Zune review

Ok, we had a bit of a rough start after getting open the box and all, but we've given the Zune, and its software, sharing, wireless, etc. as good a looking over as we could hope to. We've got things we like, and things we don't; rough edges to go right along with the well thought-out niceties. We came away underwhelmed and not at all surprised -- and why? The expectations were for Microsoft to deliver a "Microsoft" player and system; maybe not too shabby looking, but not very usable, and definitely bug-ridden. But everyone hoped Microsoft had got it right this time, eschewed patterns of old and gotten a fresh start with new blood willing to think about things from outside the staid Microsoft culture. But that just wasn't the case. It's a Microsoft product (in the vernacular sense) through and through. Click on to find out why in our full review of the Zune, Zune player, and Zune marketplace. (And we do mean full.)

The hardware

Obviously the first thing you'll notice about any device is, of course, the hardware. We're all well acquainted with it by now; it's about as wide as a 5G iPod, but taller, heavier, and thicker than even the 80GB version. What do you get for that extra space? A larger 3-inch display -- which, like the iPod, is also QVGA -- and WiFi (802.11b/g). You lose battery life by comparison, which is saying something considering the 5G iPod isn't exactly known for its battery performance. The device layout is simple: static five way d-pad (that, of course, looks like a scroll wheel -- more on that in a bit), dedicated back and play / pause buttons, a dock connector and audio-out port, and hold switch. Since Microsoft didn't have the luxury of an extra dimension of input that Apple has in the clickwheel, and since the device changes orientation, their buttons are a little mixed up and wonky. A dedicated play / pause button is always nice to have, but many times we were left wondering whether things might have been done right another way. If the interface were arranged properly, the back button might not be necessary. Still, no matter what it was you intended to do with your Zune (except engage hold), it can be done with one hand (specifically, one thumb).

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.

What's an audio player, though, without at least passable audio fidelity? Not much, and thankfully, the Zune delivers here. Though we lack the discerning ears of a card-carrying audiophile, sound quality was definitely up to snuff. Audio was loud enough at 20 (of 20 points) that our aging, deaf ears could hear it well enough in some pretty loud places, like on a really busy street or in a very crowded cafe.

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)

If you're not cool with a player that won't ever go longer than 12 hours in a worst case forgot-to-turn-off-wireless scenario, sorry. But 12-14 straight hours of music should be plenty to get you to work, to the gym for a bit, and then back home again.

The wireless

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.

For the purposes of this review, we did not scientifically test wireless transfer speeds, but our use was about as expected. Zune transferred an average-sized song in a few seconds; small batches of pictures took about the same amount of time because of the file overhead. Interesting note: when your device is not yet registered with a Zune Tag through setup, the wireless options are totally disabled. (See above for the WiFi-free Zune; note the lack of Community menu item and wireless settings.) We guess they absolutely must keep track of who's transferring what!

The interface

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).

Adding songs to a playlist, selecting tracks to send to another Zune, going from music to video, all these things are relatively easy. Getting used to the actual player interface is a little more difficult, however. The play / pause button does what it should, but your label-free d-pad (which must remain as such because it expects to be re-oriented to landscape mode when watching video) can cause learning-curve issues. In the twist interface you move from list to list by moving left to right, and vice versa. In the player interface, left and right represent track forward / reverse (and holding represents fast forward and rewind); to switch to another player view or access the player menu, you press the center button. We often found ourselves going to the next or previous track after hitting left or right as our thumbs attempted to instruct the player to show the menu or current track list. It got to the point where we were unnerved to actually hit left or right for fear of skipping the song we were listening to. If your user is scared to push a button for fear of what might happen, that's bad UI design.

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

This is where things got really ugly. 50% of the magic is in the player, but the other 50% is in how that player works with your host machine. We know you probably read our horrific install story. (Just to catch you up, after a successful re-install 4.5 hours later, other members of our staff were still able to replicate many of the issues on other machines.) But we're going to put that past us now and review off a clean working install. Was it still buggy? Yes. Did it still crash? Absolutely. For example, syncing video for us crashed the app twice, and then stalled the third time at 38%. Even though the video was transferred in full that third time, it still didn't show up the next time we reconnected. Attempting to change the sync options crashed the app consistently. Our only hope was to stop the sync upon plug-in before it got to the crash-threshold -- that, or kill the files in the list. When the sync did work right, we clocked an average upload speed to the player of 5.89MBps, or about 80 minutes to load the thing up from empty. The usual. Even that, though, was a resource hog. Moving data consumed between 10 and 35% of our 3.0GHz Pentium 4's cycles.

