Well, I’ve now had a Zune 2.0 80 gig digital media player for a little while, and I’m ready to offer up my review.
First of all, let me preface this review by getting the following facts out in the open:
- I, personally, have only owned one other digital media player, which was a Toshiba Gigabeat F-40 (which was actually an early predecessor of the Zune). I have a bit of experience with a Creative Zen and using a PSP as a digital media player, too.
- I have extremely limited experience with iPods, so I can’t comment too much on how the Zune’s features compare to the iPod’s
- Although I am in many cases anti-Microsoft and to a certain extent pro-Mac; I am, oddly enough, pro-Zune and very much anti-iPod.
Now that I’ve explained my limitations and biases, it’s time to move on with the review.
What’s in the box?
The 80 gig Zune comes with the Zune itself, a user’s manual, a pair of “premium” headphones and a Zune sync cable. It’s quite a step down from the box my Gigabeat F-40 came in (which included a cradle, a software CD and a remote control, too), but it seems fairly standard for today’s media players.
The Zune is an extremely nice looking player. It’s sleek, it’s small, it’s shiny and it’s got a gigantic screen. The screen is crystal clear, colorful and vibrant.
Synicing a Zune is a piece of cake, too. Simply download and install the Zune software onto your PC, hook up your Zune using the Zune sync cable, and the software pretty much does the rest of the work for you. You can, of course, customize the software to use specific directories on your hard drive for specific types of media. The software defaults to cataloging your “My Documents” folders for pictures, music, videos and podcasts. However, you can remove those directories from your catalog or you can add more directories to your catalog if you have a notion to do so.
The Zune has a wireless transmitter built in, so you can sync your Zune without using the sync cable. If you are within range of your computer’s wireless network, you can sync with your computer. I have tested the feature a few times and it seems to work pretty well, but it doesn’t seem to be quite as fast as syncing through the wired connection. I don’t use this feature very often, though, as I generally like to make sure my Zune is charging while I’m syncing it.
The Zune software offers a great feature that allows you to connect your Zune to anyone’s computer as a “guest”. Guest mode allows you to copy items from your Zune player onto the person’s computer, but you don’t have to “sync” the Zune. As far as I know, you can connect the Zune as a guest to an infinite number of computers.
The sound quality is good. The video quality is very impressive for such a small device. It’s extremely easy to transfer your files to the Zune. The Zune automatically seems to pick up quite a few different file formats and converts them on the fly when syncing your Zune. For the sake of consistency, I have encoded all of my videos in an mp4 format compatible with the new iPod classic. However, the Zune will also grab WMV files and a few more.
Regarding music files, I believe the Zune is capable of syncing WMA, mp3, WAV and quite a few more formats without any problems.
The Zune software automatically attempts to download album art and other media information to match up with each of your albums, which is nice. You can actually set the software to download information for everything in your collection, or just to try to obtain missing information.
Another feature that’s kind of handy on the Zune itself is the fact that, whenever you unplug something from the audio output jack, the Zune automatically pauses itself. That way, you don’t accidentally forget to pause your player when you unplug it from your FM transmitter after arriving at work; you don’t miss anything if your headphones get jerked out of the player for some reason, etc.
Finally, the headphones that came with the Zune are actually rather nice. When I first tried them, I was put off by them. They are extremely sensitive to movement. If you touch the cord, or move it in anyway, you will hear that in the headphones.
However, they are also extremely good quality. They are nice, comfortable earbuds (I didn’t honestly think there was such a thing). They do an amazing job of blocking external sounds (it’s like wearing earplugs) and have a very deep, rich sound. It’s almost like wearing big, puffy, professional DJ headphones over your ears.
The headphones are basically little tiny speakers wrapped in some sort of rubber gasket that helps seal them inside your ears in order to keep external sounds out. They really are designed like ear plugs with little speakers inside of them.
In addition, the Zune came with a handful of replacement gaskets for the earphones, so, when one set gets dry-rotted or too greasy, etc., you can pull them off and put new ones on. I haven’t replaced mine, yet, so I don’t know if the gaskets are reusable or not.
The Zune interface is fairly easy to understand, and the controls are simple. The software on the Zune itself functions very similarly to Windows Media Center (and, apparently, is actually a portable version of the software designed specifically for the Zune).
You have a handful of choices when you boot up the player. Those include “Music”, “Video”, “Pictures”, “Podcasts” and “Settings”. You use the pad to scroll to the choice you desire, then tap in the middle to select it. Then, you’re shown a list of the items you have to choose from within that category. It’s extremely simple.
