The first Zune was something rushed to the market and it showed. The first generation Zune lacked anything outstanding; it really did not offer anything above what the competition was doing. The second time around I am seeing something a bit more impressive. The hardware has been updated and features have been added. The Zune is much more social this time around with the ability to share your listening preferences online. It has also tightly and seamlessly integrated podcasting and the wi-fi has finally been put to good use with wireless sync.
There is a lot of cool stuff going on with the Zune but there is a lot also that will be missed with the hardcore DAP crowd. Read on, let me show you what the Zune is all about.
- Quick Look
- Size: 61.1 x 108.2 x 12.9 mm
- Weight: 128 grams
- Screen: 3.2” 320×240, 64k Color LCD
- Audio Support: WMA, WMA Lossless, MP3, AAC
- Video Support: WMV, MPEG4, H.264
- Rated Battery: 30hrs Audio / 4hrs Video (20 hrs/ 3.5hrs actual)
- Photo Support: JPEG (converted at sync to 640×480)
- Transfer Protocol: MTPZ
- Other Features: Wireless Sync, Podcasting, TV-Out, Wireless Zune to Zune Transfer
- Complete Specs
The Zune 80 comes packed with just the basics: a proprietary USB transfer cable, premium earbuds, and the Zune 80 unit. The notable included accessory is the premium earbuds which, sold by themselves, go for $40. Are they worth that by themselves? Maybe, but I would recommend saving another $60-100 for a really nice set of IEMs- your ears will thank you and you will hear things in your music you never knew were there. But back to the included Zune premium phones; they are a more-than-welcome included accessory, sounding many times better than typical stock earbuds.
The aftermarket line up of accessories is pretty extensive; there are not only official Zune accessories, but many third party manufacturers are making anything from cases to speaker docks. If you are into accessorizing, there are plenty to choose from.
One notable accessory pack that I particularly like is the A/V Accessory Pack. This includes a dock with component and composite out, wireless remove (that works on the XBox 360 also), AC Charger, and A/V TV out cables. The Zune has a great TV interface and since it syncs wirelessly you can keep your dock next to the TV for charging and listening to. The kit sells for $100, a bit of an investment, but I think worth it especially if you are going to use the video out with any frequency.
The Zune 80 is very well built and will hold up well to scratches due to the materials used. The back plate is made of a matte finished metal, the face and buttons are composed of a solid matte plastic, and the screen is glass. Quite a bit of attention was paid in order to keep scratches and fingerprints off the device. None of the surfaces will scratch under normal use to slight abuse; however ,the screen can get quite smudged with fingerprints, but obviously that is the nature of glass.
Overall the design is top notch except for the antenna cover. On the top of the player the antenna needs a little bit of non-metal breathing space for the Wi-Fi. Unfortunately the design team decided to slap a piece of costume jewelry there. It’s a cheap piece of “gold plated” plastic that you might get out of a gumball machine. It is like slapping Pepboy hubcap spinners on a BMW. OK… you get the point. A much better choice would have been a flat black piece of plastic to match the rest of the player.
The 3.2” 320×240, 64k color screen appears to be the same screen as the first gen Zune 30; the same size, color tone, pixel density. So if you are familiar with the first Zune 30, you already know what the Zune 80’s screen looks like. For those who are not familiar, the screen looks really nice with colors represented well and good pixel response. The downside to the screen is that it does not look as crisp as some, since it is a QVGA screen stretched to 3.2” and black lines in between pixels are much more apparent if you look closely. It’s a good screen, just not anything to get excited about.
The user interface has remained unchanged since the initial release of the Zune. This is a good thing since the Zune interface is a very straight forward easy to use. I would have liked more buttons on the Zune, perhaps dedicated volume buttons on the side and/or a short cut button. However, this interface should not be changed in any way as to not disrupt the consistency though the generations of Zunes.
There is one minor improvement that they could get away with changing. There is a need of a short cut back to the “Now Playing” screen. There is a short cut for the main menu which is a long press on the back button. The natural place for quick access to the now playing screen would be a long press on the pause/play button, but this is occupied by the on/off operation. While I think the ideal location for the power switch would be integrated with the hold switch, this is not an option since the hardware does not exist in the hold switch. The next best place for the on/off would be a long press on the center button. Then the short cut to the now playing screen can be a long press on the pause/play button.
