Microsoft Zune Review

microsoft zune main thumb Microsoft Zune Review

This review is out of date. The firmware has been upgraded making it a very different player. While this review will still be accurate in terms of build quality and design, the Zune 80 review will give a more accurate overview of the Zune 30 since it is nearly identical in features and functionality.

The portable audio market is a multibillion-dollar industry and continues to grow at exponential rates. So of course everyone wants a piece of that market, including Microsoft. The Zune, introduced many months ago, has gotten off to an OK start but is by no means a category killer. This is mainly due to what I think was a rush to the market with a hacked-together piece of hardware, half-baked firmware, and over-hyped wireless functionality.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of good stuff going on with the Zune and it is definitely on the correct path; so I remain optimistic that the Zune will improve over time. As of now, the design and style is rugged and the interface is nice and simple. It is also sitting at a very nice price point for the features even at its current firmware version 1.3 offering. So as features are added to firmware, the Zune becomes a more attractive buy.

Without further ado, I bring you the overdue Zune review.

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Inside the box you will find a typical array of accessories: the Zune hardware, Zune software, earbuds, proprietary USB cable, and accessory pouch. The supplied earbuds, as with every other MP3 player, are nothing to be excited about. They will get you started but you may want to look into an inexpensive pair of IEMs. The Zune does fit inside the pouch, so you can use it to protect the player, but it almost seems like it was designed more to carry the cables and earbuds.

Obtaining additional accessories isn’t a problem; the Zune has an extensive line-up of compatible “Designed for Zune” accessories. It may not be as extensive as the iPod’s accessory list, but more than likely if a major accessory is available for the iPod, you can find it for the Zune. Accessories include cases, docking stations, speaker docks, video cables, remote controls, travel kits, car chargers, wall chargers, FM transmitters, etc.


The Zune measures 4.4. x 2.4 x 0.6 inches (112 x 61 x 15 mm) and weighs 5.6 ounces (159 g). Even though the entire player is made of plastic, it still feels well built and sturdy. The entire casing has a plastic suede-like finish that won’t easily scratch or show fingerprints. It is a very rugged finish and a great choice for an on-the-go device. The screen is also made of a scratch resistant material – a very hard, smooth plastic – that will hold up from normal use to light abuse.


The display measures 3” diagonally with a pixel resolution of 320×240 and a color depth of 65K. The screen is very clear and accurate as far as displaying colors. The majority of people will be very pleased, but the 65K color depth may not be enough for the few discerning users. When comparing the Zune’s screen to the Zen Vision: M’s 262K-color screen, the difference is obvious. But also keep in mind that by using only 65K colors, file sizes are smaller and you can fit more videos on the player.

There is, however, what I consider a design flaw on the screen’s plastic cover. The screen’s edge has a bevel on the inside that refracts the light, slightly distorting the edge of the picture with a black line or doubled edge. It’s a minor annoyance, but if this sounds like something that concerns you, then check it out in person at one of the many Zune in-store displays. It is difficult to show this with a photo or video.

User Interface

The user interface is definitely the Zune’s strong point: intuitive, easy to use, and really nice to look at. What also makes the interface great are the all-tactile controls. Touch interfaces are obnoxious and inaccurate, so I hope that Microsoft continues to use strictly clickable buttons in future Zune generations.

There are a few things that could improve the usability, such as dedicated volume buttons. It is very useful to have access to the volume no matter what menu you are in. Secondly, the back and pause/play buttons need to be moved above the center buttons. It would be much more ergonomic for both smaller and larger hands, but more on that later.


There is only one way to get media onto your player and it’s with the bundled Zune Marketplace software. The software functions and feels very much like a reskinned Windows Media Player 11, so it will be familiar to many. There are still some issues of stability, but they are slowly being ironed out. As of now it is just about as stable as WMP11.

Overall the software is easy to use and learn, but there is much room for improvement. I have shown a few not-so-computer-savvy folks how to use it and they took to it well, ripping their CDs and creating playlists.

The Ecosystem

I personally am troubled by being locked into one piece of software, meaning I must use the Zune software and can only purchase music from the Zune Marketplace online store. The ecosystem approach takes away the consumers right to choose where they can purchase their digital media and how they can transfer content to their player. The opposing argument to this is that it simplifies the user’s experience and allows a single provider to give the user a better unified breadth of services. While I think that both arguments have valid points, the consumer needs to be aware of what he/she is buying into. In this case it’s a single system.