To its credit, however, the player software does load rather speedily upon connection. Unfortunately it's not light on memory resources, either. The Zune software consists of a trifecta of applications, two of which are a bit piggish. Our Zune player software (Zune.exe) sucks up over 144MB of memory under normal usage with a relatively small library of tunes; the ZuneLauncher.exe app hovered around 3.4MB, but the ZuneNss.exe program (Zune Network Share Service) uses another 25MB or so -- just to share your Zune media with your Xbox 360.

Never before have we done so much device plugging and unplugging. When you finish adding files to your Zune, you can't go back and drop in more. You cannot interact with your player until you unplug it, and plug it back in. While it's plugged in you can't interact with it; with the Zune there's no such thing as listening to music out of the player and charging via the sync cable at the same time. We couldn't play music off the device through the application, either. When your Zune is plugged in, your Zune is absolutely nothing but plugged in.

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.

There were a few things we liked about the software. Like other implementations, importing your library (and presumably also ripping) grants you access to automated cover art lookup. Unfortunately, unless that album is in its own directory, you won't get proper organization and a folder.jpg, you'll get a mess of files named like AlbumArt_{C04A1652-2DBE-48AB-A4D8-CA3822CC2945}_Large.jpg; classic Media Player. Hell, even if your media is in its own directory you'll get both the AlbumArt jibberish file, as well as the folder.jpg.

The Zune Pass subscription was easy enough to set up, and functioned like any other PlaysForSure store. It saves files in WMA, and these files play in Windows Media Player 10. Something tells us this mysterious Zune DRM is really just some PlaysForSure variant, and it won't be long before that too is cracked. But until then, sorry, no FairUse4WM. Yeah, so what if we tried it out, we're thorough! Downloads came up to five at a time for us, and were very speedy. Music is dropped in its own directory with album art ready to go. Why they'd ever let albums get through with 200 x 200 art files, however, is beyond us. Microsoft, the player has a 240 pixel wide screen, remember?

Otherwise, there were a few nice things about the player software. You can create instant playlists or sync lists by dragging artist, songs, genre, even year; it's auto-sorted and added according to your selection. Your library narrows down entries with each letter as you search, and if you don't have anything that matches your string, it automatically searches the store and returns those results. But that's countered by another interface issue: if you search for an artist and only one entry is in the store, you still have to click through on that artist to get to their page (instead of just going straight that lone entry -- see above). One step forward, two steps back.

Sending media to the Xbox wasn't too difficult, however, there was a little skittishness with Windows Media Connect. You have to make sure to disconnect your current WMC connection with your 360 before you can add the Zune. (Above shows both Zune and WMC shares.) Of course, if you're sharing the same library of folders with the Zune software, there's really no point, it's going to look about the same. And yes, getting the Xbox streaming working just right crashed our software at least once. It's also worth mentioning that the only music the Zune software will stream off your PC is music you downloaded from the Zune marketplace. Try as we did, all the music we imported into the library on our host machine just wouldn't even show up in the Zune Xbox 360 share. It was at this point we were beginning to wonder when Microsoft was going to really nail something with this player.

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.

So, is it fair to have all these concerns with the Zune? It is, after all, a version one product; the player is the first in a series of forthcoming devices, and the software is just out of the gate. Our answer: yes, it's totally fair. Sure, the iPod wasn't that good going out the door (hell, we still don't really like it that much), but that's hardly the point. It's 2006, this is Microsoft's answer to Apple's flagship product, and yet here we are battling buggy software and basic user interface issues. Wireless nags aside, the Zune doesn't aggregate media and podcasts from the internet, another device-defining option Apple's opted-in on. It's open on audio with AAC, but it doesn't play the new video standard, H.264, or even anything else besides WMV. The platform is touted for its growth potential and ability to add features as the market determines, but we have no clue what these are, or when we'll get them. Ever hear the phrase go big or go home? The only thing big about the Zune right now is the marketing campaign.

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