Just before the holidays I decided to try out a Zune 80. The new Zunes are getting pretty good reviews, and I decided that I would try one out so I could get all my .wma music onto the system from my media center PC that died on me. Yes, I know I can convert it to mp3, no I haven’t done it yet.
Besides getting my music onto this thing, I wanted to see how podcasts work on it. The original Zune didn’t have the ability to handle podcasts, which was enough to keep me away from it. Probably 75% of the time that I’m in the car alone, I’m listening to a Dot Net Rocks, TWiT, RunAs Radio, or some other podcast. If I’m going to be driving, I might as well be learning, right?
Before I got the Zune 80, I downloaded the software for it from MS and got it up and running on my Vista system. No problems there. The software installed easily, and after some adjustments to the options, it got busy indexing my music. So far so good. With that done, I ran over (well, drove really – I do live in the USA after all) to Target and picked up the Zune 80. I got it home, plugged it into the PC and all was good and simple in the world.
Overall, I find the user interface on the Zune 80 to be quite nice. The screen is big and bright, and you can put a picture of your choosing on as the background. The Zunepad (aka Squircle?) is kind of neat, and not hard to get used to coming from an iPod. The original Zune’s attempt to use a circular directional pad was a huge mistake, and MS fixed that problem.
So overall, it’s a fine device. The music playing works well.
Subscription music is something that I love. I pay my $12 or $14 a month and can listen to anything I want. Previously I was using Rhapsody, but I switched the Zune store and started loading up with everything from Saliva to Linkin Park to Dane Cook. I’ve enjoyed having all this music / stuff with me, along with the 300 albums that I already owned. The Zune store seems to work pretty well. I do wish they offered the equivalent of radio stations like Rhapsody does though.
Well, here we run into the first misfire of the experience. On the iPod with iTunes, you subscribe to a podcast and it immediately downloads the three most recent shows. Then as new shows are made available they are downloaded and sync’d with your device. With the Zune software, it works a bit differently. When you subscribe to a podcast, it downloads the first three episodes and puts them on your device; however, when the next episode is downloaded, the oldest of the three gets booted from the device! So even if you haven’t listened to it, it gets removed from the device. This is a changeable setting, so you can set it to keep a certain number of episodes; However, if you do this, you cannot delete an episode that you’ve already listened to if it is in that range of episode. For example, if you tell the system to keep all episodes, then you listen to 10 of them and try to delete them, the software will just re-download them!
On the device side, there is no obvious way of knowing if you’ve started listening to an episode. On the iPod there is a dot next to new episodes, but nothing of the sort that I could see on the Zune. So, if you are on a roadtrip and you are listening to a variety of podcasts, you will have a lot of trial and error trying to keep things straight.
There is the ability to have only unlistened episodes loaded on the Zune, which is a nice touch.
Finally, if you listen to a podcast and then sync the Zune, the PC software doesn’t know where you last stopped listening. If you’ve listened to 37 minutes of a Dot Net Rocks episode and you want to continue it through your PC, you get to start at the beginning and try to find the location. ITunes doesn’t force this on you.
Xbox 360 Playback
You can feed your media from the Zune software to your Xbox 360 over the network. The 360 easily discovers the media on the PC, and lists it in the standard 360 interface (workable, but not great – playlists are your friend!). However, when you try to play the music, currently most of it comes up as not playable. This is not due to the music format, but rather apparently the last update to the 360 broke this feature. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a fix yet. Plugging the Zune into the 360 worked perfectly, and there’s nothing like blasting fast and loud music while getting your ass kicked in Halo 3 by a bunch of 12 year olds.
The Windows client software
Well, overall, it looks pretty nice. However, as is to be expected with media software, there are UI problems. Why everyone that creates media player software feels the need to make it not conform to the platform standards, I’ll never know. Why Microsoft insists on doing this is well beyond me. Let’s take a look at a few examples, shall we?
First of all, take a look at this screenshot (taken with the software in Now Playing mode) and tell me where the close button is on the Zune player window:
It looks easy to find, right? Top right corner…. Nope. Look just below the X that you think is the close button, and you’ll find a very faint set of minimize, maximize and close buttons. Those are the Zune players buttons, not the ones you can actually see. This is a real screenshot, not doctored in any way. This is why several times when I’ve gone to close the program, I’ve closed the one behind it instead.
Now, let’s find the Now Playing playlist:
Feel free to zune, er, zoom in to find it. Give up? It’s the little bar graph to the right of the fast forward button in the bottom right corner of the window. You know, the one that would mean "equalizer" in every other context. Yeah, that’s intuitive. I had to freakin’ Google for that one (yeah, that’s right Googlawyers, I verb’d your company, come and get me). Oh yeah, don’t look for the equalizer, they removed it from this version – but I don’t miss it because I never use it anyway.
Third Party Support
When connecting our iPods to our cars, we use the Belkin adapter that includes an amp in it so that you don’t have to crank the volume of the iPod in order to have an easy to hear connection. No such thing appears to exist for the Zune (yet), so you have to crank the volume of the Zune to 20 (10? 11? For losers! 20 is the new 10!) and turn up the volume on your car stereo to hear it loudly enough to have the windows open while driving. Also, without a device like this, I need to remember to pause the Zune when I turn the car off – with the Belkin adapter, the iPod pauses automatically.
Overall, the unit itself is very nice. It feels good in the hand and the screen is wonderful. The matt aluminum back on the device doesn’t scratch (easily) and attract fingerprints instantly like the iPod does. My Zune is about 3 weeks old now and there are no scratches on the back. Most iPods without cases pick up scratches in the first 30 nanoseconds outside of their packaging. The Zune software is okay, but the UI misfires mentioned above are really baffling. Finally, the podcast situation is still not ideal. Sometimes less is more and in this case, MS could have done a lot less work and made the podcast subsystem work better. If you are looking for a media player and aren’t married to an iPod yet, give the (new) Zune a try.