The device is eminently pocketable. Though it's fairly squarish in its lines, compared to the HTC Hermes we've been toting around it's not too hard to forget it's in your pocket. The hard plastic exterior has a soft-touch matte finish, which makes it very comfortable to hold and feel. The display and the exterior didn't scratch nearly as easily as we thought it might, which is a good sign. The doubleshot -- that green, blue, or translucent rim around the exterior of the device -- is something of a small delight. It gives the player an easily recognizable visual feature, something consumers can see and instantly recognize, something to remind them to pull out their Zune. It's no pair of white headphones in terms of iconography, but it's a start.
The Zune does also has a few useful additions that you can't help but like. The headphones, as we know, are magnetic, so they're easy to wind around the player when necessary, and don't fly all over the place. When you pull them out of the jack, your music pauses, just like Steve's player. Opposite the d-pad is a small, locationally-correlated indentation of the same circular shape. It kind of helps orient the hand when in landscape mode; not too shabby.
The screen is bright and clear, although album art downloaded was often not of a decent enough resolution to look even passable. Our Zune marketplace-acquired Lady Sovereign album art was, for example, only 200 x 200. Upon download it was already fuzzy to look at in an image view, but scaled up 40 pixels on the Zune -- where album art is king of the display in terms of real estate -- it looked just awful. The same followed for many of the covers the Zune software downloaded.
The battery life was as expected. We got 11 hours and 37 minutes of continuous play with the following options:
- WiFi enabled
- Moderate usage of the display
- 30 second backlight
- A couple scans for nearby Zunes, but no actual transfers
- Volume at or around half (or 10 of 20)
We're not going to linger too long here; we've seen the wireless, we know by now what it's capable of: sending tracks to any Zune player in the vicinity, which are then placed in an "inbox," and restricted to 3 plays or 3 days (whichever comes first). We all think it's lame, but apparently it's the best Microsoft could do in terms of sharing. We wish they'd taken a page out of MusicGremlin's book by allowing Zune Pass (unlimited download) members the ability to trade files wirelessly without restriction, but maybe they'll add that in the future. Then again, maybe not -- they're not saying. Whatever, either way we're pretty clear on our feelings about the wireless feature as it stands today; but if we had to make good on our promise to Mom to say something nice or nothing at all, we would definitely mention that sending and receiving music and photos is totally seamless. No configuration was required, no menus traversed. You're prompted to accept a file, and boom, it's done.
If you want to see the Zune interface in its entirety, we've got you covered. But basically anyone familiar with the Toshiba Gigabeat S, or any other Portable Media Center 2 device will instantly feel at home with the Zune. Just as the Zune device is a custom-built Toshiba player that amounts in many ways to a Gigabeat, the Zune's UI is a hacked variant of Portable Media Center 2 -- and that's not a bad thing. The Gigabeat S, for all its niggles, is in terms of both hardware and software one of our favorite devices on the market. And the Zune adds to that experience; the album listing, for example, shows off cover art icons. Nice! Generally speaking, however, you've got to get yourself used to the way the the "twist interface" (the Zune team's name for PMC2) works. You've got categories up top (albums, artists, genres, songs, etc.), and moving left or right drops down a selection; up and down scrolls you here and there. This is generally a faster method of navigating large amounts of media, as the iPod, for example, requires you to back all the way out of your hierarchy to access your media from a different angle (say, switching from song view to artist view).
What's more, that left / right / center issue isn't only inconsistent in the player screen. You must select menus and menu items with a center click instead of a left or right, even though they might serve the same purpose. For example, to enter settings, one cursors over the menu item and center clicks; hitting left or right does not work, does not take you into the menu. Center click takes you inside; once at an item, you must scroll through the options one by one with your center click as well. Miss your option? Left doesn't take you back one. Left and right are poorly implemented in this player, and can be unnecessarily confusing to use. Not a deal breaker, just an annoyance.
Videos likewise share the same interface as audio, although your content is broken down into music videos and movies, as specified by we're-not-sure-how. We couldn't find any way to specify whether our clips were videos or movies, but that's not a huge deal. Currently videos cannot be sent via WiFi, although Ballmer has stated that's a feature they're looking to add -- probably also with the 3x3 restriction, we'd guess. Also unfortunately, the same "we'll go where the customer is" philosophy that brought the player AAC support didn't carry over to the video. The Zune supports WMV only, no DivX, no XviD, no H.264 -- basically nothing we use. Yes, the software will supposedly convert for you, but seriously, that shouldn't have be a part of the game. We're not saying the iPod is innocent here or anything, but we'll take H.264 as a standard over WMV any day.
And again, in video we have some interface oddities. Overlaying the video information (center click) is a nice feature. Getting rid of it isn't. One would think a second center click would rid them of the overlay. It's a back click. When your info is overlayed, center clicking again does nothing. We clicked over and over until we realized it wasn't going to happen. This kind of basic user interface flub is exactly what's going to keep the device from the sought-after perception that it's a well thought out piece of equipment.
