This review is out of date.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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Zune.net, 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.
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 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 Zune.net:
- 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.
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
- 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.