Another point I think got over simplified is the way the Zune is turned on. If the player is off of hold you can press any button to turn it on. I understand why it was done, for simplification, but what is not realized is that many people do not religiously use the hold switch. So allowing the Zune to be turned on with any button will drain the battery in many real world scenarios, such as tossing the Zune in your bag, back pack, or purse. Only allowing the Zune to be turned with a long press of the center button (or pause/play, the lesser choice) would alleviate this problem.
Graphical User Interface
The GUI got a nice refresh from the first generation making menu options easier to read and really just more eye candy. The eye candy has done little to slow down the speed and fluidity of the interface; if anything, the smoothness of the GUI has improved. There are still the occasional menu slowdowns and hangs, but I notice this more when the touch interface is on.
One feature needed here is the ability to turn the menu animation on and off. Being able to turn them off would improve the button response time to zero, thus improving the overall usability. The best example of this is in the Toshiba Gigabeat T400. The T400 uses a near identical user interface both being built on Windows CE. Turning the T400 menu animations off makes the player much more responsive.
The Zune Pad
I hate touch interfaces. There. I said it. They are inaccurate and are not as usable as tactile interfaces. One day technology may make them more useable, but today they cannot replace feedback of the tactile interface. Despite my dislike toward touch interfaces in general, the Zune does do some very unique things with the Zune Pad and is as good as a touch interface will get.
The touch pad is what I would describe as “organic” in that it responds like a real an object would in real life. The touch pad responds like a free spinning wheel would. So if you give it a flick it will continue to “spin” or traverse the list and gradually slow like a wheel would. Like a wheel it will also keep scrolling and will scroll faster the harder and more you flick it. When you want it to stop you simply set your finger on it. When the pad is simply dragged, it behaves much like a laptop’s touch pad would.
I am very impressed with the thought put into the touch pad. It will definitely win points for being a cool factor, and I welcome it for those who like it. I still, however, believe that it cannot match the accuracy of the tactile interface. The great news is the five-way directional
tactile buttons are still intact on the Zune Pad, and the touch can be switched off for more accurate use after you impressed your friends for the first few months.
I have heard quite a few mixed opinions on the Zune Software which may be due to the complete paradigm shift away from traditional media players and a simplification of the user interface. While there are still areas where the software can be improved overall, it’s a brilliantly designed piece of software. Much attention was concentrated on the user interface making most commonly used features most accessible. There is a bit of a learning curve since it is such a radical departure from traditionally cluttered media interfaces. Hardcore users will probably feel a bit underwhelmed and miss some more powerful features. While there are missing features, once you get a handle of the software and interface, you will feel like you are missing less and less.
There is an argument that adding such hardcore features would disrupt the simplicity and ease of use of the interface, but I still believe there is a way to add these while keeping the interface clean. One such feature missing is a decent tag editor. You can edit most of the file’s ID3 tag metadata, but it is very limited. Built into the Zune software is a fingerprinting technology much like Audioscrobbler that will identify all of the tracks meta data down to which album or compilation it was ripped from. This powerful tool could be implemented into a more powerful tag editor built within the Zune software.
I think what disappoints me the most about the Zune software is that it cannot be used with any other players. I would love to be able to use this software with my Creative, Samsung, or Cowon MP3 player.
Welcome to the Social
The tag line of “welcome to the social” with the initial release of the Zune was quite a misnomer, since the only social thing you could do was see other Zunes and transfer a song wirelessly with lame restrictions. The second take is much more social, allowing you to share your play counts with friends on the internet with your own profile and Zune Card. This is definitely the right step, but much more can be done to catch up with other music social sites like Last.FM. Last.FM is much more feature rich but has serious organizational and tagging problems. If Zune can continue to improve the online social aspect while learning lessons from Last.FM, it will be able to bring back the “welcome to the social” tagline.
There are also opportunities to open up the Zune to the XBox 360 social and there are signs of that already. Within the Zune software Xbox Live, friend requests are displayed in your message box. These XBox Live friends can be approved and responded to with the Zune software.
