Sunday, November 18, 2007

Zune, Zune, Zune!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love electronic gadgets. And anyone who knows me might be surprised to know that I don't own an iPod, and until now, I haven't had what I would consider a real MP3 player. Sure I bought a Toshiba Gigabeat a couple years ago, but it was too limited and ended up not being used aside from occasionally on a plane when the music I wanted to listen to wasn't on my phone, and it will soon be going up on eBay. But as of this week, I finally dived in and bought myself a music/video player… an 80GB Zune.

People have asked me over and over again why I don't have an iPod, and well, there are many reasons. But the primary being that I ripped my CD collection using WMA format before the iPod was even on anyone's radar, and Apple has chosen to disable WMA support in the iPod (it's actually there, they have just turned it off), leaving them virtually useless to me. I'm not about to re-rip 1100 CDs, and conversion to Apple's AAC format is out of the question due to loss in quality in the process and the amount of time it would take. The other big issue is that the professional audio applications that I use (Adobe Audition, Cakewalk's Sonar for example) don't support AAC. If you're happy to live in the iTunes/iPod/iLife world, the iPod is probably fine for you. But I do far more with my music, and the whole Apple "i" world is way too limiting for me. (For example, the structure that iPods use to store music makes it nigh impossible to copy music back off of the device, a capability I need to have.) Long story short, I would never be happy with an iPod.

Every other device I have looked at has had deal-breaking limitations. The most common is storage. The portion of my music library that I would like to keep with me is about 60GB, and most manufacturers have chosen to not create a device with this capacity. And most of the ones that do make large (almost unwieldy) devices. But when the Zune 80 was announced, I was intrigued. I didn't like the original Zune at all; Microsoft typically doesn't do well with a 1st generation product, but they typically are able to get it right on the second or third version. I suspected that they had probably fixed most of the problems with the original Zune with the new version. And Indeed they have. The new device isn't perfect, but it is very well done. Microsoft got it right this time.

The new 80GB Zune is nearly identical in size to the 80GB iPod, making it small enough to not give you trouser bulges, but at the same time it is built with enough heft to feel like a robust product. The screen is beautiful: bright and colorful, and compared to the screen on the iPod Classic is absolutely huge (64% larger, with it approaching the size of the screen on the iPod Touch)! The new "squircle" control is sensitive to both directional pad-style button pushes, and also to touch; you can swipe your finger over the squircle to scroll through music, adjust volume, etc, and it is very fast. Some may still prefer the click wheel of the iPod, but the touch interface of the Zune is as good; it's a matter of preference, not capability. The WiFi feature to "squirt" songs between Zunes, inherited from the original version, is still there with a few limited additions, but they have added a really neat "WiFi sync" feature that allows me to synchronize the Zune with my desktop computer without plugging it in to the USB cable. It even synchronizes each time I place the Zune in its (optional) dock, which isn't even connected to a computer (in my case its just connected to an AC power source for charging). Very cool trick; there isn't really any reason to connect to a computer any more.

Navigation on the device is fast and easy, and is more flexible than the iPod. For example, after you select an artist, you can very quickly move to the next artist with a single right/left click of the squircle. You don't have to go "back" to the previous menu to choose another artist. Also, when selecting an artist, the Zune displays both the albums and tracks in a single list, with the albums listed first, making it easy to find a song if you don't know which album it is on. Of course you can drill down to individual albums, but you don't have to. Using these two features simultaneously effectively allows you to navigate through albums or tracks by artist with only a single button press required to change artists. This is very powerful and makes navigation very fast.

The included headphones are quite good for earbud-style 'phones, though they don't really compare to the Shure E3's that I usually use for listening to music. They are, in my opinion, better than the ones included with iPods; the sound is more full with more accurate bass and clearer high frequencies. They have an unusual characteristic, however, in that they must be inserted a little farther into the ear canal than other earbuds I have used in order to get the best sound. Fortunately they are comfortable when inserted properly.

The software has been completely rewritten from the ground up compared to the first Zune, which is definitely a great thing. The original software was basically a hacked version of Windows Media Player, but the new Zune software is a brand-new product, and it is very well done. Not only is it easy to navigate, it is very pretty to look at, complete with high quality animations while navigating. They have added Podcast support in this version (a major omission previously), a very welcome addition. It uses a three-column view for artists, albums, and songs, which gives some interesting navigation options. For example, clicking an artist shows you all of their albums in the center column, and songs in the right column, so you can very easily and quickly get to the music you are trying to find. But if you click on a blank area in the artist column, it goes back to showing all albums and tracks again. The search feature isn't especially fast, but it is effective, dividing search results into artists, albums, and tracks, eliminating the need for separate searches, or filling in multiple fields in a search screen. Marking music for synchronization is easy; just drag the album, artist, or track to the Zune device logo in the lower left corner of the window. Viewing, playing, and managing music already on the Zune is done on the "device" screen, and it again uses the same 3-column view. Very simple and very easy.

There are a few things about it that aren't obvious, though. If you play a video, the navigation interface disappears and the full window is used for video playback. This is fine, but after clicking the Exit button to get back to the navigation screen, it isn't immediately obvious how to get back to your video, even though it is still playing in the background. There is an equalizer-looking icon in the lower right corner that you click to restore the playback screen.

One thing that nobody has done right yet in device synchronization software is a simple one-click sync option. In my opinion, the best way to handle synchronization would be to place checkboxes next to each artist, album, and song, with a checked state indicating "yes, I want this on my portable device." The Zune software at least shows a small device logo next to anything that is on the player; it just doesn't allow this to be toggled on and off with a single click.

There are other things missing, too, and one or more of these may be a deal breaker for some people. The Zune Marketplace software, does not, for example, have any video (TV shows or movies) available for download like iTunes does, and Audible does not currently support the Zune for its audio books. As far as I know there are no ways to make a car stereo control a Zune.

A few final "plusses" before I go, though. The hard drive based Zunes (30, 80GB) do not require a special cable to connect to a television unlike the iPod Classic; any standard 1/8" A/V cable will work. The A/V dock comes with component video outputs for connection to a high definition television. Very cool.

Overall I think Microsoft has done a great job on the new Zune. Anyone who bought the original Zune would have had good reason to be a little sheepish when telling others of their audio player choice, but with V2 I think Zune owners can finally be proud of their purchase. (Fortunately, for the original Zune owners, they can be firmware upgraded to incorporate the new features and use the new software, all for free!) Compared to the iPods, feature-wise it comes in somewhere between the Classic and the Touch, but it is priced identically to the Classic (or Nano, if you are talking about the 4/8GB Zunes).

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