The Zune's software counterpart, Zune Marketplace, is an essential part of the Zune music experience, and overall it matches the Zune in simplicity, functionality, performance, and potential. Mimicking iTunes' closed ecosystem strategy, Zune Marketplace (ZM) is mostly suitable for Zune owners only. It's not bad as a stand-alone jukebox, but it won't work with non-Zunes and certain desirable features such as the radio (ZM uses playlists instead), a video download section, and podcast management don't yet exist. Still for Zune owners, especially those who sign up for a subscription, ZM is a nice seamless experience. Just understand you'll probably be using another application to fill in its missing gaps.
Zune Marketplace software ships with the Zune. There's a downloadable version at Zune.net so try it out if you're interested. At the very least, try browsing the music store and listen to 30-second samples. Of course, you'll have to have a modern Windows box with "XP Home or Pro with SP2, Windows XP Tablet PC SP2, or Windows XP Media Center 2005 with Rollup Update 2 and Oct. 2006 Rollup Update." Vista support won't be available until its official January 30 launch.
Installing Zune Marketplace was uncomplicated and straightforward, though I've heard some reports of installation issues. The whole process took 30 minutes. After checking for updates and the actual install and reboot, you'll be asked to connect a Zune (you can skip this). Then you get an option to stream your media to an Xbox 360. ZM automatically scans your existing music library (nonprotected only) for import, including any nonprotected music and playlists from iTunes. This includes MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files. Along the way, you'll get the option to add video (MPEG-4, H.264, and unprotected WMV) and photo files (JPEG).
ZM will not import DivX, OGG, and WMA files purchased from stores such as Napster (DRM9) or even WMV video files purchased from sites such as Amazon Unbox. While there are ways to get this stuff converted, it can be a pain in the butt for those with a library of diverse formats.
It's easy to add music to your library after the fact, and by default the software monitors folders for new additions automatically. I did notice the software scans all your media folders if you add a new folder--a bit of a waste of time considering it monitors for updates automatically in the background.
The last hurdle is creating your Zune Tag, which identifies you to the Zune community. This requires you to enter a Windows Live ID so you can purchase tracks or join the ZunePass service. You don't need to have an ID if you simply want to listen to high-quality 30-second samples. You'll notice the Zune Marketplace goes through an initial download of its catalog database; much of the store's information is stored locally.
The Zune Marketplace pays major homage to Windows Media Player 11 and Urge, at least in interface structure, but similar to the Zune, it does have a style all its own. ZM's dark gray skin has a modern edge and uses its space wisely with decipherable icons spread across the top (there is no skinning available, though there is a mini player version, activated by clicking an icon in the lower right corner). You can right-click almost anywhere to get options, though there is a dedicated options button next to where you sign in with your Windows Live ID.
Down at the bottom sits the playback control bar with volume slider, shuffle, repeat, and a tiny currently playing section that features album art or visuals. The main control buttons are styled just like the Zune's. To the right of those appear messages related to syncing, searching, and any other jukebox activities.
The main left-navigation pane is divided into music, video, and pictures sections, and collapsible nav items include in order, in-box, playlists, library, marketplace (only in music), any CDs that might be loaded, and any Zune device attached. When fully expanded, these items can run off the page especially if you have two Zunes attached, but the excellent contrast between heading and subheadings helps give ZM an uncluttered feel. Showing only recent playlists will shrink the list a bit.
The in-box is an innovative way to bring shared music and photos into one place for easy retrieval or chronicling. Even if your shared music has exceeded its play rights, it will show up here so you can easily purchase it from the store if you like. Also songs and items flagged by a user on the Zune will show up in the in-box.
Zune Marketplace is playlist-centric and more so if you subscribe to ZunePass. As mentioned, ZM will actually import playlists from iTunes if applicable, though only non-DRM songs will show up. You can drag and drop content into playlist names or create them by hitting the playlist icon in the upper-right corner and dragging and dropping content in the right-hand list column (playlist creation also can occur in the left pane). You can pull individual songs, albums, other playlists, and even video and photos into a playlist. Similar to iTunes, you can create a smart playlist (a.k.a. auto playlist) and set conditions for automatically generated and updated playlists. Some playlists I created were "MP3s only" and "Most popular." CD burning and syncing works the same way using the same column, which offers an advantage over iTunes because you can monitor both library and a play/burn/sync list simultaneously.
The main browser window is expansive and feels very much like Windows Media Player 11 with its stackable album art, icon, tile, and details viewing options. You can select from a wide array of columns to customize your library (so you could sort by play count, bit rate, and protected). Though you won't get the flashy effects of iTunes' Cover Flow, the library experience is A-OK. I do prefer the alternating white and blue of iTunes' (and Rhapsody's) browser window.
The basics are mostly covered by ZM. The tag editor is straightforward and batchable, and the program will automatically search for missing metadata, including album art (an important factor considering the Zune's album-centric display). ZM will rip a CD into WMA (max 192Kbps), WMA Lossless, and MP3 (max 320Kbps), and you can burn data or audio CDs. ZM borrows from Windows Media Player a feature where playlists are automatically divided up by CD, so you can really customize multiple CDs at a time. You also can apply volume leveling across tracks and add either M3U or ZPL (Zune playlist) files to the CD. Managing your music in ZM is fairly easy, though it would have been a huge bonus for users to allow PlaysForSure compatibility--even if it wasn't marketed that way.
Anything showing up in ZM will work on the Zune. You'll need another application to convert DivX and other popular but nonsupported files into a supported format. Same goes for a BMP image--it needs to be converted into JPEG. For those files ZM does support, they will be automatically transcoded (oftentimes in the background) into WMA or WMV when synced with the Zune. Hopefully someday, the Zune's Wi-Fi will be able to sync with ZM wirelessly (and for the user, unconsciously).