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.
Earlier this year, the idea of a Microsoft-branded MP3 player was foreign to most consumers. After all, what could the software giant do to the iPod dynasty that Windows Media hardware partners such as Creative, iRiver, and Samsung had been unable to do? Well, we all knew that after Microsoft's September 14 announcement, the Zune would be a different kind of portable media player, one that integrates wireless technology for Zune-to-Zune sharing of files, and one that works within an iTunes-like closed Zune Marketplace ecosystem. The hard drive device, which comes in black, white, or the love-it/hate-it brown, has entered the real world and will please most users, especially beginners, thanks to an excellent UI, nice integration with Zune Marketplace software, and good playback performance. However, the Zune's incompatibility with some formats, including protected WMA-DRM9 and WMV files, will force some seasoned users elsewhere. Despite these fundamental weaknesses, the Zune is a winner and its future, one that should include expansion of its wireless features, is a bright one.
By now, we all know the basics of the Zune: it's a 30GB MP3 player with a photo- and video-friendly 3-inch (4:3) screen, and it costs $249.99. It runs on a customized version of Portable Media Center software (Windows CE-based) and features the same intuitive twist-navigation like players such as the Toshiba Gigabeat S. But there are many differences both in mind and body that differentiate the Zune from any other MP3 player, which I'll share in a moment.
To the chagrin of many Windows Media fans, the device is not backward compatible with WMA-DRM9 (Zune utilizes WMA-DRM9.1), so tracks purchased from stores such as Napster or Urge will not work. Subscription tracks from those services won't work either. In other words, Zune is not a PlaysForSure platform. Instead, it operates within its own software and store, which are not connected to Windows Media Player at all (in fact, you don't even need WMP to sync and manage your Zune). Microsoft would have scored some major brownie points if the player worked with Rhapsody but still was officially optimized for Zune Marketplace (in the same way as the SanDisk Rhapsody player).
While the player is similar to many other players in terms of its feature set--music, video, and photo playback, plus an FM tuner--what sets it apart is its integrated Wi-Fi chip, which allows it to seek out and be seen by other Zune-sters. This sharing feature allows users to share music and photos (but not video) within the same room--albeit with limitations that many of us already know: three plays of a song within three days. Shared photo files, on the other hand, have no limitations. We'd love to see Wi-Fi expanded so that one could sync or purchase music wirelessly (or even see Zunes across the globe), but having played with the device, I see why Microsoft is starting small. So far, the Zune experience out of the box and beyond has been predictable and solid. Wi-Fi or not, it's one excellent media player.
Quickly, about the box and its contents: the Zune packaging is minimal but has flare. You actually lift the Zune out of the box by pulling on its brown ribbon (nice touch), and the bundled earphones and rubbery USB cable are nowhere to be seen until you realize the flaps adjacent to the Zune lift open. In addition, you'll get a suede case, a software CD, some guides, and a sticker in the package. While we'd love to see more--such as an AC adaptor-- the introductory Zune experience is well done.
At 4.3x2.5x0.7 inches, the Zune may be a bit thicker (and blockier) than the 30GB iPod, but it feels right at home in the hand. In my opinion, it's a nice size and weight (5.6 ounces)--neither too thin to hold nor too big to pocket, though others in the office say it's bulky and have even
The colors are subdued and the shell has a translucent matte finish, and more importantly, the body does not attract fingerprints (though the screen does). The double-shot effect of the secondary color (green on the brown version, bluish on the black, translucent on the white) definitely gives the player visual pizzazz. The built-in battery will last up to 14 hours for audio. Interestingly, the back says this in fine print: "Hello from Seattle." The Zune, which is manufactured by Toshiba but completely designed by Microsoft, is an original-looking player with a style of its own.
It's a durable device that will withstand scratches, bumps, and bruises, though the primary seam of the device looks as if it might burst open after a hard fall. The body is minimal with no buttons on the sides, only a hold switch and an earphone jack on top and a proprietary USB/accessories port on the bottom. The screen and main controller are surrounded by a thin, metallic inlay, while the three control buttons are dead simple (the small dedicated back and play/pause buttons are flush with the body).
You'll want to scroll the circular controller at first impulse (maybe even second). A true iPod-like click wheel would have made navigation on this device even easier than it is. In reality, the five-way tactile controller (a.k.a. d-pad; made of black plastic) is easy to use and will reorient when the device is used in landscape mode (only for photos and videos). Unfortunately for southpaws, you can't flip the screen or controllers for left-handed use. Also, there is no dedicated volume control--that is handled on the appropriate screen by using the up and down controllers.
The back of the device features a circular dip and it mirrors the d-pad up front. This is supposed to give you a better feel for the d-pad especially as it's used with two hands in landscape mode. There is no kickstand as seen on some PVPs, but you can always get an optional case with a built-in method for propping up the Zune.
The three-inch screen may not measure up to true portable video players such as the Archos 604, but it is definitely good enough to watch video, view photos, and navigate effectively. It has three brightness settings and though the display is slightly washed out, it's colorful and bright enough for outdoor use. Conveniently, when the backlight turns off, you can still make out the screen on a nice bright day( such as album art), so definitely keep the backlight to a minimum on this battery-hungry device.