By on June 22, 2009

The Microsoft Zune prides itself in being the only significant alternative to Apple’s wildly popular iPod and iTunes duo. But there’s a problem: Zune distances itself from the industry standard software and hardware systems. Considering Microsoft’s dominance stemming from the personal computer revolution, the Zune’s unique value proposition is less like the corporate mothership and more like the original Apple Macintosh: isolating and challenging. Which, considering their fashionably late entrance, makes the Microsoft Zune a tough sell.

Back to that industry standard: seasoned MP3 veterans know the Zune does not talk to iTunes, Windows Media Player or any Macintosh computer. And it cannot double as a USB storage device. While all of the above is remedied by hacks, installing Zune’s (mandatory) software is similarly complicated.

Microsoft recommends running Windows Update before downloading the Zune 3.0 software, which is time consuming depending on the age and condition of your PC. After that, it’s merely a trip to Zune’s webpage for the free software. Except when its not: Zune 3.0 wouldn’t install on my laptop PC, and it took 20-30 minutes to finish on my older, Windows XP-based desktops.

Thankfully, once Zune 3.0 is installed, it’s a fast runner. The layout is stylish and easy to understand, and quickly devours the competition—importing your iTunes library so you remain loyal to the Zune brand. When you need more music, Zune sells it via their Marketplace portal. The search feature is graphic intensive, with a more open and inviting interface than iTunes. Apple may not be sweating bullets, but they should take note.

Aping the subscription model of Napster, the fifteen-dollar “Zune Pass” provides unlimited access to the majority of Zune’s database. I sampled the pass and found it an excellent way to broaden my musical horizons. The only downside is not all music is available, which (according to Microsoft) has to do with artists or record labels preferring to remain off the grid at their current compensation levels.

Right. So once your music, video and podcasts are on your PC, drag and drop it to the Zune player icon to “sync” them. Thanks to its WiFi capability, the Zune player need not be tethered to the computer; updates can download in your parked car.

More about the Zune player: I sampled their 8GB player in a refrigerator-worthy shade of avocado green. The package included a USB cable, car charger, FM modulator and a rubber dashboard pad. Drive at anything less than 9/10ths (keeping clear of the airbags) and the Zune stays where it needs to be. This kit currently trades for $140 at WalMart.com. Which isn’t a significant value proposition over its (cheaper) generic and (comparable) Malus-based competitors.

The FM modulator worked admirably for those who think SQ is shorthand for square. Classic car enthusiasts take note: the Zune didn’t like the two-knob analog radio on my 1972 Continental Mark IV. The preferred method is via USB input on their audio system, as iPod adapters are incompatible. Which means the Zune is perfect for SYNC-equipped Ford products.

Navigating through your collection with Zune’s unique touchpad is easy, after recalibrating your finger to tell the difference between its tactile directional click pad and the touch-sensitive drag pad. While somewhat different than the iPod, the Zune Pad is a quick and intuitive way to find your music. And if there’s no music available, Zune’s built-in FM tuner saves the day. And upsells to the hilt: using radio ID tags and a few quick clicks, the Zune adds the current song to your virtual shopping cart. Nice work, if you still listen to the radio.

Cue Microsoft’s most unique value proposition, the Zune Social network. (Or not, if you have a MySpace profile.) According to Microsoft, the Zune Social has already attracted over two million members. Members create a virtual alias to share or learn from others on the Zune network. Facebook fiends can share your musical passions with a Zune app added to your personal Facebook page.

Also tying into Zune’s social aspect, searchers find like-minded people via Zune 3.0 software on your PC, and check their current playlist: my current fascination (and subsequent downloading via Zune Pass) with Roy Ayers and Jan Hammer netted me a complimentary email and fifty “hits” to my profile. And field trips in a school bus will never be the same: the Zune MP3 player’s WiFi capability means you can share music to nearby Zune users that you trust.

In this arena, is it better late than never? Unless you’ve been in a cave for eight years, the Zune holds you back more than sets you free. Microsoft could have advanced the genre without being a buzz kill. They were supposed to play nice. But they didn’t, which makes recommending the Zune a difficult proposition.

