In-Depth Zune Review

I’ve been
fairly
critical
of Microsoft’s Zune since it was released, so I decided
that I should get a Zune and give it a try
. 
Over the past two weeks I’ve been playing with it giving my plenty of
time to sum up all of the features.

User Interface (UI)

Say what you like about Microsoft and user unfriendly of
their applications and features, but they almost always get digital media UIs right.  From the first version of Media Center to the
first Zune, the UI has always been amazing. 
Anyone can pick up a Zune and figure out how to use it within a matter
of seconds.

This UI is somewhat customizable, easy to navigate, and includes
small little visual effects just like Media Center.  I have nothing to complain about around the
UI of the Zune.

Navigation

Overall the navigation around the UI is very simple, but it includes
one huge downfall.  Unless I’ve missed
something, the only way to get back to the now playing section is to manually
keep going back and back until you get back to where you started
(Thanks to Jaxim in the comments, you hold down Back in order to get to the Main Menu, then Back again to get to Now Playing).  Assuming you are building a playlist and you
have gone into and out of a dozen artists/albums menus this is crazy.  I have found no easy way to return to now
playing.  The Zune badly needs a Green Button
on it.  If I missed something here and
another Zune users knows what to do please let me know.

Other navigation downfalls include the autorotation to
landscape when in picture/video mode. 
The first video I fired up had a portrait/vertical view and thus
changing the landscape of the Zune was needed to figure out how to change the
volume.  The Zune Pad rotates with the
Zune in picture/video mode, so volume up and down is actually side-to-side in
portrait/vertical.  More consistent
navigation and volume changing would be nice in future releases.

Zune Pad

Charlie
said that I’d love once I got to use it
, and he is partly right.  I love the concept of touch much like Apple
has been doing in various ways on the iPods, that said the Zune Pad takes some getting
used to and well over two weeks after I still can’t say I’ve mastered it at
all.  For long distance scrolling the
Zune Pad is perfect, however for selecting a track that is just below the
current selection it is nearly impossible to do.  You’re supposed to touch the Zune Pad to stop
the scrolling, easier said than done when you are trying to select a single
item.  In this case I found myself
leaving the touch features behind and using the sides of the Zune Pad to do all
the work (D-pad).

Wireless

No doubt one of the selling points and major features of the
Zune is supposed to be integrated wireless. 
However in my practice, it feels much more like a gimmick then a useful
feature.  With the exception of being
slow, it works great (technically) whenI could find a reason to use it.

If you have something like a Zune 80 that plenty of hard drive space it is easy to use the “Sync all my music” option, then you can have it sync new content added on the PC wirelessly.  However, on a smaller Zune 4GB/8GB (or even 30GB) this really isn’t an option that I’m aware of.  In this case you still have to build a playlist of
some sort on the PC before you can remotely or locally initiate the wireless
sync, thus it becomes kind of pointless.  If I’m
already sitting at the PC I might as well plug-in the Zune via USB and sync it
in 1/10 the time.

If the Zune supported syncing from a Media Center and Media
Center Extenders (10-foot with remote), my feelings would be completely
different.  I’d love to be able to create
or select a playlist from one of my Extenders and then remotely sync it
wirelessly with the Zune.

I did get a small amount of use out of the wireless by
RDP’ing into my desktop, creating a playlist, and then syncing wirelessly in my
home.  I can’t imagine that’s the
scenario Microsoft is going for, but it is the only time I found it useful.

I didn’t test Zune to Zune sync as I don’t know or was
unable to find anyone that actually has a Zune locally.

Zune Software

The Zune Software is of course independent from Windows
Media Player which presents problems for Media Center users.  Media Center is locked to Windows Media
Player, so the addition of a Zune that doesn’t sync with Windows Media Player
leads to multiple applications managing your music.  No matter how good or bad the Zune Software
is, I can’t get over it.  Either give me
a way to sync the Zune using Windows Media Player/Media Center or give the Zune
Software the hooks to work with Media Center as its backend player.

Now that I’m off that I can say the Zune Software isn’t half
bad.  Navigation though the UI is relatively
simple and performance with my music library is a bit better then with Windows
Media Player.

Again there are a few things I dislike when making the
needed comparison to Windows Media Player. 
There is no taskbar controls for the Zune Software so attempting to use
it as your main music playback and management software leads to it being open
on the desktop all the time.

In addition I feel that Microsoft tried too hard with parts
of the UI.  This eye for design leads to
text and scroll bars being too small.  A
perfect example is the text is the Settings menu which is actually an 8 point
font!  I’m all for streamlining the UI,
but there was so much unused space that there is no need for a font that small
to be used.

Recorded TV Sync

As I’ve talked about in the past, the Zune Software doesn’t
support syncing of ATSC content
(or rather, content with AC3 audio).  Because of this oversight, you either have to
use SD recordings or use a separate program to content the HD content (DVRMSToolbox, MCEBuddy).

I successfully had the Zune Software transcode and sync SD
recordings without any issues.  On my
Core 2 Duo E6750 it took just under 20 minutes to convert a 30 minute
show.  If you are going to do a lot of
video conversation and syncing, a fast processor is your friend.

The quality of recorded TV on the Zune itself was fantastic
expect for a bit of motion blur.  The
screen on the 4GB/8GB Zune is very small, so if video is your primary use then
you should skip the 4GB/8GB Zune and go with the 80.

