Product Review: Microsoft Zune

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

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 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]

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Sajeev Mehta Sajeev Mehta on Jul 02, 2009

    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."

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Jul 08, 2009

    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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