Microsoft Zune Music/Video Player
Bigger is sometimes
better - in this case the Zune has a much larger screen than
the current 5.5 generation iPods.
Available in black,
white, or brown, the Zune does not look as attractive or as
well manufactured as the iPod.
Microsoft's new Zune player has
finally been released, with people simultaneously having high
and low expectations for this new device.
Microsoft has the benefit of
unlimited corporate resources and five years of learning from
Apple's iPod evolution, and so one would hope for a product that
is well thought out and as good or better than the iPod in all
Alas, Microsoft again has not
failed to disappoint. The Zune is inferior to the iPod in
all relevant measures bar one - the larger video screen, but
with its limited 30GB capacity and short battery life,
video is hardly the unit's prime application.
If you're planning on buying a
personal music player any time soon, stick to the iPod. It
is clearly better. And if you want a personal video
player, don't buy either.
Microsoft's Zune Audio/Video
After an approximately one
year development cycle (several times longer than the time it
took Apple to go from concept to release of the iPod)
Microsoft released their competing personal music player, the Zune,
on Tuesday 14 November, 2006, with a list price of $249 (reduced
to $199 in September, 2007).
Although Microsoft took a
year to get the product to market, it is essentially a rebadged
Toshiba Gigabeat unit with some changes to its software and
outside packaging. It is believed Microsoft took this
approach so as to get a product released in time for Christmas
sales, and they have said their next version Zune player is more
likely to be more proprietary. In other words - if you buy
a first generation Zune, you may be buying an orphan device that
will have no continuity with future units.
Microsoft is perhaps the
only company with the potential to attack Apple's stranglehold
on the hard-disk based music player market (Apple has an
estimated 90% or higher share of the market at present).
Microsoft also recognizes the strategic importance of this
market sector, and the associated market for selling music;
making it all the more puzzling that Microsoft's competitive
response is so inadequate in all relevant respects.
Sadly, Microsoft itself
seems to have accepted the truth of the many jokes about
Microsoft launching products that are poor quality when first
released but which subsequently improve (eg 'At Microsoft,
Quality is Job 1.1'). The Zune as released looks and feels
cheap and poorly manufactured, its interface is not as intuitive
as the iPod interface, software is buggy, and its music store
has a more limited selection than does the iTunes service with
The Zune does have two
things the iPod does not have. One is a built in FM tuner.
This can be added on to the iPod as a separate small module, but
the Zune has it as standard. Few people will find much
value to this, though, preferring to use their personal music
player to do exactly that - play their own music as and when
The other feature is a Wi-Fi
based music sharing feature. This enables you to
wirelessly send and receive some (but not all) songs between
your Zune player and those of other people close to you.
Some songs can be swapped with other Zune owners, but they
expire after either three days or three plays, whichever happens
first, and some songs can't be swapped at all due to their
copyright terms not allowing this. How much practical use
there will be with this feature is currently a subject of
conjecture, and one has to wonder if this is going to provide a
dangerous pathway for viruses to be introduced into the Zune.
Overall, the Zune is
disappointingly under-featured compared to an iPod.
Available only in a 30GB configuration that is bulkier than a
30GB iPod (but priced exactly the same), the Zune has a much
shorter battery life and much lower capacity than Apple's top of
the line 80GB iPod.
What you get with your Zune
The Zune comes packaged in a
cardboard box, very similarly to the iPod. While no-one is
going to choose an MP3 player based on the packaging,
Microsoft's box is much nicer than the Apple minimalist box.
It slides open and reveals two separate compartments, one
holding the player and the other holding other items.
On the player side of the
box is the player itself in a central storage pocket.
Subtle flaps open up on either side (I didn't see them at
first); on one side is the connecting cable that runs between a
PC's USB port and the Zune player, and on the other side is a
set of ear bud style headphones. The connecting cable runs
from a regular USB plug on one end to a special connector for
the Zune on the other end.
Needless to say, the Zune and
iPod do not share the same connector, meaning that if you have
iPod accessories already, you can't use them with your new Zune.
The headphones are similar in style to the iPod, but whereas
iPod headphones are always white (no matter what color the
iPod), Zune headphones are always black (no matter what color
The other items that come
with the Zune are :
A snug fitting soft velveteen
carry pouch for the Zune with an unnecessary useless drawstring top (and no room in
the pouch for ear phones or connecting cable, same as the
iPod's carry pouch)
An installation CD - unlike
the iPod which stores its install data on the iPod itself, the
Zune provides a CD. If you're a bit disorganized like me,
this is a weakness - it is something to lose and not be able to
find when you need it subsequently.
