Zune Makeover Edition
The large 3.2-inch glass screen impressed us. A video podcast of NBC Nightly News looked stunningly clear on the crisp and bright LCD; the green trees in a shot of South America popped, and we could even see Brian Williams’ wrinkles. We also liked how the screen immediately switched to landscape mode when we played videos or browsed through photos. The full-screen, hi-res album art looked much better than on the previous Zune. The display did get smudged with fingerprints after a few days of use, but the rest of the device remained fingerprint-free, thanks to the soft-touch finish on the front and the matte metal finish on the back.
Below the screen lies the new and improved Zune Pad. This “squircle” pad lets you navigate menus by flicking your finger. For more precision, you can click the button to select items. We liked the flick or click choices, and in practice, they worked well. You can adjust the volume either by clicking on the pad or sliding your finger up or down. As with the first Zune, the control is flanked by a Back button on the left and a Play/Pause button on the right. The Hold switch and 3.5mm audio jack on top are the only other design elements. The included premium earbuds (that come with the 80GB model only) trample Apple’s earbuds; the rubber tips felt comfortable in our ears, and the cloth cord prevented annoying tangles. We actually prefer the Zune’s interface--which lets you switch from genres to albums to artists by simply sliding your finger on the Zune Pad--to the iPod classic’s, which requires a lot of backing out of menus. Though we still find Apple’s Cover Flow very attractive, the Zune’s full-screen album art is reminiscent of browsing through a physical music collection; images slide across the screen as you slide through songs. Letters now appear on the left of the screen as you quickly flick through artists or songs. Our only complaint is that there’s not enough tactile separation between the Zune Pad and Select button; sometimes we clicked on an option when we meant to scroll past it.
To make your Zune experience truly your own, Microsoft is offering Zune Originals, which lets you order either size of Zune with a laser-engraved design and personal text on the back. The designs range from abstract to butterflies and generally resemble monochrome tattoos. You can order your personalized Zune Original from Zuneoriginals.net, and the service is free for a limited time.
A True iTunes Competitor
The software interface and Zune Marketplace have been completely overhauled and skinned with a very clean look with lots of white space (males will be happy about the option of changing the girly pink and orange skins). Everything from finding and buying music to managing your device and playlists is straightforward and intuitively arranged. The top panel presents the self-explanatory main tabs: Collection, Device, Marketplace, and Social. When you select a tab, a submenu appears below it with further organization and options. The Collection menu divides your media into music, playlists, videos, pictures, and podcasts. In the Browse view, our music was organized with a list of artists on the left panel, all the album covers in the center panel, and a song list on the right-hand side. If you prefer an iTunes-looking list, you can click the List option for a basic horizontal view of each song by its artist and album.
The Marketplace tab brings you to the new-and-improved Zune Internet store, which offers more than three million songs for sale, including more than a million DRM-free MP3s. Music videos are also now on sale; however, Microsoft hasn’t made any announcements about adding full-length movies or TV shows. The podcast selections, including video podcasts, have been beefed up, including everything from NPR’s This American Life to VH1’s Best Week Ever. Music is still available as á la carte downloads through Microsoft’s still-odd points system, or as a monthly all-you-can-listen $14.99 subscription service. Unfortunately, you can’t download videos in the Zune Marketplace catalog as part of your subscription; for example, we needed to purchase U2’s “The Sweetest Thing” music video separately using Microsoft Points.
A Whole Different Sync
Setting up our 80GB Zune with our computer was simple. As soon as we plugged the player in via the included USB cable, our computer recognized the device and installed its drivers. (You can even plug in a Zune associated with another PC as a guest, and it won’t wipe the device clean.) A black Zune icon popped up in the bottom left of our software. On our tests, we had no problems transferring tracks to the player, whether they were ripped from a CD or purchased using our Zune Pass; we couldn’t transfer iTunes purchases, however. We were able to simply drag and drop music onto the small Zune icon to sync our most recent music to our device. We then decided to do a full sync of our 15GB library; oddly, it synced in increments of ten songs and lacked a full percentage of how many gigabytes were remaining. After ten songs were transferred the next ten would begin syncing. Microsoft noted that this would be addressed in future updates of the software.
So what about that wireless synching capability? It works as promised. The configuration takes place with the Zune plugged into your Wi-Fi-enabled PC. To test out wireless sync, we unplugged our Zune and created a new playlist on the PC. We then did a manual sync on our device, which you do by going to the Settings menu and hitting the wireless button and Sync Now option. Those not wanting to do the manual sync can set their Zunes to sync automatically when they plug the device into an AC power adapter (not included) within range of their wireless network.
Sitting 30 feet away from our PC, the device took a minute to connect to our PC and prepare to sync. The playlist of four songs took an additional minute to sync, and a later sync of a full 17-track album took closer to ten minutes. We expect the album took more time because the songs were new to the Zune, while the four-song playlist was comprised of songs already on the device. Microsoft maintains that wireless sync time depends heavily on the bitrate of songs as well as the wireless connection. Though the wireless transfer took longer than a USB wired sync, we like the idea of coming home, plopping the Zune in its charger and automatically having our podcasts and whatever else we choose transferred for our morning commute. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the device to sync video podcasts or music videos wirelessly through a manual sync; however, a video podcast transferred to the device when we plugged it into the AC power adapter.
Audio playback was excellent on our tests, and the Zune pumps out a lot of volume. We could easily pick up the splashing of waves on a National Geographic Coral Reef video podcast. Battery life is rated for 30 hours of audio and 4 hours of video with wireless off. Should you tire of listening to what’s on your Zune’s 80GB hard drive, you can turn on the included FM radio. On our tests, the FM tuner delivered strong reception in Manhattan. Even better, the Zune displays the name of the station, as well as the song and artist information.
After two days of use, the Zune made us forget about our iPod. The audio quality was on a par with our usual iPod experience (though the Zune’s headphones are much more comfortable), but the FM radio, easy wireless sync, and the stunning display had us hooked. Windows users looking for an easy melding of their computer’s music and their mobile player will find their answer in this second-generation Microsoft device.
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