Zune review: Zune

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.

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.