Released for the first time in Canada earlier this month, Microsoft’s Zune media player can’t avoid being compared to Apple’s hugely dominant iPod. You might even argue they want to be compared to the iPod. After all, when you consider the top-level features of the two devices, there’s almost no telling them apart: 8GB of flash memory, support for MP3 and AAC audio, MP4 video, JPEG photos, touch-sensitive controls, proprietary software for managing and syncing media, high-resolution screens, dockable designs that allow for an array of 3rd part accessories and TV playback of videos and photos – the list goes on.
In fact the current version of the Zune bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1st generation iPod Nano, mimicking it’s size, shape, weight, control configuration and dock connector/earphone jack placement. [see image 1: Seen from the bottom, the audio jack and dock connector layout is identical on the 1st gen nano (left) and the Zune (middle)]
The similarities continue, especially in way you navigate the Zune’s menu. The control pad is actually a touch-sensitive 5-way button, which means you can interact with it by sliding your thumb vertically or horizontally – then pressing to click, or you can push down on the pad at the top, bottom, left, right or middle positions. In some ways, this is more intuitive than the iPod’s click-wheel design since most menu structures are lists which are naturally oriented from top to bottom. While it’s easy enough to navigate lists in a circular motion, vertical sliding just makes more sense. Unfortunately, the Zune’s touch pad lacks some of the sensitivity of the click-wheel and I often found myself repeating slides with more pressure than should have been required. It would have been nice to find a setting that let you control the sensitivity level, but alas, no such luck. I also found myself missing the iPod’s "notchy-ness", combined with the audible feedback as you work your way through menu items. The Zune will give you the audible feedback too, but it’s not quite the same. In time though, you get used to the interface and it feels quite natural.
[Image 2: 1st Gen nano, 8GB Zune, a Canadian quarter and a 1GB iPod Shuffle]
As these photos show, Apple’s influence on the development of the Zune has been significant.
But dig a little deeper and you begin to find the feautures of the Zune that not only set it apart from the iPod, but every other media player too.
Slide Side to Side
As mentioned above, the Zune’s control pad is intended for vertical or horizontal sweeps of the thumb across its surface. The vertical moves are used for navigating the sometimes extensive lists of media and menus, but it’s the horizontal moves that provide an unexpected but welcome feature. When you’re inside a menu such as "Music", the default sub-menu that you get is "songs". But along the top of the screen in a non-highlighted font are the other sub-menus within music such as "genres", "playlists", "albums" etc. To access these, you simply slide your thumb horizontally. This arrangement gets rid of the need to go "back" to access a new sub-menu. It’s a small thing, but a good thing.
One of the features that seems like a no-brainer in a portable device is wireless connectivity. But few of them have it, and even fewer make good use of it. With Wi-Fi speeds rivalling that of USB 1.1 for device-to-device communication, the Zune enables wireless syncing of media. It took me about 2 minutes to sync Lenny Kravitz’s "5" – an album of 13 songs, roughly 5 minutes each which I had encoded at 192 kbps in MP3 format. That’s not bad at all. Now granted, it’s not going to stop me from using the USB cable, which will easily beat this speed, but it sure is handy having the option. Even Apple’s superb iPod Touch can only use its Wi-Fi connection for internet access, not for syncing media.
Peer to Peer
It may take some time to fully appreciate the other aspect of the Zune’s wireless capability, which Microsoft calls "Social". This feature lets you scan the Wi-Fi waves looking for other Zunes nearby. Once found, you can share any audio track or image on your Zune with your fellow Zune user. Audio tracks can then be played back up to 3 times before they "expire". Of course, you may not get a chance to try this out if your friends aren’t using a Zune.
The 8GB Zune has crystal clear 1.8" screen, sporting a resolution of 320×240. This is the same resolution as the current 3rd gen nano, but because the Zune’s screen is slightly smaller (the nano’s measures 2" diagonally) the DPI (dots per inch) of the Zune is slightly higher, which gives the impression of a smoother image. This comes in handy for reading text on the screen, and video playback is absolutely seamless. The display is covered in what Microsoft describes as "scratch-resistant glass". While I can’t attest to its robustness, I’ll tell you this – it’s a fingerprint magnet. Some kind of case for the Zune would be a wise investment.
Video playback is handled sideways, so you need to flip the Zune onto its left side to watch clips. Much like the nano, it’s fun to watch a music video or perhaps a news clip or YouTube video, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable watching a full length movie on it. But with 8GB of storage, it’s definitely doable.
One area where the Zune trumps the nano is video compatibility. The nano only supports playback of standard resolution H.264 or MPEG4 video formats natively. Moreover, the iTunes software won’t convert HD versions of these formats – you’ll have to buy additional software if you want to do that. The Zune supports both of these formats, as well as several flavours of Windows Media Video (.wmv). What’s really impressive is that the Zune software will automatically transcode the HD versions of these formats when you sync the device. It will do the same with TV shows recorded with Windows Media Centre’s DVR capability, making the Zune the hands-down winner in the video department.
It has always bothered me that Apple has never seen fit to include a radio within the iPod family. Sure you can buy a tuner as an add-on device, but why should you? It’s just one more thing to lose or possibly break. The Zune’s built-in FM radio works like a charm. Best of all, it can decode the RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) information that is broadcast by most major FM stations. This gives you the station’s ID as well as song title and artist name for the track they’re currently broadcasting. Some stations, like Toronto’s CHUM-FM even alternate this info with the current weather conditions. It makes listening to the radio way more enjoyable.
