Microsoft Zune Review
By Sandy Berger on February 10, 2009
We all know that Apple’s iPod is the most popular digital music player on the planet. Yet, there are many competitors. The Microsoft Zune is one of them. We took a look to see how the Zune compared to the iPod and also to see if the Zune was worthy enough to attract its own audience. We found that while the iPod and other MP3 players are for people who like to listen to music, the Zune is the digital music player for music lovers. Our review will explain.
The Zune comes in two sizes with differing storage capacities. The smaller Zune which is roughly the equivalent of the iPod Nano comes in 4 GB, 8 GB, and 16 GB sizes. These are known as the Zune 4, Zune 8, and Zune 16, respectively. The other Zune, which is physically larger and has a hard drive, is roughly the equivalent of the iPod Classic and comes in 80 GB and 120 GB storage sizes. These are known as the Zune 80 and the Zune 120. These devices are all a part of the second generation of Zune players which are thinner and much better than the first generation Zune players. The Zune 4 comes in black, red, pink, and green. The Zune 8 is available in black, red, pink, green, and blue. The Zune 16 comes in black only and the Zune 80 and Zune 120 come in red and black.
We reviewed a black Zune 4. As shown in Figure 1, the Zune comes in a small but elegant black box with orange trim. The back of the box, shown in Figure 2 shows the Zune itself alone with the size and color notations.
As shown in Figure 3, the Zune comes with a quick start guide, instruction guide, USB cable, and headphones. Also included are several sets of soft covers for the ear buds. Like the iPod, the Zune does not come with any software. You are expected to download it from the Internet.
According to Microsoft, the 4 GB models holds up to 1,000 songs, or 25,000 pictures, or 12 hours of video. Like the current iPods, there is no slot for additional memory, so you will want to purchase the size you need to hold your music, picture, and video collection.
At 41.4 mm x 91.5 mm x 8.5 mm and weighing only 1.7 ounces (47 grams), the Zune 4 is very lightweight and pocketable.
The Zune can play a nice variety of formats including WMA, WMA Lossless, AAC, and MP3. Video support includes WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264. The Zune will also automatically transcode HD MPEG-4, HD WMV, HD H.264 DVR-MS files giving it great support for a wide variety of video formats. Pictures are handled in the JPEG format.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The home screen of the Zune is fully customizable, so you can see any picture or graphic of your choosing as the background, as shown in Figure 8. Although this is a small item, it gives you the feeling that the player is truly your own.
Although we have seen iPods with wireless functionality, we have not yet seen any that allow you to sync wirelessly like you can with the Zune. If you prefer, you can sync with the included USB cable, but with a few clicks of the mouse you can also set the Zune to sync over your wireless network. You must turn on the wireless in both the software and the device for this to work. Although it is slower than synching over USB, it works well, even for security-enabled wireless networks. We found it very useful when we used a charging device to charge numerous devices in a central location. Using this method we could plug the Zune into our charging device which resides in the living room and it would not only charge, but would also sync with our computer at the other end of the house.
With the Zune you can also share your music with others. You can send a song to any other Zune user wirelessly. They can then play that song three times to see if they like it and can then purchase it if they like. While this is certainly an admirable feature for sharing music, unless you know some other Zune owners, it may go unused, as it did for us.
The Zune also has an excellent built-in FM radio. It supports the Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS) system so that detailed station and song information shows directly on the Zune screen as long as it is supported by the radio station that you are listening to. In fact, you can even tag songs from RBDS stations so you can download them to your Zune.
You’ll find that the Zune has more unique features than most other MP3 players. And its most unique feature may well be the way you can find new music, connect with other music lovers, and listen to music you love. We’ll tell you all about that in the next page.
The Zune software provides you a way to view and sync your music, video, picture, and podcast collection, but it also helps you find new music and get more information about the music you love. As shown in Figure 9, it has a clean, clear interface.
Just as iTunes has its iTunes store, the Zune has the Zune Marketplace. This is a place where you can purchase music, TV shows, and videos, but it is also a place where you can find new music. Each week you get recommendations based on the music that you have listened to. You will also get recommendations of other Zune users who have similar tastes.
The Zune also supports a subscription music service, called the Zune Pass. For $14.99 a month, Zune owners can download almost any of the 3 million+ tracks in the Zune Marketplace. As long as you keep your subscription active you can listen to this wealth of music on your computer and on your player. In fact, you can listen on up to three computers and three players. In addition you get to choose 10 songs each month to add to your permanent collection. These songs stay with you even if you cancel your subscription. A new Zune comes with a two week trial subscription. We suggest that you spend some time in those two weeks to really get to know the Zune software and marketplace.
There is so much available in the Zune software that it is almost mind-boggling. Yet to a real music lover, it allows you to be immersed in the information about and sounds of the music your love. You can subscribe to channels which are updated weekly. These channels may feature the top billboard hits, a music genre that you are particularly attracted to, or even the top music on a certain radio station. You can even subscribe to channels with music that is timed to your heartbeat when you walk, run, or jog.
One point of possible confusion is that you can peruse the Zune marketplace online, but to control your music and/or access the downloads for your subscription, you need to access the Zune software on your computer. The same point of confusion exists for neophytes who try to use the iTunes software and the iTunes store.
The Zune is all about sharing music. One of the main menu choices is called “Social.” As previously stated, this allows you to send music to others from your device, but in the software you can also use the Social area to discover new music, share favorites with others and email and IM friends.
One of the coolest new features of the Zune software is called the Mixview. This feature gives you a dynamic representation of your music collection. When playing a song on the computer you can click on Mixview to dive deeper into the music that is playing. You can get more information about the artist, recommendations of similar music, and even the history of the song and/or artist. Mix view has an attractive graphic presentation. We found that it could lead us to so much information and so many new music choices that we could easily spend hours delving into Mixview information.
This is just one example of the depth of the Zune software. We found that all of the Zune Marketplace and the Zune software filled with ways to explore and enjoy music.
Microsoft Zune main specs include:
After using the Zune for several weeks and delving into the Zune software, the Zune Marketplace, and the Zune community, we realized that the Zune was created by music lovers for music lovers. iPods and other MP3 players are for people who just want to listen to music. If, however, you love music, you want to experience new music, and you want to get the scoop behind the music, the Zune is the perfect player for you.
The Zune, however, doesn’t let down people who like to listen to the spoken word. It can also be used for podcasts, audio books, and FM radio. There is even support for games.
Both the Zune hardware and the software are excellent. We loved the scratch-resistant glass-covered LCD, the Wi-Fi capabilities, the easy navigation and the friendly interface. All in all, the Zune is a fully capable music player with a wealth of unique and useful features.