Editors' note, August 18, 2009: Microsoft will begin sales of a new model of the Zune (the Zune HD) on September 15. If you're considering the purchase of a Zune, we advise that you wait until Microsoft's September 15th release date in order to evaluate the latest player. Check out CNET's Zune Central for all the latest Microsoft Zune news.
Having survived its freshman hazing, the Zune is back for its sophomore revenge, and the iPod has every reason to be frightened. The Zune 4 (4GB, $149) and Zune 8 (8GB, $199) offer a leaner, lighter version of Microsoft's full-size Zune 80 MP3 player (80GB, $249). With a new hardware and software design, wireless sync capability, subscription music compatibility, and integrated support for audio and video podcasts, the Zune 4 and Zune 8 are poised to compete directly with the third-generation Apple iPod Nano.
The Zune 4 and Zune 8 are Microsoft's first foray into smaller, flash memory-based MP3 players. Zune 4 and Zune are identical to one another in every way but storage capacity, and both come in red, black, green, and pink. Measuring a slight 3.6 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.33 inch, the flash-based Zunes are considerably slimmer than their 80GB hard-drive-based sibling. In the overcrowded marketplace of flash-based MP3 players, however, the dimensions of the Zune 4 and 8 are hardly noteworthy. That said, the Zune 4 and Zune 8 have a nice shape, which feels reminiscent of the first-generation iPod Nano.
One design feature that distinguishes the Zune 4 and Zune 8 from the competition is Microsoft's decision to use a glass-covered LCD instead of plastic. The 1.8-inch glass screen not only lends the device a sophisticated feel, it also provides a more scratch-resistant surface with less optical distortion than the ubiquitous plastic variety. Although the 1.8-inch screen seems minuscule compared with the opulent 3.2-inch screen on the 80GB Zune, the oversized font on the main menu affords a legibility rarely found on pint-size MP3 players.
Another unique design feature is a completely new navigation control that Microsoft dubs the Zune Pad. Think of the Zune Pad as a cross between a standard four-direction navigation pad and a laptop's touchpad. With the Zune Pad, users can navigate menus by either pressing or sliding their finger in four directions and select items by clicking the middle of the pad. We were initially skeptical about the Zune Pad's usability compared to the tried-and-true click pad of the first-generation Zune, but after just a few minutes we found the Zune's old interface to be positively archaic. Navigating lengthy song lists is a breeze, especially with an accelerated scroll kicking in when the pad is held down. The new Zune Pad interface also lets you skip through songs, photos, and radio stations with just a light brush of the finger. Buttons for play/pause and menu still flank each side of the Zune's control pad, and behave exactly as they did in the first-generation Zune. It's hard to say whether the Zune Pad interface is actually better than Apple's patented iPod wheel navigation, but it is certainly comparable. We found the Zune Pad made scrolling long lists of artists much easier than using a scroll wheel, but the iPod's center select button is more reliable than the ambiguously defined button found on the Zune.
The entire Zune product line uses a new graphic user interface that no longer looks like a rehash of the Portable Media Center operating system found on the Toshiba Gigabeat S. While the critically beloved "twist" interface of first-generation Zune remains, the main menu has been replaced with stunning, oversized text that takes readability to the next level. You can customize this same main menu with a background image from your digital photo collection. Existing Zune loyalists will be happy to know that Microsoft is offering the new Zune operating system as a free upgrade to all first-generation Zune owners.
We're also happy to see that the back of the Zune covered with rugged, matte-finished aluminum, etched with the Zune logo. Microsoft has also partnered with a handful of graphic artists to create custom-etched versions of the 4, 8, and 80GB Zunes, which can be ordered directly from Microsoft at ZuneOriginals.net.
With subscription music support, video playback, Wi-Fi music sharing, a high-quality photo viewer, an RBDS-enabled FM radio, and composite video output, the features on the first-generation Zune were already impressive. The second-generation Zunes maintain all of the compelling features of the original and also includes new features such as audio and video podcast support and a unique ability to automatically sync content over a home's wireless network.
Ever since Apple rolled podcast support into its iPod and iTunes products back in 2005, no one has been able to match their seamless integration of audio and video podcast discovery, subscription, and management tools (although Creative's Zencast alternative gets close). With the latest refresh of the Zune PC software, first- and second-generation Zune owners can now enjoy audio and video podcasts with the same ease as their iPod contemporaries. Podcasts now have their own directory within the main menu of the Zune, which is subdivided between audio and video podcasts. The Zune PC software also includes a new podcast tab that allows users to browse through a growing library of podcasts. If your favorite podcast can't be found in the directory, the software lets you both recommend the podcast for inclusion and lets you add the podcast manually by copying and pasting its URL into the Zune software. In the end, podcast downloads, auto-sync preferences, and subscription management match that of iTunes. In fact, Microsoft takes podcast integration a step further by allowing users to unsubscribe from podcasts directly on their Zune--a great feature for podcast junkies who want to tidy up their subscriptions on the go. (Editors' note: Microsoft removed the podcast unsubscribe feature from the Zune's initial firmware release due to instability. Microsoft plans to reintroduce the feature in its next firmware update.) We're also happy to see that the Zune includes a playback resume option that automatically bookmarks your place in a podcast when you can't listen to it all in one sitting.
The Zune 4 and Zune 8's piece de resistance is their ability to wirelessly sync content from your PC over your home Wi-Fi network. The feature requires a one-time setup to familiarize the Zune with your home network, after which it will remember to look for the network automatically each time you plug it in for a recharge. If you're within range of your wireless network but don't feel like recharging your player to trigger the wireless sync, you can also initiate the sync manually by digging through the Zune's settings. Of course, you can always connect the Zune directly to your computer using the included proprietary USB cable, but the wireless option is a neat trick.