Photos are simple enough. One can twist through by date, or by folder. Sorting by date had some load issues for whatever reason; perhaps the index wasn't updated properly, or perhaps it just didn't have one, but it went a bit slower than most of the otherwise near-instant interface.
The radio interface does use left and right, but again, not as one would expect. Left and right scan to the next station with clear reception -- but do not advance the FM radio by individual frequencies. Radio users are long used to single clicks moving one station, and hold-clicks for a signal seek. Adding a station to your favorites is, however, simple (center button again). And you get RBDS station and track info, which is a nice new trick to teach an old dog.
The community interface is fairly straightforward; from here you have your "inbox" (where people send you things), "nearby" (where you can browse the detailed or simple information other Zune users with WiFi on have chosen to broadcast), and "me" (where you can see what info you're broadcasting via WiFi). For reference, "detailed broadcasting" shows off what video you're watching or what music you're listening to; basic shows that you're online, nothing more.
The settings were, thankfully, pretty straight forward. Not a lot to get messy with here, except for the shuffle setting. Setting the shuffle mode in your settings menu acts as a total override. That is to say, if you set shuffle in your main menu, and then disable it in your player menu, the next time you load a new set of tracks it will be set back to shuffle. It took us a little while to remember that we set that first option and disable it (read: redundant options are bad and unnecessarily confusing).
The software and marketplace
The storefront itself is easy enough to navigate. It's not quite as nice as some storefronts we've browsed, but it definitely does the job. Anyone familiar with a PlaysForSure store like Napster will recognize the look and feel. Actually, while we're on the topic, can we just say it's a little too much like Urge? Because it is. It didn't take long to discover not much the Zune brings to the table isn't straight off the shelf.
Finally, though, we have to address two things. First: Mac support. Yes, we know Apple users make up between 4-10+% of users in the US (depending who you ask), but not launching with Mac support is a Bad Thing. Microsoft expects Zune users to be Windows users. That's unreasonable. This was intended to be a product for people who love music, first and foremost, and more than just Windows users love music. Perhaps Microsoft wasn't prepared or inclined to fight Apple on its home turf. Microsoft has a Mac unit, believe it or not -- maybe they could have developed Zune for that platform in tandem with the PC Zune dev team. But they didn't. They're taking on the iPod -- the number one converter of PC users to Apple -- without a version for OS X. Don't they want to get some of those users back? We still hold that the smartest single thing Steve ever did with the iPod was to eventually give it Windows support. (If you'll recall, it didn't launch with Windows support.) Granted, the marketshare isn't exactly turned around on the Zune; the incentive isn't the same as Apple making their precious iPod PC-compatible. But if Zune wants users, Zune needs to find them where they're most likely living right now. And one of the more likely customers is the Mac user with an aging or dying iPod they're considering replacing. We're long past the days where a product launch like the Zune's can skate by without at least acknowledging the Apple crowd.
The second thing we have to address: the Universal deal. The Zune's initial launch takeaway is fashioned loosely around the concept of the "connected" discovery of unearthed indie music gems. The player comes packed with obscure (but awesome) acts like CSS and Band of Horses, and the marketplace has all kinds of hitherto unheard of acts all up in lights. We get that. So why did Microsoft cave at the last minute to Universal's demands to fork over a cut of its Zune hardware sales? Well, it was something Universal wanted for a long time from Apple, so this time they decided to take it from Microsoft. They obviously held the power; Microsoft needed that major label support to take on the iPod with mass-market consumers. But what about all the indie labels and artists -- do they also get a cut of Zune hardware sales? Well, "no further announcements have been made," as they say. We guess it's cool for indie to be indie and broke n' stuff so long as the big labels are allowed to get whatever they want -- while at the same time terrorizing legitimate consumers doing legitimate things with their digital media. Microsoft really wanted to convince everybody that this time they'd changed, this time they were starting from the ground up, working for the consumer, working for the artist. Well, no one's buying that story anymore. But really, that much is only peripheral to the device, what it does, and how well it works. So let's finish this off.
The Zune is a player riddled with a lot of small issues -- death by a thousand cuts. Do we think any particular one is a deal breaker? Well, even given our nightmarish software issues, not really. Do we think they should have worked out the kinks and sat out this holiday season? Probably, yeah. Do we think there's potential for betterment of the platform and especially the player through software updates? Given enough time, absolutely. Would we recommend the product for purchase, like, right now? Not a chance.
People wonder whether Microsoft's underdog will overtake Cupertino's reigning juggernaut this holiday season. To be honest, we wish it could, since we too are getting kind of sick of seeing the iPod on top. A one man show is only entertaining for so long. But this buying season if the question is iPod, we're afraid the answer sure isn't Zune.
And now for some more pictures