Zune: A rant in 5 parts

CNET's Senior Editor Donald Bell describes five features that surprised him about the Microsoft Zune 4, 8, and 80.

Photo of 80GB Zune back with logo.
Microsoft's latest Zune is full of surprises. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Anyone who's read my review of the Zune 80 knows that my take on the Zune is overall positive. In fact I rated the Zune 80 a few ticks higher than Apple's iPod Classic, which was a surprise to me considering that between Jasmine and me, I've been the biggest defender of Apple's deserved supremacy in the MP3 player marketplace. Though I doubt that the Zune will truly match the iPod's market footprint anytime soon, I can safely say that it's made this iPod fanboy prepared to make the switch. My recent Zune infatuation isn't all wine and roses, however. The following list details five aspects of the Zune (both good and bad) that I could spend hours ranting about. I did my best to keep my official review lean and to the point, so I'm going to take this opportunity to dish the more meaty details on my Zune experience.

Equalization

The recent Zune's EQ (or rather, the lack thereof) had me shaking an angry fist at the ceiling. Why did Microsoft decide to release the Zune 4, 8, and 80 without any EQ control? No presets, no bass boost, no five-band graphic EQ...nothing. The first-generation Zune's handful of EQ presets were meager enough, but at least they offered users some means to compensate for cheap earbuds, or a reckless addiction to bass.

Photo of Zune 8 in front of Zune 80.
The new second-gen Zunes have a lot to offer over their predecessor. They don't however, offer any EQ control. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Before you dismiss the Zune's lack of EQ as a simple oversight in the product's firmware, let me assure you, Microsoft's decision to remove the EQ was very deliberate. In fact, when I spoke with Microsoft about the EQ issue, I learned that the EQ removal goes down to the very roots of the hardware, where they optimized the audio signal path to maximize both audio quality and battery life. In other words, don't expect Microsoft to add EQ back into the Zune with a firmware upgrade--the new hardware simply doesn't support it.

The lack of EQ support in the latest Zunes' hardware beg the question, "Will I lose the EQ feature on my first-gen Zune by upgrading it with the new firmware?" It turns out that first-generation Zune owners who update to the latest firmware shared by the Zune 4, 8, and 80, will still be able to retain their EQ presets. I have to admit, despite its bulky design, there's something appealing about buying a discounted first-generation Zune, refreshing the firmware for podcast support and wireless sync, and having better EQ control then someone dropping $250 on a Zune 80 (better hurry, those $99 Zunes won't last forever).

Despite my whimpering about the removal of the EQ, Microsoft seems fairly confident that the latest crop of Zunes offer audio quality equal or better than the first-gen Zunes (which many considered better than the iPod's). In an e-mail conversation I had with Jason Reindorp, Zune's marketing director, he said, "we've gone to great lengths to ensure top quality throughout like with the signal path, delivering 32 ohms to the headsets, ensuring we compare very favorably to other devices like iPod in terms of signal to noise ratio." Jason may be right, but the irrational ape in me still wants the EQ back.

TV-output

Now the inclusion of a built-in composite TV-output is nothing new to high-capacity MP3 players--the first Zune had it, the Creative Vision:M had it (RIP), and the 5G iPod had it (among others). What makes the video output on the Zune 80 (sorry Zune 4 and 8) so appealing is that it is built-in (no $50 cables to buy), complete (displays everything, including menus), and extremely attractive. In a year when Apple decided not to include a built-in TV output on their iPods or iPhone (accessories can enable the feature, in a limited way), the Zune's inclusion of the feature seems like a big plus, especially when it looks this good. Add in the fact that the Zune 80 natively accepts DVR-MS video files from Windows Media Center and displays at a resolution of up to 720x480, and you've got a legitimate portable audio and video jukebox.

Now, in all likelihood I won't be using the Zune's TV output on a regular basis (a 3.2-inch screen is good enough for me). The TV-out is certainly more of a party trick than a practical feature. Then again, can't the same be said for touch screens and wireless music downloads? Impressive-looking, but largely impractical features are the cornerstone of what makes us buy gadgets. It's Freudian, people. Nobody wants their car, computer, TV, cell phone, or MP3 player to lose in a battle of cool features.

Zune PC software & Zune Marketplace

As an iPod user raised on the iTunes software and integrated music store, the latest version of the Zune PC software felt both strange and familiar. The Zune software's clean, spacious interface includes clear and persistent tabs for your PC media library, device library, and online music store. On the plus side, I believe the new Zune software is prettier and easier to use than any competing application (Windows media player, iTunes, Rhapsody, Winamp). On the downside, the software leaves power users with zero advanced tools for smart playlists, in-depth ID3 tag editing, or drag-and-drop album artwork (it's also experiencing some big hiccups at the moment). It doesn't leave them any other options, since the Zune will only sync with your computer using the Zune software.

Photo of Zune 80 in dock.
Taking it back to '98 with DJ Shadow's Preemtive Strike, downloaded from the Zune Marketplace. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

Should Microsoft care that it's alienated power users from their new product? From the perspective of a company eager to make the Zune a close second place to the iPod, it's probably more important that they make the user-experience of the Zune software as attractive as possible to the widest range of people, than satisfying the more fickle demands of a relatively small core of more advanced users. If Microsoft can sell more Zunes by delivering a hardware/software ecosystem that is less intimidating than iTunes, you can bet that reinstating an integrated ID3 tag editor is a low priority. Do users like you and me want a built-in ID3 tag batch editor for our music and video collection? Hell yes. Can we blame Microsoft for trying to outdo Apple on software usability. Not really. There's plenty of money to be made from people who love music, but hate computers. Considering that iTunes is looking and behaving more like a multipaned spreadsheet with each update, boiling down the Zune software to its bare essentials isn't a bad strategy in the long run.

