Editors' note: Microsoft provides a free firmware update for this older Zune model that adds many new features to the device. To learn about these new features, read our review of the third-generation Zune.
Last November, Microsoft released the first-generation Zune to a predominantly iPod-toting nation. While the first-generation Zune is not without its devotees, the device came to epitomize Microsoft's awkwardness at marketing itself as hip. Having survived its freshman hazing, the Zune is back for its sophomore revenge, and the iPod has every reason to be frightened. With a new design, higher capacity, wireless sync capability, larger screen, and integrated support for audio and video podcasts, the new 80GB Zune ($249) is finally giving everyone a true alternative to the iPod.
The 80GB Zune cuts a much slimmer figure than its bricklike older brother. Measuring 4.3 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, Microsoft shaved some considerable bulk off the Zune's thickness, while nearly tripling its capacity. Beyond its more pocket-worthy form, the two major improvements to the Zune's hardware design are its screen and its navigation pad.
With a diagonal measurement of 3.2 inches, the 80GB Zune's luxuriously large LCD screen leaves the 2.5-inch screen of the iPod Classic in the dust. The screen size may seem like a marginal improvement from the first-generation Zune's 3-inch screen, but the 80GB Zune's use of an optical glass screen shield (instead of plastic) further distinguishes it from its older sibling, as well as the competition. The Zune's new glass screen not only affords the device a sophisticated feel, but it also provides a more scratch-resistant surface with less optical distortion than the ubiquitous plastic variety.
The second major improvement engineered into the new fleet of Zune MP3 players is a completely unique navigation control that Microsoft dubs the Zune Pad. You can think of the Zune Pad as a cross between a standard four-direction navigation pad and a laptop's touch pad. With the Zune Pad, users can navigate menus by either pressing or sliding their finger in four directions, and select items by clicking on the middle of the pad. We we're initially skeptical about the Zune Pad's usability compared with the tried-and-true click pad of the first-generation Zune, but after just a few minutes, we found the Zune's old interface to be positively archaic. Navigating lengthy song lists is a breeze, especially with an accelerated scroll kicking in when the pad is held down. The new Zune Pad interface also lets you skip through songs, photos, and radio stations with just a light brush of the finger. Buttons for play/pause and menu still flank each side of the Zune's control pad and behave exactly as they did in the first-generation Zune.
The most significant design change to the Zune is an overhauled graphic user interface that no longer looks like a rehash of the Portable Media Center operating system found on the Toshiba Gigabeat S. While the critically beloved "twist" interface of the first-generation Zune remains, the main menu screen has been replaced with stunning, oversized text that takes readability to the next level. This same main menu screen can be customized with a background image from your digital photo collection. Existing Zune loyalists will be very happy to know that Microsoft is offering the new Zune operating system as a free upgrade to all first-generation Zune owners.
The 80GB Zune has a handful of smaller cosmetic changes worth noting, as well. The back of the Zune is now covered with a matte-finished aluminum etched with the Zune logo (or custom-etched by Microsoft's ZuneOriginals.net). The top edge of the Zune now features an inch-long mirrored plastic window for its built-in Wi-Fi antenna. Lastly, the 80GB Zune includes a pair of high-quality, Zune-branded, sound-isolating earphones constructed with a cloth-braided cable.
We admit the first-generation Zune certainly wasn't the coolest-looking MP3 player on the block, but its features were fairly advanced. With subscription music support, wide-screen video playback, Wi-Fi music sharing, high-quality photo viewer, RBDS-enabled FM radio, and composite video output, the original Zune looked like a serious iPod challenger on paper. The 80GB Zune maintains all of the original Zune's compelling features and ups the ante with tightly integrated audio and video podcast support, as well as the unique ability to automatically sync content over a home wireless network.
Ever since Apple rolled podcast support into its iPod and iTunes products back in 2005, no one has been able to match its seamless integration of audio and video podcast discovery, subscription, and management tools (although Creative's Zencast alternative gets close). With the latest refresh of the Zune PC software, first- and second-generation Zune owners can now enjoy audio and video podcasts with the same ease as their iPod contemporaries. Podcasts now have their own directory within the main menu of the Zune, which is subdivided between audio and video podcasts. The Zune PC software also includes a new podcast tab that allows users to browse through a growing library of podcasts. If your favorite podcast can't be found in the directory, links are provided to both recommend the podcast for inclusion, as well as add the podcast manually by copying and pasting its URL into the Zune software. In the end, podcast downloads, autosync preferences, and subscription management match that of iTunes. In fact, Microsoft takes podcast integration a step further by allowing users to unsubscribe from podcasts directly on their Zune--a great feature for podcast junkies who want to tidy up their podcast subscriptions on the go. (Editors' note: Microsoft removed the podcast unsubscribe feature from the Zune's initial firmware release due to instability. Microsoft plans to reintroduce the feature in its next firmware update.) We were also happy to see that the Zune includes a playback resume option for digesting long podcasts in sections.