A quick start guide which
comprises three very simple steps and a quick overview of the
unit and its functions
A ten page Product Guide,
including warranty information
A 14 day free trial code card
of the Zune Pass music downloading service
The warranty is for a fair
one year period and unlike Apple, Microsoft seems to provide
unlimited phone support for their units. This will almost
certain be reduced in time to come, but for now their support
policy is greatly more generous than that offered by Apple.
There is no detailed
manual available, either printed out, on the CD-Rom, or on the
website. So if you want to understand issues such as 'how
can I use my Zune as a portable hard drive' (something you can
do with an iPod) you're completely out of luck - or perhaps the
Zune doesn't support this at all.
One unwelcome thing you do
get is a selection of music already pre-loaded onto the Zune.
I first found this out when the Zune suddenly started playing
some awful cacophonous piece of terrible noise, and I felt as
though my personal space had been violated. Thanks,
Microsoft, but I'll choose the music I want, myself.
There is, of course, no
information on how to get rid of these unwanted music tracks.
Zune extras you'll probably
want to purchase
One area where Microsoft's
marketing power has already been demonstrated is in encouraging
other companies to offer a range of Zune accessories such as
plug in speakers. This accessory range is still limited
compared to the iPod, but is vastly greater than that offered by
any other iPod competitor.
You might want to get a
stand-alone power charger for times when you need to recharge
the battery and can't connect to your computer. Regular
power chargers sell for $29.95 through
(coincidentally, the same ridiculously high price that Apple
charges for their power charger too) or car lighter adapters
sell for $24.95.
A handy device might be a
wireless remote for the player. Of course, this will
have some limitations because if you can't see the Zune's
screen, it is not really possible to select songs, but this
would be helpful to
adjust the volume, start/stop, and skip tracks, if the player is at one end of the room and
you're at the other. $29.99.
If you want to show pictures
or video on a regular television, you'll need an A/V output
If you lose your synch cable,
a new one will cost you $19.99.
If you want to play your Zune
in the car, you'll probably choose one of the FM converters
that take the output of the Zune and then rebroadcast it on
an unused FM frequency that your car radio will pick up.
Several options, priced around $80.
One extra you won't need to
The Zune comes complete with
a built-in FM tuner. In the unlikely event you wanted to
buy such an add-on for an iPod, you'd have to spend an extra
The Zune is larger than
either of Apple's two hard disk based iPods. It measures
4.4" x 2.5" x 0.6" and weighs 5.6 oz. It currently comes
in three colors - white, black, or brown, with a subtle
different color around the edge of the unit (eg a green around
the edge of the brown). There are also a few limited
production pink and orange units that Microsoft has been giving
away to strategic partners.
The unit is made out of
plastic, and it seems that the main part of the unit then has an
extra piece of plastic snapped on top of it to provide the
particular color combination for the unit. It does not feel nearly as
well made as the iPod, but it does share one thing in common :
It is not possible for the owner to open up the unit - for
example, to replace the battery (if you want to see what it
looks like inside, here's a
web page with a series of pictures of what is inside the
Another element that feels
cheap and shoddy is plugging the headphones into the unit.
The headphone plug doesn't slide smoothly in - indeed, I had a
friend try the unit out and they didn't plug the headphones in
far enough, not realizing they had to be forced in further, and
told me the unit had stopped working!
The front of the unit looks
reminiscent of the iPod, but what appears to be a scroll wheel
is not actually that at all. It is merely a four way
rocker switch with an extra push button in the middle, but has
been designed to look like Apple's popular touch wheel, even
though it completely does not work the same way. Deceptive
There are two additional
buttons, one on either side of the non-wheel. One is a
menu back button and the other a Play/Pause button. There
is also a Hold slider on the top of the unit, and two sockets -
one for headphones and the other being the socket for the
The most notable difference
between the Zune and iPod is perhaps the screen size. The current
generation iPod has a screen with a 2.5" diagonal (1.5" x 2" on
its two sides). The Zune has a larger screen with a 3"
diagonal (1.8" x 2.4"), and this provides an almost 50% increase
in viewing area.
When watching video, you
rotate the unit 90° so as to have the screen set with the longer
dimension on the horizontal rather than vertical plane.
As discussed in our
iPod review, the iPod's
screen is way too small for most people to be pleased with using
it to watch video. The Zune still has a very small screen,
but being nearly 50% bigger than the iPod's screen makes it very
much more usable.
Although the screen is
larger, it doesn't have any higher resolution. It
too is a 320 x 240 pixel QVGA resolution screen, meaning that
the amount of picture information and quality on the Zune's
screen is always going to be very much less than is shown even
on a regular (non high definition) NTSC television. We
feel that watching video on a Zune remains a gimmick rather than
a bona fide prime use of the unit.
Using the Zune
To use the Zune, you first
need to load its software onto your PC. Currently the Zune
only works with PCs, it does not have software that works with
Macs or other operating systems.
