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New Zune review (part 2): upgrade, hardware, software and Social

When we first caught wind that Microsoft was in fact doing its own portable media player (and then published the first ever photo of the Zune), we hoped it might finally be the play to knock the iPod off its perch. Sure, in mid 2006 there was no shortage of devices more advanced than any given iPod, but then (and now) the iPod enjoyed unchecked dominance of the market in the US and many countries abroad. Steve Jobs knew the day would come that Microsoft would really enter the game.

What we were hoping for was that the portable media world might be in store for another Sony / Nintendo upset. Remember in the 90s how Sony and Nintendo's partnership went awry, and Sony, totally sick of Nintendo completely owning the game console space, brought out the original PlayStation? Before the console's second generation was through Sony had more market share than they knew what to do with. Sony upped Nintendo's game with the PlayStation, then upped their own with the PlayStation 2 -- and took over.

If Sony could do the impossible and topple the infallible Nintendo of old, surely Microsoft, the world's largest technology company, could make at least make a dent in Apple's armor. Yeah, the first-gen product is important, but the second gen product is crucial, because if you can't up your game -- and everyone else's -- you're just another player. This year, Microsoft really had to make the Zune count. Read on to judge for yourself whether they did.

The first generation Zune, as we all know, was little more than a slew of off the shelf hardware and software Microsoft cobbled together in a rush to make a play for the annual holiday gold rush. (Peep our original Zune review here.) And the interesting part is, all things considered, it really wasn't bad at all. No one thought it was "done", but it was a lot better than some of the other PMC-based devices we'd seen to date. This year Microsoft brought a slew of new Zune products (and enhancements) to the table, including two new players (flagship 80GB and the flash model), new device software (which runs on all devices), new desktop software, and a new service (Zune Social, a music-oriented social network reminiscent of Xbox Live).

Device software
Yeah, we know Microsoft technically skipped right past device software v2.0 and jumped to 2.2, but the update is the best place to start since it affects the most users and devices. Microsoft won some well-deserved brownie points for ensuring all Zune players new and old can run the new firmware, meaning that for now your old Zune will have feature parity with the new hardware.

So here's the deal with the device software: it adds some crucial bits (many of which we expected the first time), takes away some minor but important things, and leaves the other 90% largely unchanged. First, the stuff Zune 2.0 takes away:

  • Song flagging

  • The five star rating system

  • The language menu

The good stuff, though, is very good:

  • MPEG-4 and H.264 playback support

  • Podcasting support

  • Sync over WiFi (which we'll get to later)

In terms of performance, both old and new hardware and firmware were almost identical in testing. A lot of people have been claiming the new firmware is much snappier, but we didn't find that to be true at all. Two Zune 30 devices boot up within a half second between 1.0 and 2.0 series firmwares, and the flash-based Zune 8 we tested booted to home screen less than a second faster. Traversing menus took no more or less time, nor when syncing and the like. (Note: scrolling through long lists appears to happen slightly faster, but that's likelier an interface tweak, not a performance increase.)

Interface and apps
As for the interface, there's almost nothing to say there, either. Microsoft prettied a few things up, but there were very few substantive UI changes -- nearly everything was cosmetic. The main menu is now in an amusingly massive font; the Community menu is now the Social (and it doesn't sleep when looking for devices, anymore), which is also now listed above FM. The cursor has more of a glow, but users now also have one more click to get to the enable / disable WiFi option (which is pretty annoying -- turning WiFi on and off should as close to a root-level menu option as possible, if you ask us),

Browsing music is largely the exact same experience. We still prefer the Zune's twist interface to just about everything else out there, including our beloved SanDisk Sansa, but that didn't stop us from hoping that Microsoft would make some significant changes this time around and take the concept to the next level. So you could say we were let down in that department. The only other things of interest that have changed is the ability to disable display of the album name when browsing by artist, the removal of track flagging and the five star rating system (which is now blank, heart, or broken heart, and totally reminds us of Zelda), and the addition of micro-sized album cover art up top when twisting horizontally through albums and tracks.

And unfortunately for the Zune team, Apple made some significant improvements in their products' UIs since last year. In fall of 2006 the Zune twist UI pretty much categorically trumped the iPod's, but it's been a long year, and while Microsoft basically stayed basically at a standstill, the iPod interface got a much needed and much-improved redesign. (We'll leave the iPod touch and iPhone out of this, although we do think those devices' media apps handily outclass the iPod classic and nano.) Deciding whose UI is better is wholly subjective, but our feeling is that while we prefer the twist UI concept, the iPod now has more polish.

Still, it makes you wonder why Microsoft didn't try a little harder on that. For example, iPhone with Cover Flow was announced shortly after the first Zune, and browsing your music by album art is quite the novelty that would have been right at home on the Zune. Or why not fill out some of the utilitarian functions the iPod still doesn't do, like add a recently played tracks list, or the ability to delete tracks on your player? And how about the ability to make more than one on the go playlist? Microsoft could have really gone to town here.

