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At last Microsoft has responded to Apple's leadership in the personal music/video player space.

But - and as seems to be consistently the case - Microsoft's first generation player is a disappointing product that has only one advantage over Apple, and too many disadvantages.

 
 
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Microsoft Zune Music/Video Player

Bigger is sometimes better - in this case the Zune has a much larger screen than the current 5.5 generation iPods.

Available in black, white, or brown, the Zune does not look as attractive or as well manufactured as the iPod.

 

 

Microsoft's new Zune player has finally been released, with people simultaneously having high and low expectations for this new device.

Microsoft has the benefit of unlimited corporate resources and five years of learning from Apple's iPod evolution, and so one would hope for a product that is well thought out and as good or better than the iPod in all respects.

Alas, Microsoft again has not failed to disappoint.  The Zune is inferior to the iPod in all relevant measures bar one - the larger video screen, but with its limited 30GB capacity and short battery life, video is hardly the unit's prime application.

If you're planning on buying a personal music player any time soon, stick to the iPod.  It is clearly better.  And if you want a personal video player, don't buy either.


Microsoft's Zune Audio/Video Player

After an approximately one year development cycle (several times longer than the time it took Apple to go from concept to release of the iPod) Microsoft released their competing personal music player, the Zune, on Tuesday 14 November, 2006, with a list price of $249 (reduced to $199 in September, 2007).

Although Microsoft took a year to get the product to market, it is essentially a rebadged Toshiba Gigabeat unit with some changes to its software and outside packaging.  It is believed Microsoft took this approach so as to get a product released in time for Christmas sales, and they have said their next version Zune player is more likely to be more proprietary.  In other words - if you buy a first generation Zune, you may be buying an orphan device that will have no continuity with future units.

Microsoft is perhaps the only company with the potential to attack Apple's stranglehold on the hard-disk based music player market (Apple has an estimated 90% or higher share of the market at present).  Microsoft also recognizes the strategic importance of this market sector, and the associated market for selling music; making it all the more puzzling that Microsoft's competitive response is so inadequate in all relevant respects.

Sadly, Microsoft itself seems to have accepted the truth of the many jokes about Microsoft launching products that are poor quality when first released but which subsequently improve (eg 'At Microsoft, Quality is Job 1.1').  The Zune as released looks and feels cheap and poorly manufactured, its interface is not as intuitive as the iPod interface, software is buggy, and its music store has a more limited selection than does the iTunes service with iPod.

The Zune does have two things the iPod does not have.  One is a built in FM tuner.  This can be added on to the iPod as a separate small module, but the Zune has it as standard.  Few people will find much value to this, though, preferring to use their personal music player to do exactly that - play their own music as and when they wish.

The other feature is a Wi-Fi based music sharing feature.  This enables you to wirelessly send and receive some (but not all) songs between your Zune player and those of other people close to you.  Some songs can be swapped with other Zune owners, but they expire after either three days or three plays, whichever happens first, and some songs can't be swapped at all due to their copyright terms not allowing this.  How much practical use there will be with this feature is currently a subject of conjecture, and one has to wonder if this is going to provide a dangerous pathway for viruses to be introduced into the Zune.

Overall, the Zune is disappointingly under-featured compared to an iPod.  Available only in a 30GB configuration that is bulkier than a 30GB iPod (but priced exactly the same), the Zune has a much shorter battery life and much lower capacity than Apple's top of the line 80GB iPod.

What you get with your Zune

The Zune comes packaged in a cardboard box, very similarly to the iPod.  While no-one is going to choose an MP3 player based on the packaging, Microsoft's box is much nicer than the Apple minimalist box.  It slides open and reveals two separate compartments, one holding the player and the other holding other items.

On the player side of the box is the player itself in a central storage pocket.  Subtle flaps open up on either side (I didn't see them at first); on one side is the connecting cable that runs between a PC's USB port and the Zune player, and on the other side is a set of ear bud style headphones.  The connecting cable runs from a regular USB plug on one end to a special connector for the Zune on the other end.

Needless to say, the Zune and iPod do not share the same connector, meaning that if you have iPod accessories already, you can't use them with your new Zune.  The headphones are similar in style to the iPod, but whereas iPod headphones are always white (no matter what color the iPod), Zune headphones are always black (no matter what color the Zune).

The other items that come with the Zune are :

  • A snug fitting soft velveteen carry pouch for the Zune with an unnecessary useless drawstring top (and no room in the pouch for ear phones or connecting cable, same as the iPod's carry pouch)

  • An installation CD - unlike the iPod which stores its install data on the iPod itself, the Zune provides a CD.  If you're a bit disorganized like me, this is a weakness - it is something to lose and not be able to find when you need it subsequently.

