The Zune's software counterpart, Zune Marketplace, is an essential part of the Zune music experience, and overall it matches the Zune in simplicity, functionality, performance, and potential. Mimicking iTunes' closed ecosystem strategy, Zune Marketplace (ZM) is mostly suitable for Zune owners only. It's not bad as a stand-alone jukebox, but it won't work with non-Zunes and certain desirable features such as the radio (ZM uses playlists instead), a video download section, and podcast management don't yet exist. Still for Zune owners, especially those who sign up for a subscription, ZM is a nice seamless experience. Just understand you'll probably be using another application to fill in its missing gaps.
Zune Marketplace software ships with the Zune. There's a downloadable version at Zune.net so try it out if you're interested. At the very least, try browsing the music store and listen to 30-second samples. Of course, you'll have to have a modern Windows box with "XP Home or Pro with SP2, Windows XP Tablet PC SP2, or Windows XP Media Center 2005 with Rollup Update 2 and Oct. 2006 Rollup Update." Vista support won't be available until its official January 30 launch.
Installing Zune Marketplace was uncomplicated and straightforward, though I've heard some reports of installation issues. The whole process took 30 minutes. After checking for updates and the actual install and reboot, you'll be asked to connect a Zune (you can skip this). Then you get an option to stream your media to an Xbox 360. ZM automatically scans your existing music library (nonprotected only) for import, including any nonprotected music and playlists from iTunes. This includes MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files. Along the way, you'll get the option to add video (MPEG-4, H.264, and unprotected WMV) and photo files (JPEG).
ZM will not import DivX, OGG, and WMA files purchased from stores such as Napster (DRM9) or even WMV video files purchased from sites such as Amazon Unbox. While there are ways to get this stuff converted, it can be a pain in the butt for those with a library of diverse formats.
It's easy to add music to your library after the fact, and by default the software monitors folders for new additions automatically. I did notice the software scans all your media folders if you add a new folder--a bit of a waste of time considering it monitors for updates automatically in the background.
The last hurdle is creating your Zune Tag, which identifies you to the Zune community. This requires you to enter a Windows Live ID so you can purchase tracks or join the ZunePass service. You don't need to have an ID if you simply want to listen to high-quality 30-second samples. You'll notice the Zune Marketplace goes through an initial download of its catalog database; much of the store's information is stored locally.
The Zune Marketplace pays major homage to Windows Media Player 11 and Urge, at least in interface structure, but similar to the Zune, it does have a style all its own. ZM's dark gray skin has a modern edge and uses its space wisely with decipherable icons spread across the top (there is no skinning available, though there is a mini player version, activated by clicking an icon in the lower right corner). You can right-click almost anywhere to get options, though there is a dedicated options button next to where you sign in with your Windows Live ID.
Down at the bottom sits the playback control bar with volume slider, shuffle, repeat, and a tiny currently playing section that features album art or visuals. The main control buttons are styled just like the Zune's. To the right of those appear messages related to syncing, searching, and any other jukebox activities.
The main left-navigation pane is divided into music, video, and pictures sections, and collapsible nav items include in order, in-box, playlists, library, marketplace (only in music), any CDs that might be loaded, and any Zune device attached. When fully expanded, these items can run off the page especially if you have two Zunes attached, but the excellent contrast between heading and subheadings helps give ZM an uncluttered feel. Showing only recent playlists will shrink the list a bit.
The in-box is an innovative way to bring shared music and photos into one place for easy retrieval or chronicling. Even if your shared music has exceeded its play rights, it will show up here so you can easily purchase it from the store if you like. Also songs and items flagged by a user on the Zune will show up in the in-box.
Zune Marketplace is playlist-centric and more so if you subscribe to ZunePass. As mentioned, ZM will actually import playlists from iTunes if applicable, though only non-DRM songs will show up. You can drag and drop content into playlist names or create them by hitting the playlist icon in the upper-right corner and dragging and dropping content in the right-hand list column (playlist creation also can occur in the left pane). You can pull individual songs, albums, other playlists, and even video and photos into a playlist. Similar to iTunes, you can create a smart playlist (a.k.a. auto playlist) and set conditions for automatically generated and updated playlists. Some playlists I created were "MP3s only" and "Most popular." CD burning and syncing works the same way using the same column, which offers an advantage over iTunes because you can monitor both library and a play/burn/sync list simultaneously.
The main browser window is expansive and feels very much like Windows Media Player 11 with its stackable album art, icon, tile, and details viewing options. You can select from a wide array of columns to customize your library (so you could sort by play count, bit rate, and protected). Though you won't get the flashy effects of iTunes' Cover Flow, the library experience is A-OK. I do prefer the alternating white and blue of iTunes' (and Rhapsody's) browser window.
The basics are mostly covered by ZM. The tag editor is straightforward and batchable, and the program will automatically search for missing metadata, including album art (an important factor considering the Zune's album-centric display). ZM will rip a CD into WMA (max 192Kbps), WMA Lossless, and MP3 (max 320Kbps), and you can burn data or audio CDs. ZM borrows from Windows Media Player a feature where playlists are automatically divided up by CD, so you can really customize multiple CDs at a time. You also can apply volume leveling across tracks and add either M3U or ZPL (Zune playlist) files to the CD. Managing your music in ZM is fairly easy, though it would have been a huge bonus for users to allow PlaysForSure compatibility--even if it wasn't marketed that way.