The Zune also isn't up to speed on many of the apps and extras other media players have bundled. Besides the obvious omission of content downloads over the air like the Archos 605, there are no games for the Zune, nor is there a PIM app. Not that we do a lot of data organizing on our MP3 players, but the iPod does go the extra mile with mini-apps for calendars and contacts, multiple clock types (world time, alarms, and a stopwatch that even logs data), notes / text reader, and, of course, games. When it comes to the value-adds the Zune is still a non-starter.

WiFi sharing
Another part to get overhauled is the WiFi music sharing feature; most notably, shared songs are no longer limited to three days (but they are still limited to three plays), and now they can also be re-shared without purchase. But there are caveats. Like despite the fact that you can send and receive podcasts via WiFi, you still can't download them over the air. (Neither the iPod touch nor the iPhone are capable of this out of the box, either, although there are 3rd party apps that fill the gap.)

There is one upshot to podcast sharing, though: if you receive an audio podcast from a friend it won't be three-play DRMed the way shared songs are. (Say, do we smell some tracks-shared-as-podcast hacks coming on?) But there's a pretty big downside to podcast sharing, too. Microsoft separates audio and video podcast content, and for whatever reason video podcasts can't be shared. At all. Why Microsoft differentiates sharing between video and audio and podcast content is entirely beyond us. And another irritating and baffling problem: you can't send or receive tracks with Zunes of different firmware versions. Just can't, sorry. If whomever you're sharing with didn't want to upgrade their software, well, tough noogies, you just can't exchange music until they upgrade (or you downgrade).

Part of us wonders, though, do any of these WiFi sharing problems really even matter? Hear us out. We don't know about you, but in the last year not one of our Zunes has ever gotten busy with another Zune in a public place; most of us have never even seen another Zune out there. It could well be years before enough Zunes are floating around out there that the whole sharing thing isn't just a total writeoff. So maybe that's what we need to do here -- just totally write off the sharing.

This year Zune hardware underwent three significant changes: the flagship player was upgraded to 80GB of storage and thinned / lightened, there's the addition of the two flash players, and all new devices make use of the Zune Pad, a four-way d-pad combined with a touch sensor, so that users may click or sweep in four directions. (Selection is still done by pressing the center.) We'll tackle these hardware changes one by one.

As we mentioned before, Microsoft neglected to send along a Zune 80 for us to test, so we can't comment so much on that device's hardware, although we have spent some real time with the Zune 8. First, the screen size: while the flash Zune's 1.8-inch screen isn't all that much smaller than the nano's 2-incher, when you're watching video on a screen this small every fraction of an inch counts. And when you realize the like the SanDisk Sansa View has comparably massive 2.4-inch screen you'll feel all the more cheated. Of course, the upshot of a smaller QVGA display is that that the menus look friggin amazing against the larger screened devices. Don't get us wrong, we'll take the full-size Zune's 3.2-inch QVGA display over the iPod classic's 2.5-inch display any day, but since it's QVGA any way you cut it, the menus and on-screen effects tend to look worse the larger the screen gets.

As for the Zune Pad, we turned it off. It's a fine enough idea, the whole sweeping back and forth thing, but we're sticklers for tactility and there's little reason to sweep when clicking the squircle sides tends to work better than the pad's touch sensing. Besides the Zune Pad just not feeling quite right (sweeping motions didn't predictably correspond to cursor movement), it's also worth mentioning that our experience with the Zune Pad wasn't entirely bug free, either. Even with touch sensitivity turned off, clicking left or right with a second thumb resting (but not pressing) on the opposite side of the Pad resulted in scrolling the reverse direction. We're not even kidding. (It took us a while to figure that one out, so if your Zune ever scrolls the wrong way, make sure no other fingers are touching the pad.) And yes, even despite all this we prefer the simple, tactile 4-way d-pad to most -- if not all -- of the other hardware interfaces out there, especially the iPod's clickwheel. (Of course, given our druthers we'd just move entirely to touchscreen media interfaces since they're far more conducive to that kind of task.)

Sound quality was fine, nothing to write home about. We don't even test with stock headphones anymore, they're almost always a joke. And any audio nerd worth his or her weight in vinyl will tell you that most devices are designed well enough by now that your cans and the bitrate of your tracks are likelier to affect sound quality than the hardware. Some Zune users have reported an inordinate amount of noise coming from the drive in the Zune 80, but we did our tests on the Zune 8, and had no problems -- things sounded exactly as they should with 192Kbps MP3s and our reference Shures.

Desktop software
If you want to get down with the new Zune player it's impossible not to notice the new Zune desktop software. Partly because your fresh-from-the-box second-gen Zune is disabled from playing any of its pre-bundled content until it's activated with this software, but mostly because there's not another piece of media playing software out there that anywhere near resembles the new Zune 2.0 desktop app.
This time around Microsoft's traded in the stack-filled content view from WMP11 / Urge-cum-Zune 1.0 for a much more list-oriented interface. We think it's a lot better. The ability able to sort by tracks you dislike is also good for quickly finding music you want remove from your Zune or library, although it'd still be better be preferable to delete it on the go so you don't have to think about doing that later. The layout is, for our money, far better than Zune 1.0, which was muddy and tried to do too much at once. The new Zune app is far simpler and easier, although in editing it down Microsoft left out some essentials, like ID3 tag editing. Frankly, the company would do well to consolidate its efforts and bundle its best of breed audio app with Windows boxes. There's just no reason to make people choose between WMP10 and Zune, especially with Urge dead and gone.

