The 76mm (3-inch) screen may not measure up to true portable video players such as the Archos 604, but it is definitely good enough to watch video, view photos and navigate effectively. It has three brightness settings and though the display is slightly washed out, it's colourful and bright enough for outdoor use. Conveniently, when the backlight turns off, you can still make out things on the screen (such as album art) on a nice bright day, so definitely keep the backlight to a minimum on this battery-hungry device.
The user interface is attractive, intuitive and customisable with your own photo. The main menu features music, videos, pictures, radio, community and settings options. As mentioned, the twist navigation makes it convenient to find albums, artists, genres and playlists without returning to the main menu. Pressing either up or down will quickly scroll through lists, and as seen on the iPod and the Gigabeat S before it, the first letter appears as an overlay (this does not work for photos). When scrolling through album titles, the thumbnails will disappear. In the 'sophisticated interface' department, the appearance of menu items will dim the background image or content, and videos will continue to play in the background when you call up the info screen.
The unit's large screen makes it easy to view content -- up to ten songs per page (fewer items are shown for albums, which feature tiny thumbnails of album art). Photo thumbnails are small but numerous. The playback screen is album-art centric, with the art covering at least 70 per cent of the screen and fully flush with the screen's edges. A neat, round, glowing marker lets you know where you are in the track (the same glow is used in the volume indicator, which shows up in the upper-left corner when activated). This is consistent within the Zune software, too.
Hitting the central select button during playback of any media will open a context-sensitive menu (PMC software requires hitting left or right). For music, you'll get the option to adjust play mode, rate the song, show a song list or flag a song (flagged songs and photos transfer to the Zune software in list form). Strangely, you can't access the numerous equaliser settings from this menu.
Here's where things get tricky, particularly if you're a hardcore portable-media fan. The unit will play back MP3, protected WMA (the Zune-type only, called WMA-DRM9.1) and unprotected AAC. No native Audible, WAV or WMA Lossless playback. If you have £200 worth of Napster tracks, you're in trouble. (You'll have to burn and rip, or find some way to convert). If you're into subscription services, the $14.95-per-month ZunePass is your only choice (there's no official UK price for this, but £9.95 sounds about right).
Video support is worse. There is no video content available for purchase on the Zune Marketplace at launch. (It will, however, feature more than two million tracks, both a la carte and subscription.) It supports WMV natively -- Zune software will convert MPEG-4 and H264 files to WMV -- but it does not support DRM video you may have paid for online. The software will not support DivX or XviD either, so you'll have to find a third-party conversion method. It's annoying that the video support is weak, since the 3-inch screen is nice (it beats the iPod), and the player controls are precise. Video features unlimited bookmarking, too.
The device can output to a TV using the Zune interface, but videos play back only at the compressed-for-Zune size. Microsoft has some work ahead if it wants to transform this music-centric device into a competitive video device. Media Center support would have given the Zune a handy source for content. But again, it's not a matter of the hardware -- it's because Microsoft seeks to simplify the experience, presumably for new buyers of portable players, and then expand features as the Zune community grows and evolves.
Photo support is limited to JPEGs, and the Zune software will not convert other file types as it would in Windows Media Player. We do love that you can wirelessly beam photos to other users with no limitations, though the feature is useless without other Zunesters in site. You can listen to music while viewing photos and slide shows, but you can't assign a song to a specific slide show. Slides show transitions happen in increments from 3 to 15 seconds, with only one transition type, which is fade. While viewing a photo, you can zoom in with one step and navigate around the screen.
The FM-radio interface is minimal and simple to use. On-screen, you see a linear, dial-like line with the station above it in large numerals. There seems to be unlimited available presets, but no autoscan for them. Instead, the device can be put in autoscan mode, which simply goes to the next clean channel. We do like the built-in RDS (radio data system) feature, which displays the station, the genre and sometimes the song title on certain compatible channels.
Need two to share
Out of the box, our Zune did not have community or Wi-Fi features. New Zunes will go through an automatic firmware update (the review unit has Version 1.1 loaded) upon connection to the Zune Marketplace software.
Sharing content by using ad hoc Wi-Fi is pretty cool, although it is limited to sharing within a range of 10m, and you can't share video. Microsoft stated that in open space, the range is closer to 15m. Also, you can't just jump onto anybody's Zune and start cherry-picking -- the only way to initiate contact is to share your music, not 'steal' it. It takes about two or three seconds to find anyone in range. You initiate by turning on the Wi-Fi, choosing the Community option, and selecting Nearby. The two other Zunes in our room appeared, and we could view what they were hearing, such as 'Listening to radio 105.1FM'.