The first-generation Microsoft Zune player fell flat even before it hit store shelves. With the new Zune 80GB, however, Microsoft has built a stylish media player that has some interesting and unique features up its sleeve. But is it good enough to even make a dent in the portable media player market, otherwise known as planet iPod?
Lean and Clean Design
While the first Zune looked like a dull, brownish paperweight, the Zune 80GB has a streamlined form factor, a glass LCD screen, and a squircle-shaped navigation pad. The 3.2 inch (diagonal) screen really jumps out against the all-black, rubberized surface, and the anodized aluminum backing is remarkably scratch-resistant (believe me, I tried). All in all, the Zune has a slick appearance that almost rivals the iPod.
Navigation is the acid test for any media player, and you can see right away that Zune has been working on its game. Its new Zune pad has a slightly textured feel; it’s a 4-way control that you slide and press your finger across to navigate the menus. Holding the Zune 80GB in my left hand and my iPod in the right, I compared how easy it is to go from the main menu all the way down to a specific artist and song. The Zune 80GB seems to have a slight advantage because you can swipe your finger straight up and down for fast scrolling, rather than the circular motion you need with the iPod scroll wheel. There are also two buttons to the left and right of the Zune pad for play/pause and accessing the main menu. The only other hardware components are an earphone jack and Hold button up top and the Zune connector port on the bottom. On the outside, the Zune 80GB is a no muss, no fuss device. Now, what’s under the hood?
A Mixed Software Scene
Before you can use the Zune 80GB, you need to install a Zune application that lives on your computer and has some standard media manager features to help you organize your music, video, and photos—rip CDs, build playlists and slideshows, subscribe to podcasts, and buy music from the Zune marketplace on the Web, which has about 3 million songs, DRM-free MP3s, music videos, and audio/video podcasts.
When I connected the Zune 80GB to my laptop and dragged some MP3s into my music folder, they showed up immediately in the Zune media manager, album art and all. From there, it took about five minutes to download 1GB of tunes from my laptop to the player. Everything was going so smoothly, I almost forgot I was using a Microsoft product. That is, until I tried to do a wireless sync, hyped as one of the coolest new features of the Zune 80GB.
Since I was using an open Wi-Fi network, with all the latest Zune software installed on a brand new Vista laptop, I thought these ideal conditions would make the wireless setup a breeze. But when I went to wirelessly sync my player with the music folder (where I had deposited some new music), I was greeted with sev- eral different types of errors. I spent about two hours troubleshooting (where I’ve got ample experience) the various software, networking, and firewall settings to no avail. I even broke down and called Zune’s tech support, and the rep pointed me to a supported routers page, where 11 models are listed (http://www. zune.net/en-us/support/usersguide/musicvideospic tures/routers.htm). Since my router (an older D-Link model) wasn’t listed, she said that must be the problem. However, I’ve tested many wireless products using this Wi-Fi network, and never had a problem before now. I finally surrendered and went back to syncing with my trusty USB cable. So, if wireless sync is one of the features you crave, it’s a good idea to check your router and see if it’s supported.
Another wireless feature allows you to seek out other Zune devices in the wild and share music and pictures with them. When I went over to the home of a friend who has a Zune, I pulled up a song on my device, hit enter, and a menu appeared with “send” as one of the options. I hit send, and it started scanning for nearby Zunes, and immediately found my friend’s player. Before it would transfer, my friend was prompted on his player to accept or deny the share. The transfer took about 10 seconds for one song. Pretty slick, and a whole lot easier than my wireless sync experience. You can also send albums, playlists, and photos. The main restriction is that you can play the tracks only three times, and some DRM-restricted songs can’t be shared at all.
Taking it to the Streets
To check the sound quality, I put the Zune 80GB in some headto- head listening tests with my Video iPod. I couldn’t discern any significant differences, and the Zune 80GB reveals plenty of depth, detail, and clarity, with a sound that holds up well even when hooked into a stereo. Note to Apple: Microsoft includes a quality pair of sound-isolating earbuds with a cloth-braided cord, which are significantly better than the iPod’s ubiquitous and crummy white earbuds (which make a fine cat toy, incidentally). The Zune 80GB also sports a built-in FM radio—another feature that iPods sorely lack—and it did a fine job of picking up my local stations. It also displayed song titles as the music played, which is a nice trick.