Sometimes, if your partners can’t get the job done, you just have to do it yourself. And this is exactly what Microsoft is trying to do with the introduction of the Zune, a portable audio and video player built specifically by Microsoft. Arguably meant for early adopters, the Zune promises a “social” aspect rarely seen by other media players in the form of wireless music sharing. Featuring a large 3-inch screen, the Microsoft Zune allows both music and video playback for under $250 US. This is one player that you are going to want to pay attention to closely. Microsoft’s marketing campaigns will tell you this is the next “hip” thing to get. Read our review to see if the Zune is worth the attention.
Design and Features
The MP3 player market easily has more than 5 years under its belt. So you would think by now most manufacturers have the recipe for success down by now; copy the Apple iPod or create something innovative and new. Microsoft must have missed the company memo, because the Zune is nightmare wrapped in pretty packaging.
The box that the Zune comes in is pretty clever. The cover slides off the top to reveal two compartments. One side of the box has a flip up cover that reads “Welcome to the Social”. Under this cover is the Zune unit itself. The other compartment holds the carrying case, headphones, USB cable, software, quick start guide and product guide.
Available in three colors: white, black, and brown (shoot whoever decided brown was cool); the Zune has a very minimalist look to it. This is normally a good thing, but the Zune is minimalistic in a generic way, lacking any sort of sex appeal. There are only a few buttons on the entire device: a back button, play/pause button, a lock button on the top of the unit, and the wheel button which serves as a means to navigate the menu system. The ear buds look attractive at first, but feel very light, and that worries us. We will test these in the next section.
The Zune Package and Contents
Physically, the 5.6 ounce Zune is thicker (.6 in) and taller (4.4 in) than the Apple iPod, thanks in part to its large 3-inch screen. The Apple iPod has a smaller screen at 2.5 inches, but both the Zune and iPod display videos at the same 320 by 240 pixel resolution. This means the picture does not look as sharp on the Zune.
The Zune is considerably thicker than the iPod
On the audio front, the Zune supports music recorded in the Windows Media Audio Standard (WMA), MP3 (up to 320 Kbps) and AAC (up to 320 Kbps). We were surprised to see support for AAC since it’s the default Apple iTunes codec (something going on here that we do not know about?). For video, the Zune supports Windows Media Video (WMV) up to 1.5 Mbps peak bit rate at 320×240 pixel resolution at 30 frames per second. There is no support for MPEG-4, DivX, or AVI. Other features include an integrated FM tuner, 802.11 b/g WiFi and JPEG picture viewing capabilities.
The Zune supports audio and video purchased from the Zune marketplace as well as non-DRM protected media that you might have on your PC. If you have music downloaded from a PlaysForSure partner like Napster, AOL Music or MTV’s Urge services, it will not work on the Zune. You would be better off buying a different media player. Here is a link to PlaysForSure compatible devices.
The $250 dollar Zune carries a 1 year limited warranty and is currently only available in a 30 GB size.
Setup and Use
There are a few basic things needed to get your Zune up and running. A Windows XP system (there is no current Vista support, but expect that to change in a future update), quick start guide, Zune installation software and the player itself. The product guide that comes with the Zune is nothing more than disclaimers produced by the legal department at Microsoft – it provides no real value.
Installing the software takes about 10 minutes to do and requires that you reboot your system. We had no issues with the installation process although we have heard of several installation problems (Engadget, Gizmodo, Crunchgear) from multiple sources, so be careful here. Once you install the software you will need to create a Zune login and password which ties the player to your system – and your wallet. This login and password is also used for the Zune marketplace. If you decide to install the Zune software on another PC, it will register it only as a “guest” account crippling your normal functions like transferring pictures or music for example. So make sure you install the software on the machine you intend to use most of the time. We experienced significant slow down on our test system once the software was installed, and upon removal we noticed our system sped right back to normal.
Logged in as a Guest
The Zune Marketplace is a desert of uselessness for a couple reasons. The first and biggest reason is the way your money is handled. You cannot simply purchase a single song, or album for that matter. You are forced to by blocks of points which can then be applied to music downloads. The minimum block size is $5 which means if you just want a couple songs; your money is sitting in their system until you use it next. We also did not find enough compelling content in the Zune Marketplace to justify purchasing the Zune. There are no TV shows, Podcasts, movies or other content available for purchase – just a thin music library. We expect that to change overtime though.
Microsoft Points are used to purchase songs
It is our guess that Microsoft intentionally left support for PlaysForSure compatible music out so they would not step on the toes of their hardware partners. This way they are not competing with them directly right? This is a very poor decision because it will only confuse consumers more. As we mentioned before, if you have music downloaded from Napster, AOL Music, MTVs Urge, or even Microsoft’s failing MSN Music services, they will not work on the Zune. Here is a link to PlaysForSure compatible devices.
The player itself has a nice interface that is easy to navigate. The videos look pretty good, although not as sharp looking as on the iPod. For $99 bucks you can purchase a Home A/V Pack which includes a charger, remote control, docking station and AV cables that allow you to hook the Zune up to your TV for picture or video viewing. Like the iPod though, the picture quality looks terrible since you are limited to a 320×240 resolution and RCA cables for the connection.
The included ear buds feel very light and cheap. Audio quality is very flat with little bass. Throw these out and use your own cans. Another small gripe is the included carrying case which is too small to hold the Zune and the ear buds together; Microsoft clearly did not think things through. Battery life is average on the Zune. Microsoft says you should be able to get about 14 hours of life with the WiFi turned off, but we clocked in at about 10-12 hours of typical use (browsing songs, adjusting volume etc) before the battery died. This is several hours less than a comparable Apple iPod.
If you want to use the Zune as an external hard drive, you are out of luck. Nothing like having 30 gigs of space and nothing to put on it eh?
The Microsoft Zune and Apple iPod
Let’s Get Social:
So what exactly does the Zune do that’s Social? With its integrated WiFi, you can wirelessly share your music with other Zune owners. This is a very cool concept, but Microsoft again messed up this feature. For starters, if you decide to share your music with a friend, they will only be able to listen to it three times before Microsoft prompts them to purchase the music for continued use. So what if you want to share your own DRM unprotected music? Well, again you can only share it up to three times before it’s no longer playable.
The Microsoft Zune is one of those products that you will want to avoid at all costs; at least this first generation. In comparison to other media players on the market, the Zune offers no clear advantage. It has an audio and video library with less depth than iTunes while the player itself has fewer features than offerings from Apple, Samsung or Creative.
Most importantly though is the lack of a promise from Microsoft to show future support for the Zune in years to come. PlaysForSure, a standard created by Microsoft in conjunction with hardware vendors has been forgotten in favor of a proprietary DRM solution available only for the Zune. With consumers left out in the cold, this is one player you will want to forget ever happened.
• Attractive packaging
• Competitive price
• Large display
• Boring aesthetics
• Poor quality ear buds
• Closed system
• Not compatible with PlaysForSure songs
• Credit purchasing system is a joke