[Microsoft provided the Zune, a car kit and a one-month membership]

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34 Comments on “Product Review: Microsoft Zune...”


  • avatar
    GS650G

    It took apple a while to get a PC version of the ipod, MS should learn from that mistake and open it up to apple computers.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The Microsoft Zune prides itself in being the only significant alternative to Apple’s wildly popular iPod and iTunes duo

    I was going to disagree with this, but you’re right. There are other, more popular players than the Zune (SanDisk comes to mind) and there are other music stores more popular than Microsoft’s (Amazon, Last.fm, etc) but there’s no other player/store combo.

    Aping the subscription model of Napster, the fifteen-dollar “Zune Pass” provides unlimited access to the majority of Zune’s database. I sampled the pass and found it an excellent way to broaden my musical horizons. The only downside is not all music is available, which (according to Microsoft) has to do with artists or record labels preferring to remain off the grid at their current compensation levels.

    The other downside is that when you unsubscribe or have certain technical issues, you lose access to your music. Point blank, end of story, no recourse. iTMS at least allows you to death/reauth and restore files, as well as buy unencrypted music that you can freely transport.

    I can see that model working for some people (specifically, those who don’t re-listen to music much but also don’t want something like Sirius/XM), but that pitfall is huge, and if the Zune fails (anyone remember PlaysForSure?) you’ve lost a lot. Comparatively, Apple could crater and all you’d lose is the seamless iTMS function; your music would still be yours.

    Microsoft makes some good stuff (Office, excepting Outlook, Exchange, Sharepoint, most of it’s hardware) but the Zune falls into the same camp as Bob, the first five or six versions of Windows Mobile/WinCE and every attempt to pick off Google prior to Bing: that is, it’s well done, but so badly compromised by committeethink as to be useless.

    Rather the Pontiac Aztek of electronica.

  • avatar
    ttacgreg

    My favorite put down line for the Zune I heard was “who wants an mp3 player that is brown and squirts?” (The original could “squirt” tunes to other zunes . . . MS’s choice of words)

    Witness MS skating to where the puck was, even as Apple (quoting Steve Jobs quoting a famous hockey player) “skates to where the puck is going to be”

    It seems like there is historically some charactaristic conformity of the auto maket that inhibits forward looking autos from being marketing successes. Is it possible for an auto company to be truely paradigm busting and future oriented? I rather doubt it.

  • avatar

    Being the contrarian I am, while I loathe Redmond as the producer of endlessly tarty over-weight PC operating systems, I nonetheless object to the Ipod hegemony…so when Woot had a special on brown 30GB refurbed Zunes a few years ago, I got one and named it faeces.
    It’s been good enough. I have it mounted in my car with a mount from these guys and RCA-plug tiein to my car stereo with the SoundGate ZNCBLPAK which also charges the Zune and is readily available for around $50.
    On mind-numbing long-distance Interstate drives, listening to podcasts from Ted.com, Fresh Air, Commonwealth Club of California, etc. makes the miles melt away….and downloading them first to my PC and then sync’ed to the Zune is easy through the PC Zune application.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    It took apple a while to get a PC version of the ipod, MS should learn from that mistake and open it up to apple computers.

    Microsoft can’t get Windows users to accept the Zune en masse, while Apple sells iPods to people who don’t have computers, now. Macintosh people (what, 3% of the market) won’t help Microsoft.

    The reason the iPod is so popular is that it works so very well for most people, and opening it up to the PC market was predicated by the iTunes Music Store, which is just the icing on the cake of integration. Prior to that, you could (and still can) use an iPod with any number of Windows or Linux media applications—all you lose is the store.

    The Zune isn’t bad, but the only way it will beat the iPod is by being better than it, not be being crippled and discounted. Much like, oh, anything in Detroit, it has a reputation as being substandard. The Zune is the ghetto MP3 player you buy on sale, not a legitimate competitor

    The social network thing is funny, though. Steve Jobs’ take on it was that, if you wanted to share music and such with people, you’d just pass them an earbud, rather than “squirt” them a song. If you wanted to chat with them, you’d use Twitter/Facebook/Whatever (which you can do on the upmarket iPods), not force them onto a subnetwork used by other Zune users. Again, Microsoft really didn’t think this through, as the social networking aspect looks like it was developed by people who don’t actually use social networks. Or have many friends.

