Microsoft Zune 8GB (Red)

Is full wireless syncing support appropriate for a flash-based player? Microsoft's $199 8GB Zune certainly ships with a raft of features, but unless you need a light player with wireless functions, you'll probably be able to find better values elsewhere.

The 8GB Zune is a little thicker than one of the last-generation iPod Nanos. That puts it on the large side for flash-based MP3 players these days. Its audio quality sounded a little better to my ears than that of the latest iPod Nano, on a par with Creative's Zen V. One tiny annoyance, though: The player's 20-step digital volume control doesn't provide much granularity. Occasionally, I'd reach points where one step was too low and the next too high.

The Zune supports MP3, WMA, WMA lossless, AAC, and its own DRM format for Zune Pass subscriptions. If you'd rather listen to radio, the Zune includes a built-in FM tuner. It also plays back video and displays photos on its 1.8-inch 320-by-240-pixel screen, and the Zune now supports h.264 and MPEG-4 encoding in addition to WMV.

Video playback looked okay on the Zune's screen, though I wouldn't want to watch anything more than short clips on a screen that small.

Touch Controls

All of the new Zunes center on a rounded touch-sensitive control that also doubles as a clickable D-pad-style controller, much like the Click Wheel on Apple's iPods. Flick your thumb up or down the pad repeatedly, and you begin to build up momentum while scrolling through long lists. At any time, you can tap to stop the scrolling, though it will eventually come to a halt naturally. In my experience, it's a very fun way to navigate through a music collection, even in a long view of artists on the 80GB player.

As you browse through the interface, you'll find that you can often scroll left and right as well. So if you've selected an artist and an album, scrolling up and down will take you through songs on that album, while scrolling left and right will switch to other albums by that artist.

Though the touch control is the highlight of the interface, you can also click your way up and down through lists using the hard buttons of the D-pad. (The Zune is still very responsive in scrolling through lists, too.) That allows for simple blind navigation, such as adjusting volume or fast-forwarding a track or two without taking the player from your pocket--always a nice option.

Unfortunately, the player's lock switch doesn't include a way to lock out the touch control but not the physical buttons. That's not much of a problem with upward and downward swipes that simply adjust the volume, but it can be annoying when an inadvertent horizontal swipe fast-forwards you out of the song you're playing.

Wireless Syncing

Ever since Wi-Fi-equipped media players such as the Zune and the Sansa Connect came out, users have been clamoring for wireless syncing. Well, it's finally here. To set up a Zune for wireless syncing, you first select the appropriate wireless network using the PC you'll sync the Zune with. Enter the appropriate security key, and you should be good to go.

When your Zune is within range, you enter 'settings, wireless' on the player and select 'sync now'. Your PC reports that it has found new hardware--a 'Zune Wireless'--and installs the proper driver. Then, if the Zune software isn't running already, it pops up and your sync begins. Over my 802.11g wireless network, transfers weren't exactly lightning-fast, but I could easily imagine buying a stereo dock for my player and setting it up to charge and sync overnight without ever coming near my PC.

At the same time, Microsoft has made a few tweaks to the Zune's wireless music sharing feature. Originally, shared tracks could be played only three times over a period of three days, and couldn't be passed on. Now you can pass along shared tracks to other users and play them up to three times over any time period you like.

Subscriptions and Software

Among other additions, the Zune's software now includes support for podcasts. You can browse for them and subscribe to them easily, and the player will download new subscriptions whenever you sync it.

Microsoft has spent a lot of time rethinking the social aspects of the Zune player, removing several restrictions on how you can share tracks between Zune players and adding an online community called the Zune Social. At the time of this review, the Zune Social wasn't available for testing.

With wireless syncing, FM radio, and full video support, the 8GB Zune has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, unless you really want wireless syncing, it's not the best choice. If you're looking for lots of storage, the Sansa View has the Zune beat. If you'd prefer a compact player, the new iPod Nanos are much smaller. If you're seeking lots of features, the Creative Zen V is still one of my favorites. All are available for similar prices, and might fit your needs better than the flash-based Zune.

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