The Zune Marketplace debuts with more than two million songs (that are not compatible with non-Zune devices) and will include a ZunePass subscription for $14.95 per month. Users must sign into (or create) a Windows Live account and must purchase Microsoft points to buy a track. The points system is carried over from Xbox Live and makes sense when considering how the Zune and Xbox universe will overlap. But come on... 79 points equals 99 cents? No video is available for purchase, though we suspect that won't be the case for long. We were able to purchase several songs (and no, they don't work with players such as the Creative Zen Vision:M) and the transaction and download process was quick and tidy.
We really like the Marketplace's organisation -- thumbnail pics, lists of top songs and easy access to genre pages much akin to the Urge music store -- but we don't like how the program won't stay at the last Marketplace page visited. In other words, if you're checking out an album, then you go to your library page, then you hit Marketplace again, it will start back on the home page (this can be averted by using the software's back and forward buttons).
Our experience with ZunePass was solid. After signing up, we dragged several pre-made playlists and albums to the Zune icon and syncing was quick and painless. Though some songs did not make it to the player because of DRM rules (the same applies for all subscription services), we'd have to rate the experience higher than Urge, perhaps similar to Rhapsody. The subscription aspect (though not as sophisticated as Rhapsody or Napster yet) gives the Zune a huge bonus, especially over the iPod.
As reported earlier, battery life is rated for 14 hours of audio playback. With Wi-Fi turned on (and no sharing), battery life decreases to about 13 hours. This is not great, but so far the battery life hasn't taken away from the experience. We spent some time listening to music and sharing songs and photos and realised that Wi-Fi doesn't thrash the battery to pulp. Each Zune we tested averaged about 10 hours of music playbck time with about 50 to 60 files shared. There is a Zune paradox, though -- that is, you should turn off Wi-Fi to conserve your battery life, but then you wouldn't be discovered by a fellow Zune-ster. So doing the sensible thing -- having Wi-Fi off -- is a potential roadblock in being 'social', one of the device's key selling points.
The Zune starts up quickly, particularly from its sleep mode. You may notice a pause here or there while you navigate, but it isn't any more notable than other players. Sound quality is excellent -- very similar to the Toshiba Gigabeat S with balanced, punchy sound. The Zune gets pretty loud using the bundled earphones, and they sufficiently powered our big Sony headphones. We did notice a quirk that Microsoft will want to address: you hear a 1-second staticky sizzle when the Wi-Fi is activated. This definitely affects music listening, though it's a rare occurence. The preset equalisers (seven in all) do a good job of shaping sound, but we'd prefer to have a custom equaliser as well. Also, Microsoft should definitely put the equaliser option on the playback menu screen -- for now, you'll have to navigate back to the settings menu. From AV playback to the quality of the screen, from navigating menus to transferring music from a PC, its performance is excellent.
Overall, the Zune is a well-designed portable media device with good playback performance, a snappy processor and an excellent interface. Wi-Fi sharing worked well, but prospective owners should know its format support, especially for videos, is limited. The Zune looks like a good fit for MP3 player novices, though we hope Microsoft addresses some issues such as making the Zune usable as a hard drive, extending video support to include DRM (which it probably will do when its own video store opens), and open up a true Wi-Fi network. The foundation looks good, though, and those not interested in version 1 of Zune can look forward to improved versions 2, 3, and beyond.
Additional editing by Nick Hide