Even though I am about to write, “yeah I’m cool with the ecosystem”, I am still not 100% convinced it is the right approach. I will still be racking my brain to find a way to open the Zune ecosystem gracefully, so next week I may be screaming down with the ecosystem once again, when I find a solution. The bottom line is there are pros and cons to the ecosystem approach; the following is the pro side of the argument.
I have always been a proponent of open systems and have never been a fan of the ecosystem approach of the Zune. However I have become tore for the fact that opening up a tightly integrated player between software, hardware, podcasts, social music, and the XBox starts to become a problem of managing the features and managing the Zune brand. For instance, if you were to open this player up to be used with Windows Media Player, Naptser, or Yahoo! music services, the Zune looses podcasting, the social aspect, and possibly wireless transfer. This may not seem like a big deal now, but once the Zune becomes better integrated with the additional features, it would be crippled to other services.
Here are two examples of players that are similar to the Zune with regards to a tightly integrated feature set, yet they gain little-to-nothing for being open. The first is the SanDisk Sansa Connect. It’s a pretty cool device that lets you directly download music from Yahoo! Music, share playlists, allows your friends to know what you are listening to, among other social features. This is all tied into a Yahoo! ID much like the Zune is tied to its own network. The difference is that the Sansa Connect is open to be used on other services such as Napster and Rhapsody. But if you use the Connect with other services the interface will become cluttered with defunct features. On a service other than it was designed for it becomes a larger and more expensive player comparable to other players with similar capacities.
The second example is the ibiza Rhapsody. I got a real kick out of having a music store in the palm of my hands and being able to download gigs of music untethered and away from my desktop. Now, not everyone is going to get the same kick out of the ibiza Rhapsody and that is fine. Not everyone wants to subscribe to music. The point is that you don’t buy the ibiza Rhapsody if you are not into subscription music. The ibiza is open to other media players and services, but it just becomes a more expensive version of a comparable sized player, cluttered with disabled menu items.
The ecosystem approach is becoming more and more prevalent as MP3 players gain features that allow us to interact and integrate. However, this is not to say that the open players will disappear since there are a considerable amount of users who refuse to buy into subscription music and closed networks, so open devices and open systems will always remain a large part of the market.
Am I selling out to the ecosystem by giving it the nod of acceptance? No, I personally prefer the open devices, but I cannot condemn someone for wanting to carry an ibiza, Connect, or Zune. The consumer’s choice now becomes a matter of which player and / or which ecosystem they want to use. It is all healthy competition that will only help innovate the portable music space. Hardcore users, mostly readers of this site, should not worry; there will always be open devices catering to you. It’s just that the breadth of consumer choice has becoming wider.
The Zune’s battery is rated at 4 hours for video and 30 for audio. Like many are finding out, it doesn’t play close to the 30 hours of audio and also falls short on the video. I am getting a little over 20 hours of audio and 3 to 3.5 hours for video. I am ok with this, but what is really irritating to me is these specifications are advertised to the public. The Zune will get 30 hours under “lab testing” results meaning 128kbps MP3’s at moderate listening volumes. This is not how people user their players; the Zune Marketplace does not even sell DRM free tracks at low 128kbps bitrates. Please just give us realistic results, understate the battery life if you have to, and let us be surprised when the Zune surpasses it. The Zune’s battery life should be stated on the box as 3.5 hours video and 20 hours audio.
Wireless features have been added since the first iteration of the Zune. In addition to sharing tunes with restri
ctions and allowing other Zunes around to see what you are listening to, you also get wireless sync.
Wireless sharing is somewhat useful for telling a friend about your favorite song. But it is still a little on the lame side because you can only listen to the song three times before it gets locked. What counts for a play is if you go past the 60 second mark on the track and stop the playback; this even counts if you forward though the first 60 seconds. While we would all like uninhibited sharing, this is just not going to happen with record labels breathing down our necks. The usefulness of this operates more like a bookmark or note pad feature allowing you to remember to download a song later.
Wireless sync is pretty straight forward. You can manually start the sync process from the Zune or it will automatically sync after a period of inactivity while docked on a power supply. The sync process can also be started from the desktop software.