The second shocker in Zune's latest software is a revamped Zune Marketplace online store. Not only does the storefront look much more appealing than the cavelike Urge store, but its selection has greatly improved since I last paid a visit. With the 30-day Zune Pass Microsoft comped me (regularly $15 per month) to demo their music rental system, I was able to pick up most of the Pink Floyd catalog, the latest two albums from indie rockers Rogue Wave, all the albums from my favorite modern jazz trio The Bad Plus, the latest 50 Cent album, every DJ Shadow album, as well as David Bowie, Nas, Otis Reading, Missy Elliot, and even comedy albums from Patton Oswalt and Dane Cook. There was some material I couldn't find, or could only purchase (not rent), but all in all the Zune Marketplace had the same selection I would hope for in a good record store--a mix of classics and obscure gems. The editorial team at Zune (taken from Urge) offers some great handpicked playlists too. I snatched up Music from Tarantino Films, Crunk Classics, and Jay-Z Cameos--all of which have given me a glimpse at music I would not otherwise take a chance on in a pay-per-download system. We'll save the argument for or against online music rental services for another time. For now, let's just say that the Zune Marketplace passes my music snobbery test. It still, unfortunately, doesn't offer TV, movie, or audiobook downloads.

Podcasts

When Microsoft first demonstrated the Zune for us, one of the first things I wanted to see was how well it handled podcasts. I was impressed when I saw the Zune's neatly organized podcast menu and playback resume feature, but I when I saw an unsubscribe menu option, I nearly teared up.

As a rabid consumer of audio and video podcasts, I'll often subscribe to podcasts that I later regret (Cat Lovers podcast? What was I thinking?). Rarely do I have the presence of mind to unsubscribe from these podcasts when I clumsily dock my iPod after work, so these space-hogging podcasts of regret just linger until I have time to do some iTunes house cleaning. So when I saw that Microsoft had ingeniously placed an unsubscribe option within the Zune's podcast submenu, I had a hard time containing my excitement. I could now act on my regret and earmark bad podcast subscriptions to be automatically deleted at the next sync. Thank you, Microsoft!

A few days later, after bragging about the Zune's podcast unsubscribe feature in my First Look video and my reviews for both the hard drive and flash-based Zunes, I went to show off the podcast unsubscribe feature to a coworker and couldn't find it. Did I forget where it was? Did I dream it? Nope. Turns out Microsoft took the feature out at the last minute. (Update: version 2.3 of the Zune firmware now includes the podcast unsubscribe feature. Hooray!)

Photo of Zune 80 and Zune 30 side by side.
The new Zune GUI (left) is a night & day refresh from the underwhelming first-gen Zune (right). My favorite new feature: podcasts! Donald Bell/CNET Networks

So why didn't the podcast unsubscribe feature make it into the final production? Apparently the feature still has some bugs to work out because it wasn't consistently communicating the podcast unsubscribe instructions back to the user's PC software. The feature will probably be rolled into a firmware update for all the Zunes in the near future. In the meantime, I look somewhat foolish for having talked it up so much.

Brushing aside the unsubscribe debacle, I still think that the Zune handles podcast management and syncing very well. You can browse and subscribe to podcasts using the Zune Marketplace directory, or subscribe to podcasts directly by copying and pasting a link to the podcast feed into the Zune software. The Zune software also allows you to set specific download instructions for each podcast (download all episodes, download three most recent, download only most recent), and will know to pull old podcast content off your Zune to keep things tidy. From what I've seen, the Zune is the only MP3 player on the market that can match the iPod when it comes to managing podcasts in a one-stop solution that automatically flushes out old episodes with new ones. For fans of video podcasts, the 3.2-inch screen on the Zune 80 slays the 2.5-inch screen of the iPod Classic.

Design

Photo of Zune 80 next to 30GB Apple iPod.
You have to admit, full screen album art strengthens your connection to the music. You feel like you're listening to an album, not an MP3 player. Donald Bell/CNET Networks

When I first held the latest designs of the Flash and hard drive Zunes, it was like seeing an ex-girlfriend who had undergone plastic surgery. Is it really you, Zune? Damn! You're looking good. I hope you're not still angry that I called you fat. Can I get your number? All joking aside, the first-gen Zune's biggest sin wasn't that it was made by Microsoft, it was that it looked like a military-grade battery pack. You can't step up to Jonathan Ive with a plastic-covered brick. Thankfully, Microsoft got it right the second time around. Glass screens, touchpad scrolling, a bold GUI, and an expensive-feeling metal construction give the latest Zunes an ability to stand confidently next to their iPod peers. Throw in the custom-etched graphics available at ZuneOriginals.net, and the Zune is starting to look like the cool younger brother compared with the more sterile and cookie-cutter iPods.

Let's hope Microsoft gets their act together with their software bugs and Zune 80 supply shortages before the holidays arrive. The iPod needs some competition and the Zune 80 is the only player I've seen all year that is truly up to the challenge.

 

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