Microsoft’s fabled Zune line has done a lot of growing up over the years. From the first-gen 30GB player that we scorned back in 2006 to the 8GB model we warmed up to in 2007, Microsoft has continually been fine tuning its line of media players to deal with the crush of criticism they’ve met on the open market. That refinement reaches its pinnacle with the 80GB and 120GB players, which are both the largest and most capable Microsoft has ever produced. But are they ready to run alongside Apple’s class-leading iPod yet?
Features and Design
The Zune hasn’t lost the slate-like design that Microsoft has been rolling with since its inception, but it certainly has changed over the years. Screen size grows to a heady 3.2 inches on this model (much larger than the 2.5-inch screen Apple offers on it comparable iPod Classic), and only back in the fall, Microsoft ditched the rather overdone glossy black styling for a matte version that we much prefer, though the company would have been wise to carry it from the back over to the front as well. The Zune 120GB also measures only half an inch thick, and a welcome weight of 128 grams makes it feel solid without becoming a paperweight.
Microsoft hasn’t been able to touch Apple’s legendary scroll wheel, but the company has done its best to recreate the feel with a flat, stamp-sized direction pad that both clicks in every direction and reads the motion of a thumb gently flicked over its surface, giving users a quicker way to skim through long lists. A return button to the left drags users back out of the menu system one layer at a time, while a play/pause button to the right provides the quickest route to playing music. Otherwise, the only other input is a discrete hold button on the top.
The Zune will play all your basic audio files (WMA, MP3, AAC) plus a good selection of video formats (WMV, MPEG-4, H.264) and display JPEG photos. There’s also an FM radio with built-in RDS support for showing station data, plus the ability to identify a song on the fly and add it to your cart to purchase. Unlike most other PMPs, Wi-Fi is also standard.
Like the iPod, the Zune uses a flat proprietary connector on the bottom of the Zune to connect it to a computer for data and charging, as well as a standard 3.5mm headphone jack located conveniently on the top right of the unit. You’ll get the necessary USB cable in the box, but unfortunately, there’s no wall-outlet-to-USB converter, so you’ll be left scrounging for powered USB ports when it’s charging time.
Testing and Usage
Microsoft gives Apple a real run for its money when it comes to ease of use on the Zune, which approaches the same level of intuitive navigation as the iPod. All of the player’s features are arranged in a large-type list that can be scrolled through rather effortlessly using the directional pad and back button, and response time is near-instant. A unique horizontal list that runs across the top of the player even makes top-level items scrollable: for instance, when you’ve clicked on an album and see a list of songs arranged vertically, pushing right or left on the control pad will cycle you through different albums, you don’t have to click “back” and reselect them to view individual songs. It’s obviously a system that’s been heavily scrutinized and reworked to near perfection.
The player’s Wi-Fi capabilities also add a significant new dimension to its capabilities, when used in conjunction with Microsoft’s subscription-based Zune Pass. Using it within Wi-Fi range effectively expands your music library to include the billions of songs included in Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace, which you can browse directly from the Zune and play songs from, with only a second or two or delay, right off the network. You might not make much use of this functionality on your own, since you’ll probably load the Zune with your favorite tunes anyway. But during a party, it’s like setting up a DJ booth in the middle of a record store and giving guests the run of the roost.
The included earbuds, while not spectacular, sound better than their Apple equivalents, especially on the bass side of the spectrum. They sound muddy at times, though, and serious music enthusiasts will definitely still find reason to upgrade. Microsoft includes three different colored pairs of foam ear pads, which seems frivolous, but can be handy to differentiate the right from the left, if you’re so inclined.
Microsoft Zune 120
Though Microsoft doesn’t push the Zune as a service quite as much as a company like Slacker pushes its G2, in truth, it’s as much an ecosystem as it is a player. The Zune 3.1 software that accompanies the player serves as a one-stop shop for organizing your existing library, discovering new music, buying it, and transferring it to the player. In short, there’s a lot more to filling the Zune than your basic drag-and-drop.
Most of that functionality comes via the Zune Marketplace, which is Microsoft’s take on the iTunes Store. Though it can serve as a storefront to pick up individual songs by using Microsoft’s arcane point-system, it’s most useful when coupled with a $15-per-month subscription called a Zune pass, which gives you unlimited, all-you-can-eat access to the entire store. Plus, that buys you 10 songs to keep per month, ensuring you’re not left with nothing if you ever terminate your subscription.
Microsoft has also added some neat options for music discovery, like Zune Social, which lets you see what your friends are listening to and sample their tunes. There are also “channels,” which mimic Slacker in some ways by essentially working as preprogrammed, station-like playlists. In general, we weren’t blown away with the selections from celebrities and rather weak fitness options, but the personalized channel that generates content for you based on what you already listen to is a neat touch.
Microsoft Zune 120
As a piece of hardware, it’s easy to dismiss the Zune as yet another iPod wannabe. But coupled with the Microsoft’s tightly integrated Zune Pass, it offers a level of music selection and ease of use that’s unrivaled by anything, including the iPod (which has no subscription option). That’s for those willing to fork over another $15 per month, but for users who just want to load it with their own collections, it remains an attractive, well-equipped, and decently affordable player.
- Screen size
- Tight software integration
- Built in FM radio, Wi-Fi
- Still not as polished as an iPod
- Requires monthly fee to make the most of its features