Podcasts are seamlessly intergraded with the Zune hardware and software, and for podcast lovers it doesn’t get much better than this. There is a podcast menu item on the main screen of the Zune where all of your podcasts get organized. The main screen shows the podcasts, and selecting one will display the episodes.
The automatic transfer and subscribing is all handled by the Zune software. Podcasts are browseable in the podcast directory menu in the software. It feels much as an online music store would, but less cluttered, and free. Subscribing and unsubscribing is as easy as a single click within the directory. If your favorite podcast is not found in the directory, it can easily be added by manually entering the URL.
The radio is simple to use and has the ability to save as many presets as there are tunable stations. Reception is very good, but depends on the headphones you are using since it becomes the antenna while plugged into the jack. Also, a quick note is that when the Zune is docked and hooked up to your TV with the AV Pack, you must have headphones plugged in to get reception.
The really nice feature of the radio is that it receives RDS or radio data service. This means that the radio station’s call letters and the current song title is displayed on the Zune’s screen. There may be some people who would like to see FM recording, but I am firmly against adding archaic clutter to the interface. There is very little reason to record music from a lo-fi source. Some may argue that it’s convenient for later finding the name of the song, but that is what the RDS is for. The radio works as good as a radio should.
Photos browsing is a feature familiar to most players on the market with the usual photo matrix ordered by folders. The Zune has the ability to sort by date as well. Slideshows can be played with music by folder or all at once, in sequence or randomly. Slideshow intervals can be set on 3,5,7,10,15, or 30 seconds. There is also a simple zoom feature that will zoom in to photos 4x, allowing you to scroll to different parts with the Zune pad. Photos are auto resized when transferred to 640×480, which lends well for TV viewing. It is all basic but will work well as a slide show slash music player hooked up to your TV at your next party.
Video looks great on the Zune’s screen as well as when it outputs to the TV. The dock features component output for 480p to the TV, but the frustrating thing is the Zune will not do 16:9 output. This is a shame since it supports DVD resolutions natively.
The second generation of hardware has made some improvements on codec support by adding the standard H.264 and MPEG4, but it still could use native DivX/XviD support. I understand that there are licensing fees associated with support for additional codecs and I can accept that but, this leads me to the biggest annoyance with how the Zune handles video conversion.
If a video file type is not supported natively on the Zune you should, at the very least, be able to convert it. This is an issue with the Zune software: it will not even recognize “exotic” file types like DivX/XviD or anything outside of common video codecs. Creative will do it with their software; there is no reason why the Zune cant. If you want to get these file types on the Zune, you will have to jump through hoops to get it converted with third party software.
News just rolled that the XBox 360 just got DivX/XviD support so there is an obvious demand. Let’s get Zune onboard with this too with native support.
You can make counltess playlists with the Zune software and transfer them over when you sync the player. There is also an on-the-go quick list where a single playlist can be directly on the device. I would like to see the ability to make more than one playlist on the Zune and have the ability to reorder the tracks and name the playlist. People love playlists and the Zune being a music centric device, this feature is a must.
The new rating system got hacked down to a simple 3 point system departing from the 5 star rating system that has been standard since the beginning of media players. The 3 point rating system works like this: you love the song, it gets a heart; you don’t like the song it gets a broken heart- otherwise it gets nothing by default or if you don’t have an opinion. The reasoning behind this was that market studies found from focus groups that users would be more likely to use the rating system if it behaved in a more understandable way. I agree for the most part and believe that they were on the right track; but the Zune team missed the bigger picture and broke a standard by acting solely on that study data.
The problem with the 5 star / 5 point rating system is not that it’s too complicated, but rather it’s ambiguous. It may seem obvious to people who are accustom to the 5 star system, but the middle selection of a 3 star rating is not obviously “no rating”, “no opinion”, or “it’s ok” to most users. The Zune’s heart/broken heart system solved this ambiguity, but failed to understand that music is much more emotionally complex than “I like it” and “I don’t like it”.
With a varying degree, we are all familiar with a 5 point system from taking surveys which commonly looking like this: “I disagree”, “I somewhat disagree”, “no opinion”, “I somewhat agree”, “I agree”. Taking a page from market survey design, it has been proven that even the most inept user can handle defining their opinion in 5 degrees.
