We can confidently say that times are changing for the Zune. The underdog of portable music players has pulled up a seat at the cool kids table alongside Apple's iPod fleet. The 80GB Zune boasts a bigger screen than its predecessor, a new wireless synching capability, and an easy-to-use gesture Zune Pad. In fact, the 80GB Zune and Zune Marketplace have the goods to be our new daily music device and PC listening softwarecombo of choice. Be sure to check out our review of the flash-based Zune as well, which competes with the iPod nano.
Zune Makeover EditionThe 4.5-ounce Zune is seemingly light for its 4.3 x 2.4 x 0.5-inch size and weighs less than the 80GB iPod classic by 0.4 ounces. But at 0.51 inches, the Zune is thicker than most iPods on the market, including the iPod touch and the 80GB iPod classic. We had trouble fitting it in our pocket, though it felt fine in a shoulder bag or in a case clipped on the belt loop of our jeans. There's a reason for that extra girth; in addition to the 80GB hard drive stuffed inside the Zune is an updated 802.11b/g Wi-Fi antenna that lets you send tracks to other nearby Zunes wirelessly and sync your music with your device over Wi-Fi.
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 isoffering 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 CompetitorSetting up the Zune software on our Vista-powered Sony VAIO was speedy, simple, and glitch-free. Unfortunately, Zune did not eliminate the Windows Live integration and the need to have a Windows Live ID that peeved us so much in the first software edition. Following the quick installation, the software prompted us to choose manual or automatic setup of our media settings. Selecting the manual option let us specify which music, photo, and video folders would be scanned for the library. The software took about ten minutes to scan and organize the 60GB of music and videos on our computer, complete with an impressive quick acquisition of album art from the Zune store.
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 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.
Using an all-you-can-listen pass, we listened to all the full tracks of Matchbox Twenty's Exile on Mainstream in the store without actually buying it (with iTunes samples are limited to 30 seconds). We decided not to purchase the whole album after listening to it and instead clicked on the Related bu2tton on the Matchbox Twenty page. We were brought to a list of related artists, many of which matched our music tastes. We ended up purchasing the recommended album: Cake's Wheels.
As of press time, the Social tab in our program wasn't yet working because the service wasn't yet populated with users. Zune Social is a beta online music community that gives people a place to share their music tastes with other Zune Social users. Zune owners and non-owners alike will be able to create a musical-identity profile, also known as a Zune Card, that will automatically reflect musical preferences based on the music you play on your device or your PC through the Zune software. We will update our review of this feature once it's up and running.
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 aboutthat wirelesssynching 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.We had success sharing songs between Zunes via Wi-Fi. Start playing a song and press the Select button, and you'll see a Send button appear. The device will then search for another nearby Zune that has its wireless sharing turned on. From there, you'll be able to beam tracks to other Zunes, taking about ten seconds each. The other Zune owner will be able to play that song or songs three times regardless of how long they take to play them; we're happy to see that Microsoft did away with the three-day limitation on song plays. We were a bit disappointed, however, that the name of the song or album someone wanted to send us didn't appear until after we accepted the file--we had no idea what we agreed to receive; all we knew is who it came from.
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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