    If I wanted to be a rebel and bypass the iPod, the SanDisk players are better in every way. The only way Microsoft is going to get this turkey to fly is to give it away with every copy of Windows, Office and each Xbox.

  • avatar

    Sajeev I love your reviews, but a Zune review? This kind of reminds me of when C|Net started reviewing cars a few years ago. It still doesn’t feel right.

    Perhaps a Zune meets Ford Sync review is in order?

    I’ve had my iPod for about 4 years now, it’s a great device, and part of the reason I switched to Apple computers. I used them at my job, and would tell everyone that Windows XP is just as good, but there is such a fluidity to Mac for me, and I don’t use a lot of applications or games, so that’s not an issue.

    1 iPod and 3 Macs later I still like them. Picked up my first iPhone on Friday… WOW, what a device!

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Did you meet that handsome fella by sharing playlists? :-)

    Some local vendor was blowing out Zunes last year and it was a real temptation to pick one up but I’m accustomed to iTunes and my iPods. The Zune is a little late to the market, although some of the features are intriguing. I can’t see buying one for the local area sharing, myself, but I can see where some might find it attractive.

    But I’m tired of being locked into proprietary this or thats.

    If/when my iPods die, I’ll probably just replace them with industry-standard MP3 players. My oldest, who is reasonably hip on these matters, went with such a device.

    Then, I’ll continue to go to Cheapo Discs for used discs at $0.95 and up with disc prices for things I really want typically at $6 or $7, with an occasional must-have-now track purchase on Napster or iTunes (and then make an audio CD).

    The $50 or so savings I get by going with the industry standard MP3 player can be recycled into another 15 discs or so, the value of which will outlast any player.

    The one big feature I’m looking for in a player is: runs on standard, repleaceable batteries. I’m sick of dragging custom chargers around for everything I own when I travel. With gizmos that run on AAs and AAAs, an emergency recharge is available at the nearest convenience store (and I’m already feeding my shortwave, GPS and flaslights from a small stock of NiMH cells, which would continue to be the norm, anyway).

  • avatar
    Hank

    Don’t bother sending one to your son or daughter serving abroad in the U.S. Armed Forces. A friend of mine serving in Japan in the Navy found his a useless brick, as Microsoft doesn’t allow APO/FPO billing addresses.

    “Zune does not support APO addresses or FPO addresses as billing addresses.” – Microsoft’s site

  • avatar
    mocktard

    @carguy622

    Agreed. Where is the connection to TTAC?

  • avatar

    mocktard

    It’s a car gizmo.

  • avatar
    Dukeboy01

    $140 seems a bit steep for the car charger. I got mine for around half that at Target.

    I bought my 4 GB Zune for a deep discount when CompUSA was going tits up and closing their stores. I’d been thinking about getting an MP3 player and it was kind of an impulse buy. I got my wife a 30 GB model for Valentine’s day a few months later and then got my kid a 4 GB model the following Christmas.

    I suppose in hindsight that a more expensive iPod might have been the better way to go, but at this point, with three of the damn things and a personal library of over 10,000 songs, we’re committed to it like the pig in a ham sandwich.

  • avatar

    I live in the Seattle area, the home of Microsoft… and I have only ever seen ONE Zune, ever.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    AKM

    I have an iPod, because my wife has one and I didn’t want to have 2 music libraries, but GOD DO I HATE ITUNES!!!!
    It makes Windows look like a model of simplicity and corporate non-intrusion.
    It looks like we are all supposed to do as Steve Jobs has decided for us little ants. Horrible.

    Most other MP3 players run on several pieces of software that can be configured by users, such as winamp, and can accept music files directly from the file directory. Oh, and not just in apple’s proprietary format.