Microsoft already built an extensive platform used by most of the non-iPods called PlaysForSure and a transfer technology called MTP, none of which the Zune uses (well, if you want to get technical, the Zune actually uses a bastardi
zed version of both). Microsoft still could have provided a unified service while at the same time providing the consumer choice of transfer software and music services by using its ubiquitous and open MTP/PlaysForSure platform. This cake-and-eat-it-too approach is already in place and works very well on the SanDisk Sansa Connect. Microsoft, take note: “all it takes” is a firmware update.


The Wi-Fi is a feature Microsoft wanted to have, but they never took the time to develop any meaningful uses for it. However, it is a work in progress. Other wireless features will be added as newer versions of the firmware are released, but at the present time there is not too much to get excited about.

As of now you can only use the wireless feature to transfer photos and music Zune to Zune. Photo sharing is uninhibited; you are free to do whatever you want once you receive images. Transferring music is another story. Music transferred to another Zune can only be played 3 times or for 3 days, whichever comes first. Additionally, some music from certain record labels will not transfer because they have had Microsoft filter them.

There is no doubt that the Zune’s wireless feature is underdeveloped, but over time I believe it will come around to something meaningful. I see potential here. For instance, a tie-in with Microsoft’s Live and Xbox 360 would be something compelling. However, I don’t think that the wireless feature will be anything substantial until the second-generation Zune.

Wireless Performance

The official specs on the Wi-Fi hardware are 802.11b as well as g with a range of 30 feet. I did various range tests with the Zune and it did live up to the 30 feet official spec the majority of the time. Of course you will not get the full 30 feet through walls and other obstacles. The transfer rates also remained pretty constant at all ranges.

Even though the Zune does 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, it doesn’t clock in at anything near the rated 11 and 54 mbps. I did a simple test of real world transfer rates with a stopwatch and a file of a known size and it clocked in around 0.5 mbps. It’s not bad when transferring a song or two, but if you are transferring entire albums you would be looking at around 3 minutes per album (90MB album).


For those of you who still listen to the radio, you will be pleased to find an easy interface and RDS. The Zune is the only player I know of that uses RDS to display the radio station identification, artist, and track title.

Navigation is straightforward using the center controls. Pressing forward or back will seek the next available station when the seek option is set. When the seek function is off, you can finetune your station just as you would work any other radio. Preset stations can be “channel surfed” by depressing the forward or back buttons.

The Zune definitely has one of the better radios in an MP3 player, but it is missing a critical feature: autoscan. This feature is always nice for travel as well as for saving a good amount of time programming all your favorite stations.

As far as reception, the Zune performs just as any radio would; it is straightforward. Keep in mind that the headphones are used as an FM antenna so your reception may vary according to the brand or type of headphone you are using. Also, remember that when using the radio while in a dock, you must have headphones connected in order to get good reception.


The Zune will accept all JPEG files no matter what resolution or size, but will convert them all to 640×480 when transferred. The screen is only 320×240, but the photos are converted to 640×480 for viewing them at full TV resolution.

Photos converted and transferred to the Zune are very easy to access and browse. The pictures can be either viewed by date or by folder. When a date or folder is selected, photos are displayed in a thumbnail matrix. Photos can then be selected to be displayed full screen. Slideshows can be started by simply pressing play. The slideshow transition is a very smooth cross-mixed fade. Very easy on the eyes.

When viewing photos full screen, you can access other features by pressing the center button. Under this menu you can zoom, shuffle the slideshow, apply the photo as a background, wirelessly send the photo, and flag the photo that will show in the Zune software’s “inbox.”Overall the photo feature is very easy to use and feature rich and definitely among the best as far as portable media players are concerned.


The Zune natively plays one file type: Windows Media Video or .wmv. From, here are the two supported native profiles. The main profile is a constant or variable bitrate of up to 1.5 Mbps, 320 x 240 pixels, and 30 frames per second. There is also a second constant bitrate simple profile using a smaller bitrate of 738 Kbps. Both profiles can have up to a 192 Kbps WMA audio stream.

