Searching the city for Zune-friendly Wi-Fi

CNET News' Ina Fried traverses San Francisco with one of Microsoft's latest music players, to mixed results.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
6 min read

SAN FRANCISCO--One of the nice things about Microsoft's new Zune is that it can download or stream songs at a hot spot. The downside: the music player won't work at just any hot spot.

The big limit is that the Wi-Fi locale not only has to be free, but also of the variety that doesn't pop up a browser window before letting users online. That's because unlike the iPod Touch, the Zune has no browser.

To get a sense of just how big a limitation that was, I decided Wednesday to put on my sneakers and head all over town to see where I could and couldn't get new tunes. I was sure I would have better luck than when I went across town two years ago in search of another Zune.

Click here to see all of the Wi-Fi places CNET checked out.
Click on the picture above to see a larger map of all the Wi-Fi places CNET News checked out. Susan Dove/CNET News

I loaded up the Zune with a few albums and videos the night before. I also selected a few "channels"--essentially playlists programmed by others that get updated on a regular basis. Among the channels I included were Billboard's top Latin hits, as well as one programmed by KROQ--the LA-area radio station I listened to throughout high school.

Apparently, though, I hadn't synced the channels to the Zune, so I had to wait 45 minutes while it downloaded the 112 tracks over my home Wi-Fi connection.

I wrote a blog as the last of the KROQ channel made its way to my Zune. At 9:45 a.m., as the Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" played in my headphones, I walked out the door, and headed to my first stop--the independent Nervous Dog Coffee, one of my personal favorites. The Zune didn't immediately find any Wi-Fi.

Assured by the staff that indeed, there was free and unprotected Wi-Fi, I gave the Zune a reboot. I guessed correctly that you needed to hold down the left-most button while pressing down on its touchpad. Sure enough, that did the trick and I sat down with my chai and started reading that day's copy of The Wall Street Journal.

With nothing but depressing headlines about the financial meltdown, I decided I simply had to listen to R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)." So I downloaded that using the Zune Pass subscription graciously loaned by Microsoft, along with the player. (The 16GB player will set you back $199, while the Zune Pass costs $14.95 a month.)

With my new party trick working, I walked back up to the counter to show Joe Belen, the coffee shop's ever-jovial owner. I asked him to pick an artist and he opted for Tears for Fears. As I struggled to enter the name using the Zune's scrolling mechanism (it has no keyboard or touch screen) he quipped, "Is that too long? Should I pick Cher?"

I stopped entering keys after "tears for" and Zune offered me a choice of Tears for Fears and Tears for Beers. Within a few seconds Belen was listening to the band's album Mad World streaming over his cafe's Wi-Fi. "That's awesome," Belen said.

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As I finished my drink and started to get ready to leave, I noticed a poster for Joan Baez's new album Day after Tomorrow. I started streaming a track and then absent-mindedly headed out the door. Because I was streaming the track, it stopped playing a few feet outside the coffee shop as I left Wi-Fi range.

I hopped on the 14 Mission bus, as I played a song from a CD in my collection ("Etz Chaim" by Blue Fringe). I checked for nearby Zunes on the bus, but I knew that was a long shot.

At 24th and Mission streets, I switched to the BART subway, but not before ducking into McDonald's--a spot I knew had Zune-friendly Wi-Fi. It took a minute to find the Wayport network, but the Zune connected on the first try and I started downloading Eddie Murphy's greatest comedy hits--another throwback to high school.

Eddie was going to take awhile so I popped the Journal back open and read an interesting article on Nathan Myhrvold and his Intellectual Ventures, as Blue Fringe continued to play in the background and Eddie headed toward my Zune. Fifteen minutes later, the tracks were all downloaded, and I headed downtown.

As Eddie Murphy did his James Brown impression, I walked into San Francisco's main library. The Zune easily found the unsecured "Sfpl-wireless" network, but was unable to connect. I decided to move on. I passed through a farmer's market and by the steps of City Hall without finding another Wi-Fi network.

Eddie was starting to bore me, so I switched to the Billboard Latin channel. Cuisillos de Arturo Macias' "Vive y Dejame Vivir" began playing. As I walked down Market Street, I realized I was starting to get hungry. I decided to head toward Westfield's San Francisco Shopping Centre, a recently remodeled mall that I knew had free Wi-Fi. As I entered, I searched for a signal. I was briefly hopeful after seeing the message "Connecting...Westfield."

That, however, was followed by the same error message I'd gotten at the public library. I decided to stick with the Latin channel already playing and headed downstairs to eat.

Taking a Zune into Apple territory
Two Diet Cokes and a Rubio's Wrapsalada later, I headed back on the Wi-Fi trail.

I had to try connecting at the Apple Store. I just had to. And besides, it was only a block away and I wanted to see the new iPods.

I walked in and stood next to the new Nanos, trying to attract as little attention as possible as I pulled out the Zune. It took a couple of tries, but it connected.

Watch this: Daily Debrief: A Wi-Fi scavenger hunt

I didn't download anything. Just standing next to the new iPod Nanos and joining Apple's network felt rebellious enough. Even with my Zune successfully connected, though, I couldn't help but look wistfully at the iPod Touches. (I lost my personal one in January.)

From the Apple Store, I headed farther downtown and decided to try for a connection at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, though I knew it was a no-go. Coffee Bean--another Southern California export--is my favorite of the chain coffee spots and does have free Wi-Fi, but you typically have to enter a code and click yes to its terms and conditions via a browser before the bits start flowing.

At this point, my battery was running low, so I decided to duck into the office and file a quick blog. I could charge the Zune in the office, but had no luck connecting it to Wi-Fi. CNET has a public Wi-Fi network, but it also has a browser interrupt requiring users to agree to its rules.

After recharging my batteries, and the Zune's, I headed out to Union Square. The foggy morning had given way to a perfectly sunny afternoon and I was looking forward to spending the rest of the day basking in the sun and palm trees, watching the tourists, and streaming some music.

Unfortunately, when I got to Union Square, I was unable to get on to the free Wi-Fi that permeates the outdoor area in the San Francisco shopping district. After triple-checking that I couldn't get on, I headed to the Fillmore district, an area known for both its jazz music and its abundant coffee shops.

I struck out at three places--another Coffee Bean, Peet's, and The Grove, a popular hangout for laptops and their caffeine-addicted owners. I did finally find one Zune-friendly spot. The Royal Ground Coffee on Fillmore had Wi-Fi that was free and open.

Somewhat exhausted, I clicked "music," and then "shuffle all," and decided my quest had come to an end.