    Now, if Zune suffers from similar problems, without the great interface offered by iPods themselves, it’s a lose-lose proposition.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    The Zune isn’t bad, but the only way it will beat the iPod is by being better than it, not be being crippled and discounted. Much like, oh, anything in Detroit, it has a reputation as being substandard. The Zune is the ghetto MP3 player you buy on sale, not a legitimate competitor

    Microsoft’s been doing this with pretty much all their products after Windows and Office, and very often succeeding. The reality is that they bury their competitors under a mountain of money, much like they’ll do soon with the sony ps3. You would have a point if you criticized them on their general strategy to also assume market leadership, which tends to waste a lot of cash early on with limited success.

    The zune software is currently better than itunes, and the the hardware will soon be with the HD release.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    It makes Windows look like a model of simplicity and corporate non-intrusion.
    It looks like we are all supposed to do as Steve Jobs has decided for us little ants. Horrible.

    This has been apple’s problem from day 1. Basically it’s their way or the highway, and you get charged royal for following them. QT on windows has always been a joke.

    Interestingly enough, MS has been trying to foster and recreate the same rich ecosystem that exists on the desktop on other devices and it simply does not work. So, they’ve actually switched over to more monopolistic/proprietary solutions like apple.

  • avatar

    I had two iPods and both failed within a year and a half of purchase. I gave Apple and iTunes a fair shake and was not impressed.

    I defected to Zune when it came back and haven’t looked back since. No issues whatsoever with either Zune purchase. Both still run like new almost two years later. The Zune software is much more user friendly too IMO.

    I highly recommend checking out the Zune if you’re in the market for an mp3 player, it’s a worth competitor and replacement to the iPod.

  • avatar
    Hank

    If iTunes is difficult to use, please, don’t drive a car. lol

  • avatar
    mocktard

    @Hank

    Hehe, very true.

    iTunes limits the configuration options, which actually makes most people happier. Simple is better. This is why Apple has sold one hundred gajillion iPods, and currently sells the most popular consumer (sorry RIM) smartphone on the market.

    @TriShield

    I have had similar experiences with iPod failures… really a shame, but they last long enough that I usually want to upgrade anyway. I am an ideal Apple consumer in that regard.

    So far my iPhone has held up, however.

  • avatar
    petrolhead85

    The Microsoft Zune. I can’t say that I’ve actually seen one in person. Ever. I’m serious, I don’t even have a clue what they look like.

    As for iPods, well my old-school (monochrome screen) 20GB is running just like new after nearly 5 years of heavy use and as of last week I’m the proud owner of a 32GB iPod Touch. Both iPods sync beautifully to my MacBook, which replaced a Powerbook G4 last year. So I guesss I’m not exactly part of Microsoft’s target audience!

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    If I could find a way to free my library from the evil clutches of iTunes, I would free myself from this damned iPod in a heartbeat.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    mocktard: “I have had similar experiences with iPod failures… really a shame, but they last long enough that I usually want to upgrade anyway.”

    Mine has lasted long past the point where I wanted to upgrade. Damn it all.

    quasimondo,

    Can’t you record audio CDs and reimport? Too many songs to be a practical solution?

    Hey, here’s a thought… outsource to some low-wage country. GM would do it.

  • avatar
    Jeff Puthuff

    quasi,

    “Windows only: Freeware app “iTunes Sync” syncs and transfers your iTunes music to non-iPod MP3 players.

    As long as your MP3 player shows up as a drive letter in Windows (and most of them do), iTunes Sync will work. You select an iTunes playlist to transfer over to the device and go.”

    Source

  • avatar
    KixStart

    Jeff Puthuff,

    Hey, thanks! In addition to my iPods, I also have a phone with MP3 capability. It’s only 1GB but it’s still handy to have loaded with music when I don’t have an iPod along.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Microsoft has become the General Motors of the computer age. They have a lot of talented engineers but their best efforts end up being compromised by the bloated fractured dysfunctional money grubbing bureaucracy. Thirty years from now when the company is demanding a federal bailout, pundits will ask how they could have squandered their dominant market share and billions in cash.

    Meanwhile, Steve Jobs 2.0 makes getting a new liver cool. Before you know it, everyone will be doing it. May he live long and prosper.

    Chuck Goolsbee, I’ve seen dozens of Zunes here in Texas. They’re stacked neatly on the shelf at Fry’s Electronics. You can’t miss them. They’ve been there for months – right next to the line of people waiting to get their new iPods and iPhones.

