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.
At 61 by 112 by 15mm, the Zune may be slightly thicker (and blockier) than the 30GB iPod, but it feels right at home in the hand. In our opinion, it's a good size and weight (160g) -- neither too thin to hold nor too big to pocket, though others we've spoken to say it's bulky and have even compared it to a prototype. We will say that a protective case such as Belkin's clear case does make it too big for our tastes.
The colours are subdued and the shell has a translucent matte finish, and more importantly, the body does not attract fingerprints (though the screen does). The double-shot effect of the secondary colour (green on the brown version, bluish on the black, translucent on the white) definitely gives the player visual pizzazz. The built-in battery will last up to 14 hours for audio. Interestingly, the back says this in fine print: "Hello from Seattle." The Zune, which is manufactured by Toshiba but completely designed by Microsoft, is an original-looking player with a style of its own.
It's a durable device that will withstand scratches, bumps and bruises, though the primary seam of the device looks as if it might burst open after a hard fall. The body is minimal with no buttons on the sides, only a hold switch and an earphone jack on top and a proprietary USB/accessories port on the bottom. The screen and main controller are surrounded by a thin, metallic inlay, while the three control buttons are dead simple (the small dedicated back and play/pause buttons are flush with the body).
You'll want to scroll the circular controller at first impulse (maybe even second). A true iPod-like click wheel would have made navigation on this device even easier than it is. In reality, the five-way tactile controller (aka d-pad, made of black plastic) is easy to use and will reorient when the device is used in landscape mode (only for photos and videos). Unfortunately for lefties, you can't flip the screen or controllers for left-handed use. Also, there is no dedicated volume control -- that is handled on the appropriate screen by using the up and down controllers.
The back of the device features a circular dip and it mirrors the d-pad on the front. This is supposed to give you a better feel for the d-pad, especially as it's used with two hands in landscape mode. There is no kickstand as seen on some portable video players, but you can always buy an optional case with a built-in method for propping up the Zune.
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'.
You'll find all files sent to you in the inbox area. This keeps this temporary library separated from the main library to avoid confusion. Contrary to popular belief, there is no DRM wrapper placed on the file. Instead, the device's inbox manages the rights. You can choose to clear the inbox or a specific file, but that info will still be transferred to the Zune software, which features an inbox view. This is where you can pick up the songs you like or have flagged.
While many will complain about the limitations of Wi-Fi on this device (and we're not talking about three days/three plays), Microsoft wants the overall experience to be as simple as possible... and it is. Look for Microsoft to expand the Wi-Fi capabilities soon. It takes about 10 seconds to transfer a song. Longer songs can take up to 15 seconds. Since you can play a song three times or within three days, you might be wondering what happens if you play a part of the song. A 'play' equals at least one minute or half the song, whichever comes first.
We'd love to see a customisable thumbnail that identifies your device to other users -- today, it's just text. However, you can set your Zune to display either details to other Zunesters (such as 'Listening to Ray LaMontagne') or a basic 'online' message. You can block specific users from sending content to you. One interesting note: if you're listening to music and someone wants to send you a song and you say yes, your music will stop and not automatically continue after the download. So blocking some overly friendly users might be a good move. Conversely, if you want to send someone a song, you'll have to do so by going back up to the song's menu page, or in some cases within the playback context menu. Once you send the file, your music will stop playing, so in a way, sharing spoils the personal party.
There's no definitive word about Zune-to-PC wireless transfers or network-based sharing or purchasing, but we imagine this will come eventually.
Software and overall performance
The Zune Marketplace software is a critical part of the Zune experience and Microsoft has mostly enabled the two to work very well together. Based on the Windows Media Player in design, the interface is dark, clean and stable. It's aesthetically pleasing and functional, with plenty of album art represented and sparse text in the left-hand navigation pane. The left-hand pane features all of your content broken down into music, video and photos, and at the top is an inbox view that displays all content shared, plus anything you've flagged.
Here's an example of the usefulness of the inbox: a friend has shared a tune with you and it expires. The content will show up in your inbox even after it's expired, so you can conveniently hit the search button to locate and purchase it (cool way to get more sales, Microsoft). Digging deeper, we noticed that there's no easy way to separate out your purchased tracks from the din. Zune peeps -- please add a purchased tracks (or subscription) tracks playlist.
The Zune Marketplace jukebox features are fairly standard -- burning, ripping and music management, though power users might want to use an additional piece of software for deeper activities such as transcoding, podcasts (there's no podcast section) and recording. It will rip CDs into MP3, WMA and WMA Lossless (though the Zune will not play lossless files) at up to 192Kbps. The Zune Marketplace does have a Media Sharing feature that allows you to stream music, video and photos to an Xbox 360. The device itself can be connected to an Xbox 360 via USB.
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