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. Hardware
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.