  • avatar

    quasimondo : If I could find a way to free my library from the evil clutches of iTunes, I would free myself from this damned iPod in a heartbeat.

    Microsoft made it easy to import iTunes content to Zune, if you want to move to the “evil clutches” (seriously?) of another music system.

  • avatar
    fallout11

    As I abhor monopolies and refused to support the Ipod behemoth, I bought my wife a spanking new 80GB Zune for Christmas back in 2007. After more than 4 hours of unsuccessfully attempting to install the feeble Zune client software on our home computer and update the firmware on the Zune (as they refused to talk to each other), I gave up on it and back it went to the store. An easy to use and effortless to install & sync Creative Zen product replaced it, and 10 minutes later was up and running.
    ALL of Microsoft’s product offerings since 2005 have been fundamentally flawed….Vista, Office 2007 (resource hog), Zune, several abortive search engines, etc. They really have become the GM of the personal computer age.

  • avatar
    quasimondo

    Microsoft made it easy to import iTunes content to Zune, if you want to move to the “evil clutches” (seriously?) of another music system.

    zune, here I come!

    And yes, it’s evil when the damn program takes every song and moves it from how I had it organized into layers of endless layers of sub-directories (without my permission) with no way of reverting what they did.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    And yes, it’s evil when the damn program takes every song and moves it from how I had it organized into layers of endless layers of sub-directories (without my permission) with no way of reverting what they did.

    The zune / ipod / just about every modern music program/organizer does a similar job.

    The idea is that they use the meta-info embedded in music files to determine absolutely which song(s) you have. The files are then organized/presented according to the predetermine buckets of album/artist/genre/etc, which is frustrating to those who prefer their own organizational vectors.

    You can sort of work around this by using playlists as another presentation layer over this, but they usually cannot be embedded into a hierarchical structure.

    Of course itunes just sucks in general, so it’s a good decision overall. But if you want YOUR organization, best use a simpler directory-based player like creative or sandisk’s.

  • avatar

    Re agenthex and others comments about MP3 player file hierarchy, organization and the like: I struggled with this when I decanted my CD collection into my Zune. Eventually I stumbled over MP3tag which exposed and allowed me to change all the weird-ass tags, to easily renumber tracks, etc. etc. and things were much better. I still have a collection of Surf music that is intractable tho…….

  • avatar
    ZekeToronto

    quasimondo: And yes, it’s evil when the damn program takes every song and moves it from how I had it organized into layers of endless layers of sub-directories (without my permission) with no way of reverting what they did.

    Point one: iTunes did not do that without your permission, and never has. During the setup process, like most computer users steeped in Microsoft practice, you kept hitting the enter key. One of those dialogs you passed by asked whether you wanted iTunes to organize your music library. Unfortunately, the default is yes. But you did agree to it.

    Point two: No matter how elegant and sophisticated you may think your personal music organizational methodology is, unless you “succumb” to the use of meta tags (as has been pointed out) you’ll lose out on the many clever ways to construct smart playlists and use features like Genius that will actually increase the amount of enjoyment you can derive from your existing music library.

    It took me a while to see the light too, having had a large MP3 library that was impeccably organized long before there was an iTunes. Once I stopped resisting it however (and got my meta tags properly populated) I’m really enjoying the new possibilities.

  • avatar
    tonycd

    “This has been apple’s problem from day 1. Basically it’s their way or the highway, and you get charged royal for following them. QT on windows has always been a joke.”

    QuickTime on Windows is a joke by Microsoft’s choice. While everyone else was accepting QuickTime as the industry standard, Microsoft emulated its Netscape>Exploder business model of making an inferior knockoff — in this case, Windows Media Player — with stolen code, then using its Windows monopoly to strong-arm everybody else into following suit.

    Like WM itself, it didn’t work. But Microsoft always hobbles inter-platform functionality between Windows machines and Macs, just to pressure users to go Windows. It’s the same reason Office and Explorer for Mac always lack critical functions that the Windows versions get.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    While everyone else was accepting QuickTime as the industry standard, Microsoft emulated its Netscape>Exploder business model of making an inferior knockoff — in this case, Windows Media Player — with stolen code, then using its Windows monopoly to strong-arm everybody else into following suit.

