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Zune review: Zune

The Microsoft Zune with its intuitive interface and solid playback performance will please most users. But lukewarm format support and the cool but limited Wi-Fi capability will have advanced users seeking more. The Zune is a very good start, though.

James Kim
James Kim

Account in memoriam for the editor.

14 min read

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.

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8.0

Zune

The Good

The Microsoft Zune has very good playback performance of audio, video, and photos; intuitive and colorful interface; good FM radio with RDS; works well with Zune Marketplace software; integrated wireless allows sharing of songs (limited) and photos; many accessories available at launch.

The Bad

The Microsoft Zune is not backward compatible with WMA-DRM9; weak native video support (cannot play protected content) and no video offerings from Zune Marketplace; cannot be used as a hard drive (and no UMS support); proprietary USB; cannot use Wi-Fi to sync, stream, or purchase content; minimal bundled accessories; no podcast directory; maximum capacity is 30GB.

The Bottom Line

The Microsoft Zune, with its intuitive interface and solid playback performance, will please most users. But lukewarm format support and the cool but limited Wi-Fi capability will have advanced users seeking more. The Zune is a very good start, though.

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.


Two Zunes partially unboxed. The packaging is sophisticated--you know a lot of thought went into its presentation. The box ships with the Zune, earbuds with foam pads (ugly but effective), a soft case, a rubbery proprietary USB cable (don't lose it), software, a couple of quick guides, and of course, a Zune sticker.

Body design:
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 compared it to a prototype. I will say that a protective case such as Belkin's clear case does make it too big for my tastes.


Does size matter? The 30GB Microsoft Zune (brown) next to an 80GB iPod 30GB, a 30GB Toshiba Gigabeat S, and a 30GB Creative Zen Vision:M.

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).


The top: hold switch and earphone jack. The bottom: proprietary USB/accessories port. You can't call the Zune interface messy.

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 back of the Zune is clean and features only a logo, the circular indent, and includes the words, "Hello from Seattle."

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.

Interface:
The GUI is attractive, intuitive, and customizable with your own photo. The main menu features music, videos, pictures, radio, community, and settings options. As mentioned, the twist navigation makes it convenient to find albums, artists, genres, and playlists without returning to the main menu. Pressing either up or down will quickly scroll through lists, and as seen on the iPod and the Gigabeat S before it, the first letter appears as an overlay (this does not work for photos). When scrolling through album titles, the thumbnails will disappear. From the "sophisticated interface" department, the appearance of menu items will dim the background image or content, and videos will continue to play in the background when you call up its info screen.

The unit's large screen makes it easy to view content--up to 10 songs per page (fewer items are shown for albums, which feature tiny thumbnails of album art. Photo thumbnails are small but numerous. The playback screen is album-art centric, with the art covering at least 70 percent of the screen and fully flush with the screen's edges. A neat, round, glowing marker lets you know where you are in the track (the same glow is used in the volume indicator, which shows up in the upper-left corner when activated). This is consistent within the Zune software, too.

Hitting the center select button during playback of any media will open a context-sensitive menu (PMC software requires hitting left or right). For music, you'll get the option to adjust play mode, rate the song, show a song list, or flag a song (flagged songs and photos transfer to the Zune software in list form and will show up front and center). Strangely, you can't access the numerous EQ settings from this menu.

Features:
Here's where things get tricky, particularly if you're a hard-core portable-media fan. The unit will play back MP3, protected WMA (the Zune-kind only called WMA-DRM9.1), and unprotected AAC. No native Audible, WAV, or WMA Lossless playback. If you have $200 worth of Wal-Mart tracks, you're in trouble. (You'll have to burn and rip, or find some way to convert). If you're into subscription services, the $14.95-per-month ZunePass is your only choice.

