Friday, November 2, 2007

The Zune, Surprisingly Enjoyable

I bought a Zune off of at a huge discount and tried it out. It's really a nice little box that compares favorably with the iPod.

The prices of Zunes have dropped to the point where I couldn't resist buying a 30 gig refurbished model off of the other day. (My 2004 vintage iPod is only 10 gig.) They've always seemed like attractive little devices to me, and lately the buzz has been that Microsoft did a pretty nice job with the latest software release.

Packaging and Out-of-Box Experience

Ever seen the parody of what Microsoft would do to the iPod packaging if their marketing had a chance? (I think it is here on youTube.) Word has it that Microsoft itself made that parody. Well, that bit of self-knowledge shows in the packaging for the Zune, which for Microsoft is surprisingly subtle, artsy and tasteful (except maybe for the silly "Come to the Social" slogan that appears on the inside). The Zune itself is in the center of the box, and the headphones, USB cable and CD-ROM are tucked away in clever little compartments of their own.

Hardware and Casing

It comes with no separate AC cord/ use the USB cable for recharging.

Of course it has a big color display which you have to see to appreciate. When it shows pictures or movies, it flips to portrait mode, and the axes of the control buttons switch too (nice). There also many ways in which the display shows multiple dimensions of information at once (see my description of scrolling below), or overlays one set of information with another (like putting track information on top of the album cover). Very attractive.

It's lighter weight and has less heft than the iPod. The audio quality seems like it might be a notch better than my iPod, although in fairness my iPod is not a very recent model.

I deliberately chose the brown model. Although seems to think brown is absurdly ugly (and they slashed $20 off their price recently if you chose a brown one), I think the design is quite beautiful. The brown plastic is translucent and has green trim that is differently visible depending on how you hold it. As their marketing material shows, it is quite nice looking against a natural background (e.g. grainy woods).


The buttons pretty much replicated what an iPod has. There is a pause button that also turns the unit off (although you have to hold it down much longer than on an iPod). A left-arrow button replicates the Menu button on the iPod. There is a large center button, that resembles the iPod wheel. The left, right, up, down and center parts of the wheel are clickable like the ipod, but there is no wheel control itself (which must be patented on the iPod?).

While you are in track mode, right/left are forward/back one track, or fast forward/reverse when held down (but you can't hear the music in fast mode); up/down change the volume. Center button gives you more detail on the song and gives you access to ratings. It's nice that control over volume, track change and track location are always there for you, as opposed to the three-way mode on the iPod. On the down side, setting a rating (if you're into that kind of thing) is more of a bother, requiring more clicks than the iPod.

In other modes, the wheel-like button provides customary click-to-select, up/down, left/right navigation through the various menus.

At first I thought the lack of a wheel control would mean slower, more tedious navigation through a long list of songs or artists. Not so. Similar to wheel twirling on the iPod, the longer you hold the button up or down, the faster it goes (just like twirling the ipod wheel)'s a brilliant creative stroke...a large display showing the first letter of the item at the current scroll position, so you see the alphabet flying past as you scroll. It's a bit hard to describe. But I find it much easier to use than iPod's scroll.

The on/off functionality of the pause button has slightly different behavior from the iPod: one click turns the device back on in a neutral state, while a second click resumes to the track you were last playing before you shut down.

Pressing the next or previous buttons to change songs changes the audio right away, but leaves the information of the previous song on the screen for a few seconds. This seemed strange at first, but I appreciate it now as a smart feature: usually you change tracks after your player has been idle for a while, and therefore the screen is unilluminated; this way, you see where you were at first before switching.

The battery charge icon, when being charged, not only shows a "now charging" animation, but it shows the amount of charge currently attained as well; I haven't seen that on other portable devices.

The Zune gives you control over randomizing the same way as the iPod (randomize song or artist or album, etc.) but it improves on one thing that drives me crazy about the iPod. When you start a playlist, the iPod always picks the same starting song to randomize on; the Zune always picks a new first song.

Synchronizing and the Zune Client App

The Zune client app is not as easy to use as iTunes, or at least it seems that way to me so far. It has the ability to distinguish between songs that are in your "library" (i.e. the sum total of all your music on your hard drives) and what you actually put on your Zune, but controlling that is somewhat mysterious. With iTunes, adding new tracks to your library or the iPod defaults to being essentially the same thing; with the Zune, you add to the library by dragging files to one place, and add to the Zune by dragging to somewhere else. When something is on your Zune, and you don't want it there any more, exactly how you're supposed to remove it is also obscure. I tried to remove some tracks several times in a row...they appeared to go away at first, but then they came right back again. Eventually through trial and error I got the tracks removed, but the app is definitely lacking in intuitiveness.

Synchonization speed seems strangely slow compared to the iPod, even when I've confirmed that USB 2 is in use. Visually, the Zune app provides more information during sync, in the form of animated progress bars for each song, which is visually cool. But it made me wonder if iTunes batches its songs to sync, and Zune is slower because it does each one in sequence.

On the very first sync, the Zune copied my playlists from my iTunes...obviously it snuck into iTune's external XML file to do that...which was kind of a nice way for me to bridge my listening habits from iPod to Zune. But for this to work, you have to allow Zune to process your entire hard drive(s) of music into its Zune library, which is amazingly slow.

iTunes provides nice Finder or Windows Explorer style navigation panes and sorting capabilities. The Zune app seems to offer less information. For example, I can't see any way to sort by ratings.

Speaking of ratings, there are five stars available like the iPod, but only the iPod offers a "no stars" setting. So effectively the Zune has one less rating possibility than the iPod. For a new track, the Zune defaults to a three star rating, whereas the iPod defaults to no stars. I happen to be particularly attached to ratings...I use them to manage which tracks I want to eventually remove from my I'm not excited about having to re-tool my habits for the Zune.

Radio and Wireless

The onboard FM radio is a nice touch that gives your player extra possibilities. I've noticed that when I show my Zune to people who are frequent radio listeners, they immediately begin coveting the Zune.

I can't quite imagine what Microsoft had in mind when they put on wireless capabilities on the Zune. All it lets you do is (1) find if there are other Zunes near you and (2) share songs with them. Their slogan "Come to the Social" seems to imply that they enivision people gathering at Starbuck's and squirting songs to each other...uh, right. It seems to me that they should have put texting ability on there as well; that way you could actually make friends with your Zune.

Am I Joining the Other Team?

The Zune is just about nice enough for me to make it my fulltime player. Certainly the cheap price, the 30 gig capacity and the nifty visual features are a temptation over my older 10 gig iPod. But when all is said and done, iTunes is a better app and makes more sense to me. I may use this experience as an excuse to upgrade to a better, and larger capacity iPod. But I wouldn't have any trouble recommending the Zune as a player of choice to someone who wasn't habituated by iTunes.

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