Installing the software from
the CD rom to the computer took considerably more time than
installing the iPod software. Does this mean it is another
massively bloated Microsoft program being added to one's
The install routine didn't
offer any options as to where the program was to be installed,
and didn't offer the opportunity to put a shortcut icon onto the
desktop or into the System Tray or Fast Start window either.
Annoyingly, the software
required a computer reboot after being installed. One would have
hoped Microsoft could have written software for its own
operating system that avoids the need for a restart.
After rebooting the
computer, I then connected the Zune as instructed.
Although I'd bought the unit on the first day they went on sale,
the program advised that it already needed an update to the Zune's
firmware. But - in a classic bit of Microsoft obtuseness,
it provided no obvious way to get the update. However, after
feeling frustrated about this for a while, it transpired that
the 'Next' button also updated the unit (whether you wanted to
or not - so why offer it as an option?).
After the update process was
apparently complete, the Zune window on my PC went grey and
froze. But I checked in Task Manager and it showed the Zune
program was still active, because it was consuming varying amounts
of CPU resource, and using a massive 112MB of memory (the next
largest program, Outlook, used only 59MB of memory, and Apple's
comparable iTunes software uses only 46MB). Yes, this
truly is a bloated program.
I waited impatiently while
the grey screen patiently shone back at me. After half an
hour, the CPU activity dropped and the program's status changed
to 'Not Responding'. I closed the program and, at its
request, sent an
error report to Microsoft, but there was no response back with a
I restarted the program and
this time it couldn't find the connected Zune player. I
rebooted the computer for a second time and it still wouldn't
find it. Fortunately, Zune's Customer Support quickly answered
when I called their (800) number, and a friendly helpful and
walked me through how to fix the issue and complete the program
Other people have variously
reported problems or no problems installing the software on
their PCs, but clearly an unacceptable percentage of
installation attempts are resulting in problems and crashes.
Apparently Microsoft is
having problems at its end, too. After I had the software
working properly, I attempted to run the option to update album
information, but after more than an hour of automatic retrying,
I gave up, due to always getting a message telling me that
Microsoft's servers were busy.
The next day I went to
connect my Zune to the PC again, and once more it wouldn't
recognize the Zune, then suddenly after ten minutes, found it
and started working. It seems that somehow my Zune lost
all its memory (the battery was totally dead) and the program
then proceeded to slowly resynch all 20GB+ of music I had.
And after I finished with
the program on the PC and closed it, the Zune player still showed
it was connected to the program, even though it had been closed.
Buggy. Very buggy.
The Zune's user interface is
a bit less intuitive than the iPod's (which is also not entirely
self explanatory), and several times I found
myself guessing wrong as to what the various possible button
pushes would do.
Changing settings on the
device is regrettably cumbersome. You can only step
forwards through the settings, one at a time. You can't
see a complete list of options, and if you inadvertently go past
your preferred option, you have to step through the entire list
When going through the equalizer settings, I twice
went past the 'None' setting and had to go through all eight
settings each time.
Cataloguing and finding your
The Zune does this
automatically for you, and uses a very similar way of filing
music to that used by the iPod, where music is basically sorted
either by the album/CD it was originally taken from, by the
group playing the music, by genre, or by individual song.
This works for some types of
music and some types of music sources, but completely fails if
you have classical music. There's no way to go to a
specific composer, to choose a specific piece, and then have the
Zune play just that piece.
Built in FM radio
Some people will find the
built in FM radio tuner a valuable extra feature. If this
is something you want, it is a reason to choose the Zune over
the iPod, because the iPod requires you to buy an extra
component to connect to the iPod to enable it to act as a radio
The receiver seems
moderately sensitive and pulled in weak stations at least as
well as regular FM tuners I have, and gives a moderately good
quality signal, although I did find myself wishing there was a
tone control or hiss filter to switch on to get rid of some of
the higher frequency radio static and noise.
Wi-Fi music sharing
I wasn't able to share
anything with anyone else because, unsurprisingly, no-one else I
know has a Zune.
And therein lies the
problem, longer term, with the Zune. Unless you are in the
same room as another Zune owner, and unless the two of you agree
to swap music, this feature - in theory clever - is in practice
Even if you are with someone
else who does have a Zune, you can only share music if the
digital rights for the piece of music specifically allow this.
Not all commercial music does allow this. And a shared
piece of music only lasts for the shorter of either three days
or three plays and then automatically deletes itself.
Sadly, although there is a
Wi-Fi capability in the unit, Microsoft chose to limit and
cripple it to only this one application. Imagine how
useful it would be if you could synch your Zune to your computer
wirelessly through your Wi-Fi network rather than needing to
connect it through a cable? Or if you could get your Zune
directly onto the internet, and bypass the intermediate step of
your computer entirely when getting and transferring music.