Wireless sync is a welcome addition, and definitely something we wish more portable media did, no doubt. You can't set it up without plugging in though, but the process was fairly painless, and the system supports almost all kinds of WiFi encryption. Just like turning wireless on and off, though, we wish it wasn't buried two menus deep.
Another new nicety is the now playing screen, which builds up a tiled background based from your album art. Zune Marketplace hasn't undergone too many changes, except that it's a little less visually overwhelming than before, making browsing a little easier. And instead of the semi-vague way Apple tags iTunes Plus tracks, just expecting everyone to know what that even means, DRM-free tracks in the Marketplace are simply marked MP3 -- a lot more to the point, and appreciated.

The other notable additions to the software tie into other new services: Podcasting and Zune Social. Podcasting is as simple as you'd expect: search for your podcast (or browse by topic / genre), then add it to your subscription list and download recent episodes. The only real issue we saw here was that this podcast directory was missing a lot of images, and plenty of shows aren't yet filled in. Of course, that will get better with time. As for the Zune Social integration with the desktop app, well, there isn't much. Microsoft obviously wants to make the Zune Social a web-based experience, so besides seeing incoming messages from other Zune users, everything is funneled to the Zune Social site.

Zune Social
The big story this week was that J Allard and his crew want to integrate Microsoft's device-centric services, like Xbox Live and Zune Social, into something a little more cohesive. If you've given Zune Social a shot and know a thing or two about Xbox Live, this won't surprise you at all. Zune Social is Xbox Live re-envisioned for a browser instead of a console, with music replacing games. Ok, maybe that doesn't sound very similar at all, but the touches are all over it. If you use the same Windows Live ID as your Xbox Live account, your Zune Social account will come pre-populated with your Xbox Live friends. And the same as Live, you can see what those friends are doing (in the form of recently listened to tracks), send messages, show off your favorite and recently listened to music, and so on.

It's not without issues, though. It's irritating that the one cross-platform aspect of the Zune experience -- the social music site -- works for crap in Firefox. (We didn't even try it in Safari or Konqueror or anything else.) The Flash interface loads all wonky like and the audio didn't always play. Also, when we listened to music on our device and synced back to the software, nothing changed over on our profile -- which was kind of the whole point of Zune Social, right? Oh, and what's with the fact that you can't actually use the word "Zune" in your user status?

Zune Social is a fine novelty and diversion, and might one day make a compelling extension to Zune -- especially when you can do things with Zune Social FROM your Zune device, and not just a desktop -- but for music nerds it just won't replace or even really expand on powerful discovery sites we like to use to find new artists, like RCRD LBL, Hype Machine, and Critical Metrics.

The market leader takes it from all sides, and this year's Zune fixes many of the problems the first Zune suffered -- meaning those waiting on the sidelines for the Zune to improve will want to take a second look. But in many regards, a lot of these upgrades -- like H.264 and MPEG-4 support -- could (and should) have been rolled out much sooner to make the first Zunes more attractive over the course of the last year. There just wasn't any need to make first-gen users wait for second-gen hardware to get something as basic as podcasting support. And given the ever-so-minor tweaks to the UI, we just get the general feeling of Zune 1.5 -- not 2.0. The statement we think they're trying to make, though, is that between the interface and hardware, which got decent (but not drastic) upgrades, and the overhauled and rewritten software, Microsoft is on track to what the Zune team probably originally envisioned for the product. The only problem? This product isn't ahead of the curve, and consumer expectations aren't the same as they were when the product launched last year. You don't get ahead by playing catch-up.

Granted, there are numerous things the Zune can do that the iPod can't -- just like the iPod does numerous things the Zune can't. (And don't even get us started about players like the View, which can be had for less than a Zune 8 or an 8GB iPod nano, yet has twice the capacity.) But we don't see the peripheral features on either side like WiFi song sharing or games as being key differentiators; as everyone and their mother (literally) gets a portable media device, it's becoming a matter of familiarity, and the fact is that statistically most people are familiar with using an iPod. The same familiarity that keeps the hordes of mainstream users from making any drastic changes to their technology habits will keep them from tossing in the iPod / iTunes towel so quickly.

What that means for Zune is that if Microsoft wants to take some chunks -- not chips -- out of Apple's market share, they're going to have to out-iPod the iPod. They have to come up with truly compelling reasons to change. Now it's not just about having a nano killer, it's about having a touch killer and an iPhone killer too, since those devices are selling like hotcakes and pumping up the iBrand. While we've got to give it to Microsoft for not losing vision on the Zune and doing their best to master the basics, the reality is that the vertically-integrated media player game is one Apple's been playing since 2001, and any competitor, be it MSFT, SanDisk, iriver, or whomever, are really going to have to pull out all the stops if they want to thin that lead. A game-changing device is not what we feel we've got in Zune 2.0.

So as we said before: same place, same time in late 2008? Bring your A-game, Zune, and we'll be ready.