Zune is out of tune, for now

Microsoft's so-called iPod killer does not impress

At the risk of being called an Apple fanboy, a Microsoft basher and a dog kicker, I gotta say the Zune does not impress me.

zune

Microsoft recently sent an emissary to CNET with three Zunes to demonstrate Redmond's new offensive against the Apple/iPod juggernaut. While the Zune certainly has some interesting features, such as Wi-Fi capability and a decent-sized screen for a front-pocket device, the overall theme of the day appeared to be that this should be a considered a first-generation device that nails the basics and is easily expandable through software to learn new tricks.

Fair enough, except for two things: hard drive-based music players have been around for a long time--since before Apple unveiled its first iPod five years ago. And Microsoft has an aircraft carrier stuffed with cash moored off its Redmond campus that should allow it to fund a top notch, me-too device.

But in my brief hands-on with the Zune I couldn't help but feel that this piece of hardware is just not ready for prime time (colleague James Kim's first impressions were more favorable). Full disclosure: I did not listen to any of the songs that were loaded onto the demo models. Listening to one song without being able to immediately compare with a competing device would not offer much insight into playback quality. So I just assume it does that well.

Zune

And I didn't get a chance to play with the Zune software--let's just assume that's also as good as market-leading iTunes.

I'm talking here only about the hardware and the features (or lack of), which for many people is what led them to the iPod or the Zen or the iRiver in the first place. Here are some initial impressions:

* I wouldn't say it looks like it was designed by an amateur (or did I just do exactly that?) but it certainly lacks a wow factor. Rather, it appears very utilitarian and as sexy as Newt Gingrich. I initially thought it was a prototype--it felt like a block of plastic with an odd surface texture. I don't think many people will want to flash this at school or work, lest someone say, "Hey is that a Zune? Did you paint it yourself?"

* Zune comes in three colors: white, black, and brown. Some people (who have likely only seen pictures) have said the brown appears to be the coolest color. The only thing cool about the brown one is that the color is appropriate.

* The ability to beam content from one device to another is interesting and actually speedy at about 10-15 seconds per song. But in its current implementation it's very limited. For example, you can view what another Zune user is listening to and the other person can beam you the song (which can be played three times over three days before evaporating). However, you can't request a song that you see a nearby Zune owner listening to. That means if you spot another Zune user playing "My Humps" by the Black Eyed Peas, you need to yell across the train car: "Hey, ZuneRulez97, whoever you are, can you please beam 'My Humps' to MikesBrownZune?" In addition, the Zune has the potential to connect to a PC to enable wireless sync and file sharing, but Microsoft hasn't enabled that feature and maybe never will. Same goes for wireless Net access.

Brown Zune

* The screen at 3 inches is a bit larger than a video-capable iPod at 2.5 inches. And having photos and videos play in landscape (which means rotating the Zune horizontally) gives it the edge over the iPod. But I found the screen to be somewhat dingy, especially compared to the latest iPods, which were brightened significantly from their predecessors. This could be an illusion, because the Zune uses wallpaper backgrounds while the iPod is black text on white, and I didn't have a chance to compare two similar photos and videos side-by-side. Nevertheless, the impression was that the Zune was noticeably dimmer than the iPod. (The 30GB Zune, by the way, will cost $249, the same price as the 30GB iPod.)

* The Zune does not support WMA DRM9. I wonder if you can you donate all those songs purchased from Napster and Urge to charity and get a tax write-off.

I recall that when the Xbox first came out, many analysts said Microsoft finally released Version 1.0 of a product that didn't suck. Will they say that about the Zune?

Zune hits store shelves next week. Go check one out and let me know if you agree with my early assessment. Even better, buy one and prove me wrong. I dare you.

(Photos: Microsoft)

About the author

CNET former Editor in Chief Scott Ard has been a journalist for more than 20 years and an early tech adopter for even longer. Those two passions led him to editing one of the first tech sections for a daily newspaper in the mid 1990s, and to joining CNET part-time in 1996 and full-time a few years later.

 

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