Video Conversion

It would be nice to have more natively supported video codecs so video conversion would be kept to a minimum, as seen with the Zen Vision: M that plays nearly everything you throw at it. I understand that adding more native video support complicates the development and proposes codec licensing issues, but at least the user should be allowed to convert all video with the Zune software as long as the codec is installed.

Video conversion is a big pain point with the Zune. Conversion of any video type can be done but almost all of the time third-party software must be used. However, the Zune software only recognizes MPEG4, WMV, and H.264 and will only convert from those. This restriction is extremely frustrating, crippling functionality and complicating the user experience.

Ideally, if you have a codec for a video file type installed on your computer then the Zune software should be able to convert it. This is the way it works with other players, so it is not a technical issue; it is an issue of Microsoft restricting the hardware and taking away the consumer’s choice.

Video Out

Video out can look really good. It looks great with the included video filling an entire 16:9 widescreen TV. But the quality of the video on the TV is going to be dependent on the source of the video and how it was converted. For instance, video playback onscreen may look “VHS quality” and a bit fuzzy if you encoded it from a Windows Media Center recorded show. On the other hand, ripping a DVD can produce some good-looking results. Not near DVD quality considering its 320×240 max resolution and 64K colors, but still smooth at 30 frames per second.

The best way to use the video output is with the Home A/V Pack that includes a dock, video cable, wall charger, and remote. It is a really nice set up because the interface is very easy to use across the room and very easy to navigate with the supplied remote. It’s basically a lite media center. The accessory pack retails for around $100 but smart shoppers can find it for around $75 at online retailers.


The Zune natively supports WMA, MP3, and AAC; this means conversion of these file types are not needed. The AAC support is the one feature that needs to be highlighted. Without getting into a debate on superiority, the important thing to know is if you are an iPod refugee, the collection you ripped (without changing the defaults) using iTunes will work on the Zune without conversion.

[On a side note, ripping your collection to MP3 will ensure compatibility with every digital audio player (I have yet to see one that doesn’t support the MP3 codec). By default, the Zune software rips to WMA so you will want to change this by going to the top bar and clicking on “Options” > “Rip” > “More Options.” Under “rip setting,” select MP3 format from the drop-down menu. The steps are similar in Windows Media Player 11. Click the down arrow under the “Rip” tab to get to “More Options.” >

I would also change the bitrate to something higher on the slider in that same window. Never use anything less than 192kbps for music audio. Storage space is plentiful these days on players and the difference in file size is marginal, so I would even crank it up to 256kbps or max it out at 320kbps].

Official specifications of each audio file type taken from

  • Windows Media® Audio Standard (.wma): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate
  • MP3 (.mp3): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate
  • AAC (.mp4, .m4a, .m4b, .mov): Up to 320 Kbps, Low Complexity (LC), up to 48-kHz sample rate

I still would have liked to see native support for more file types, more specifically OGG and FLAC. Adding native support for these codecs would cost nothing in licensing, win over more customers, and be transparent to the people who not would use them. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Playlists / Bookmarks

Playlists are very easy to create and transfer to the Zune using the Zune software. You can also create an on-the-go playlist by selecting “add to quick list” when browsing each track or album. The downside is that there is only one on-the-go quick list and no way to save one and start another as you can in other players.

Also, unfortunately, a bookmarking feature is not present, which would be nice for those who listen to audio books or long mixes.

Sound Quality

The Zune’s sound quality is good and will suffice for the majority of users, but if sound quality is a very important feature, you may want to look elsewhere. The very high end and the very low end are somewhat blurry, but something you can only tell with a really nice set of headphones and some critical listening. Sound quality is average at moderate listening levels, but tends to fall flat and louder volumes.

The lack of great sound quality can be blamed on the ODM manufacturer of the Zune, Toshiba. The sound quality of the Gigabeat S was poor and since the Zune is just a modified version of the Gigabeat, this is where the sound quality issue stems from. I’m hoping that Microsoft will ODM the next generation Zune to a different manufacturer (cough . . . cough . . . Cowon) or do it themselves in house.

The sound quality in the current generation Zune could be improved by adding what many believe to be a very critical feature, a custom EQ. As of now there are only presets available including: flat, acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, and rock. While these work pretty well, adding a custom EQ could possibly improve the quality of sound or at least give the “tweakers” more options.


