After unpacking the Zune, you must download the software at http://www.zune.net/. Installation is quick and easy. The only drawback is that during set up you are asked questions are asked like “do you want to link your Zune tag” without adequate explanation of what this will entail. Although most of these choices can be changed after installation when you have a better feeling for how everything works, Microsoft really needs to do a better job of explaining the choices you make during installation.
Once installation is complete, you just plug the Zune into your computer and choose the type of sync you want. You can sync automatic or manually. The manual sync is an easy drag and drop operation. The Zune is able to import all of the music on your computer even if it is in iTunes. It cannot import or play iTunes purchases that are protected by digital rights management, but all other songs automatically import. So the process is quick and easy.
The Zune has only three controls on the front, as shown in Figure 4.The small button on the left returns you to the previous screen. The small button on the right acts as a play/pause button. It also turns the player on if held down for more than a few seconds will turn the player off. This is vastly superior to the iPod’s on/off methodology which requires your finger to be in the correct place on the scroll wheel.
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Figure 4: The front of the Zune.
Under these two small buttons, you will find the Zune’s squared-off touch pad. Pressing the top and/or the bottom will let you scroll through menu items and they also control the volume. The left and right sides let you scroll through songs and selections. At certain times the side buttons also control a menu the shows up horizontally on the top of the screen. While you can click on each of the four sides, you can also flick your finger across the surface up and down or left and right to go though the choices. We found that we used both methods depending of what we were doing. We thought having the choice was great, but if you don’t like the touch scrolling, you can turn it off.
Using the controls on the Zune is very intuitive. The on-screen choices are excellent. For instance, if you press and hold the bottom or top of the touch pad to scroll through your music quickly, you will see the letters of the alphabet on the side of the screen so you can stop in the right place. After using the Zune for awhile, we actually preferred its controls and screen choices to those of the iPod.
The Zune's main menu is large and very readable. Most menus are only two-dimensional meaning there is only one sub-menu to worry about. This means that you won’t get lost in a myriad of nested menus as you can in iPods and some other players. This makes it easy to navigate to exactly the artist, genre, and song you want.
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Figure 5: The Zune’s main menu.
The Zune has full support for both audio and video podcasts. It also supports audio books and even comes with a free book from Audible. Like iTunes, the Zune’s software lets you automatically find, subscribe to and download podcasts . It automatically syncs podcasts and clears out old podcasts. The Zune also supports episode information and auto-resume for podcasts.
Although the screen is only 1.8 inches with a resolution of 320 pixels x 240 pixels, video looks great on the Zune 4. Music covers and menu choices are shown in the vertical orientation while pictures and video appear horizontally. Again, this is intuitive and very easy to get used to. The Zune is also smarter than many other players that can be viewed either vertically or horizontally. For instance, when viewing a picture slideshow. The left and right sides of the touchpad scroll through the pictures and the top and bottom control the volume. This is just the same way it works when in the vertical position. On many other players when in the horizontal position, the controls still work as they do in the vertical position, making it more difficult to manage.
The bottom of the Zune, shown in Figure 6, sports the port for the USB connector and a standard headphone port.
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Figure 6: The bottom of the Zune.
The top of the Zune has a simple hold switch and a connector where you can attach a wrist strap, as shown in Figure 7.
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Figure 7: The top of the Zune.
The Zune produces excellent sound that is comparable with the iPods and other MP3 players that we have reviewed. The Zune does not support EQ as many other players do, but the sound quality was excellent and we seldom use the EQ adjustments anyway.
As with most other players including the iPods, the ear bud are round and hard. Even with the additional covers, many will find them uncomfortable and will make replacing them a priority.
Like iPods and many other MP3 players, the battery is not user-replaceable. Our simple testing showed that the player got at least 22 hours of continuous music playing with the wireless turned off. Having the wireless turned on or playing video used up the battery more quickly, but the player still had adequate staying power to last a day or more depending on use.