One thing I’d love to see in future versions of the Zune is the ability to interact with the RDS data. If I’m listening to a song I really like, let me save the track info for later so I can go and buy it from an online service or, perish the thought, a bricks and mortar store!
Most people readily acknowledge that Apple’s combination of the iPod and their iTunes software was a stroke of genius and a competitive advantage for Apple that is hard to beat. Having music management software that is only compatible with the iPod, and which gives you access to the biggest online music store is a great way to keep users hooked on your product.
With this in mind, Microsoft abandoned their own Windows Media Player software in favour of a completely new application for managing media on the Zune. Simply known as the Zune Software, it ironically looks less like a Windows application than iTunes. The interface is simple and clean, but it resembles an interactive webpage built with Adobe’s Flash more than a typical media management app running on a PC. If you’re an iPod owner thinking of switching, this is where you’ll notice the biggest difference.
The Zune software has a vastly different layout than both iTunes and Windows Media Player, choosing to put the focus on form over function. The default view of your media is a three-column arrangement, listing artists on the left, albums in the middle and tracks on the right. This arrangement is pretty straightforward, but I’m not a big fan of the anaemic scroll bars – they look like an afterthought. One area where the Zune absolutely trounces iTunes is the album art feature. The Zune software was able to locate and download album art for some very obscure items I had in my collection like Kissing The Pink’s album "Sugarland", which iTunes was never able to find.
In play mode, the Zune software eschews the usual visualization modules for a static screen which shows you the current track info, with a background wallpaper made up of all the album covers in your collection. It’s a satisfying presentation, but it may have you reverting your file type assignments back to Window Media Player or iTunes for PC-based playback especially for get togethers.
Central to the Zune is the notion of sharing – legally of course. As soon as the Zune software is installed, you’re invited to sign up for an account on Zune.net, which gives you access to the "Social" portion of the program.
After I created my Zune account, which handily was able to work with my existing Passport/Hotmail ID, I was greeted by the profiles of 6 new "friends". I have no idea who these people are, or why they were chosen to be my friends, but the ploy worked… curiosity got the better of me and I started exploring what these people were listening to. This is where Microsoft’s model for the Zune comes into its own. By incorporating the social networking environment into the media management software, they use people as the primary driver for new music discovery. When they integrate the online music purchase component later this year, I’m sure this will have a significant impact on people’s music buying habits.
Where’s The Data?
8GB is a generous amount of storage for just music, and most portable media players allow you to use any portion of the memory to transport other types of files – making them the perfect external storage device. But for some unknown reason, Microsoft has disabled this feature on the Zune. Typically, when you connect a USB device such a media player, it shows up in your My Computer folder as a lettered drive. You can then navigate within the device and copy/paste any files you want. The Zune only shows up inside the Zune software. Apparently there are hacks out there which modify your PC’s registry thus enabling the Zune to be used as storage device, but clearly these solutions aren’t for the faint of heart.
Another curiosity is that you must allocate the amount of room you’d like to use for receiving shared files from another Zune. The device won’t simply use whatever room is leftover after you’ve synced your own files. This probably won’t put off those who buy the larger, hard-drive based models, but on the 8GB model, you’re going to have to choose just how social to be – before you start socializing.
For people who take their music seriously, this is where the rubber hits the road. The Zune delivers a full, rich sound that is every bit as good as the iPod models I compared it to. The standard Zune earphones are nearly identical to the familiar white buds that come with the iPod family in terms of shape, fit and sound reproduction. They also feature a tiny audio mini-plug connector (much like the iPod ‘phones) which means far less stress on the audio jack itself. The big disappointment here is the lack of an equalizer setting on the Zune. If, like me, you find the Zune’s factory EQ balance a little on the bright side, you’re out of luck. For some audiophiles, this is a deal-breaker. Hopefully a future firmware release will fix this glaring omission.
Microsoft has left potential Zune buyers no reason to look at the competition when it comes to the checkout. An 8GB Zune will run you $189 plus taxes at your local BestBuy, the same price as the 8GB iPod nano.
For many, this won’t make much difference, but I think Microsoft deserves to be commended on their choice of packaging materials for the Zune. The 100% cardboard container looks fantastic and is completely recyclable, or will degrade quickly if it ends up in a landfill. For some reason, Apple abandoned a similarly environmentally-responsible package for the iPod, lately favouring a non-recyclable plastic hard-shell case.
If you’re a die-hard Apple iPod fan, the Zune is probably not going to win you over. Despite its excellent build quality, solid feel and performance, the Zune doesn’t have the cult appeal of the nano, and it doesn’t support DRM-encoded AAC files, which means your current collection of iTunes purchases won’t play on the Zune.
But if extra features like wireless sync/sharing and an FM radio get you excited, and you like the idea of a social network designed to introduce you to new music without the chaos that is MySpace, the Zune is definitely worth your consideration. Though it may not have the iPod’s super-chic styling, it easily competes in all other areas and in some cases manages to outshine Apple’s most popular product.
Update September 8, 2008: Looks like Microsoft is releasing some new software for the Zune, as well as some new models. The software features support for audible.com audio books, games, music downloads via wi-fi and amazingly, the ability to tag tunes while listening to the FM radio, so you can download them later. Thanks Marc.