New Microsoft Zune Players: Finally Some Real Contenders

It took them a while, but the folks at Microsoft have finally built a pretty good portable media player. With wireless syncing, a new touch-pad control to rival Apple's Click Wheel, and some interesting new features built into the Zune player software, this latest generation of Zunes should finally provide some real competition.

We've reviewed both the $250 80GB Zune and the $200 8GB flash-based Zune that released today. Both offer very good sound quality and a nice set of features beyond standard audio and video playback, though the 80GB player is probably a better fit among its competition. But it's the Zune software--and the changes to the Zune Marketplace and online environment that come with it--that may eventually have the biggest impact on the Zune's success.

The Zune Social

The Zune Player, and with it the Zune Marketplace store, received a significant redesign.
Yes, they're still going with that name. No, there still does not appear to be any ice cream. There is, however, some interesting stuff going on with the Zune Social. Microsoft has taken a page from its Xbox Live service for this next iteration of the Social.

Plug in a Zune player with the new software installed, and you'll have a chance to create a Zune Tag. This part of the service wasn't available for testing during our evaluation of the new players, but it should be online today. Zune Tags, much like the gamer tags in Xbox Live, collect information about what music you're playing and share it with friends.

Click through a Zune Tag online, and you'll find a list of that person's favorite songs. Click on any artist or album that appears, and you'll see which Zune Social members have it as a favorite. Then you can start to discover new music by clicking through to other songs that person likes. If you have a Zune Pass subscription, you should be able to download files to your Zune right there.

Eventually, the Zune Social could become something a little like Last.fm, with apps that let you embed Zune Tag info on Web, Facebook, or MySpace pages, all likely future additions.

Software Face-Lift

The Zune player software itself has changed quite a bit from its days as essentially a skin for Windows Media Player 11. It certainly looks cool now, with some very attractive backgrounds providing themes for the player, and other attractive visual effects all around.

Type ahead to select an artist or album, and this handy transparent box pops up.
Some nice functionality has been added, as well. Type in any window, and a transparent box pops up showing what you've typed, as you're jumped to the right selection in your library. You can also browse through tracks synced to your portable players when they're not connected, and drag new tracks over to the device to be synced the next time the player is docked.

For every interesting new feature, however, another still seems to be missing. You get no ability to create dynamic smart playlists--one of the better ways to fill a flash-based player with an ever-changing collection of music. That's a shame, since smart playlists would be great with wireless syncing.

You can't manually tell the player to check again for missing album art--and in our tests, it missed quite a few files the first time around. Settings for ripping new CDs seem quite basic, too, with no real advanced option available.

All in all, the Zune Player software feels more like an interface for loading a Zune with music than for creating and managing a music library. That's a bit of a shame, since its interface and growing online features appear quite promising.

This story, "New Microsoft Zune Players: Finally Some Real Contenders" was originally published by PCWorld.

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