There are only three buttons on the Zune. You have a “back” button on the bottom left. You have a “play/pause” button on the bottom right. Then, in between those two, you have a pad. The pad can be configured to respond to touch (so that you just kind of move your finger in one direction across the pad, and the Zune responds appropriately) or to actual presses (similar to the way a directional pad works on a video game controller, so that you actually have to press down in a specific direction to make the Zune respond).
Depending on which screen you’re currently viewing, the pad has completely different functions. For instance, if you are listening to a song or watching a video, pressing up and down on the pad will control the volume. When you are viewing a list of items, touching or pressing up or down will move you up and down the list.
The Zune normally operates in a portrait mode. However, when viewing photos or watching videos, it switches to a landscape mode in order to make use of the beautiful widescreen display.
One thing built into the Zune that I’ve only played with once or twice is the FM receiver. It actually works fairly well, and seems to have a decent antenna built into it. With the remote location of my house, I only receive two or three FM radio stations on my Zune, but I could see this being a really nice feature for people that live in metropolitan areas.
Provided the signal is strong enough, the FM radio in the Zune actually picks up some identification information from the radio station, so you can see what station you’ve tuned in. A few car stereos have this feature built in, too. Basically, when you tune to a station, the receiver obtains the call letters of the station along with some genre information and displays that on the screen. It does not seem to retrieve artist/song information from the stations, however.
Microsoft seems to be regularly updating the Zune software. You can automatically update your Zune’s firmware whenever there is an update. My Zune is fairly new, so I haven’t seen any major updates, but apparently there have been some milestone releases in the firmware for older Zunes.
In my zeal to avoid using iTunes, I ended up painting myself into somewhat of a corner. Unfortunately, the Zune software is only compatible with Windows. I have seen reports that you can get it working through a virtual machine on Linux, but you have to disable USB 2.0 on your Linux distro before doing so. I have also seen reports that, with an obscure library installed, you can actually play files from your Zune with Amarok (a Linux media player) or XNJB (a Mac media player). However, the bottom line is, right now, that there’s very little sense in trying to use your Zune with its full functionality on anything but a Windows machine.
Software (possibly hardware) Errors
Another problem I’ve experienced is the fact that, occasionally, when hooking my Zune to my computer, I am confronted with an error that says something along the lines of “Important information could not be read. Please disconnect and reconnect your Zune. If the problem persists, contact support”. It’s not a huge deal, yet, but it makes me glad that I was dumb enough to purchase the extended warranty with my player. After the experiences I had with bad hard drives in my Gigabeat, I wasn’t going to chance going through that again.
One major issue I have with the Zune is the fact that it only connects to the Zune software. When you plug your Zune into your computer, it is not recognized as an external removable drive or a portable media player or anything else. It is only recognized by the Zune software. In addition, you can’t play files directly from your Zune. You actually have to copy them from your Zune onto the computer (which is one of the things guest mode is useful for) in order to play the media.
Although the interface is easy to use, and works fairly well, there are some items that I really feel are missing from within. Notably, it is extremely difficult to customize the organization of your music collection. The player seems to default to organizing your albums in alphabetical order. I have not yet found a way within the player to organize my albums according to release date or anything else. Within the Zune software on your PC, however, you can organize your albums according to release date or alphabetically from A-Z or from Z-A.
In addition, there is no way to build video playlists. When watching videos, you can only watch one video at a time. You can’t organize your videos at all. Your entire video collection is organized alphabetically together. There seems to be a way to separate music videos from the rest of your collection, but I haven’t yet figured out how to tag videos as “music”.
Features I Loved on my Gigabeat that Don’t Exist on the Zune
There are a few things that I got really accustomed to on my Toshiba Gigabeat that are sorely missed on my new Zune. For those of you that are unaware, the original Zune was based on the design of previous Gigabeat models, as a result of a partnership between Toshiba and Microsoft.
The first item that I truly miss is the ability to hook my digital camera into the player and download photos directly from the camera onto the player. This was a great way to clean off my digital camera when it go full while I was away from home.
The next, as I’ve already mentioned, is the fact that I a) can’t hook my Zune into my computer without the official Zune sync cable and b) can’t access my Zune from Winamp, Amarok, etc. In fact, I can’t even use my Zune as a portable storage drive the way I could use my Gigabeat. Since the Zune doesn’t connect as an actual device in any way, you can’t access the hard drive directly.
