At a Glance
What will it take to beat Apple's iPod at its own game? Microsoft is betting that its $250 Zune--a 30GB, Wi-Fi-equipped music and video player--can go toe-to-toe with the digital music giant.
A large, bright screen, an attractive interface, and innovative wireless media sharing illustrate the Zune's potential. But Microsoft's Wi-Fi implementation is currently so limited that the potential isn't realized. The shipping model of the Zune I tested shows impressive polish for a first effort, but its features don't seem compelling enough to make it a serious threat to take a big chunk out of iPod sales.
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.
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.
Microsoft plans eventually to link the Zune up with PCs and Xbox 360 consoles using its wireless connection; but 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.
Wireless music sharing works as expected, though. The two Zune players I tested sent music and photos flawlessly once I got past an initial glitch that locked one player's wireless connection in the off position. (Helpful hint: To reset your Zune, press down on the back arrow and the up portion of the directional control simultaneously for 3 seconds.)
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.
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.
Ultimately, the Zune is an intriguing mix of innovation and lack of execution. Though its current wireless implementation disappoints, Microsoft's first MP3 player is a decent all-around media player. The iPod remains the king of the hill here, but if you absolutely must buy a non-iPod hard-drive player, the Zune is a reasonable choice. If the company can follow up with higher capacities and improved wireless access, Apple might really have a fight on its hands.
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