  • A quick start guide which comprises three very simple steps and a quick overview of the unit and its functions

  • A ten page Product Guide, including warranty information

  • A 14 day free trial code card of the Zune Pass music downloading service

The warranty is for a fair one year period and unlike Apple, Microsoft seems to provide unlimited phone support for their units.  This will almost certain be reduced in time to come, but for now their support policy is greatly more generous than that offered by Apple.

There is no detailed manual available, either printed out, on the CD-Rom, or on the website.  So if you want to understand issues such as 'how can I use my Zune as a portable hard drive' (something you can do with an iPod) you're completely out of luck - or perhaps the Zune doesn't support this at all.

One unwelcome thing you do get is a selection of music already pre-loaded onto the Zune.  I first found this out when the Zune suddenly started playing some awful cacophonous piece of terrible noise, and I felt as though my personal space had been violated.  Thanks, Microsoft, but I'll choose the music I want, myself.

There is, of course, no information on how to get rid of these unwanted music tracks.

Zune extras you'll probably want to purchase

One area where Microsoft's marketing power has already been demonstrated is in encouraging other companies to offer a range of Zune accessories such as plug in speakers.  This accessory range is still limited compared to the iPod, but is vastly greater than that offered by any other iPod competitor.

  • You might want to get a stand-alone power charger for times when you need to recharge the battery and can't connect to your computer.  Regular power chargers sell for $29.95 through Zune's website (coincidentally, the same ridiculously high price that Apple charges for their power charger too) or car lighter adapters sell for $24.95.

  • A handy device might be a wireless remote for the player.  Of course, this will have some limitations because if you can't see the Zune's screen, it is not really possible to select songs, but this would be helpful to adjust the volume, start/stop, and skip tracks,  if the player is at one end of the room and you're at the other.  $29.99.

  • If you want to show pictures or video on a regular television, you'll need an A/V output cable.  $19.99.

  • If you lose your synch cable, a new one will cost you $19.99.

  • If you want to play your Zune in the car, you'll probably choose one of the FM converters that take the output of the Zune and then rebroadcast it on an unused FM frequency that your car radio will pick up.  Several options, priced around $80.

One extra you won't need to purchase

The Zune comes complete with a built-in FM tuner.  In the unlikely event you wanted to buy such an add-on for an iPod, you'd have to spend an extra $49.

Specifications

The Zune is larger than either of Apple's two hard disk based iPods.  It measures 4.4" x 2.5" x 0.6" and weighs 5.6 oz.  It currently comes in three colors - white, black, or brown, with a subtle different color around the edge of the unit (eg a green around the edge of the brown).  There are also a few limited production pink and orange units that Microsoft has been giving away to strategic partners.

The unit is made out of plastic, and it seems that the main part of the unit then has an extra piece of plastic snapped on top of it to provide the particular color combination for the unit.  It does not feel nearly as well made as the iPod, but it does share one thing in common :  It is not possible for the owner to open up the unit - for example, to replace the battery (if you want to see what it looks like inside, here's a web page with a series of pictures of what is inside the unit).

Another element that feels cheap and shoddy is plugging the headphones into the unit.  The headphone plug doesn't slide smoothly in - indeed, I had a friend try the unit out and they didn't plug the headphones in far enough, not realizing they had to be forced in further, and told me the unit had stopped working!

The front of the unit looks reminiscent of the iPod, but what appears to be a scroll wheel is not actually that at all.  It is merely a four way rocker switch with an extra push button in the middle, but has been designed to look like Apple's popular touch wheel, even though it completely does not work the same way.  Deceptive packaging?  Perhaps.

There are two additional buttons, one on either side of the non-wheel.  One is a menu back button and the other a Play/Pause button.  There is also a Hold slider on the top of the unit, and two sockets - one for headphones and the other being the socket for the synch/data/power cable.

The most notable difference between the Zune and iPod is perhaps the screen size.  The current generation iPod has a screen with a 2.5" diagonal (1.5" x 2" on its two sides).  The Zune has a larger screen with a 3" diagonal (1.8" x 2.4"), and this provides an almost 50% increase in viewing area.

When watching video, you rotate the unit 90 so as to have the screen set with the longer dimension on the horizontal rather than vertical plane.

As discussed in our iPod review, the iPod's screen is way too small for most people to be pleased with using it to watch video.  The Zune still has a very small screen, but being nearly 50% bigger than the iPod's screen makes it very much more usable.

Although the screen is larger, it doesn't have any higher resolution.  It too is a 320 x 240 pixel QVGA resolution screen, meaning that the amount of picture information and quality on the Zune's screen is always going to be very much less than is shown even on a regular (non high definition) NTSC television.  We feel that watching video on a Zune remains a gimmick rather than a bona fide prime use of the unit.