I do sort of miss all of the extra buttons that were on my Gigabeat. With the Gigabeat, you had the cross pad in the center, which functioned similarly to the Zune’s pad. However, you also had some buttons on the side of the player. One button lead you back to the menu, a pair of buttons could be designated to do a number of different things, including increasing the volume, skipping to the previous/next folder, etc. Then, there was one more button that could be programmed to lead you to just about any item within the system menu you wanted. I miss having that kind of control over the functions of my player.
I also have not yet figured out a way to adjust the quality of my media files when moving them onto my Zune. Within the Gigabeat Room proprietary software that came with my Gigabeat, I was able to set it up to automatically reencode all of my audio files to a specific bitrate while transferring them to the Gigabeat. That way, I could rip my CDs at a high quality like 192 kbps or higher in order to allow the best sound quality on my computer. But, when I transferred them to my Gigabeat, I could set up the software to automatically resample those files at 128 kbps to save hard drive space. Since I generally listen to my player through an FM transmitter, the files aren’t going to be played at anything higher than FM quality anyway, so there was never really any point in using a higher quality and taking up valuable storage space.
In addition, you could sort of normalize your audio files before putting them on your Gigabeat. Through the software, you could adjust specific settings that would automatically increase or decrease the volume for specific files. You could actually even assign different equalizer presets to each audio file on the Gigabeat.
The final item I miss about my Gigabeat that I haven’t yet found within the Zune interface is the equalizer. The Gigabeat firmware actually had a very nice equalizer built in, with quite a few extremely handy presets. I have not yet found any sort of equalizer in the Zune firmware.
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, the Zune comes with a limited number of accessories. The problem is, purchasing accessories for your Zune can be an extremely expensive proposition. There is no USB input/output on the Zune, so everything that connects to it has to utilize the special pin architecture used to sync the Zune.
Thankfully, they didn’t go as far as Nintendo did on the Gameboy Advance SP, which didn’t even have an audio output jack. If you wanted to connect headphones to the SP, you needed to have special headphones that plugged into the AC adaptor jack on the device.
The Zune does, thankfully, have an audio output, so you can hook headphones (or FM transmitters, etc.) into the device.
An extra pair of Zune “premium” headphones will set you back a cool $40. If you want to hook your Zune into a television for audio/video output, that will cost you $20. An extra sync cable will cost you another $20. The Zune car pack (which includes an FM transmitter, a charger and a dashboard grip) will cost you $80. A cradle for the Zune costs another $40.
All in all, I don’t think the accessories are that much more unreasonable than those available for the iPod, but it just stinks to have to pay so much extra money for things. Instead of spending another $20, I have to carry my sync cable around with me everywhere I go, and hope that nothing happens to it. Thankfully, though, the cable came with caps for each end, so I can at least avoid some of the potential dangers by using those.
There are also quite a few items that might be considered features by some, but will be considered problems by others.
When you choose to play an item, the Zune automatically stops playback at the end of that item. For instance, if you drill down into your music collection and choose the artist “Weezer”. Then, you drill down a little further and choose the album “Pinkerton”. Once you play through that album, the Zune will stop. It will not move on to the next album in your collection.
The Zune actually adds its own ID tags to your media files. It then uses those tags to organize your media. Therefore, once you rip a CD and sync it up with your Zune, it will not be updated if you change the normal tags for that media. For instance, the Zune does not use the “Artist” tag to organize your files. It actually creates two tags called “Band” and “Composer” and organizes according to those.
I had a heck of a time trying to figure that out when some of my files were tagged incorrectly. When I ripped Meat Loaf’s newest album (yes, I listen to Meat Loaf), it somehow populated the “Band” and/or “Composer” tags with varied information. Therefore, the Zune labeled that album as a “Various Artists” compilation rather than an album by the artist Meat Loaf. I edited the ID3 tags four or five times to no avail. Finally, after searching the Internet, I discovered that I needed to edit the “Band” and “Composer” tags. That did the trick.
To wrap it all up, I will say that I am impressed with the Zune. It offers quite a bit of functionality in a really nice package. The storage space on the Zune 80 is hard to beat. I’ve already got nearly 40 days worth of music and over 34 hours of video on the player, and I’ve used just over half of my storage space.
There are some things I dislike about the player, but I think anyone would encounter that with any player. All in all, the Zune is a great device and is well worth the purchase. I believe that the Zune is a viable alternative to the iPod, assuming that you primarily use a Windows machine. Hopefully Microsoft will eventually release non-Windows versions of the Zune software, allowing you to utilize your Zune on a Linux or Mac box. I’m also hoping that they will update the Zune firmware to add features such as chronological sorting, equalizers, etc. I won’t hold my breath, but it is a possibility.