The Zune 4's and Zune 8's audio, video, photo, and radio features are largely unchanged from the first generation--not a bad thing, really. The Zune's music player supports MP3, WMA, protected-WMA (Zune Marketplace only), WMA Lossless, and AAC music file formats. The continued support for AAC opens the door for iPod converts, although you won't be able to transfer DRM-protected iTunes purchases or Windows' older DRM-9 files.
The Zune supports WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 video formats natively at a DVD-quality 30 frames per second rate. Windows Media Center users will be happy to know that the Zune also imports DVR-MS recorded video content. Although the Zune's screen displays at a 320x240 resolution, video files stored on the Zune can be as large as 720x480. Unfortunately, the Zune 4 and 8 do not share the same TV output feature included on the 80GB Zune, so the support for 720x480 files is pointless.
The Zune 4 and 8 display RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) station information, distinguishing their FM radio as one of the best on a handheld device. Depending on the broadcaster, the Zune's FM radio displays a station's call letters, genre, and occasionally shows the currently playing artist and song information. Users can also switch between European, North American, and Japanese radio bands from the Zune's radio settings menu. The Zune's radio depends on a connected pair of headphones (any will do) to act as an antenna, however, so don't be surprised when the radio doesn't work while the Zune is connected to an AV dock.
Aside from its wireless sync capability, the little Zunes' most notable feature is their ability to share music and photos between users. With the latest version of the Zune PC software, the social aspect of recommending music and showing off your music interests can now reach beyond Zune users who are within range of your Wi-Fi antenna. Zune users are now encouraged to set up their Zune Card, a Last.FM-style Web page that reveals your listening habits and favorite songs to the world, and opens up the opportunity to discover and recommend new music through interaction with other Zune users. The new Zune Card online community may be a bit much for some people, but plans to integrate the Zune Card for use with larger social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace may provide an automatic way to update your friends on your musical tastes.
While the Zune is one of the more full-featured MP3 players on the market, it lacks some competitive features. If you're looking for a voice recorder, line-input recorder, or FM radio recorder, you'll need to look elsewhere (check out CNET's top flash players). Without support for Audible audio books or audio file bookmarking, the Zune is also not our first choice for book lovers. Considering the restrictive capacity of the Zune 4 and 8, we would have liked an SD memory card expansion slot as well. Still, far and away the most shocking feature omission in the latest crop of Zunes is an audio EQ control (see the Performance section below).
Using the Zune also means using the Zune's PC-only software. The Zune software has seen a major overhaul from its earliest days, with a shockingly clean and bright interface. New icons lining the bottom edge of the software make playlist creation and content syncing much more intuitive. Fans of Windows Media Player will definitely need some time to adjust to the new file and category organization, but we believe the new system is more intuitive.
As with iTunes, the main benefit of the Zune's dedicated software is the ability to integrate an online music store (Zune Marketplace) alongside your own music library. The Zune Marketplace is also seeing a refresh, with added DRM-free download content, more attractive artist pages, better genre-based editorial content, a podcast directory, and more granular subcategories within genres. The Zune Marketplace is still missing the TV and movie content found through competitors such as iTunes, but it does offer music videos. Expect Microsoft to make another big push for its all-you-can-eat Zune Pass music subscription service to coincide with the launch of their MP3 players.
The Zune's Achilles' heel is its built-in Wi-Fi antenna. As any laptop owner knows, a Wi-Fi antenna sucks a lot of juice and can wreck battery performance. To optimize the Zune's battery life in spite of its Wi-Fi capabilities, Microsoft decided to ditch the built-in audio equalizer found on the first-generation Zune. While one can argue that EQ presets are simply a Band-Aid for poor quality earbuds, there's just no way to feel good about having a perfectly good feature ripped away from a product. We cut Microsoft a little slack on excluding EQ from the 80GB Zune because they bundled it with high-quality dynamic driver earphones. Unfortunately, the basic earbuds that come with the Zune 4 and Zune 8 just don't compare. Listening on our full-sized Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones, we were more than satisfied with the Zune's fidelity (especially considering its support for the WMA Lossless audio format). That said, bass addicts, control freaks, and people with partial hearing loss will certainly be disappointed with the Zune's lack of sound enhancement.
The 1.8-inch screen used on the Zune 4 and 8 is adequate for short video podcast content, but nowhere close to the luxurious, movie-worthy 3.2-inch screen found on the 80GB version. With flash-based MP3 players such as the Creative Zen and Sansa View offering larger screens along with memory expansion and EQ, the value of the Zune 4 and 8 is not as cut-and-dried as its high-capacity kin. Despite its size, however, the Zune's glass-covered, 320x240 LCD presents excellent viewing angles, with above-average clarity and color. Zune's support for Windows Media Center DVR content is a bonus, but you probably won't want to watch an entire TV show on such a small screen.
The battery life of the 4 and 8GB Zune is about average for this type of device, but we expected much better. With the Wi-Fi feature turned off, Microsoft rates the 4 and 8GB Zune's battery life at 24 hours for audio, and 4 hours for video. Our official CNET Labs tests show a more realistic battery life of 20.7 hours for audio with Wi-Fi turned off, 15 hours with it active; and 3.9 hours of video with Wi-Fi off, 3.7 with it active. To give those numbers some context, Apple's third-generation iPod Nano racked up 29 hours of audio playback during lab testing and 6.7 hours of video. While 15 to 20 hours of audio playback is nothing for Microsoft to be ashamed of, it's also nothing to brag about.
With every MP3 player manufacturer coming out with their own takes on the video-capable, flash-based MP3 player, Microsoft's spin on the theme is somewhat predictable. Wireless sync and podcast integration give the Zune an edge over its competition, however. Still, we're much more enthusiastic about Microsoft's high-capacity 80GB Zune.