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]