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Zune 3.0 review: Zune 3.0

Zune 3.0

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Donald Bell
Donald_Bell.jpg

Donald Bell

Senior Editor / How To

Donald Bell has spent more than five years as a CNET senior editor, reviewing everything from MP3 players to the first three generations of the Apple iPad. He currently devotes his time to producing How To content for CNET, as well as weekly episodes of CNET's Top 5 video series.

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6.7

Zune 3.0

The Good

The Zune jukebox software offers an attractive design, native support for Zune MP3 player hardware, podcast-subscription management, and a fully-stocked music store.

The Bad

The Zune software isn't Mac-compatible, only supports Zune MP3 players, and lacks EQ control and Internet radio. The integrated Zune Marketplace doesn't offer movies, and purchases require you to convert your money into blocks of Microsoft Points.

The Bottom Line

The Zune software is a great complement to the Zune MP3 player, but there are few reasons to use it as a standalone media jukebox.

In order for Microsoft's Zune MP3 player to compete against Apple's iPod, Microsoft not only had to create a great MP3 player; it also had to create a solid software client to compete against iTunes. In doing so,it's created an attractive, full-featured digital-media jukebox that some users may prefer over iTunes or Windows Media Player.

Design
In 2006, the first version of Zune software was little more than a rebranding of Microsoft's clunky-yet-capable Windows Media Player 11. A year later, the Zune software received a complete overhaul that, despite some growing pains, paved the way for the lean and attractive Zune jukebox we see today.

No other jukebox application does a better job than Zune when it comes to providing a clean and uncluttered layout for your media collection. Against a white background, three tabs in the upper left-hand corner of the Zune window separate the main features. From left to right, you'll find tabs for Collection, Marketplace, and Social, as well as a tab for Device that appears when a Zune MP3 player is connected. Each main tab includes a selection of nested tabs for viewing different content. For instance, beneath the Collection tab you'll find specific tabs for the media stored on your computer, including Music, Videos, Photos, Podcasts, and Channels. We found the Zune's nested-tab navigation much more intuitive than the pull-down menus of Windows Media Player and a refreshing change from the spreadsheet-like navigation offered in iTunes. It's also easy to appreciate small design touches, such as a selection of background patterns, columns that resize when dragged, and a Now Playing view filled with cover art from your collection.


If you're turned off by the cramped layout of iTunes or Windows Media Player, the Zune software offers a spacious and uncluttered alternative.

Features
The Zune software hits all the main features of an iTunes alternative. You can import your music and video collections (MP3, AAC, WMA; MPEG4, H.264, WMV, and ASF), create playlists, burn and rip CDs, organize your photos, subscribe to podcasts, and browse the integrated Zune Marketplace for new media. Compared with earlier versions of the Zune software, people can now perform relatively detailed ID3-tag editing, manually or automatically attach album artwork to songs, create intelligent playlists, and sort music files using a wider range of criteria (conductor, release year, composer, play count, and more).

Features that distinguish Zune from its competitors include an integrated tab for managing a Zune Social account, social music sharing for people who create a free Zune Social account, a Picks page that recommends new music and common listeners from within the Zune community, and a unique Mix view that allows you to discover and preview music that relates to the currently playing artist.

The Zune software also includes support for a Zune Pass subscription music plan, which offers unlimited music downloads from the Zune Marketplace store for a flat fee of $14.99 per month. When it comes to listening to music on your computer, we prefer using lower-price subscription services, such as Napster or Rhapsody, however, the Zune Pass is your only option for getting subscription music onto a Zune MP3 player. Likewise, the only MP3 player compatible with Zune Pass is the Zune. The quality and selection of music available through a Zune Pass subscription is equal to what you'll find with other services, and content can be shared with up to three Zune devices. The Zune Pass also includes a Channels feature (similar to Rhapsody Channels), which automatically downloads weekly playlists of new music.

The Zune software has plenty to brag about, but there are some disappointing omissions. Compared with iTunes, the Zune software doesn't include Internet radio stations, there's no way to stream music between computers (you can stream to Xbox 360, however), you can't export playlists, and sound enhancement features (such as EQ, volume leveling, and crossfade) simply aren't available. By the same comparison, the Zune Marketplace doesn't offer the audiobooks, feature-length movies, and video rentals found on the iTunes Store.

Another quirk of the Zune Marketplace is its use of fictional currency called "Microsoft Points," which you'll need to buy prior to checkout. Points are non-refundable and can only be purchased in increments of $5, $15, $25, and $50, which typically results in an unused balance. The Points system (which is also used by Xbox 360) is complicated and a poor value compared with purchasing music from popular digital-music retailers, such as Amazon, eMusic, and Rhapsody.

Performance
The stability and speed of the Zune software has noticeably improved since Version 2.0, despite the introduction of graphically intense features, such as Mix View. Under the Settings menu, you can now adjust the Zune software's graphic performance to match your computer's capabilities.

The Zune software is compatible with Windows XP and Windows Vista, but Mac users are left out in the cold. The download is free, installation is painless (unlike the headaches we experienced in 2007), and the support from both the user community and from Microsoft is relatively good.

Zune's software isn't one of our top choices as a standalone PC media jukebox, but it pulls off a visually pleasing and effective way to organize music, photos, videos, and podcasts on your computer. When it comes to managing content between your computer and a Zune MP3 player, however, the Zune software does an outstanding job of seamlessly shuttling podcasts, playlists, subscription music, and song ratings back and forth. Unfortunately, the relevance and appeal of the Zune software is directly tied to the popularity of the Zune MP3 player. Until the Zune MP3 player becomes a household staple, or its software begins supporting other MP3 players, the usefulness of the Zune jukebox software will remain limited.


6.7

Zune 3.0

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7