Well I’ve had my Zune (80GB) for a while now and I thought a brief review might be in order. My previous music player was with a well loved iPod 3G (15GB) so I may make some comparisons. I believe that these comparisons are still mostly valid against the current iPod Classic. I had always refused to use iTunes and preferred using Anapod to transfer files, a Podcatcher (Juice) to get my podcasts and the music player of my own choice (currently Media Monkey). I tried following a similar path with my Zune. I quickly ran into problems. You must use the Zune PC software to transfer your music and podcasts to the device. At this time there are no alternatives. I started using Juice to get my podcasts. The Zune software can easily watch a podcast folder, but it doesn’t recognize them as ‘podcasts’. The Zune software is really good with podcasts and I quickly gave up trying to make Juice work. The Zune software makes listening to podcasts a totally automatic and hands off operation. It gets the new podcasts, keeps them for two weeks, transfers the new ones to the device, and deletes any that have been listened to. This is exactly how I want it to work. My reluctance to use the Zune software was unfounded. The build quality of the device itself is very good. The included earbuds are not in the same league with my Etymotics ER4s, but they are hands down better than the junk earbuds that come with the iPod. They are even better than the Apple In Ear Headphones (I own a pair). The inclusion of an FM radio is a nice extra. Did I mention that it plays music pretty well?

Zune Pass
I decided to invest in a Zune Pass: $14.99/month for unlimited downloads (DRM’d). It includes everything in the store. You can even stream music from the store over any public wifi (one without a login). The Zune Pass is perfect for families. It allows up to 3 PCs and Zune devices to use the pass. The pass is a bit awkward to share, but it’s a great idea. We have three Zunes here on the Hill so it’s just perfect for us. Recently they improved the pass and now allow you to keep 10 songs each month (DRM-free). They have made it so easy to keep your family free from piracy.

Device Interface
Having been weaned on the iPod, I wasn’t expecting much from the Zune. The Crossbar interface is very, very nice. If you are looking for a song and can’t remember the album it’s in, you are in for some pain on the iPod: select artist, drill down, scroll, drill up, next album. On the Zune you select an artist and the first album pops up (song are displayed). If you want to go to the next album you simply move sideways and this album’s songs are displayed. You never have to drill up until you want to go back to the artists list. Apple for all of their design acumen, have been thoroughly schooled by Microsoft in this area.

My son has an old Zen M that has a vertical slider. He disliked the imprecision when scrolling. I was expecting more of the same. The squircle works OK and is at least as intuitive as the iPod scroller. I like how you can give it a ‘kick’ and allow it to coast through the list. Stopping it just requires a light tap. It also offers the ability to click the button for more precise movements. I have found the center click (Enter) to be a bit inaccurate. Fortunately it usually just means you pressed up or down by mistake.

On the Fly Playlist
You can add songs to the on the fly playlist while it’s playing. Pick a song and start listening. While it’s playing you can build the rest of the list. Did any of you find the iPod to be a pain in this regard?

The Zune is very close to the size of the iPod and some of my iPod accessories still work with the Zune. I have a Belkin iPod holder that fits in your car’s cup holder. It works just fine with the Zune. I purchased an FM transmitter from Microsoft. I have both generations of the Monster transmitters for my iPods and can say that the Microsoft transmitter is better. The Microsoft transmitter allows you to choose two preset channels and it will even seek out the weakest frequencies in your area. This does work, but in busy metropolitan areas like NYC it is almost useless. There are several online sites that can help you identify the best frequency(s) to use. The Microsoft transmitter seems to slightly more powerful than the Monster brand. I also wanted a case to protect my shiny toy. My iPod case sucked. It was leather and had a clear vinyl screen cover, but it still somehow managed to constantly scratch the iPod’s screen. I read the reviews about Zune cases and they all consistently ranked the Microsoft leather case number one, but were also outraged at the $80 price tag. It is very nice, elegant if I say so and best of all, the price has been lowered to $20. This is a no brainer.

Zune Desktop Software
The Zune desktop PC is OK, nothing special. You need the Zune software to transfer files and manage your relationship with the Zune Store, but you can use other players to listen to your music. Your DRM tracks can also be played back with Windows Media Player. The software does a decent job of automatically tagging whatever it can in the background. It has some weird tagging behaviors – if it can’t ID your track you will often get some upside down album art (in my library it’s always ZZ Top). It does a lot of things with being asked to, almost too much. Some operations can’t be cancelled once started and some offer no control over how or when they are done. The simplicity is good, but I feel they could add some hidden complexity for those that can handle it. One last thing that I find odd is that the UI doesn’t look anything like a normal Windows application. It’s not bad, just different and a bit strange.

Wifi syncing
This is perhaps my favorite feature. I listen to a lot of podcasts (around 20 per week). My iPod routine was to trudge down to the man cave every morning and dock it to the PC, cleanup the old shows and download any new ones. Juice acquired then to my PC, but I had to manually handle the transfer and housekeeping. I’m not sure how well iTunes would have handled this since I refused to use it. With the Zune this is now a snap. I just turn the device on and sync it over Wifi. It takes care of everything. I love it! You definitely want to do the initial sync with a cable and I’d recommend leaving it connected until it’s done tagging and downloading album art (this can take a while). The device is no longer tethered to the PC. There are a few caveats – large video files (video podcasts) are very slow over Wifi. I wish they offered some options to control this better. Songs and audio podcasts are not a problem.

When a song or podcast is playing you can lightly touch the squircle and see the elapsed/remaining time on the display. When a video is playing, there is no time display. The Play button has some odd behaviors. It has something to do with having a song ‘loaded in the chamber’. If you were listening to a song and stop it, when you scroll to another song and hit play it will restart the previous ‘loaded’ song not the one you just browsed to. If nothing is ‘loaded’ it will work as expected. If you want to play a different song while a different one is ‘loaded’, you must press enter and then select play. It causes some confusion and is not intuitive. If you are listening to an album that is streaming over Wifi the display shows a regular playlist, showing you the progress through your list. If your leave the playlist screen to add that music to your shopping cart or even to just browse to some new music, you can never get back to the current playlist. If you like a song that you are streaming and decide to download it (add to cart), it always downloads the whole album. I wish the software allowed you to control when and how podcasts are checked and downloaded. I’d like more options for everything – you can hide them and even default them to always on, but please give me more control.

The Bottom Line
Hopefully Microsoft will continue to make improvements to the Device, Software and Store. In the past year they have really impressed me with their efforts. I can without hesitation recommend the Zune to anyone except a Mac user (sorry no software for Apple).

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