Using the Zune

To use the Zune, you first need to load its software onto your PC.  Currently the Zune only works with PCs, it does not have software that works with Macs or other operating systems.

Installing the software from the CD rom to the computer took considerably more time than installing the iPod software.  Does this mean it is another massively bloated Microsoft program being added to one's computer?

The install routine didn't offer any options as to where the program was to be installed, and didn't offer the opportunity to put a shortcut icon onto the desktop or into the System Tray or Fast Start window either.

Annoyingly, the software required a computer reboot after being installed.  One would have hoped Microsoft could have written software for its own operating system that avoids the need for a restart.

After rebooting the computer, I then connected the Zune as instructed.  Although I'd bought the unit on the first day they went on sale, the program advised that it already needed an update to the Zune's firmware.  But - in a classic bit of Microsoft obtuseness, it provided no obvious way to get the update.  However, after feeling frustrated about this for a while, it transpired that the 'Next' button also updated the unit (whether you wanted to or not - so why offer it as an option?).

After the update process was apparently complete, the Zune window on my PC went grey and froze.  But I checked in Task Manager and it showed the Zune program was still active, because it was consuming varying amounts of CPU resource, and using a massive 112MB of memory (the next largest program, Outlook, used only 59MB of memory, and Apple's comparable iTunes software uses only 46MB).  Yes, this truly is a bloated program.

I waited impatiently while the grey screen patiently shone back at me.  After half an hour, the CPU activity dropped and the program's status changed to 'Not Responding'.  I closed the program and, at its request, sent an error report to Microsoft, but there was no response back with a suggested fix.

I restarted the program and this time it couldn't find the connected Zune player.  I rebooted the computer for a second time and it still wouldn't find it.  Fortunately, Zune's Customer Support quickly answered when I called their (800) number, and a friendly helpful and competent American walked me through how to fix the issue and complete the program install.

Other people have variously reported problems or no problems installing the software on their PCs, but clearly an unacceptable percentage of installation attempts are resulting in problems and crashes.

Apparently Microsoft is having problems at its end, too.  After I had the software working properly, I attempted to run the option to update album information, but after more than an hour of automatic retrying, I gave up, due to always getting a message telling me that Microsoft's servers were busy.

The next day I went to connect my Zune to the PC again, and once more it wouldn't recognize the Zune, then suddenly after ten minutes, found it and started working.  It seems that somehow my Zune lost all its memory (the battery was totally dead) and the program then proceeded to slowly resynch all 20GB+ of music I had.

And after I finished with the program on the PC and closed it, the Zune player still showed it was connected to the program, even though it had been closed.  Buggy.  Very buggy.

User Interface

The Zune's user interface is a bit less intuitive than the iPod's (which is also not entirely self explanatory), and several times I found myself guessing wrong as to what the various possible button pushes would do.

Changing settings on the device is regrettably cumbersome.  You can only step forwards through the settings, one at a time.  You can't see a complete list of options, and if you inadvertently go past your preferred option, you have to step through the entire list again.

When going through the equalizer settings, I twice went past the 'None' setting and had to go through all eight settings each time.

Cataloguing and finding your music

The Zune does this automatically for you, and uses a very similar way of filing music to that used by the iPod, where music is basically sorted either by the album/CD it was originally taken from, by the group playing the music, by genre, or by individual song.

This works for some types of music and some types of music sources, but completely fails if you have classical music.  There's no way to go to a specific composer, to choose a specific piece, and then have the Zune play just that piece.

Built in FM radio

Some people will find the built in FM radio tuner a valuable extra feature.  If this is something you want, it is a reason to choose the Zune over the iPod, because the iPod requires you to buy an extra component to connect to the iPod to enable it to act as a radio receiver.

The receiver seems moderately sensitive and pulled in weak stations at least as well as regular FM tuners I have, and gives a moderately good quality signal, although I did find myself wishing there was a tone control or hiss filter to switch on to get rid of some of the higher frequency radio static and noise.

Wi-Fi music sharing

I wasn't able to share anything with anyone else because, unsurprisingly, no-one else I know has a Zune.

And therein lies the problem, longer term, with the Zune.  Unless you are in the same room as another Zune owner, and unless the two of you agree to swap music, this feature - in theory clever - is in practice useless.

Even if you are with someone else who does have a Zune, you can only share music if the digital rights for the piece of music specifically allow this.  Not all commercial music does allow this.  And a shared piece of music only lasts for the shorter of either three days or three plays and then automatically deletes itself.

Sadly, although there is a Wi-Fi capability in the unit, Microsoft chose to limit and cripple it to only this one application.  Imagine how useful it would be if you could synch your Zune to your computer wirelessly through your Wi-Fi network rather than needing to connect it through a cable?  Or if you could get your Zune directly onto the internet, and bypass the intermediate step of your computer entirely when getting and transferring music.

