The most dramatic change to the Zune software experience is the opening Quickplay page. From here, all your latest downloads are shown right up front, along with recently played items and content that you've pinned to the page, either through the software or from your Zune HD.
A smaller row of icons below the Quickplay bar shows off your Smart DJ playlists. During the Zune software setup you'll be prompted to name a few of your favorite artists, which Zune will later use to create your first Smart DJ playlists. You can think of these playlists as a hybrid of Apple's Genius playlists and an online streaming music service like Pandora. To create a Smart DJ playlist, all you need to do is type in the name of an artist or band, and the Zune software will ping its databases to find similar music in your collection. For Zune Pass music subscribers, the Zune software will not only look through your music library, but also pull unlimited streams and downloads of similar music from its Zune Marketplace music catalog.
The Collection view of the Zune 4.0 software is perhaps the least changed since the previous software release. Fortunately, the view's clean, intuitive, and uncluttered design makes it a favorite among Zune users. Across the top left you can see separate tabs for all the music, videos, pictures, podcasts, channels, and apps in your collection. Within each tab, submenus on the top right further organize each section (in the case of music, you'll see tabs for artists, albums, genres, songs, and playlists).
Across the bottom you'll find persistent controls for playback, song position, and a set of three icons in the lower left for devices, CDs, and playlist creation.
The Zune Marketplace download store built into the Zune software has always offered an attractive, curated, well-organized selection of music. Users can browse the virtual bins in the left-side nav by selecting genres, playlists, top songs, or regularly-updated channels. Equipped with a Zune Pass music subscription ($14.99/month), users can download all the music they want like they were robbing the store blind.
The most notable new addition to the store is the selection of HD movies and television shows that can be downloaded from the video section--including rented videos that can be played on your computer or Zune HD. Rented movies expire within 24 hours after the movie starts playing, and must be finished on the device you started on.
But perhaps the biggest part of the new Zune 4.0 experience is that Microsoft is giving Zune Pass music subscribers a way to stream music over the Web by logging into their Zune.net account on any Mac or PC. We're still a far cry from being able to sync your Zune with a Mac, but at least Zune Pass users can now dig into the Zune Marketplace's deep catalog and stream music wherever and whenever they want.
Beyond streaming music, users can elect to follow bands for updates on future releases, manage their Zune Social contacts, participate in music quizzes, update their own profile, purchase tracks, and explore recommended artists.
Zune 4.0 also includes a new category for Apps, where you can find any games or utilities downloaded from Microsoft's Zune Marketplace. At launch, they've got a handful of games and a promise of more to come, including apps for Twitter and Facebook.