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.
Last November, Microsoft released the first-generation Zune to a predominantly iPod-toting nation. While the first-generation Zune is not without its devotees, the device came to epitomize Microsoft's awkwardness at marketing itself as hip. Having survived its freshman hazing, the Zune is back for its sophomore revenge, and the iPod has every reason to be frightened. With a new design, higher capacity, wireless sync capability, larger screen, and integrated support for audio and video podcasts, the new 80GB Zune ($249) is finally giving everyone a true alternative to the iPod.
The 80GB Zune cuts a much slimmer figure than its bricklike older brother. Measuring 4.3 inches high by 2.4 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep, Microsoft shaved some considerable bulk off the Zune's thickness, while nearly tripling its capacity. Beyond its more pocket-worthy form, the two major improvements to the Zune's hardware design are its screen and its navigation pad.
With a diagonal measurement of 3.2 inches, the 80GB Zune's luxuriously large LCD screen leaves the 2.5-inch screen of the iPod Classic in the dust. The screen size may seem like a marginal improvement from the first-generation Zune's 3-inch screen, but the 80GB Zune's use of an optical glass screen shield (instead of plastic) further distinguishes it from its older sibling, as well as the competition. The Zune's new glass screen not only affords the device a sophisticated feel, but it also provides a more scratch-resistant surface with less optical distortion than the ubiquitous plastic variety.
The second major improvement engineered into the new fleet of Zune MP3 players is a completely unique navigation control that Microsoft dubs the Zune Pad. You can think of the Zune Pad as a cross between a standard four-direction navigation pad and a laptop's touch pad. With the Zune Pad, users can navigate menus by either pressing or sliding their finger in four directions, and select items by clicking on the middle of the pad. We we're initially skeptical about the Zune Pad's usability compared with 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.
The most significant design change to the Zune is an overhauled 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 the first-generation Zune remains, the main menu screen has been replaced with stunning, oversized text that takes readability to the next level. This same main menu screen can be customized with a background image from your digital photo collection. Existing Zune loyalists will be very happy to know that Microsoft is offering the new Zune operating system as a free upgrade to all first-generation Zune owners.
The 80GB Zune has a handful of smaller cosmetic changes worth noting, as well. The back of the Zune is now covered with a matte-finished aluminum etched with the Zune logo (or custom-etched by Microsoft's ZuneOriginals.net). The top edge of the Zune now features an inch-long mirrored plastic window for its built-in Wi-Fi antenna. Lastly, the 80GB Zune includes a pair of high-quality, Zune-branded, sound-isolating earphones constructed with a cloth-braided cable.
We admit the first-generation Zune certainly wasn't the coolest-looking MP3 player on the block, but its features were fairly advanced. With subscription music support, wide-screen video playback, Wi-Fi music sharing, high-quality photo viewer, RBDS-enabled FM radio, and composite video output, the original Zune looked like a serious iPod challenger on paper. The 80GB Zune maintains all of the original Zune's compelling features and ups the ante with tightly integrated audio and video podcast support, as well as the unique ability to automatically sync content over a home wireless network.
Ever since Apple rolled podcast support into its iPod and iTunes products back in 2005, no one has been able to match its 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, links are provided to both recommend the podcast for inclusion, as well as add the podcast manually by copying and pasting its URL into the Zune software. In the end, podcast downloads, autosync 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 podcast 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 were also happy to see that the Zune includes a playback resume option for digesting long podcasts in sections.
The second major addition to the Zune's set of features is the 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 it is plugged 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.
The audio, video, photo, and radio features of the Zune are largely unchanged from the first generation--which isn't a bad thing, really. The Zune's music player supports MP3, WMA, protected-WMA (Zune Marketplace only), WMA Lossless, and AAC music file formats. The inclusion of the high-fidelity WMA Lossless music format on a high-capacity player like the 80GB Zune should make more than a few audio purists very pleased, and the continued support for AAC opens the door for iPod converts (although DRM-protected iTunes purchases are still unsupported).
The Zune supports WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 video formats natively at a DVD-quality 30fps frame rate. Windows Media Center users will be happy to know that the Zune also imports DVR-MS recorded video content. Although the Zune's screen displays at a 320x240 resolution, video files stored on the Zune can be as large as 720x480 and played at full resolution through the composite video output built into the Zune's headphone jack. An optional Zune AV dock can output video using a higher quality component cable. Unlike the iPod, the Zune's built-in video output mirrors its onscreen display, which means that all of the Zune's features (including menus) can display on your TV.
