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Zune 3.0 review: Zune 3.0

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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.

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