Having used nearly every player on the market over the last few years, I cannot help but feel like my hands are tied when using the Zune. I feel limited by the single piece of software that must be used. I want choice. I want to be able to play all my media, or at least the supplied software should allow me convert it. The Zune is a really nice piece of hardware, but it lacks flexibility and choice. I understand the pros of an ecosystem approach, but a hybrid as discussed above is a very feasible solution.

That said the first gen Zune will fall short of hardcore DAP fans’ expectations. On the other hand, casual and first-time users will be pleased. My girlfriend has her choice of no less than 40 different MP3 players lying around the house, but she always picks the Zune, mainly for its easy user interface. The Zune really does have some good stuff going for it despite its shortcomings and its being only half-baked.

Overall, the Zune is good but not great. However, I remain optimistic because I see the Zune following the same product development path as the XBox with slow but steady firmware and hardware improvements. Realizing this parallel, the Zune will only get better with time.


  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Solid design
  • 16:9 TV out – Great 10-foot interface
  • Scratch resistant design
  • Available accessories
  • Wireless
  • FM radio RDS


  • No custom EQ
  • Limited native audio and video support
  • Difficult video conversion
  • No choice of transfer software
  • No choice of music store
  • Will not operate as data storage device
  • Limited use of wireless
  • Limited wireless sharing
  • Closed ecosystem


Most stores selling electronics carry the Zune, but if you want to avoid sales tax Amazon usually sells the player for a better price than brick-and-mortar retailers. If you plan on using the Zune at home sans headphones, you may want to check out the Home A/V Pack, my favorite. It sells for $100 in the stores, which may not be worth it, but I have seen it on online for as low as $75 with free shipping.


saminthehat on April 18, 2007 6:24 PM

Great review, shame their not for sale in Europe for another year or so. I would have bought one otherwise.I heard a Zune phone is in the makings.

Shanahan on April 18, 2007 7:09 PM

I got tired of manually downloading and converting trailers from Apple so I made this page:’s over 1GB of videos, all 320×240 and WMV formatted. Just download and Sync to a Zune or Creative Zen Vision:M or any other WMV compatible device.More will be added shortly.Enjoy,-fs

a12ctic on April 18, 2007 7:26 PM

Looks like another mediocre attempt by a mediocre company. Oh well, some things will never change. Hopefully those of you who bought one of these will get a nice alternative firmwire, or at least some sorta of homebrew to help you along.

gigabeat on April 18, 2007 11:57 PM

How would you rank this against the Gigabeat S? I know it is discontinued, but still available online.

Josh on April 19, 2007 5:46 AM

This is player isn’t very nice to look at. You could describe it as an eyesaw.The wifi sounds great, too bad that there are playback restrictions on sharing songs.I think if Microsoft wanted to get the ball rolling they should have entered the flash-based mp3 category. Sell a 4 or 8GB player that would ace the iPod, with video and expandable memory.Sadly, this player has been given terrible software for your computer and it is NOT UMS!!!!!

EnzoTen on April 19, 2007 8:06 AM

I would choose the Zune over the Gigabeat S without any hesitation. The Zune is many times better.

wmal on April 19, 2007 8:09 PM

Thanks for your helpful review. Does the Zune play WMA Lossless files natively?

Night Surfer on April 20, 2007 10:37 AM

No lossless on the Zune.The Zune SO needs to be Rockboxed!More formats, lossless/gapless/ free up the wifi.I agree with the review except for Enzo’s opinion of the sound quality.With my ears/headphones/music the sound quality is very good.One of the Zune’s strongpoints, I believe.

electrick_eye on April 20, 2007 10:52 AM

Hey, nice review Enzo… did you know that the zune software will convert .AVI’s? Just check the zune forum and the thread “Divx to Zune?” The workaround is kind of a pain but works nonethe less.

EnzoTen on April 20, 2007 12:20 PM

-NSWhat headphones are you using… The Zune is average on sound quality when played at moderate volumes, but falls flat and distorts when played at louder volumes with a good set of headphones.-EEFrom the review: Conversion of any video type can be done but almost all of the time third-party software must be used. However, the Zune software only recognizes MPEG4, WMV, and H.264 and will only convert from that.

