Editors' note 10/31/2008: This review has been updated to include battery life data resulting from CNET Labs' testing.
Slowly but surely, Microsoft's Zune is staking its claim as a legitimate alternative to Apple's iPod line of MP3 players. Last year, Microsoft focused its efforts on overhauling the Zune's hardware and public image. This year, Microsoft has turned its attention to improving the Zune firmware and desktop software, while updating the storage capacity and pricing of new models to stay competitive.
The design of the flash-memory Zune models--offered in 4GB, 8GB, and 16GB capacities at $129.99, $149.99, and $199.99 respectively--is almost entirely unchanged from the Zunes we reviewed last year. The face of the player is now covered with a glossy plastic that, although pretty, is more prone to smudges and scratches than the matte finish on last year's model. The flash-based Zune measures the same 3.6 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.33 inch as last year's. Also, no changes have been made to the Zune's navigation controls, headphone jack, hold switch, dock connection, or 1.8-inch glass-covered LCD. Considering Apple's strategy of altering its iPod design every fall (for better or for worse), it's a little unnerving to see the Zune's hardware design at a standstill. The upshot of the Zune's lack of design tinkering is that it maintains the product's compatibility with the handful of accessories designed for the player.
The bulk of the third-generation Zune's improvements are found by flicking through its main menu. New menu items for Games and Marketplace have been added alongside existing selections for Music, Videos, Pictures, Social, Radio, Podcasts, and Settings. The Zune's primary purpose as a high-quality portable music player hasn't changed. If anything, the enhancements offered by the third-generation firmware have bolstered the unique music-discovery and sharing features that have differentiated the Zune from the very beginning.
One of the more notable new features on the Zune is a Marketplace selection in the main menu that allows you to browse, preview, and download music directly from Microsoft's Zune Marketplace online store. Within the Marketplace submenu you can choose between browsing Top Songs, Top Albums, and New Releases, or search for specific music by keying in a few letters. Songs can be previewed for 30 seconds with the option to add them to your virtual cart or purchase and download immediately. By signing up for Microsoft's Zune Pass music-subscription service (a free 14-day trial is available), you can download unlimited music to your Zune for a flat fee of $15 a month. Otherwise, you'll need to purchase songs a la carte by setting up a payment account in the Zune desktop software.
Your Zune needs to be connected to a Wi-Fi Internet hot spot to take advantage of the Marketplace feature. Fortunately, Microsoft has improved the Zune's capability to step through public Wi-Fi hot spots and it's even struck a deal with fast-food giant McDonald's to have the Zune supported by the Wayport Wi-Fi hot spots found in many McDonald's restaurants. If your local Wi-Fi requires you to enter a password, you can enter it manually using the Zunepad. The Zune will remember and associate your Wi-Fi passwords so that you'll only need to enter them once.
The Zune already had one of the best FM-radio tuners available on an MP3 player, including support for detailed station and song information by way of the Radio Broadcast Data System (RBDS). With the third-generation Zune, Microsoft has taken the RBDS-enhanced FM radio even further, by allowing users to tag the songs they hear so they can download them later.
The radio-tagging feature only works with FM-radio stations that broadcast artist and song information over RBDS (we found five compatible stations in San Francisco). Tagged songs are added to your Zune shopping cart, just as songs added using the Marketplace feature are, and can be downloaded directly to your Zune over Wi-Fi or previewed and purchased using the Zune desktop software. The radio-tagging feature is fun to use, but in our experience, the stations that were compatible with RBDS were typically mainstream radio outlets with a limited amount of new music in rotation. Still, we're happy to see Zune giving users as many ways as possible to discover and acquire new music.
The addition of games for the Zune helps keep the device competitive against the iPod, but it doesn't compare with the quality of games we're seeing for the iPod Touch. Two games, Hexic and Texas Hold 'Em, are included with the Version 3.0 Zune firmware, with new games soon to come for the Zune Marketplace.
The audio, video, and photo features of the Zune are largely unchanged from the previous generation--which isn't a bad thing, really. The Zune's music player supports MP3, WMA, protected-WMA (Zune Marketplace only), WMA Lossless, AAC, and Audible audio file formats. The inclusion of the high-fidelity WMA Lossless music format on a high-capacity player like the 120GB Zune should make more than a few audio purists very pleased, and the continued support for AAC opens the door for iPod converts (although DRM-protected iTunes purchases are still unsupported). Audiobook enthusiasts should be happy to see a new gadget for taking their Audible and OverDrive audiobooks on the go.