What's wrong with Zune? The software

Once again, the weakest part of the new Zunes is the PC software.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
3 min read

I've posted plenty about the new Zunes, but I have to blow off a little more steam before leaving this topic behind for a while. It's surprising to me given Microsoft's long history as a desktop applications company, but once again, the weakest link in the Zune lineup is the PC software.

Every Sunday during NFL football season, I watch the Seahawks (often an exercise in frustration) and record LPs to WMA files using Microsoft's Digital Media Plus Pack for Windows XP (sadly, it's been discontinued, and so far there's no Vista equivalent). The Zune software automatically imports any file that's added to Windows' My Music folder, which is the default location for files ripped with the Plus Pack. That's nice--my LPs go straight into Zune once I rip them. But the first generation of the software often butchered the metadata (data about songs) I'd entered--for example, it couldn't recognize song order, and instead ordered them alphabetically. So I'd have to go in and edit it manually. An annoying process, and one I hoped they would fix.

The Zune 2.1 software does a slightly better job of importing metadata. Unfortunately, if you do have to make some edits, the Zune software makes it much harder do so. For example:

Album art. When you rip an LP (or take audio from another source--such as a bootlegged MP3 file), it doesn't come with album art. With the old Zune software, you could tell it to update the album information, and if it recognized enough information--such as album title, artist name, and song order--it usually got the album art right. (Although sometimes I had to re-edit the genres because it overwrote them as well.) If that didn't work, you could copy a .jpg file into your Web browser, then paste it immediately into the blank space in the Zune software. Not anymore--I have the Zune software set to automatically update album information, but so far it isn't working. And to paste art manually, you have to copy, save to your hard drive, then look up the location in the Zune software to paste it. It's an annoying and completely unnecessary extra step.

Editing song data. I've gone back and forth on this one--at first, I thought it was impossible to edit any song data, then I discovered how to edit data such as genre. But it only works for some data! For example, although it (somehow) keeps order consistent with the way I recorded it, the "song order" column still shows "0" for every song. This means if I wanted to use another program to play these files, it wouldn't know what order to list them in. And you can't add the right song order in the Zune software. Moreover, there's no batch editing--if you select more than one song and right click, the "edit" option doesn't appear. Crazy.

List view won't display your selection. As I mentioned in my last Zune post, the only way to edit the limited metadata that Microsoft will let you edit is through the list (not browse) view. But here's a strange design choice: if you select a song or album, then click "list," it won't show that song or album. Instead, it lists them in alphabetical order, forcing you to scroll until you find the song or album whose data you want to edit. Insane.

There are enough nice things about the new Zunes--wireless sync in particular, as it works flawlessly and provides a real benefit for me--that I can't dismiss them out of hand. But I don't understand why the team in charge of the Zune PC software made these changes. Are they targeting digital music newbies who won't notice the missing features? Did they run out of time? Was their testing insufficient? Whatever the reason, working with imported song data in Zune is such a hassle that I'll have to find another program to rip my LPs directly into iTunes, which makes it super-easy to edit metadata. The Zune software can just draw those AAC files from my iTunes folder, which lets me bypass it for all but the syncing process.

Unless they fix these issues in a software update. Please?