Anything showing up in ZM will work on the Zune. You'll need another application to convert DivX and other popular but nonsupported files into a supported format. Same goes for a BMP image--it needs to be converted into JPEG. For those files ZM does support, they will be automatically transcoded (oftentimes in the background) into WMA or WMV when synced with the Zune. Hopefully someday, the Zune's Wi-Fi will be able to sync with ZM wirelessly (and for the user, unconsciously).
You also won't get the nice podcast integration in either the software or store that you see in iTunes. Sure, you can create a podcast folder, but you don't get some of the polish such as self-deleting podcasts. Again, you'll have to use another program to subscribe to podcasts.
You also don't get a true radio feature. Instead, ZM relies on prefabricated genre, artist, or guest DJ playlists (and many of them are great) but it feels less random, plus you have to join ZunePass for it. There is no free radio option as seen in iTunes (though these are just links) or Rhapsody.
Getting lost in the shuffle is the decent set of equalizers (no custom) and visuals (you only get three types though). Sound quality is excellent as is video playback and responsiveness. In fact, I think ZM is much more stable and usable than Windows Media Player. You also can set your ZM to be discoverable by any Xbox 360 on your network to stream all files. We hope Microsoft institutes ZM-to-ZM sharing as well.
The store and service
Zune Marketplace has the same Microsoft points system utilized by Xbox Live. Songs for purchase cost 79 points, which equates to 99 cents. I still don't get this system and it's sure to frustrate many users on a philosophical level, but not in a usability level. Typically you buy your points in bulk so you don't need to worry about the whole one-click credit card charge process.
The Zune store features more than 2 million tracks, which pales into comparison to iTunes' 3.5 million tracks. But the selection is diverse and prefab playlists are an excellent place to start discovering music. It would be nice if there was a way to make customized playlists from within the store or a "smart" playlist function that created a track list based on a few designated songs or genres. Colorful promos and album art, as well as logical organization and decent editorial content gives this store some substance. For example, on the genre level page, the browser is split into a promo/featured and top songs area and an album cover "bin" area. The bin can be sorted by new releases, artist, styles, album playlists, and so on. The only thing I don't like about this design is you can't resize those areas.
Purchased tracks are good quality 192Kbps WMA, but because they are DRM9.1, they will not work anywhere except within Zune Marketplace and on a Zune. This mirrors iPod/iTunes to a T. Interoperability issues aside (and it's a huge issue), the Zune and store work well with each other and you'd expect the library to grow quickly. Purchased tracks can be burned to CD up to seven times, synced an unlimited amount of times to an unlimited number of Zune devices, and can be used on five different computers.
I'd imagine a high percentage of Zunesters will at least try the ZunePass subscription service, which costs $14.99 per month (you can do better with multiple months). The days of subscription performance nightmares are over, and it's a really great way to fill your Zune up to the brim. Drag multiple playlists and albums, sync, and you've got a nice library of songs you can flag (or send to other Zunesters). While you can't burn Zune Pass songs (you have to buy them first), you can sync your Zune Pass with two Zunes, meaning a subscription costs about $7.50 per month if you share with a housemate. You also can stream subscription content to up to three Xbox 360s (and hopefully later with other ZM users.)
It would be a nice extra to be able to automatically fill a Zune with nearly 30GB of subscription music. Subscription is one area iPod users can only dream about at this point. Of course, as with all subscription services, you might not be able to download and/or purchase everything that's in the catalog (and you definitely won't be able to share every song with other Zunesters). If you're on the fence, you can try ZunePass for 14 days without giving up your credit card, though be aware that all the tracks you download or transfer will not work sometime after your subscription ends.
So what's missing from the store (besides radio)? You'd expect the Zune with its nice big screen to have a source of video, but ZM is devoid of this. Video will be developed, you can count on that, but for now, you can't even get Amazon Unbox videos to work on the device. Your Zune/ZM video collection will be comprised of unprotected media and lots of self-converted DivX files. There's also no user reviews or user playlists and no connections to similar artists on the Marketplace's artist pages.
I had no trouble getting my two test PCs to recognize the Zune. It's evident Microsoft spent lots of energy making the relationship fluid and responsive. My prior frustrations with some PlaysForSure devices not being recognized by Windows Media Player and other jukeboxes such as Rhapsody diminished as I was able to connect as easily as I do with iPod/iTunes. Transfer times are very quick, even for subscription tracks (which historically have been trouble).
When you add an additional Zune to the mix, the software will ask you if you want to sync and associate with the library permanently or act as a guest. Guesting allows for the transferring of any songs in the library but these files must be manually removed and music and metatag data is not synced up.
ZM will automatically check for device updates if you have a sync relationship. You'll also be asked to install it if an update exists. I imagine the Zune will have many updates.
Overall, Zune Marketplace is a solid partner for the Zune--it's definitely not a lemon. It's missing some elements that many users find critical, such as podcast support, radio streaming, and a source for video, but I'd imagine Microsoft will be proactive about releasing updates that will add these features and more. Most of all, the software is easy to use and works hitch free (so far) with Zune devices.