Video support is worse. There is no video content available for purchase on the Zune Marketplace at launch. (It will, however, feature more than two million tracks, both a la carte and subscription.) It supports WMV natively--Zune software will convert MPEG-4 and H264 files to WMV--but it does not support DRM video, so, no Amazon Unbox and no Vongo. The software will not support DivX or XviD either, so you'll have to find a third-party conversion method. Too bad the video support is weak, since the three-inch screen is nice (beats the iPod), and the player controls are precise. (Video does feature unlimited bookmarking.) The device can output to a TV full on with the Zune GUI, but videos play back only at the compressed-for-Zune size. Microsoft has some work ahead if it wants to transform this music-centric device into a competitive video device. Media Center support would have given the Zune a nice source for content. But again, it's not a matter of the hardware--it's because Microsoft seeks to simplify the experience, presumably for new buyers of portable players, and then expand features as the Zune community grows and evolves.

Photo support is limited to JPEGs, and the Zune software will not convert other file types as it would in Windows Media Player. We do love that you can wirelessly beam photos to other users with no limitations, though the feature is useless without other Zunesters in site. You can listen to music while viewing photos and slide shows, but you can't assign a song to a specific slide show. Slides show transitions happen in increments from 3 to 15 seconds, with only one transition type, which is fade. While viewing a photo, you can zoom in with one step and navigate around the screen.

The FM-radio interface is minimal and simple to use. On-screen, you see a linear, dial-like line with the station above it in large numerals. There seems to be unlimited available presets, but no autoscan for them. Instead, the device can be put in autoscan mode, which simply goes to the next clean channel. We do like the built-in RDS (radio data system) feature that will display the station, the genre, and sometimes the song title on certain compatible channels.

Got to have two to share:
Out of the box, our Zune did not have community or Wi-Fi features. New Zunes will go through an automatic firmware update (the review unit has Version 1.1 loaded) upon connection to the Zune Marketplace software.

Sharing content by using ad hoc Wi-Fi is pretty cool, although it is limited to sharing within a range of 30 feet, and you can't share video. Microsoft stated that in open space, the range is closer to 40 and higher. Also, you can't just jump onto anybody's Zune and start cherry-picking--the only way to initiate contact is to share your music, not "steal it." It takes about two or three seconds to find anyone in range. You initiate by turning on the Wi-Fi, choosing the Community option, and selecting Nearby. The two other Zunes in our room appeared, and we could view what they were hearing, such as "Listening to radio 105.1FM." You'll find all files sent to you in the in-box area. This keeps this temporary library separated from the regular library to avoid confusion. Contrary to popular belief, there is no DRM wrapper placed on the file. Instead, the device's in-box manages the rights. You can choose to clear the in-box or a specific file, but that info will still be transferred to the Zune software, which features an in-box view. This is where you can pick up the songs you like or have flagged.


Two Zunes sharing.

While many will complain about the limitations of Wi-Fi on this device (and I'm not talking about three days/three plays), Microsoft wants the overall experience to be as simple as possible...and it is. Look for Microsoft to expand the Wi-Fi capabilities soon. It takes about 10 seconds to transfer a song. Longer songs can take up to 15 seconds. Since you can play a song three times or within three days, you might be wondering what happens if you play a part of the song. A "play" equals at least one minute or half the song, whichever comes first. I'd love to see a customizable thumbnail that identifies your device to other users--today, it's just text. However, you can set your Zune to display either details to other Zunesters (such as "Listening to Regina Spektor") or a basic "online" message. You can block specific users from sending content to you. One interesting note: if you're listening to music and someone wants to send you a song and you say yes, your music will stop and not automatically continue after the download. So blocking some antsy users might be a good move. Conversely, if you want to send someone a song, you'll have to do so by backing up to the song's menu page, or in some cases within the playback context menu. Once you send the file, your music will stop playing, so in a way, sharing spoils the personal party.

No definitive word about Zune-to-PC wireless transfers or network-based sharing or purchasing, but I imagine this will come eventually.

Software and overall performance:
The Zune Marketplace software is a critical part of the Zune experience and Microsoft has mostly gotten the two to work very well with each other. Based on the Windows Media Player in design, the interface is dark, clean, and stable. It's aesthetically pleasing and functional, with lots of album art represented and sparse text in the left-hand navigation pane. The left-hand pane features all of your content broken down into music, video, and photos, and at the top is an in-box view that displays all content shared, plus anything you've flagged. Here is an example of the usefulness of the in-box: a friend has shared a tune with you and it expires. The content will show up in your inbox even after it's expired so you can conveniently hit the search button to locate and purchase it (nice way to get more sales, Microsoft). Digging deeper, I noticed that there's no easy way to separate out your purchased tracks from the din. Zune peops--please add a purchased tracks (or subscription) tracks playlist.