Saminthehat on April 20, 2007 1:26 PM

How well does the Zune Sound Q. fare compared with the ZV:M?

Night Surfer on April 20, 2007 2:44 PM

ET – Shure E3c’s and Grado SR60′s. Both decent, but not “top of the line” headphones. Both are well burnt-in. I recently did a sound test with the Zune vs my new Kenwood HD30GB9. The Kenwood is spectacular w/ it’s built in amp but the Zune hung fairly well with it at the lower bitrates (128-160). The Kenwood was obviously clearly superior at the higher and lossless bitrates.Sam – I returned my ZVM and got the Zune for two reasons:Larger album art and better sound. ZVM has many more features though.

EnzoTen on April 20, 2007 3:54 PM

I used Senheiser HD650′s and a pair of V-Moda Vibez. I A/B the Zune against the iAudio X5 (320kbps MP3s) and CD player. The difference was definitely noticeable with the HD650 a little less noticeable with the vibes. The Zune’s extream highs and lows are not well definied against the X5 and a CD player. The Zen Vision:M fell somewhere in between the X5 and the Zune.

Night Surfer on April 21, 2007 1:33 PM

Ahh..HD650′s, very nice.We must agree to disagree then.It is difficult to argue a particular DAP’s quality without sounding like fanboy (I do not wish to sound like a fanboy).To my ears the Zune ranks high on the list of players I have owned in terms of pure SQ:1. Kenwood HD30GB92. Samsung YPZ53. Cowon X54. Zune5. iRiver6. ZVM and the rest…..I hope you get your hands on a Kenwood soon Enzo. I would love to see your review on it!

EnzoTen on April 21, 2007 4:31 PM

Agreed to disagree =)At least we are on the same page with the X5 sounding better than the Zune.I keep hearing everyone say great stuff about that kenwood… i may give in one of these days… they are just difficult to get without paying an arm and a leg.

saminthehat on April 21, 2007 5:12 PM

Thanks anyway! In all honesty, I myself won’t be able to tell the difference. I only asked the question for the benefit of other people.

M W on April 29, 2007 12:31 PM

I want a review the sandisk connect and view…. :(

DHC of VA on May 3, 2007 7:44 PM

Hey, I am an older non-savvy person who wants to condense my favorite music into a small container, while retaining the best possible sound. I would like a unit that is compatible with a Bose sound dock. I would like a unit that is easy to load my favorites onto and then to access. I would want a unit with which I could record live music. I’m really really new and ignorant about this…please help.

t-nine on May 6, 2007 12:29 PM

Good review, I’ll [hopefully] pick one up around boxing day…Too bad its not UMS….

Night Surfer on May 6, 2007 12:55 PM

I believe that there now exists a firmware or reg hack to allow drag and drop.

Gompers on May 8, 2007 10:15 PM

Would you go for this or the Creative Zen Vision: M? They’re the same price at Circuit City right now, and I’m faced with a choice.

K on May 27, 2007 7:45 PM

Gompers – might be too late for a useful comment, but I’d suggest a ZV:M until the Zune has been around longer and has more of its kinks worked out. I was lucky and had an iPod for over 2.5 yrs with no big problems, and am replacing it with a ZV:M because I’ve read a bunch of reviews saying that the Zune needs a lot of improvement in its software. it sounds like a promising product that was released too soon.

zibaba on May 30, 2007 9:14 PM

I love this thing. Plan on picking one up tomorow and hacking it.

stanstan009 on June 8, 2007 12:39 PM

About How Many Photos, Videos, And Music can the Zune Hold?

TurboFool on June 14, 2007 7:01 PM

stanstan009: That’s honestly a relatively useless question. What resolution of photo and how highly-compressed? What video codec, bitrate, and length of video? What bitrate and length of audio? I’m always bothered when players make claims as to how many of this, this, and this they can hold, as those numbers have no comparison whatsoever to my own library.And it’ll hold the same as any other 30GB player. Look at an iPod’s claims and it’s the same.