With its support of RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) station information, the Zune's FM radio is one of the best available on a handheld device. Depending on the broadcaster, the Zune's FM radio displays station call letters, genre, as well as the currently playing artist and song information. The Zune's radio is dependent on a connected pair of headphones to act as an antenna, however, so don't be surprised if the radio doesn't work while the Zune is connected to an AV dock. Users can switch between European, North American, and Japanese radio bands from the Zune's radio settings menu.
Aside from its wireless-sync capability, the Zune's most intriguing feature is its ability to share music and photos between users. With the latest version of the Zune PC software, the social aspect of recommending music and showing off your music interests can now reach beyond Zune users who are within range of your Wi-Fi antenna. Zune users are now encouraged to set up their Zune Card, giving them an online identity that reveals their listening habits and favorite songs to the world, and opens up the opportunity to discover and recommend new music through interaction with other Zune users. The new Zune Card online community may be a bit much for some people, but plans to integrate the Zune Card for use with larger social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace may provide an automatic way to update your friends on your musical tastes.
While the Zune is one of the more full-featured MP3 players on the market, there are some competitive features it lacks. If you're looking for a voice recorder, line-input recorder, or FM radio recorder, you'll need to look elsewhere. Without support for Audible audio books or audio file bookmarking, the Zune is probably not our first choice for book lovers. The most shocking feature not found in the latest crop of Zunes is an audio EQ control (see the Performance section below).
Using the Zune also means using the Zune's PC-only software. The Zune software has seen a major overhaul from its days of looking like a hipster-skinned version of Windows Media Player. The new Zune software interface is shockingly clean and bright. New icons lining the bottom edge of the software make playlist creation and content syncing much more intuitive. Fans of Windows Media Player will definitely need some time to adjust to the new file and category organization, but we believe the new system is more intuitive.
As with iTunes, the main benefit of giving the Zune its own dedicated software is the ability to integrate an online music store (Zune Marketplace) alongside the users' own music library. The Zune Marketplace is also seeing a refresh, with added DRM-free download content, more attractive artist pages, better genre-based editorial content, a podcast directory, and more granular subcategories within genres. The Zune Marketplace is still missing the TV and movie content found through competitors such as iTunes, although it does offer music videos. Expect Microsoft to make another big push for its all-you-can-eat Zune Pass music subscription service.
The Achilles' heel of the Zune is its built-in Wi-Fi antenna. As any laptop owner knows, a Wi-Fi antenna sucks a lot of juice and can wreck battery performance. To optimize the Zune's battery life in spite of its Wi-Fi capabilities, Microsoft decided to ditch the built-in audio equalizer found on the first-generation Zune. While one can argue that EQ presets are simply a Band-Aid for poor quality earbuds, there's just no way to feel good about having a perfectly good feature ripped away from a product. Luckily, Microsoft includes a pair of high-quality dynamic driver earphones with the 80GB Zune to maximize the perceived audio quality out of the box. Listening on our full-size Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones, we were more than satisfied with the Zune's fidelity (especially considering its support for WMA Lossless). That said, bass addicts, control freaks, and people with partial hearing loss will certainly be disappointed with the Zune's lack of sound enhancement.
Video performance on the 80GB Zune is quite good. The Zune's 3.2-inch screen is a monster, bested only by the iPod Touch and full-fledged PVPs. The glass-covered 320x240 LCD presents excellent viewing angles, with above-average clarity and color. With the recent addition of podcast support, the 80GB Zune is unquestionably the high-capacity choice for video podcast fans. Support for Windows Media Center DVR content is just icing on the cake.
Unfortunately, the 80 GB Zune's battery life is only average when held up to a high-capacity competitor such as the iPod Classic. With the Wi-Fi feature turned off, Microsoft rates the Zune's battery life at 30 hours for audio, and 4 hours for video. Our CNET Labs found that the Microsoft Zune 80 is realistically capable of 22 hours of audio-only playback with the Wi-Fi feature turned off, or 18.5 hours with the Wi-Fi feature enabled. Compared with the 45 hours of audio-only playback our lab was able to squeeze from Apple's 80GB iPod Classic, the Zune 80's lackluster battery performance is a notable disadvantage. In the context of the first-generation Zune's 13 hours of audio playback, however, the Zune 80's 22 hours is a relative step forward. Our CNET Labs testing concluded that the Zune 80's video playback battery performance nearly matches Microsoft's 4-hour claim. During testing, the Zune 80 managed 3.8 hours of video playback with Wi-Fi off, and 3.7 hours with Wi-Fi active.
We can spend pages listing the Zune's features, but when it comes down to it, Microsoft's biggest achievement will be overcoming the Zune stigma still lingering from last year's debut. With its beautiful screen, podcast integration, revamped interface, and wireless sync, we believe the latest crop of Zunes should finally take hold as a true iPod alternative.