The newest Zune (120GB) offers a handful of new features that make it a missing link between Apple's iPod classic and iPod touch. Less-than-widespread adoption leave the Social seeming lonely, and its wireless features don't hold a candle to the iPod touch. But head to head with the iPod classic, the Zune is a very compelling alternative and is an excellent way to discover new music.
The new Zune resembles its predecessor except for its glossy fingerprint-prone front and black aluminum back. The 3.2-inch screen trumps the iPod classic's--though not the iPod touch--in size and vividness, but the Zune is slightly thicker, at 0.5 inches. We like the touch-sensitive pad and spare button layout, though we wish it had dedicated volume buttons. Sadly, Microsoft dropped the premium canalphones in favor of so-so earbuds.
The intuitive interface hasn't changed except for Marketplace and Games items on the main screen. Wi-Fi access to the Marketplace lets you preview and purchase songs directly on the player, though we're still not crazy about Microsoft's odd points-based pricing structure for la carte purchases. A Zune Pass subscription ($14.99 per month), providing unlimited access to the more than 4 million-song catalog, is far more economical and something Apple still eschews. You can also sync audio and video podcasts easily to the Zune via the software. Wireless song sharing, however, is still a great idea hampered by lack of widespread Zune adoption.
Channels essentially build custom radio stations that you can download to the Zune, though complete songs requires a Zune Pass. There are three kinds of a Channels: a Me Channel is unique to each user and based off their listening habits; genre-specific Channels are created by the Zune DJ team; and branded Channels come from a variety of sources, such as the Billboard Top 40 and popular radio stations such as KROQ and KEXP. A CMJ channel took about 15 minutes, but the music discovery benefit is worth the wait. The new Picks feature observes your listening habits and those of other Zune-ers, making recommendations for purchase from the Marketplace; some suggestions were off-target or included items we already owned, but we did discover some music we might not have known about otherwise.
FM Tagging Put to the Test
The new FM tagging feature lets you mark songs heard on the excellent built-in FM tuner for purchase in the Zune Marketplace, even over Wi-Fi. However, it works only if the station broadcasts RDS or RT+ data. In New Orleans, only a handful of stations (mostly Top 40 and Adult Hits) broadcast enough song/artist data to purchase songs, and only two of twelve songs we tagged were available: "Listen To Your Heart" by Roxette (1 min to download) and "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross (40 sec to download).
Video Playback and Selection
Like the iTunes WiFi Store, you can't download videos wirelessly to the Zune. The Marketplace has 8,500 music videos; 3,000 episodes of popular TV shows; and more than 6,000 audio and video podcasts, lacking feature films and paling in comparison to iTunes' offerings. A video podcast of Ask a Ninja took 3 minutes to download, and 20 seconds to sync to device via USB; downloading an episode of Heroes took 35 minutes, and 1 and a half minutes to sync via USB. A test clip of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery looked sharp, clear, and smooth, with good color.
Other Bells & Whistles
The Zune software's new Mixview is a graphical analog to Apple's Genius, though it's not available on the device. When you highlight artists, clicking on "Mixview" pops up a collage of album covers by related artists as well as a few by the selected artist. The feature isn't available for all artists, though -- it didn't appear for albums by rapper Snoop Dogg or influential drummer Art Blakey in our testing.
Zune also includes support for audiobooks and games, although the included Texas Hold 'Em pales in comparison to Apple's version. Wireless sync is still a compelling feature--something iPods lack, though it requires setting up a sync list on the software first; we synced two tracks via Wi-Fi in just under 20 seconds.
Unfortunately, the Zune's battery life has not improved and now lags behind both the iPod touch and classic, at 30 hours for audio and 4 hours of video (with Wi-Fi off); in our testing, we think 30 hours is a bit optimistic with normal use, though it's possible by turning off touch sensitivity on the pad, keeping volume low, and reducing screen brightness.
The new Zune can't beat the iPod classic's battery life or game support, but it does have a better screen, useful music-discovery features, and wireless. Ultimately, the 120GB Microsoft Zune is an excellent iPod classic alternative and gives you significantly more features for the same price. Additionally, Wayport will offer Zune users free Wi-Fi at around 9,800 McDonald's locations, much like Apple's deal with Starbucks. That means you'll be able to use the Zune Marketplace anytime you're within spitting distance of the golden arches. The best news is for owners of older Zunes. Since the only major hardware difference in the new Zune is its extra capacity, you can upgrade the firmware and get all these new features for free.