Addition: All CableCARD content (including SD and HD) is protected and thus can’t be put on a Zune or any other portable device.

Social

I’m not really into the social aspect of the Zune, I’m
getting tired of every product and company thinking it needs a social network
behind it.  I’ve used a few social music
services in the past for random listening on the go (Last.fm, Imeem, etc) but
I’m not really interested in spending time with the social aspect of the Zune.

ZunePass/Marketplace

I also didn’t test the Zune Marketplace, but I wanted to
correct something I had said in the comments
of another post
.  Thanks to everyone
at The Green Button, I now know that ZunePass music can play in Windows Media
Player (and thus Media Center), but the experience is broken due to the need to
have the Zune Software get the license for tracks before Windows Media Player
can play them.  Since this process
happens monthly and on a per song basis, there is no way to logically integrate
ZunePass and Media Center at this time.

Update: Some are saying that ZunePass works as above, others are saying it works without any license issues at all.  Again, I didn’t test it just reporting what I have seen from others.  For anyone who uses ZunePass with Media Center/Media Player, please comment and let everyone know what your experience has been,

v3 Wishlist

As many others have noted the addition of other Microsoft
technologies into the Zune would give it a larger advantage over other
players.  An SDK would be my first
suggestion, let developers add new functionality and value.

On top of that, Zune really needs to integrate things like
Windows Sideshow.  This seems like it
could be done in a small amount of time and would add amazing value to the
Zune.  A built-in Media Center Extender type
function would also be nice, but battery life would be an issue.

Of course, better integration with Media Center and other
Microsoft products is on the top of my list. 
No reason for two music libraries in two applications, no reason for not
being able to sync with Media Center wirelessly.

Overall/Conclusion

I still stick to my comments that the Zune is still not an
iPod competitor, but I have to admit awareness is growing, albeit slowly.  I was in a Best Buy in West Texas a few weeks
ago and two teenage girls were around the iPod/Zune display.  One of them said “Hey, that’s a Zune.”  The other said “What the f#&k is a
Zune?”  That’s kind of my impression of
any product against the iPod, the marketing has already imprinted the iPod name
in everyone’s head.

Zune v2 is what Zune v1 should have been, but the features
that are supposed to make the Zune standout have not really impressed me.  Wireless in its current state is still nearly
useless, the Zune Pad doesn’t match the Click Wheel or iPod touch, I don’t see
the Social as a big selling point, and from a Media Center user’s perspective
I’m tired of broken functionality and a lack of integration between products.

The Zune is a fine portable media player, but it is far from
the revolution Microsoft needs in order to take away from Apple’s iPod.

If Microsoft would add some additional functionality and
integration with their existing products I’d have no problems recommending it
to others.  As it stands now there isn’t
much to set it apart from an iPod, other than a name that doesn’t automatically
sell.  If you are interested in
subscription music, the Zune is a must have. 
If you want high storage for video playback, the Zune 80 is for
you.  If you’re buying for music and occasional
video playback I’d probably get an iPod because it truly has better navigation
with the Click Wheel then the Zune does with its Zune Pad.

The last thing I’d consider is the possibility of Microsoft
continuing to release firmware upgrades (ex. v3 firmware) that add new useful features to
existing players.  This is something that
Apple doesn’t really do with the iPod line, but it isn’t something Microsoft
has committed to either (and new features often need new hardware to start
with).  Addition: v1 Zunes were upgraded for free with the v2 firmware, but Microsoft has not said if this trend will continue.

I’d give the Zune a 7.5/10.

6 thoughts on “In-Depth Zune Review

  1. Well, depends.  Since I have a 4GB Zune my whole music library can’t fit on it.  Now, if you have a 80GB Zune your whole library might.  In that case as you add new content to your library on the PC, you can have it set to auto wirelessly sync to the Zune.

    Using a smaller player, you really have to select the tracks you want to sync individually.  The only way to do this is locally adding the songs to your sync list using the Zune Software on the PC.

    You can have it auto sync all pictures or podcasts, which is more useful. 

    Thanks for pointing that out, I’ll add a note above.

  2. >Unless I’ve missed something, the only way to get back to the now playing section is to manually keep going back and back until you get back to where you started.

    try pressing and holding down the back button. This will take you to the main menu. If you click the back button again, it will take you back to the song that is currently playing.

  3. Chris,

    you said: “I now know that ZunePass music can play in Windows Media Player (and thus Media Center)…”

    … I didn’t quite follow that. Is there a way for a media center extender to play ZunePass music? As far as I can tell, that’s not possible but you seem to suggest it might be. Can you or someone else elaborate?

  4. Again, I didn’t test that aspect but according to posts on The Green Button this is what happens.

    -You need a license for all Zune DRMed music, only the Zune Software can acquire this license
    -ZunePass downloads each require a license renewal monthly (to check if you are still paying)
    -Again, that check can only be done using the Zune Software and involves you playing every individual song
    -In this case those same downloads are said to play within Media Player (also Media Center, same thing) but only after the license has been acquired in the Zune Software
    -So, to wrap it all up what you would need to do is play every song that has Zune DRM once a month in the Zune Software so that you have the license, then it would be playable (only for a month) in Media Player/Media Center.

    That’s my understanding at least. Here is the TGB thread.
    http://thegreenbutton.com/forums/thread/238448.aspx

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