First Look: Microsoft's Zune Won't Cause You to Dump Your iPod

At a Glance

Microsoft's Zune MP3/video player is available in black, white (shown), or chocolate brown.
Microsoft's Zune MP3/video player is available in black, white (shown), or chocolate brown.
Microsoft's first portable MP3 and video player has finally arrived. The Zune goes on sale Tuesday, and though I doubt many people are lining up PlayStation 3-style to get their hands on one, its slick interface and vaunted wireless song- and photo-sharing are sure to shake up the market.

I've taken a quick look at the player. It shows impressive polish for a first effort, but the Zune's features don't seem compelling enough to make it a serious threat to take a big chunk out of iPod sales.

The Expected Specs

At $250 for 30GB of storage, the Zune costs exactly as much as the latest 30GB video-capable iPod and the Zen Vision:M. Like most non-iPod players, it includes an FM tuner and supports MP3 and WMA music files, as well as WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 video files.

Unlike many Windows-based players, the Zune also supports unprotected AAC files--a nice touch for anyone who's been ripping CDs using iTunes' default settings. On the other hand, Microsoft's player lacks a built-in voice recorder, which most Windows-based players include.

The Zune is a bit larger and heavier than the latest 30GB iPod, but its bright, beautiful color screen is a half-inch larger (measured diagonally) than the iPod's. When you're watching videos on a screen that small, every extra bit of real estate counts.

Rounding out the package are a USB cable, a carrying case, headphones, and a 14-day trial membership in Zune Pass, Microsoft's $15-per-month, all-you-can eat music subscription service.

No Wires, Plenty of Restrictions

The Zune's desktop syncing software (basically a customized version of Windows Media Player 11) provides easy access to the Zune Marketplace, a music store associated with the player.
The Zune's desktop syncing software (basically a customized version of Windows Media Player 11) provides easy access to the Zune Marketplace, a music store associated with the player.
Of course, Zune's true appeal rests in its built-in Wi-Fi access. Meet up with friends who have a Zune, and you can beam tracks, playlists, or photos to their players, so they can listen to or view them on their own time. Beamed tracks appear in the inbox of the recipient's Zune, where they'll remain for a maximum of three days or three plays. If you like a track, you can flag it for purchase through the Zune Marketplace, an online music store associated with the player.

And Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, said today that the company plans to extend the wireless capability of the Zune devices to PCs and the company's Xbox 360 game console.

"We will take it even further or connecting the Zune to the Windows PC or Xbox," he said during the company's annual shareholder meeting in Seattle. "There is a lot more coming there."

Gates said that Zune's wireless connectivity is just one way Microsoft is changing how people enjoy and share various multimedia. "We're changing entertainment from something you do in isolation to connected entertainment," he said.

A 'Logical' Next Step?

Connecting Zune with its Xbox 360 console seems like a logical next step for Microsoft, as the company is promoting both as devices to serve up a variety of multimedia content. Later this month, Microsoft will allow customers to download movies and television programs to their Xbox 360 gaming consoles through the Xbox Live Marketplace, an online store where Xbox users already can purchase game updates and other content.

To facilitate the Xbox video-downloading service, Microsoft signed a deal that allows it to sell or rent an initial 1,000 hours of programming from various broadcasting companies, such as CBS Broadcasting, Viacom Inc.'s MTV Networks and Paramount Pictures and Turner Broadcasting System. The company signed similar deals with record labels such as Sub Pop Records to provide some of the initial media on the Zune devices.

Current Wireless Capability

Unfortunately, right now, the wireless connectivity is limited. There's no wireless syncing with your Wi-Fi-equipped PC at home and no wireless access to the Zune store. I'll have more to say about how well wireless sharing works in the next few days; but like many who've evaluated the Zune, I can't help thinking that this type of wireless sharing is not enough.

Still, the Zune is a decent music and video player, as I found out once I got past a few initial problems.

Early Glitches

Our new Zune needed a firmware update right out of the box--and before its official release date.
Our new Zune needed a firmware update right out of the box--and before its official release date.
The first time I synced the Zune (after installing the included desktop software, which is basically a customized version of Media Player 11), a dialog box popped up, searching for updates and then announcing that a firmware update was available (a day before the player was officially released, no less). After I downloaded the software and installed the update, my Zune player was ready for its inaugural syncing.

Unfortunately, the early firmware update I obtained fell short of solving all of the synchronization glitches: When I transferred my first group of files, several just wouldn't sync. Worse yet, the Zune desktop software refused to simply skip those files. Instead it hung until I clicked Stop Sync, unplugged my Zune, and deleted the offending file.

A Player With Promise

The Zune's 340-by-240-pixel color screen lets you view crisp, handsome stills and videos in landscape or portrait mode.
The Zune's 340-by-240-pixel color screen lets you view crisp, handsome stills and videos in landscape or portrait mode.
Once I got past those early annoyances, the Zune proved to be an interesting device. Its interface takes full advantage of the player's great-looking 3-inch, 320-by-240-pixel color screen. The portrait-oriented display permitted Microsoft to build an interface that combines horizontal and vertical scrolling, with many top-level menus displaying horizontally across the top of the screen, while lists of tracks or track information run vertically.

When you browse through albums, Zune displays thumbnails of the associated album art--a nice touch, but one whose usefulness is limited. Rather than proceeding via the album view, I prefer to drill down through artists first, so I would have preferred that Microsoft take a cue from Media Player 11 and add some visuals to the artist list by replicating WMP's stacks-of-album-covers look.

Album art takes up two-thirds of the display during normal music playback, with the standard status indicators and track information filling the bottom third.

You might expect the graphical embellishments to slow things down as you navigate through the interface, but I found the Zune remarkably snappy. It skipped nearly instantaneously through tracks in a playlist or during shuffle play, even while loading the associated album art. And though the Zune's circular main control looks like the iPod's touch-sensitive ClickWheel, it's actually a four-position directional control with a central select button.

The Zune's audio sounds quite nice, too, on a par with that of the latest iPods and Creative players. On PC World's objective tests of audio quality, this player earned the best score we've seen among hard-drive-based devices for total harmonic distortion and a very good mark for signal-to-noise ratio. Still, I kept wishing that it had a more granular volume control: With only 15 steps to choose from, I kept getting stuck with one level being too soft and the adjacent one being too loud.

Videos looked crisp and clear on the 3-inch screen--and again, the extra bit of display space makes an appreciable difference over the course of extended viewing.

More to Come

So far, the Zune looks like a solid addition to the MP3 player market. It's a nice-looking player and appears to be a decent value. At this point, we're still hard at work putting the Zune through its paces. We'll be back with some updates and a full PCW Rating once we've had a chance to complete our battery-life tests and dig a little deeper into the player's wireless features.

Elizabeth Montalbano of IDG News Service contributed to this report.

This story, "First Look: Microsoft's Zune Won't Cause You to Dump Your iPod" was originally published by PCWorld.

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