The Zune Marketplace jukebox features are fairly standard--burning, ripping, and music management, though power users might want to use an additional piece of software for deeper activities such as transcoding, podcasts (no podcast section), and recording. It will rip CDs into MP3, WMA, and WMA Lossless (though the Zune will not play lossless files) at up to 192Kbps. The Zune Marketplace does have a Media Sharing feature that allows you to stream music, video, and photos to an Xbox 360. The device itself can be connected to an Xbox 360 via USB.

The Zune Marketplace debuts with more than two million songs (that are not compatible with non-Zune devices) and will include a ZunePass subscription for $14.95 per month. Users must sign into (or create) a Windows Live account and must purchase Microsoft points to buy a track. The point system is a carry over from Xbox Live and makes sense when considering how the Zune and Xbox universe will overlap. But come on now...79 points equals 99 cents? No video is available for purchase, though we suspect that won't be the case for long. I was able to purchase several songs (and no, they don't work with players such as the Creative Zen Vision:M) and the transaction and download process was quick and tidy. I really like how the Marketplace is organized--thumbnail pics, lists of top songs, and easy access to genre pages much akin to the Urge music store--but I don't like how the program won't stay at the last Marketplace page visited. In other words, if you're checking out an album, then you go to your library page, then you hit Marketplace again, it will start back on the home page (this can be averted by using the software's back and forward buttons). My experience with ZunePass was solid. After signing up, I dragged several premade playlists and albums to the Zune icon and syncing was quick and painless. Though some songs did not make it to the player because of DRM rules (same applies for all subscription services), I'd have to rate the experience higher than Urge, maybe similar to Rhapsody. The subscription aspect (though not as sophisticated as Rhapsody or Napster yet) gives the Zune a huge upside, especially over the iPod.

As reported earlier, battery life is rated for 14 hours of audio playback. With Wi-Fi turned on (and no sharing), battery life decreases to about 13 hours. This is not great, but so far the battery life hasn't taken away from the experience. I spent a bit of time listening to music and sharing songs and photos and realized that the Wi-Fi isn't going to thrash the battery into pulp. Each Zune in my possession averaged about 10 hours of music playbck time with about 50 to 60 files shared. Officially, CNET Labs got 13.2 hours for audio (with Wi-Fi turned off) and 3.6 hours for video. There is a Zune paradox though--that is, you should turn off Wi-Fi to conserve your battery life, but then you wouldn't be discovered by a fellow Zunester. So doing the sensible thing--having Wi-Fi off--is a potential roadblock in getting "social."

The Zune starts up quickly, particularly from its sleep mode. You may notice a pause here or there while you navigate, but it isn't any more notable than other players. Sound quality is excellent--very similar to the Toshiba Gigabeat S with balanced, punchy sound. The Zune gets pretty loud using the bundled earphones, and they sufficiently powered my big Sony headphones. I did notice a quirk that Microsoft will want to address: you'll hear a one second staticky sizzle when the Wi-Fi is activated. This definitely affects music listening, though it's a rare occurence. The preset EQs (seven in all) do a nice job on sound shaping but we'd prefer to have a custom EQ as well. Also, Microsoft should definitely put the EQ option on the playback menu screen; for now, you'll have to navigate backward to the settings menu. From A/V playback to the quality of the screen, from navigating menus to transferring music from a PC, its performance is excellent.

Overall, the Zune is a well-designed portable media device with good playback performance, a snappy processor, and an excellent interface. Wi-Fi sharing worked well, but prospective owners should know its format support, especially for videos, is limited. The Zune looks like a good fit for MP3 player novices, though we hope Microsoft addresses issues and will make the Zune usable as a hard drive; extend video support to include DRM (which they probably will do when its own video store opens); and open up a true Wi-Fi network. The foundation looks good, though, and those not interested in version 1 of Zune can look forward to improved versions 2, 3, and beyond.

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8.0

Zune

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8
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