The one about the Zune

I was recently offered the chance to test drive Microsoft’s latest version of their ‘wish I was an iPod’ MP3 player, the Zune and I jumped at the chance.

Despite what some people may think, I’m not *just* a fan of Apple products. I’m a fan of cool products in general and always like to at least try out the latest and greatest so that I know where I stand with my recommendations to friends/family/etc and so that I can accurately compare these products. I prefer to think of myself as a fan of a good experience rather than a particular company…but lately, Apple has been hitting most of the right notes for me so it’s easy to recommend them over many others depending on the product.

Zune has landed

At first glance I thought the packaging was nice and simple but almost destroyed the Zune before I’d even opened it. A friend picked up the Zune box (middle in the photo above) and the little orange line on the bottom of the box is actually a drawer where you slide the inner contents out from. He picked up the box (it was standing upright) and the bottom fell out, Zune inside. Fortunately it didn’t fall far but was an inauspicious start to say the least.

As you can see in the photo, my Zune kit came with an AC adapter (basically a USB to wall outlet) along with ‘premium headphones’. The base Zune comes with basic headphones but the premium ones are truly decent. They feel and fit nice, do a great job of blocking external sound, and have a very long, rope-like cable which doesn’t feel cheap or plastic-y.

Zune MP3 Player

As you can see from the above photo, it’s pretty similar in size to the older version of the iPod Nano. Just a little thicker but the same width.

Zune MP3 Player

The first thing I noticed about the Zune was the large, clean font presentation. For such a relatively small device, it’s very bright and easy to read. The background in the above photo is my own photo (actually my wife’s from our trip to Hawaii) so it’s really nice to customize the background of something you will be using a lot – something Apple could learn from since none of their devices really support this kind of personalization. The iPod interface seems a little dated now in comparison, even on the new models…excluding of course the Touch and the iPhone.
Zune MP3 Player
The Zune just launched recently in Canada and has been available in the US for a number of years. Seems kind of strange to launch a product like this so long after they did in the US…and when compared to the iPod Nano (newer model), it may seem a little old to the uninformed consumer.

One thing that was initially a bit of a pain to deal with was the fact that they can only be setup with a Windows PC. I would have liked to use a virtualized version of Windows on one of my Macs but the Zune software complained of needing to do a Windows Update before installing…I wasn’t prepared to do that to any of my installs just yet so opted to use my wife’s old PC (she now uses an iMac) and install the software on there which was pretty straightforward and works fairly similar to iTunes as a media manager.
Zune MP3 Player
The menu system is actually quite nice and has a few nice little animated flourishes as you navigate around your content. I found the ‘touch pad’ navigational button to be quite sensitive and once I realized it behaves more like a laptop touch pad than a game controller d-pad, it was easy to get used to.
Zune MP3 Player
One feature I haven’t had a chance to play with is the wireless syncing and the ‘social’ aspect of the device which allows you to wirelessly share your content with other Zune owners. A number of local friends are also participating in this trial so hopefully we can get together soon and try out these features. The biggest problem is finding other Zunes ‘in the wild’…I’ve never seen one other than on store shelves.
Zune MP3 Player

Music and video played back like you’d expect if you’ve ever used an iPod…no surprises there.

Another lesson Apple could learn from Microsoft is the Zune came preloaded with some sample content. What a novel idea! Show people how the various content types could be used before dropping them into iTunes.
Zune FM Tuner
One feature that actually surprised me was the FM tuner. I’ve always thought it was a useless feature on an mp3 player. It made sense to me that you’d never use it since you have your own music on it. But considering this is an 8gb model, perhaps not all your music. Plus there are times when you may want to hear the news or traffic. Unfortunately where I live at least, the best news/traffic station is on AM. Still not sure it’s a main selling point, but definitely a nice feature. I also thought it was cool that the tuner was able to pull down the station name and even the track playing from the source radio station which even pushed out weather updates during commercials which was a nice touch.

All in all, I think the Zune is a solid mp3 player when compared to the iPod Nano – at least the model I played with. Possibly even a better device depending on your needs and your computer setup (PC or Mac). The big drawback for me with using it is the Windows only nature of the syncing software which is the same complaint Windows users made about the iPod when it was first released.

Part of the marketing campaign is to track the conversations about this mp3 player. They’ve asked me to include a link to the tool they are using to do this so that you, the reader, can add your voice to the conversation. This is an interesting approach and I’m curious to see how many people actually participate. It’s not an easy thing to track and requires people to do something they may not normally do. If you’re so inclined, here’s the link:

So here’s my quick list of thoughts about the Zune after playing with it for a few days:

Positives:

  • slick user interface
  • personalization options
  • wireless built in
  • FM tuner
  • the premium headphones are really nice
  • preloaded with sample audio/video content including tutorials and even the Zune commercial so you can use it out of the box (kind of – you need to run ‘setup’ first)

Negatives:

  • Windows only software install
  • form factor a little old when compared to Apple’s offerings
  • possibly a year or two too late to Canada
  • touchpad took a little getting used to due to sensitivity
  • poor design choice in package layout

I’ll add to this list once I’ve used it more and had a chance to further test some of the features.

6 Comments

  1. A full 24 hours after my first attempt, I finally got the Zune software installed. Using the device is fun — if I can get the taint of the software installation process out of my mind:

    http://www.penmachine.com/2008/07/continued-zune-fail

  2. As you know I’m another of the Canadian trial-users, and I’ll write a blog post about it eventually, too.

    A couple of quick notes:
    – I actually find the “premium” headphones very annoying. The chord feels nice, like you say, but if you as much as touch the chord, the sound travels to the headphones, ruining the whole noise-isolation point.
    – You can turn off the touchpad function (settings > touch > off) so it only does clicks.
    – The PC software bugs me, it’s slow. But, unlike iTunes, it hasn’t killed my Windows dead. I’m looking for a way to get it working properly with Winamp and Explorer

  3. John says:

    Jan: I’m not sure what you’re doing when you notice it (the Zune software) acting slow….I was surprised how quick it was and I was using a 4 year old PC with it. Did you perhaps have it auto locate all your music files? I haven’t tried the wifi syncing yet so that could be slow depending on the connection speed. I don’t know what type of wifi (B/G/N/etc) the Zune has built in but I’m guessing B and would be surprised if it’s G.

    I think you need to give iTunes another try….I know the first versions of it on Windows were a little problematic for some people but it’s come a long way since then and I know tons of people using it fine with their iPods and iPhones on Windows. Or was there some other reason why you don’t like iTunes?

    I doubt someone has spent the time to create or hack some alternate software/method for the Zune that would allow drag-n-drop population like I think you’re wanting…but surprises do happen.

  4. gusgreeper says:

    great post! i will know exactly what to do when mine arrives. i wonder just how long long is ? ha.

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