All is not lost on the Zune rating system; it can still be salvaged by just taking it one step further. The heart/broken heart solved the ambiguity problem but now needs to solve the” varying degree” problem. This can be solved by adding a heart plus and heart minus to the rating system so the varying degrees become “broken heart minus”, “broken heart”, “no heart”, “heart”, “heart plus”. This will add the degree needed while at the same time putting it into a graphical context users can understand.
The bottom line is that the Zune’s new rating system was the correct step in improving how we rank out music but still needs to take one more step and fix the standard rating system it just broke and allow users to better convey their musical opinions.
The Zune’s sound quality it is very good it and is well balanced though the spectrum. It is more than acceptable to be used with a premium $200+ pair of headphones. I have paired the Zune with Future Sonic Atrio M5’s and Sennheiser HD650; both work well.
The Zune does not EQ and will not get one even with a firmware update. It lacks the necessary hardware in order to make that happen. The exclusion of an EQ has to do with getting the best battery life. EQs can be a battery intensive feature, so instead of including the EQ, the Zune team optimized the battery and tweaked the EQ
For many people this is a make or break feature, to me I could care less and here is why. If you have read any of my reviews in the past you know what I am very anti-EQ because I believe that an EQ should only be used to compensate for poor sounding players, headphones, and environments. Messing with frequencies does not allow you to listen to music the way the artist intended. Yes, in understand this is a purist approach, but once you spend the same amount of money on your headphones as your player, you might understand where I’m coming from. Try it, you will hear things in music your have never heard before.
Still I realize that there are many people who do want an EQ so I would definitely like to see an EQ in future Zunes. In fact after writing the review NoComp makes a very good counter argument to my dislike for the EQ below in the comment section:
As an artist myself I couldn’t disagree more with this statement of yours. I really appreciate all your reviews, also this one here (well done as always!), but I wonder if you really know that much about music-production, mixing technology and “mastering” as you obviously pretend to. However, most “artists” know NOTHING about mastering and/or anything about “real” sound quality. Of course there may be some artists (like me btw) who do everything on their own throughout the musical production-chain (creating the music & mastering) but this is a BIG minority in the music industry. And skilled audio engineers will always mix a neutral “flat” sound because they MUST include post-processing (like EQ’s) by the consumer etc. Therefore: Responsive/decent EQ’s (most DAP-EQ’s aren’t) are NOT there to compensate bad sounding players/headphones/environments, but to customize the sound for every single pair of ears – simple as that. “Flat” music is just like food without or just very little spice – and as we all know everybody has a different tounge/taste – that’s what salt/pepper/spice is for – to customize flavor. And skilled audio engineers always consider this when mastering music – at least they should!
The bottom line is the Zune is a fantastic device but may not appease the hardcore crowd. The DAP enthusiast will miss some of the features that other brands offer and may feel a bit trapped by a single piece of software and single choice for music services.
I would without a doubt fall into that hardcore DAP enthusiast category but I do really appreciated the Zune for its simplicity and clutterless features set. The initial release of the Zune I was not impressed, it was a nice player, but not to unlike everything else on the market. With the introduction of the new firmware and the Zune 80, I am definitely enjoying it. The form factor is compact and the design is solid and scratch resistant. The interface is a very easy pick up and use interface much like the old one, just dressed up a little more. The wireless has finally been put to use with wireless sync. The social aspect they started touting in the first generation is just now starting to show its head with the ability to show off your listening preferences at Zune.net.
The Zune still could support more codecs, there is no reason not to include free license codecs like OGG and FLAC. DivX/XviD native support would also be a great edition or at the very least let ups easily convert these file types with the Zune software. There are a few bug fixes and tweaks that the Zune needs so it is by no means perfect. But I still see the Zune as a work in progress much like the XBox 360 where updates will add more functionality and this could be drastic like Zune 30 owners saw with the firmware update.
Compare the Zune 80
- Solid build quality
- Glass screen
- Very scratch resistant
- Large screen
- Easy interface
- Closed platform
- No support for open codecs (FLAC & OGG)
- No 16:9 TV Out
- Oversimplified rating system.
- Miss stated battery times
- No EQ
You can find the Zune 80 and most any retail store but you can save on shipping and tax at Amazon.