Microsoft Zune 120GB Media Player
At a Glance
Diminutive flash-based MP3 players may have a physical advantage, but they don't address the needs of users who prefer to carry their entire music and media library on one device. Microsoft's latest hard-drive-based Zune player, the Zune 120GB, targets precisely those users. With its innovative twist on music discovery, it's a worthy alternative to the recently updated 120GB iPod Classic--and, at $250, it's the same price as that Apple device, too.
Other than a storage boost and a new glossy-black look, the real changes differentiating the Zune 120GB from its 80GB predecessor lie in the 3.0 firmware--which, oddly, is not preinstalled on the new Zunes (you must visit Zune.net to obtain it). What's more, the player's major added features--built-in wireless and "Buy from FM"--may be interesting, but mostly they serve as incentives to get you to buy from the Zune Marketplace or subscribe to the $15-per-month Zune Pass.
The Zune 120GB is the same size and weight as its predecessor; but at 0.5 inches thick, it's bulkier than the 0.41-inch sixth-generation iPod Classic. It does weigh a bit less, though, at 4.5 ounces versus 4.9 ounces for the Classic.
This edition of the Zune has a glossy plastic front and a black (rather than silver) back. The all-black look is very sleek but prone to fingerprints and scratches. If you want to preserve your Zune, buying a case (sold separately, priced from $20 to $35) will be necessary.
The Zune supports MP3, WMA, WMA lossless, AAC, and its own DRM format for Zune Pass subscriptions. If you'd rather listen to radio, you can use the Zune's built-in FM tuner. In the PC World Test Center's evaluation, this model's signal-to-noise ratio (where a higher number means a cleaner signal) was 76dB, slightly lower than that of the 16GB flash model (which came in at 80dB) but comparable to some of our top-ranked players. The Zune 120GB comes with headphones that are of lesser quality than those bundled with the 80GB model. Sound from the new model's included earbuds was decent, but the audio improved significantly when I used higher-quality headphones.
The Zune also plays video and displays photos on its 3.2-inch screen; it supports the H.264, MPEG-4, and WMV video formats. Video looks great, and in size the Zune's display trumps the iPod Classic's 2.4-inch screen. Unfortunately, the Zune Marketplace does not yet offer movies. You can, however, preview and download shows from Fox and NBC, as well as from cable networks such as Bravo, Comedy Central, and MTV.
The Zune 120GB retains the 80GB version's touch-sensitive control, which doubles as a clickable D-pad controller for scrolling in four directions. When you select an artist and an album, scrolling up or down takes you through songs on that album. Scrolling left or right switches to other albums by the same artist. Overall the Zune has a very intuitive interface.
As for the 3.0 firmware, the most significant additions are built-in wireless and a "Buy from FM" feature. Unlike Apple's Genius feature, which is limited to newer iPods, Microsoft's free firmware upgrade is available to all generations of Zunes.
The wireless feature allows you to find, buy (at $1 per song), and download content from the Zune Marketplace on the go. If you have a Zune Pass ($15 per month), you can download or stream an unlimited number of songs to both your player and your computer.
Like the 80GB model, the Zune 120GB lets you share playlists, songs, albums, and podcasts with your other Zune-owning friends within a wireless range. While that is a great feature, you can listen to the songs you receive only three times. You must purchase a song from the Marketplace if you want to keep listening to it.
"Buy from FM" is a convenient feature if you listen to music on the radio frequently. When you hear a song you like, you can tag it by clicking the center button--and if you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot, you can download it immediately. If Wi-Fi isn't available, your device will form a queue of songs for download that will begin automatically when you do connect. Even if you don't want to purchase music, the tagging feature comes in handy for identifying songs you like but don't know the name of.
Other updates include support for Audible.com audiobooks, a couple of free games (Texas Hold 'Em and a puzzle game), and a home-screen clock.
Along with the release of the 120GB model and the 16GB flash-based Zune, Microsoft announced new music-recommendation features in the Zune software. Similar to the Apple Genius feature, the Zune 3.0 software suggests new music in the form of playlists. However, though the Genius algorithm is incorporated into the Apple device itself, Zune's recommendation algorithm is limited to the software on your desktop. I found that disappointing, especially because Zune 3.0's algorithm features are so fun to play with.
For anyone looking to exit Apple's ecosystem, the Zune 120GB stands as an attractive option. For the same price as you'd pay for the iPod, you get the same amount of storage plus the bonus of FM radio and a larger screen. And if you don't mind paying $15 per month for a Zune Pass subscription, you might fill up those 120GB a lot faster than you expected.