Don't let it be said that Microsoft expects you to conform to the herd. Much as you can have the Zune player laser-etched with a design, the software can be personalized as well, starting with your choice of backgrounds. You may also choose a favorite image to display in the place of missing album art.
The Zune Software and Marketplace is broken down into four overriding sections: Collection (your library), Device, Marketplace, and Social. The interface lacks the standard frame you get with most windows, which gives it a clean aesthetic. Your library is intuitively organized, with a comprehensive lists of artists on the left, albums by album art in the center, and track listings on the right. In this shot, only one album is highlighted, so you only see tracks for that album.
The search field in the upper right can help you quickly find a desired artist, album, or song. Alternatively, narrow down by artist, going left to right. The albums by the artist will pop up in the center, with the tracks on the right.
The lower-left corner of the interface displays three icons (for your device, a CD, and a playlist). If one of them is active, the outline will be filled in. Here, you can see the color of the Zune that is connected. If the Zune is currently syncing, you'll see the percentage of completeness. You can click on the device icon for a more detailed view of syncing and to set options for the Zune.
The device page lets you control options for any Zune that has been associated with the software. If you have more than one, you may cycle through them. Even if a Zune is not attached or in wireless range, you may set up a future sync. This is also the page where you can check the status details for the player.
The track list displays a couple of status icons. One, a tiny Zune outline, indicates that the track is already on your device. Then, there is the rating system, now indicated with a heart instead of stars. A fully filled heart shows that you like the track, while a broken heart signifies dislike. It's kind of cutesy, but gets the message across.
The interface is minimal in controls and explanations, so when in doubt, try right-clicking. If you do so on a track, artist, or album, it will pull up a list of options from which to choose. It's a simple system that keeps the interface clean overall.
A perfect example of how something new has a bit of a learning curve: the first time we used the Zune software, we couldn't for the life of us find the Now Playing screen. Finally, we hovered over the little graphic EQ icon in the lower-right corner, and the "Now Playing" hint text popped up. Click on it to get to the related screen.
The Now Playing screen is sweet--we totally dig it. All of your album art acts as a background grid for the current information. The cover art for the currently playing track always shows up magnified in the upper right, while the list of queued tracks has a dedicated box in the lower right. Playback controls are transparent along the bottom of the window.
Video organization is pretty basic, namely because video tagging is still fairly sketchy. The software shows a screen grab for each video, and when you transfer them to your Zune, transcoding is taken care of in the background as files are automatically optimized for the player.
We're so pleased to see seamless integration of podcasts into the software, service, and player. The collection>podcast page will populate any podcasts to which you have subscribed, as well as any that you have previously downloaded. You can also easily subscribe and unsubscribe on this page.
Moving into the Zune Marketplace, we see a nice collection of podcasts (growing everyday). The main page features editor-programmed content, with promotional content on top and hot lists below. The left column allows you to drill down by category, such as business, education, and entertainment.
A subscription to the Zune Marketplace is a great way to discover new music, as you get easy access to more than 3 million songs, most of which can be taken "to go" on the Zune player. The main music screen offers promotional content, as well as shortcuts to the top songs, music videos, albums, and playlists (based on downloads/play count). You may also drill down into genres via the left column.
Once you get past the main music page, you'll get to choose from four sections: featured, artists, albums, and playlists. The playlists are a great way to get exposed to new (to you) music in a given category. They are programmed by music experts, which means you don't have to do any of the work--we like this proposition!
In any given genre or subgenre, you may sort by artist. The Marketplace populates this sections with actual artist photos, which is a nice touch--especially those who like visual stimulation with their music browsing experience.
All hot and popular artists have specially programed and filled-out pages, with an artist image dominating the page, and album art filling out the bottom section. From here, you can get to the artist bio, videos, and related artists.
Drill down to a playlist or album page, and this is what you'll see: some album art, a short blurb about the playlist or album, and a track list. You can easily download lists or individual songs from this page by clicking the download button (or just right-click as with elsewhere in the interface).
Those with a Zune Marketplace subscription may download at will--any song within the service is fair game. Click the "downloads" option in the upper right to get to a status page, where you can see what's going on with your downloads.
The final aspect of the new Zune Marketplace is Zune Social. This is a Web-based social-networking site that contains your Zune Card. The card, which is--of course--customizable, will show your most played and most recent tracks and albums, but only if you chose to share your playback data in the initial setup of the Zune Software. No doubt: this site takes the social aspect of the Zune to the next level, but it also completely depends on people actually using it (and probably the Zune, by default) for it to have any real value.