The Zune does none of these things, reducing the Wi-Fi capability to a battery life consuming feature that most people will switch off and forget about.

Battery life

Battery life is something you can never have too much of.  Microsoft was a 800 mAhr 3.7V Li-Ion battery inside its Zune, and this is rated at giving 13 hours of music playback or 4 hours of video playback.  The actual length will vary depending on things such as how much time the screen is lit up and how loud the music is (for audio) and the brightness setting (for video), and of course this battery life reduces every time you recharge it.

A couple of reviewers have reported between about 11.5 and 12.5 hours of battery life when playing music, I've not done any accurate testing myself.

By comparison, the latest 80GB iPod claims 20 hours of music or 6.5 hours of video.  This is appreciably more than the larger, heavier, but lower capacity Zune player.  The much smaller and lighter, but identical 30GB capacity iPod has almost exactly the same battery life (14 hours for music or 3.5 hours for video).

Microsoft has not yet announced what its policy is on replacing batteries when they can no longer hold sufficient charge as to be useful.  It took some time and public pressure for Apple to agree to implement a battery replacement program - this is therefore a predictable issue Microsoft should have had an answer for right from its product launch.

Buying and Loading Music onto the Zune

Just like Apple does all it can to lock you into their iTunes store to buy music, so too does Microsoft lock you into their Zune Store as the only source of music (other than your own CDs).

Unfortunately, their Zune Store has massively less music to choose from than does iTunes.  For example, if you go to choose music by genre, there is absolutely no category for classical music whatsoever.

And although the Zune is capable of playing video, there is no video for sale through Microsoft's service.  No television shows, no movies, no nothing, making the unit's video playing feature close to useless, unless you can puzzle out how to record video yourself (I've yet to find any documentation telling me how to do this).

A brilliant example of Microsoft's arrogance (or perhaps just plain stupidity) is that when you wish to buy a song from their site, you won't find it priced in regular US dollars and cents, or in any other world currency either.  Instead, everything is priced in artificial credit units - 79 units = 99 cents.  So if you see something costing 360 credits, you need a calculator to work out its price is actually $4.51.

Songs can usually be purchased for 79 credits each (ie, 99 cents, the same as iTunes), or for $14.99 a month you can get a subscription service giving you unlimited music for the month.  But, if your subscription lapses, you lose all the music you may have downloaded.

Presumably this is to trick people into thinking that a song costing 79 credits with Microsoft is cheaper than the same song costing 99c with iTunes.

The only thing stupider than these policies - credits instead of real dollar costs, and renting music rather than owning it - is anyone who would choose to willingly do business with them on such a basis.

For most people, the best way to get music remains the old fashioned way - buy a CD, then copy files from the CD to your computer and onto your music players.

Ripping CDs to the Zune

If you're doing the sensible thing and copying your own CDs onto the Zune, you can choose between MP3 and WMA formats.  Sadly, Microsoft doesn't support variable bit rates, making the file sizes slightly larger than they need to be, and doubly sadly, Microsoft also doesn't support the newer better AAC method of music encoding/compression.

For maximum compatibility, you're therefore forced to use the least effective method of encoding - MP3, because iPods can play either MP3 or AAC but not WMA.  We'd recommend you use a setting of between 128kb (the minimum acceptable for MP3 and not really good enough for any degree of quality playback) and 192kb (beyond this, you start to get into diminishing returns where the extra quality is not apparent) for ripping MP3s.

Copying video from DVDs, tapes, etc

If you want to copy or make your own videos to play on the Zune, you'll need some sort of video editing/conversion program.  We've used the Movavi Video Suite and found it easy to use.  You might like to try their free demonstration version and possibly choose to buy their software too.

Summary

It is surprising and disappointing that Microsoft was not able to release a better thought out product.  Sure, it is a first generation product, but Microsoft has the luxury of being able to study the evolution, successes and issues with Apple's iPod, and to also copy the best ideas of the various sundry other iPod competitors.

Instead, they release a single model unit (almost all other music player manufacturers have a model range with a series of different capacities available) that is woefully too small for the one function it may be better at than the iPod - playing video, and which also has too short a battery life, but in a form factor larger (and more crudely manufactured) than the comparable iPod, which is a compact elegant work of art.

A poorly thought out user interface, buggy PC program and lack of content available for purchase all detract further from this unit.

Today, there is no reason at all to choose a Zune over an iPod, and many reasons to prefer the iPod.  Although many industry commentators seem to be excusing their present disappointment with the Zune by predicting it will get better in the future, the reality today is that the Zune is simply not nearly as good as Apple's iPod, and a company with the size and resource of Microsoft should be panned not praised for such an amateurish product.

Not recommended.

 

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Originally published 17 Nov 2006, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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