After a couple misstarts, we've finally got Zune 3.0 running on our computer and that shiny new blue Zune 8 we nabbed yesterday. We had problems with the straight installer, but updating from within Zune 2.5 worked quite well, and after a restart we were able to perform the same feat on the player. The software choked up on the first sync, but we canceled out and it twasn't a problem.

With 3.0 all ready to go, we wasted little time jumping onto Marketplace wirelessly, which felt especially delicious on a teensy little flash DAP. Naturally, we could've squandered all our Microsoft Points on song buys -- which are quite easy to accomplish, with a cart-based purchasing system -- but we're all about subscription music, and Zune Pass speaks our language. The browsing, selecting and downloading processing couldn't be much easier, and you can pick a song to play from right in the store while browsing other wares. There were a couple hiccups in playback when switching tasks, but they were always brief.
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Zune 3.0 hands-on


Sadly, the "buy from FM" feature quickly reminded us why we can't stand music radio, and while we could easily get the meta data for the station we tuned to, specific (or sufficient) song data was more rare -- on our fourth or fifth try we finally nabbed Rod Stewart's Maggie May, and the actual download process was painless.

We're less enthused by improvements desktop side of things, not that they're bad, just maybe not meant for us. We haven't played enough tracks yet to use the "picks" recommendation feature yet (Microsoft's Genius killer), but we usually prefer the recommendations of friends and critics to cold, heartless pieces of software -- and Zune has had that locked down with the Social for a while now. The flashy MixView feature is a fun way to browse connections between related artists and albums, but the functionality is nothing new. The general design, usability and stability of the Zune desktop software has indeed come a long way, and we'd have no reservations about using it for all day music browsing and listening. The basic player view is a joy to use, where Apple seems to be taking a step back with iTunes 8.

While Microsoft might not best Apple at every point of audio ecosystem -- and the glaring lack of an iPod Touch or iPhone competitor makes much of this irrelevant for many people -- Apple's refusal to build a subscription service makes Zune Pass one of our few choices for a well-integrated player and subscription software combo. Rhapsody's "mature" desktop player is really starting to show its age, and Zune 3.0's addition of wireless downloads has us ready to make the switch.

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