Searching the city for Zune-friendly Wi-Fi

CNET News' Ina Fried traverses San Francisco with one of Microsoft's latest music players, to mixed results.

SAN FRANCISCO--One of the nice things about Microsoft's new Zune is that it can download or stream songs at a hot spot. The downside: the music player won't work at just any hot spot.

The big limit is that the Wi-Fi locale not only has to be free, but also of the variety that doesn't pop up a browser window before letting users online. That's because unlike the iPod Touch, the Zune has no browser.

To get a sense of just how big a limitation that was, I decided Wednesday to put on my sneakers and head all over town to see where I could and couldn't get new tunes. I was sure I would have better luck than when I went across town two years ago in search of another Zune.

Click here to see all of the Wi-Fi places CNET checked out.
Click on the picture above to see a larger map of all the Wi-Fi places CNET News checked out. Susan Dove/CNET News

I loaded up the Zune with a few albums and videos the night before. I also selected a few "channels"--essentially playlists programmed by others that get updated on a regular basis. Among the channels I included were Billboard's top Latin hits, as well as one programmed by KROQ--the LA-area radio station I listened to throughout high school.

Apparently, though, I hadn't synced the channels to the Zune, so I had to wait 45 minutes while it downloaded the 112 tracks over my home Wi-Fi connection.

I wrote a blog as the last of the KROQ channel made its way to my Zune. At 9:45 a.m., as the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" played in my headphones, I walked out the door, and headed to my first stop--the independent Nervous Dog Coffee, one of my personal favorites. The Zune didn't immediately find any Wi-Fi.

Assured by the staff that indeed, there was free and unprotected Wi-Fi, I gave the Zune a reboot. I guessed correctly that you needed to hold down the left-most button while pressing down on its touchpad. Sure enough, that did the trick and I sat down with my chai and started reading that day's copy of The Wall Street Journal.

With nothing but depressing headlines about the financial meltdown, I decided I simply had to listen to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." So I downloaded that using the Zune Pass subscription graciously loaned by Microsoft, along with the player. (The 16GB player will set you back $199, while the Zune Pass costs $14.95 a month.)

With my new party trick working, I walked back up to the counter to show Joe Belen, the coffee shop's ever-jovial owner. I asked him to pick an artist and he opted for Tears for Fears. As I struggled to enter the name using the Zune's scrolling mechanism (it has no keyboard or touch screen) he quipped, "Is that too long? Should I pick Cher?"

I stopped entering keys after "tears for" and Zune offered me a choice of Tears for Fears and Tears for Beers. Within a few seconds Belen was listening to the band's album Mad World streaming over his cafe's Wi-Fi. "That's awesome," Belen said.

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As I finished my drink and started to get ready to leave, I noticed a poster for Joan Baez's new album Day after Tomorrow. I started streaming a track and then absent-mindedly headed out the door. Because I was streaming the track, it stopped playing a few feet outside the coffee shop as I left Wi-Fi range.

I hopped on the 14 Mission bus, as I played a song from a CD in my collection ("Etz Chaim" by Blue Fringe). I checked for nearby Zunes on the bus, but I knew that was a long shot.

At 24th and Mission streets, I switched to the BART subway, but not before ducking into McDonald's--a spot I knew had Zune-friendly Wi-Fi. It took a minute to find the Wayport network, but the Zune connected on the first try and I started downloading Eddie Murphy's greatest comedy hits--another throwback to high school.

Eddie was going to take awhile so I popped the Journal back open and read an interesting article on Nathan Myhrvold and his Intellectual Ventures , as Blue Fringe continued to play in the background and Eddie headed toward my Zune. Fifteen minutes later, the tracks were all downloaded, and I headed downtown.

As Eddie Murphy did his James Brown impression, I walked into San Francisco's main library. The Zune easily found the unsecured "Sfpl-wireless" network, but was unable to connect. I decided to move on. I passed through a farmer's market and by the steps of City Hall without finding another Wi-Fi network.

Eddie was starting to bore me, so I switched to the Billboard Latin channel. Cuisillos de Arturo Macias' "Vive y Dejame Vivir" began playing. As I walked down Market Street, I realized I was starting to get hungry. I decided to head toward Westfield's San Francisco Shopping Centre, a recently remodeled mall that I knew had free Wi-Fi. As I entered, I searched for a signal. I was briefly hopeful after seeing the message "Connecting...Westfield."

That, however, was followed by the same error message I'd gotten at the public library. I decided to stick with the Latin channel already playing and headed downstairs to eat.

Taking a Zune into Apple territory
Two Diet Cokes and a Rubio's Wrapsalada later, I headed back on the Wi-Fi trail.

I had to try connecting at the Apple Store. I just had to. And besides, it was only a block away and I wanted to see the new iPods.

I walked in and stood next to the new Nanos, trying to attract as little attention as possible as I pulled out the Zune. It took a couple of tries, but it connected.

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I didn't download anything. Just standing next to the new iPod Nanos and joining Apple's network felt rebellious enough. Even with my Zune successfully connected, though, I couldn't help but look wistfully at the iPod Touches. (I lost my personal one in January.)

From the Apple Store, I headed farther downtown and decided to try for a connection at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, though I knew it was a no-go. Coffee Bean--another Southern California export--is my favorite of the chain coffee spots and does have free Wi-Fi, but you typically have to enter a code and click yes to its terms and conditions via a browser before the bits start flowing.

At this point, my battery was running low, so I decided to duck into the office and file a quick blog. I could charge the Zune in the office, but had no luck connecting it to Wi-Fi. CNET has a public Wi-Fi network, but it also has a browser interrupt requiring users to agree to its rules.

After recharging my batteries, and the Zune's, I headed out to Union Square. The foggy morning had given way to a perfectly sunny afternoon and I was looking forward to spending the rest of the day basking in the sun and palm trees, watching the tourists, and streaming some music.

Unfortunately, when I got to Union Square, I was unable to get on to the free Wi-Fi that permeates the outdoor area in the San Francisco shopping district. After triple-checking that I couldn't get on, I headed to the Fillmore district, an area known for both its jazz music and its abundant coffee shops.

I struck out at three places--another Coffee Bean, Peet's, and The Grove, a popular hangout for laptops and their caffeine-addicted owners. I did finally find one Zune-friendly spot. The Royal Ground Coffee on Fillmore had Wi-Fi that was free and open.

Somewhat exhausted, I clicked "music," and then "shuffle all," and decided my quest had come to an end.

 

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