The Zune does none of these
things, reducing the Wi-Fi capability to a battery life
consuming feature that most people will switch off and forget
Battery life is something
you can never have too much of. Microsoft was a 800 mAhr
3.7V Li-Ion battery inside its Zune, and this is rated at giving
13 hours of music playback or 4 hours of video playback.
The actual length will vary depending on things such as how much
time the screen is lit up and how loud the music is (for audio)
and the brightness setting (for video), and of course this
battery life reduces every time you recharge it.
A couple of reviewers have
reported between about 11.5 and 12.5 hours of battery life when
playing music, I've not done any accurate testing myself.
By comparison, the latest
80GB iPod claims 20 hours of music or 6.5 hours of video.
This is appreciably more than the larger, heavier, but lower
capacity Zune player. The much smaller and lighter, but
identical 30GB capacity iPod has almost exactly the same battery
life (14 hours for music or 3.5 hours for video).
Microsoft has not yet
announced what its policy is on replacing batteries when they
can no longer hold sufficient charge as to be useful. It
took some time and public pressure for Apple to agree to
implement a battery replacement program - this is therefore a
predictable issue Microsoft should have had an answer for right
from its product launch.
Buying and Loading Music onto
Just like Apple does all it
can to lock you into their iTunes store to buy music, so too
does Microsoft lock you into their Zune Store as the only source
of music (other than your own CDs).
Unfortunately, their Zune
Store has massively less music to choose from than does iTunes.
For example, if you go to choose music by genre, there is
absolutely no category for classical music whatsoever.
And although the Zune is
capable of playing video, there is no video for sale through
Microsoft's service. No television shows, no movies, no
nothing, making the unit's video playing feature close to
useless, unless you can puzzle out how to record video yourself
(I've yet to find any documentation telling me how to do this).
A brilliant example of
Microsoft's arrogance (or perhaps just plain stupidity) is that
when you wish to buy a song from their site, you won't find it
priced in regular US dollars and cents, or in any other world currency
either. Instead, everything is priced in
artificial credit units - 79 units = 99 cents. So if you
see something costing 360 credits, you need a calculator to work
out its price is actually $4.51.
Songs can usually be
purchased for 79 credits each (ie, 99 cents, the same as iTunes),
or for $14.99 a month you can get a subscription service giving
you unlimited music for the month. But, if your
subscription lapses, you lose all the music you may have
Presumably this is to trick
people into thinking that a song costing 79 credits with
Microsoft is cheaper than the same song costing 99c with iTunes.
The only thing stupider than
these policies - credits instead of real dollar
costs, and renting music rather than owning it - is anyone who
would choose to willingly do business with them on such a basis.
For most people, the best
way to get music remains the old fashioned way - buy a CD, then
copy files from the CD to your computer and onto your music
Ripping CDs to the Zune
If you're doing the sensible
thing and copying your own CDs onto the Zune, you can choose
between MP3 and WMA formats. Sadly, Microsoft doesn't
support variable bit rates, making the file sizes slightly
larger than they need to be, and doubly sadly, Microsoft also
doesn't support the newer better AAC method of music
For maximum compatibility,
you're therefore forced to use the least effective method of
encoding - MP3, because iPods can play either MP3 or AAC but not
WMA. We'd recommend you use a setting of between 128kb
(the minimum acceptable for MP3 and not really good enough for
any degree of quality playback) and 192kb (beyond this, you
start to get into diminishing returns where the extra quality is
not apparent) for ripping MP3s.
Copying video from DVDs, tapes,
If you want to copy or make
your own videos to play on the Zune, you'll need some sort of
video editing/conversion program. We've used the
Movavi Video Suite and found it easy to use. You might
like to try their free demonstration version and possibly choose
to buy their software too.
It is surprising and
disappointing that Microsoft was not able to release a better
thought out product. Sure, it is a first generation
product, but Microsoft has the luxury of being able to study
the evolution, successes and issues with Apple's iPod, and to
also copy the best ideas of the various sundry other iPod
Instead, they release a
single model unit (almost all other music player manufacturers
have a model range with a series of different capacities
available) that is woefully too small for the one function it
may be better at than the iPod - playing video, and which also
has too short a battery life, but in a form factor larger (and
more crudely manufactured) than the comparable iPod, which is a
compact elegant work of art.
A poorly thought out user
interface, buggy PC program and lack of content available for
purchase all detract further from this unit.
Today, there is no reason at
all to choose a Zune over an iPod, and many reasons to prefer
the iPod. Although many industry commentators seem to be
excusing their present disappointment with the Zune by
predicting it will get better in the future, the reality today
is that the Zune is simply not nearly as good as Apple's iPod,
and a company with the size and resource of Microsoft should be
panned not praised for such an amateurish product.
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17 Nov 2006, last update
21 Jul 2020
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