The Zune Tune is Getting Louder

The Zune is a very easy to use and capable portable media player. The second generation brings some nice hardware design changes, however I currently own a first generation and was glad to get the firmware and software upgrade that all the Zune2 models had. I would say that I prefer being able to click through menus as the way to manage and use the device. I have yet to get used to the sliding interface that the iPod and other players use. It plays music, video, photos, and now podcasts 😉 iTunes still has a one up on the software and marketplace that the Zune has, however Microsoft has definitely stepped up their game and now the device/software combination gives a pretty slick experience to the user. The Marketplace uses the Microsoft point system that XBox 360 owners will know and it is indeed the same system. Each song is 79 points, which is about $0.99 same as iTunes. It also offers a subscription service at $15/month, which if I might think about getting in the future when I have a steady job as I hear it works very well (as long as the song you want is in the 3 million song library). Well lets get on to some of the nitty-gritty details.

Under the Hood (Wikipedia Specs)
The Zune 80 and Zune 30 each have a nice display featuring 320×240. The Zune30 is the older model with a click pad, where the Zune 2.0 models have a new Zune Pad ™. It has built-in wireless. Supports MP3, AAC, Zune Marketplace DRM, and WMA for audio;JPEG for photos and WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 for videos. Also supports US and Japan radio. Supports video out @ 320×240, as well as 640×480 on the Zune 80 only.

Note: that with a standard video out cable I had to plug the Red audio plug into the Yellow jack on the TV – basically the Zune switched the wires to make you buy a Zune accessory.

My Experience
I have been playing with and using my Zune for about 4 months now. It is the Zune 30 model which is the first generation Zune. I have found the Zune 30 to be easy to use and I enjoy the clicking sensation when scrolling through the menus and content instead of the dreaded iPod scroll wheel I never could get used to, though the ZunePad does offer a similar touch experience in the 2nd gen models. I have found the battery life to be excellent for music and audio giving me a full 2 skiing days worth of listening (approx 16 hours), with video it’s about 6 hours.

The audio quality is great, the video and photo viewing is good. I have found the size of the Zune 30 to be acceptable, though the newer versions are smaller and more sleek. Finding songs is fairly quick even in long lists as it uses an accelerated scrolling speed where it scrolls quicker the longer you hold the button down. It also shows a big letter which signifies where you are at in the list. This is of course only necessary when scrolling through all artists or albums or songs when the list is very long. The integrated radio seems to work very well and is very clear, haven’t noticed any static at all really. I could see the smaller Zunes being more useful at the gym especially if they support listening to TV over radio, however I have watched video while I’m on the elliptical machine ;D

The podcast support is nice, but it could be slightly better, though it works fine for me. The video support is also a little lacking, but that is hopefully improved over time with customer feedback, again it’s fine for my needs as I have a Xbox 360 which I have already had to convert video for watching on the television. The Zune also allows wireless sharing of music, photos, and podcasts which is a neat feature if all your friends own one too. It does lock the media with DRM which allows you to play it 3 times, this restriction is not enforced on podcasts or photos however. It’s sort of fun, but for me is limited to only testing purposes as I know only one friend with a Zune and they only use it for testing at work.

Quick Tips for first time Zuners
– Make Playlists: you can create a quick list from within the Zune and it works well, but to get the full experience make playlists so you can just take it with you and start playing music right away without having to search for songs. This is how to best use the iPod as well.
– Turn off wireless: Unless you are going to use it for sharing songs, or for wireless syncing, I recommend saving the battery by turning wireless off.
– Be sure to setup how you want your content to sync up, do you want all content, or do you want to choose what to put on the device like have the most recent 2 episodes of a podcast synced up. That way you won’t sync everything right away. The default settings here are probably fine for most users.
– Try out the neat tip to: Share music w/out DRM
– Enjoy your new Zune experience

Overall I would rate the Zune a very comparable player to the iPod Nano and iPod Video. The content sounds and looks great on the device, and the software goes well with the device. I have to give Microsoft a big round of applause for getting this one right!