Natalie on June 21, 2007 11:57 PM

- Can you tranfer photos right from you camera?- Are you saying that you can’t copy say a bought CD?- When do you firgue that Zune will come out with a new version?- Also is there anywhere or anyway it is to be purchased from Canada? (Website or Phone?)Great review, I like that your able to provied detailed info..anyways hope that you can responed to all the above questionsThanks, Natalie

Ruben on July 6, 2007 3:23 AM

Will zune ever offer A.M. Radio on the zune. i own a black zune player and would like to listen to A.M. Radio on the zune. I would hope that microsoft lets the leash go a little and open more video formats for the zune video conversion. i would like to see an easier way to convert my movies into the zune. the Files look good but have problems with pixials . i use a bit rate of 1200. a/v sync . any suggestion on how to get the highest quality video. i will take a 2 gig movie on the zune if it’s close to perfect:) any ideas ??? besides this its much better than ipod!!!

josh on July 15, 2007 8:32 AM

i want to add to my last comment.i think that the Zune is still ugly and chunky…. BUT it does compensate for its lack of features. It does beat the iPod but I think it has got some ground to cover before whipping the Creative ZVM! I have a ZVM and I love it! The Zune looks like it has a stronger-scratch resistant coating. The ZVM just needs to be looked at and it gets a scratch! (I took it to a party, cause I was DJ. I had it for 2 weeks and it was covered in little buff marks and scratchs by the end!)

louie on August 3, 2007 3:54 PM

hei. zune is better. i have one. dimwit gud for you. u scratched ur player n thats for hatin zune. if i wer u, buy a zune n sell ur mini-plastic-no- gud-for-use-on ebay. **

billy on August 4, 2007 12:44 PM

The Creative Zen M is an excellent player. If you decide to use it for video playback it can’t be beat. It is extremely easy to drag and drop files from a friends computer and play it on your player. The majority of my video files are divx so it was extremely easy to drag and drop those files using windows explorer. The Creative software allows you to convert MP4 so you can “borrow” your friends music from an IPOD. The zune just does not have that capability and it makes sharing music very difficult.The player is a larger then an IPOD and it does scratch easily. Creative, however does have good customer service. If you have an issue with a device they will ship you an advance replacement if you are willing to let them place a hold your credit card.

Psyla on August 22, 2007 10:50 AM

I just got a Zune and I like it, though i’ve never had a different player before aside from my little mp3 SD card player so i can’t compare it to any other player.I got the zune cos I got an xbox 360 which it integrates with effortlessly. I didn’t have any trouble plugging it into my computer either, it worked perfect all round. I don’t care if its 0.3 inches or whatever longer than an ipod, it still fits in my pocket and and I like the bigger screen which is also very smooth when playing videos.Got a media converter to convert whatever into stuff that will play on my Zune so I really cant care that it wont play some formats that I can’t even tell the difference between.And the zune software has NOT ONCE since i got it (about 2 months) frozen yet. itunes software, in my experience, froze at least 3 times a week. I used itunes because it easily cataloged my music and I couldn’t really be bothered looking for any other type of similar software. Zune software seems more organised and I’ve had no trouble since i got it.

Vic on September 9, 2007 3:42 PM

Well just like any Microcrap product, this one blows, it looks like an a brick, and because its microsoft, and uses microsoft’s software you are bound to get viruses. I had an Ipod but as soon as it took a dump, i replaced it with an Iriver and I love it.I dont care for videos or pictures, but if i had to choose between a Zune and an Ipod Id would choose Ipod hands down….especially the Ipod touch, it makes the look like a brick but made of brown turd…lol

Srinivas on October 11, 2007 12:46 AM

Have you noticed the new announcements about the Zune? You should report on that. You are giving bad advice. For the people that are looking to buy it.

ps12r on October 17, 2007 11:36 AM

iPod looks so girly.

MikeyTage on October 25, 2007 12:02 PM

I’ve found a good WMV converter for the Zune. It’s the Microsoft Windows Media Encoder. It’s good enough to convert to all sorts to WMV sizes and allows to crop to a widescreen effect.Also if you install the K-Lite Video codec pack WME will recognise all file types.

ZoriBoi on February 14, 2009 11:55 PM

Dont buy this piece of shit, 2 years later it will break down.

amen on March 26, 2009 5:23 PM

Thank You

tillman on June 18, 2009 4:09 PM

I have the video cords, but the only thing that comes out on my tv is the sound. Does anyone know how to make the video appear on my tv?

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