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New Zunes: First impressions

Here's a quick overview of the things Matt Rosoff likes--and dislikes--about the new Zunes from Microsoft.

8GB Zune
Olive-green 8GB Zune, with optional backplate designs. Microsoft

The new Zunes go on sale Tuesday, and everybody with a 30GB version will be able to get the new software and firmware. Last week, Microsoft sent me a new 8GB olive-green Zune to try out, along with some prerelease software (version 2.1).

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive review--there are plenty of other resources for that. Rather, this is a set of first impressions from a year-long 30GB user who was somewhat disappointed by Microsoft's October announcement in the wake of the excitement generated by Apple's iPod announcement a month earlier.

What I like so far:

The hardware. As was the case with the first generation, my favorite part of the Zune experience is the Zune itself. The 8GB model is extremely slim and lightweight, with a large bright screen of glass, not plastic. The touchpad works like a dream, letting you scroll through long horizontal and vertical lists--it may be the first portable player interface from a company other than Apple that's an improvement on the original iPod clickwheel. (I say "other than Apple" because the touch screen on the iPhone and iPod Touch are astounding at first glance and continue to be useful after the novelty's worn off.) It passed another test as well--a recent guest to the house was wowed by it, claiming to prefer it over the new more square iPod Nano that she'd seen at the Apple Store.

The on-screen interface. I liked the arrangements of horizontal and vertical menus in the first Zunes quite well, but the new interface is better. It's mostly subtle stuff, like the translucent overlay when you click a playing song for the next menu (which lets you set shuffle, flag the song, send it to another Zune, and so on), but overall it looks classier and I haven't found anything blatantly broken yet.

The sync process. I have about 25GB of music in my Zune library. My test unit has 8GB. No problem--after informing me that I have too much material for an auto-sync, it asks me to drag and drop items to the sync list, and immediately starts syncing, even as I'm still dragging and dropping new items to fill it up. It shows the remaining capacity of the device (based on the items I've dropped, not the items that have actually been transferred), as well as the number of files transferred, percentage completion, and so on, all with a slick little graphic of the device on the screen. I don't think it will do a random sync--something that the iPod Shuffle supports--but that's a minor drawback. I also updated the software on my 30GB and the sync improvements carry over quite nicely.

The pretty new software. Another Directions analyst sometimes disparages some Microsoft UI design choices as having been driven by the "pretty boys," but in this case, the PC software is significantly more attractive than the first version. That one was basically a skinned version of the Windows Media Player (which everybody--me, my boss, my colleagues, my wife, my 20-year-old nephew--hates). One tangible improvement is the three-column default interface that shows artists on the left, albums in the center, and songs on the right. A more ephemeral improvement is the "now playing" view, which shows about 100 album covers with the currently playing one highlighted and slightly larger; over time, the background subtly shifts, with new album covers replacing the existing ones, until it cycles through your whole collection.

What I don't like so far:

The pretty new software. The biggest drawback of Zune 1.0 was the PC software. Although the current version is much better, it still has some strange interface choices. For example, in the default view, it's now impossible to arrange songs by genre (or at least I couldn't figure it out after a half hour of fiddling). This is important if you're a music dork like me who applies custom genres to each song and then creates playlists based on the type of song I want to hear next. (Really, I do this--I hate having The Pixies and The Flaming Lips and Spiritualized automatically filed under the meaningless term "Alternative.") More generally, there seem to be fewer options, or those options are harder to get to, than was the case with Zune 1.0. It's fine to hide complexity to avoid alienating new users, as long as you don't sacrifice the features that experienced users have come to depend on.

No automatic playlists. From what I could tell, here's still no way to create an automatic playlist that includes, say, every song in the "Downbeat" genre, or every song that you've rated 4 stars or higher and haven't listened to in the last month. iTunes has had this feature, called Smart Playlists, forever. It seems like something that almost any music listener would want. (Oh, wait...there aren't any stars either. I've already ranted enough on that change, so I won't bring it up again.)

No equalizer. This is another standard feature of music players that the Zune software doesn't have...or at least I couldn't find it. It's true that audiophiles view equalizers as a bandage, to be applied sparingly. But listening to compressed audio on a typical PC sound card with typical PC speakers isn't an audiophile experience.

"Premium" earphones. The new Zune 80 (the 80GB hard-drive-based player) comes with so-called "premium" earphones, and they're also available for $40 (suggested price) for other Zune users. There's some subjectivity to audio, but to me, these earphones seemed to boost the heck out of the extreme high end. Some listeners might mistake this for extra "clarity," but it hurt my ears. They looked pretty cool, with multiple rubber nodules to adjust their size to fit in your earholes, but the standard earphones that came with my Creative Audigy sound card sounded better. At the very least, the Zune's earphones made me want an equalizer to soften that high end out a bit!

I haven't tried the wireless sync capabilities yet, but I expect them to be useful, given that I usually dock my 30GB Zune near the door, connected to a small boombox, far away from my PC. The social site isn't live yet--presumably that'll happen Tuesday when the players go on sale. I also haven't bought anything from the Zune Marketplace--I have 25GB of music with plenty more records to rip. And I haven't listened to the radio. (That's why I bought an MP3 player in the first place--so I wouldn't have to listen to the radio.)

Overall, I'm more impressed than I expected to be, given the original announcement last month. If you want a solid, good-looking music player and for some reason don't want an iPod, the Zune is a good choice. Anecdotally, I've heard far more interest and awareness of Zune than I expected. I do live in Seattle, but there seem to be quite a few people outside the techie/Microsoft circles who are aware of Zune and interested in at least giving it a head-to-head chance against the iPod this holiday season.

If Microsoft continues to fill the gaps in its PC software, then I think the company will have a solid competitor to the equivalent iPod models.