Earlier this year, the idea of a Microsoft-branded MP3 player was foreign to most consumers. After all, what could the software giant do to the iPod dynasty that Windows Media hardware partners such as Creative, iRiver, and Samsung had been unable to do? Well, we all knew that after Microsoft's September announcement, the Zune would be a different kind of portable media player, one that integrates wireless technology for Zune-to-Zune sharing of files, and one that works within an iTunes-like closed Zune Marketplace ecosystem.
The hard drive device, which comes in black, white or the love-it-or-hate-it brown, has entered the real world (well, the US -- there's no word on when it will reach the UK) and will please most users, especially beginners, thanks to an excellent user interface, smooth integration with Zune Marketplace software, and good playback performance. However, the Zune's incompatibility with some formats, including protected WMA-DRM9 and WMV files, will force some seasoned users elsewhere. Despite these fundamental weaknesses, the Zune is a winner and its future, one that should include expansion of its wireless features, is a bright one.
By now, we all know the basics of the Zune: it's a 30GB MP3 player with a photo- and video-friendly 76mm (3-inch), 4:3-format screen, and it costs $249.99 in the US, the same as the 30GB iPod (which is £189 in the UK, and seems a fair bet for a future UK price). It runs on a customised version of Portable Media Center software (Windows CE-based) and features the same intuitive twist-navigation like players such as the Toshiba Gigabeat S. But there are many differences both in mind and body that differentiate the Zune from any other MP3 player, which we'll share in a moment.
To the chagrin of many Windows Media fans, the device is not backwards-compatible with WMA-DRM9 (Zune utilises WMA-DRM9.1), so tracks purchased from stores such as Napster or Urge will not work. Subscription tracks from those services won't work either. In other words, Zune is not a PlaysForSure platform. Instead, it operates within its own software and store, which are not connected to Windows Media Player at all (in fact, you don't even need WMP to sync and manage your Zune). Microsoft would have scored some major brownie points if the player worked with Rhapsody but still was officially optimised for Zune Marketplace (in the same way as the SanDisk Rhapsody player).
While the player is similar to many other players in terms of its feature set -- music, video and photo playback, plus an FM tuner -- what sets it apart is its integrated Wi-Fi chip, which allows it to seek out and be seen by other Zune-sters. This sharing feature allows users to share music and photos (but not video) within the same room -- albeit with limitations that many of us already know: three plays of a song within three days. Shared photo files, on the other hand, have no limitations. We'd love to see Wi-Fi expanded so that one could sync or purchase music wirelessly (or even see Zunes across the globe), but having played with the device, I see why Microsoft is starting small. So far, the Zune experience out of the box and beyond has been predictable and solid. Wi-Fi or not, it's an excellent media player.
Quickly, about the box and its contents: the Zune packaging is minimal but has flare. You actually lift the Zune out of the box by pulling on its brown ribbon (nice touch), and the bundled earphones and rubbery USB cable are nowhere to be seen until you realise the flaps adjacent to the Zune lift open. In addition, you'll get a suede case, a software CD, some guides, and a sticker in the package. While we'd love to see more -- such as an AC adaptor -- the introductory Zune experience is well done.