    That’s what apple fanbois would love everyone else believe instead of their precious company making mediocre products with better marketing.

    We’re lucky the proprietary crap that is quicktime is not the industry standard.

    Like WM itself, it didn’t work. But Microsoft always hobbles inter-platform functionality between Windows machines and Macs, just to pressure users to go Windows.

    That’s funny, apple complaining about interoperability for a company that can barely enforce it within their own limited product range.

  • avatar

    This is sad, it turns out that the Zune Tattoo Guy no longer has that tattoo.

    “I am done. I have had the Zune since day 1 and have noticed littleimprovement. I have tried my best to support them every step of theway but the recent Xbox Live announcement at E3 made me lose it. Tonot include Zune Marketplace or the ability to load videos from XboxLive to your Zune made me finally give up. I am in the works offiguring the best way to get a new tattoo to cover the logo on my arm. Thanks for all the harsh comments and you will see very little of meanymore.”

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    I’m avoiding the Zune and the iPod both. My wife has an iTouch and a Mac. Really nice pieces of gear but I don’t like how it locks you into their “scheme”. The Zune surely does a similar thing. After years of fixing Win95/98/2000/XP/Vista machines (countless hours over the years for friends and work) I switched to Linux. Screwed around with that for a while and settled on a version that I really like and has all the right bells and whistles. There is alot of choice out there in Linux-land and I tried alot of them (dozens) before I picked a favorite.

    Here is how I do what I do for audio and video.

    It serves well for my family but could be scaled up very well.

    For storage I use a D-Link NAS-323. Basically a Linux powered black box on my home network that we can all access at home and I could set it up for access away from home but I don’t need that ability. The black box contains two hard drives that I picked out for low power consumption and max storage. We can read/write anything to that device from anywhere in the house and access it wirelessly through Wi-Fi. It carries the family pics, music, movies, TV shows, etc. All of our computers can access it. Both drives contain the same contents so if one drive dies I can replace it without losing anything.

    We have a pair of older Palm PDAs and an older Dell Axiom that our kids can play music and movies on. They sound as good as my wife’s iPod.

    We simply pop out the SD cards, pop them into my Linux computer’s card reader and the free Amarok jukebox recognizes them and we drag music to the cards. We can also drag movies onto the cards. We can also delete what is on the cards.

    My Nokia N810 (free Linux powered) can access the NAS wirelessly and transfer anything to or from the NAS – movies, music, docs, etc. I use Canola2, MPlayer (movies only) or MediaBox Media Center for playback. Canola and Mediabox look as spiffy as any store bought music players.

    My wife’s iTouch is recognized by Amarok as well or she can do what she does with her Mac laptop to get music to and from the NAS.

    We can do all the typical music formats too. WMV, MP3, FLAC, and my favorite OGG. I have EasyTag and Picard Tag which allows me to alter the track tags or Amarok will allow me to do the work from within the player. All will even look up the tracks and try to tag the tracks themselves automatically. I can even gather album art this way.

    Again – all this for free on computers ranging from a 600 MHz former Win98 laptop, sub-400MHz Nokia N810 handheld tablet computer (tiny), to a 2.8 GHz Dell laptop and several in between.

    I use the standard D-LINK NAS Linux software (there are alternatives), Mint Linux KDE on the faster computers, Mint Linux Gnome for the slower computers, TinyME Linux on the slowest computer, and both the Dell Axiom and the Palm PDAs run TCMPCP media players on top of their standard factory supplied PDA software.

    A person could also try Linux FreeNAS which makes a spare computer a NAS or GiantDisc which uses a spare Palm PDA as a wireless remote control for a jukebox you build out of a spare computer (my next project). The GiantDisc computer could also double as shared music storage.

    Best of all I can play all the formats. I can supply music to any media player for the forseeable future. I can rip CDs or buy online music. Microsoft and Apple can release whatever “special” formats and updates they want that attempts to encumber my music collection somehow but I have easy access to my music at home or out and about. No subscriptions.

    No, I’ll be keeping my wallet closed for any versions of the Zune or iPod.


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