date (ignoring the time!) and then by name, and totally ignoring the track number.
  • When sorting the tracks in a podcast by name, the sort is alphabetical, with no consideration given to numerical sorting, so my recording of “Journey into Space, World In Peril” plays in the order 1, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 2, 20, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. And remember, that’s even with the track numbers present and correct (although maybe it is sorting by track number, but doing it alphabetically rather than numerically!)
  • I’d rather that podcasts were picked up properly without my having to change the Genre tag – I like my Genre tags to read “Comedy”, or “Drama/SciFi & Fantasy” – and it’d be nice if the podcast tool allowed me to sub-sort the podcasts based on the genre, too!
  • You can’t “queue up” the podcasts into a “now playing” list, or any other kind of playlist.
  • Podcasts don’t display the Picture stored in the ID3 tag of the MP3 file – not even as “album art”. The only time images are displayed for podcasts is when the image is referenced in an accompanying XML RSS feed.

So, the next solution set would be to publish an RSS feed.

Unfortunately, this leads to the next failure.

  • You can’t subscribe to a “file://” based URL – podcast feeds must all start “http://”, which means putting a web server to work even if you’re building a personal podcast feed that exists only between your computer and its associated Zune.

Other problems I’ve experienced are DRM-like, and we all know that I find DRM to be hugely objectionable. Specifically, I can’t transfer any IFC programmes onto my Zune from my Windows Vista Media Center PC, because apparently they’re all tagged as “copyright”. Note that’s my Media Center PC, transferring to my Zune so that I can watch programming recorded from my DirecTV subscription – no theft involved there, I paid for that content, but can not watch it in my chosen locale or medium.

I can only hope that someone at Microsoft reads this post, and reassures me that they’re going to do better with the release of the ZuneHD – and, because I almost certainly can’t afford a ZuneHD (although anyone who knows me will tell you how excited I’ve been about OLEDs for the last year or so), I hope that many of these improvements are back-ported to my lowly Zune 30. I’d be happy to expound on any of these points to get them addressed.

Oh, and if you ask – I would definitely and whole-heartedly recommend getting a Zune. I know that I’m going to be buying one for my wife as soon as I can find it at the right price (I’m hoping for a Woot-off or perhaps a bag of crap containing a Zune]. All the problems I’ve outlined above are really minor and piddly, but it’s these kind of tweaks that turn a merely good product into a great product. I only complain about them because the Zune is so close to perfection for me, it can be fixed with relatively little effort. The Sansa and its software were so far from perfection that it seems likely that the development team totally don’t “get it”. [The Creative Muvo was actually pretty much perfect for what was achievable at the time.]

So, am I missing any obvious tricks for my Zune? Can I get the BBC programmes on it in a better way? [Yes, I know about the BBC podcasts, but there are shows that the BBC just don’t podcast.]