First Look: Microsoft Zune

If you find a certain air of geeky awkwardness appealing, then you might like this first try at a media player from a company not famous for its hardware design.

November 16, 2006

8 Min Read
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Microsoft's much-publicized Zune media player has just hit the market. After a few hours of playing with it, I'm impressed -- less impressed with the hardware; more impressed with the software.

Physically, the Zune lacks the iPod's jewelry-like qualities: no slick chrome back, no incredibly cool touch-sensitive scrollwheel, slightly bigger, much boxier. While the Zune imitates the iPod's stark, featureless, how-do-I-use-this-thing design, that only works once. When you see it again in the Zune it's not even flattery, it's just imitation. I got the white Zune (it also comes in black and brown) with a white case that seems to be covered by a layer of frosty polyethylene. It doesn't fingerprint as badly as the iPod, but it does make the Zune look like an iPod in a Tupperware container.

The Zune has a central control wheel, just like the iPod, but it's smaller -- and it's not really a wheel. It's just five switches (left and right, top and bottom, and center) under a plain, unmarked black plastic disk that practically screams "cheap" -- it looks like it will have a chip out of the edge in four or five months. And those five switches don't quite do what you'd expect them to. There are two additional buttons to the right and left of the wheel that do most of the heavy lifting.

In fact, the Zune's operating interface feels more complicated than the iPod's. I'm clicking "Up" to get back to higher-level menus when I should be clicking "Back." I'm holding buttons down when I should just be clicking. In particular, the Zune misses the easy list-scrolling functionality provided by something like the iPod's scrollwheel or the BlackBerry's clickwheel.

On the other hand, the screen is big -- twice as large as a standard iPod -- and bright and beautiful. It obviously gave the Microsoft designers plenty of inspiration to reach into the eye-candy bag and sprinkle it on everything the Zune does.Zune Has The Basics Covered
In fact, once you shift focus from the hardware to the software, the Zune stops looking like a complete iPod knock-off. It does some things the iPod doesn't do -- yet. Like the FM radio: I was pleasantly surprised to realize just how nice that is to have. And the ability to beam songs and images between Zunes: That might be nice someday, when a sufficient number of other people have a Zune, too. If they ever do.

The Zune definitely has the basics covered. It plays music. It plays a lot of music. I haven't used it long enough to run down the battery, and I'm dubious of the 14 hours of play time Microsoft claims in the specs -- it might be more like eight or 10. But that's a lot.

It holds a lot of music, too. The specs don't mention exactly how big the hard drive is, but it had 27.7 GB available when I took it out of the box (it comes with some sample music, pictures, and videos already installed). I loaded it up with more than 1,600 MP3 files ripped from 130 albums, almost 8 GB worth, according to the Properties inspector on my PC. All that content filled an additional 6.09 GB of disk space on the Zune, so there must be some serious compression going on in the Zune application that loads the portable device.

The music it plays sounds good. Sound quality in a portable player is pretty subjective, and very dependent on external factors like the quality of the headphones or earbuds you're using, but at least the Zune delivers quality to the output jack. The FM is clean and static-free. Zune video looks good, too -- it's bright and detailed, even given that you're looking at a screen that's 2.5 inches by 1.75 inches. Photos look good, as well. (Album covers, on the other hand, look terrible, probably because they're very small, heavily compressed files.) Both audio and video play smoothly, without stutters or frozen moments. It's possible to force the audio to skip by turning the wireless on and off while you're playing music, but you have to force it: if you behave, the playback will.

Zune -- The Software
A lot of thought obviously went into the player's software. The horizontal scrolling menus are very reminiscent of the menus in another brand-new Microsoft product: the Media Center application in Windows Vista. And with the Zune's bigger screen, and the color of album art everywhere, it makes the iPod's simple black-on-white screens look old-fashioned -- even though they're generally more readable in extreme lighting conditions.

(Speaking of Vista -- there is surprisingly little integration between Zune and Vista. There's no "Transfer to Zune" button in Vista's new Media Center and Photo Gallery applications. And while the Zune will stream music to the Xbox360, it won't stream to Vista.)Overall, the Zune player software offers fewer features than the iPod -- not only the things nobody uses in the iPod anyway, like the Contacts and Calendar, but the iPod niceties like the ability to adjust the speed of playback for audio book files, or an equalizer with a wider variety of settings.

The Zune desktop software is one area where the Zune definitely doesn't take a back seat to the iPod. I find setting up iTunes and using it to get music onto an iPod . . . challenging. There are no challenges at all with the Zune application. Put the CD in your PC, and it installs the software, searches your hard disk for music files (it reads MP3, WMA, and AAC formats -- that's right, the same AAC files that are the iPod default), and tees them up for you to load, or "sync," into your Zune player.

(The Zune application requires a PC running Windows. I tried, but I couldn't install it on OS X or Linux machines. I can't say I was shocked by that. But I was extremely disappointed to find that I couldn't install Zune on a Windows 2000 machine, either. Currently Windows XP is the only OS you can use if you want a Zune.)

Driving In Automatic

Some of the automatic features don't work quite as well as they could -- the Zune displays a placeholder cover for every album and says it's searching for album art, for example, but it doesn't say where it's searching and it doesn't seem to find much. The automatic function that needs the most help is the import function. I'll admit not all my MP3 files were properly ID3 tagged with album/artist/track information, but the tracks are stored neatly in individual folders on my PC. The Zune import operation resulted in about half my albums being lumped into a single album titled "Unknown" -- a useless mess. (To be fair, the iTunes software for the iPod is just as bad, if not worse.)

The desktop application lacks in some other areas, too. Most notably, there is no support for acquiring media files via RSS subscription. I wouldn't expect Microsoft to call them "podcasts," but I would expect the Zune to handle them.The third piece of the Zune system, the store where you can download music and video, is called Zune Marketplace. As of this writing, however, it wasn't up and running yet (Zune tech support told me it was having server trouble). When it does come up, it will work a little differently than the iTunes store. You'll be able to buy tracks just as you currently can from iTunes for a one-time fee, and treat them as your own -- copy them to multiple PCs, burn them to CDs, and so on (as long, of course, as it's for your own personal use). Or, if you're willing to put up with more restrictive digital rights management, you'll be able to subscribe to the Marketplace, pay a monthly fee, and download as much music as you want to play on your Zune -- but you don't own it, you can't make copies, and if you stop paying your subscription it stops playing.

It will be interesting to see whether this rent-instead-of-buy model works in the media marketplace -- and, for that matter, whether the geeky clunkiness of the Zune player finds a fan base in a world where the sleek stylishness of the iPod holds 90 percent of the market. If I had never seen an iPod, would I be impressed by the Zune? Definitely. But I have seen an iPod, and it set a bar the Zune doesn't quite get over in this first attempt. However, it's a Microsoft product, so it will get better. You might want to wait.

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