Tech Review: Microsoft Zune

I’ve been in the market for a PMP (portable media player) for some time now and, what with being a part-time worship leader, it only made sense that I finally make the jump and pick up a unit that can hold my entire library (nearing 20 gigs of music). It also wouldn’t hurt if it played video and let me view pictures on it, too, so in the end, I chose the Microsoft Zune. Why the Zune? Read on…

The unit is controlled by a directional pad with a button in the middle, and two buttons flanking the directional pad. The left-most button is the back button, the right-most button is the play/pause button, and the d-pad is used to navigate through the Zune’s user interface. The button in the middle of the d-pad is a select button (which also acts as a play button in certain instances). The buttons feel just right and are intuitive. Anyone who has used a keyboard on a computer in the last ten years will find no problem using the Zune.

You can watch a quick 1:30 video of the Zune on YouTube by clicking here.

The screen is nice and bright, and the audio quality is top notch. I frequently plug my Zune into my desktop speakers at the office, and it always sounds clear and crisp. The headphones that come with the Zune seem fairly standard, and while their audio quality is acceptable, I’m not sure I like the way they feel in my ears. They feel like they’re about to fall out, even though I’ve never had them fall out, even when using them for extended periods. This could just be me, so your mileage may vary. The headphones do come with a little magnetic strip on the back of each earbud, helping you to keep the rat’s nest of wires under control a bit when storing your Zune headphones.

In comparison, the Zune is slightly larger than a 30 gig iPod (not the Nano, we’re talking the full size iPod here) but the screen is also larger as well (you can click the image to the right for a size comparison; purple is the Zune, pink is an iPod, and green is a deck of cards, just for reference). It’s also slightly heavier than the 30 gig iPod. The iPod’s screen is 2.5″ diagonally and the Zune’s screen is 3″ diagonally. The Zune also sports a built-in radio for when you get tired of your MP3 library.

The Zune will also sync with your pictures and videos so you can carry just about any media with you that you’d like. Pictures look pretty good on it, even though sometimes they’re not scaled down too smoothly, causing some jagged edges to show up in your pics. Overall, though, your images will get treated right on the Zune’s screen.

Videos look fantastic even on the Zune’s 3″ screen. When watching a video, the orientation changes by rotating 90 degrees to maximize the 4:3 aspect of the Zune screen (you can see what I mean by looking at the pictures in this review where the Zune is tilted on its side). What’s more, if you have an Xbox 360 (which I do) you can plug your Zune into it via the USB cable and watch movies through your Xbox. I did this with a lower res movie, and one that’s closer to DVD quality, and both looked pretty good. The lower res movie was just under VCR quality, while the higher res movie was just under DVD quality. Both were definitely watchable.

Zune’s tagline is “Welcome to the social” and Microsoft is backing that up with wireless Zune to Zune sharing. Let’s say you have a Zune, and your buddy has a Zune. You have a track you want him to check out, you can beam it to him wirelessly and he gets the track for 3 days/3 plays. That is, he can listen to the shared track up to three times, or he can have it for up to three days on his Zune before it becomes unplayable. If he liked it, he can go buy it via the Zune Marketplace. I’ve not been able to test this yet, as I haven’t found anyone else with a Zune (hint hint Microsoft; if you want to send one our way so we can complete our review, we wouldn’t argue with you).

Battery life seems pretty good as well. I consistently switch between the radio and my music library throughout an eight hour day, and I have battery life to spare (not much, but there is still some left which counts for something). The radio obviously uses much less battery since the hard drive doesn’t need to be accessed as often, but even when I’ve listened to my MP3 library for a whole day, my battery has lasted at least seven hours if not more.

The Zune software, which includes the Marketplace, where you buy MP3’s using Microsoft Points, is pretty intuitive, and in reality, very snappy. Importing your existing MP3 library into Zune is a snap. Upon first startup, it will automatically import music from common music directory names (namely, My Music which is typically in My Documents). You can also set Zune to look in custom directories as well. Any time you add new music to your library, you can tell Zune to rescan your hard drive, and assuming the music you’ve added is in one of the “to be scanned” folders, Zune will find it, import it, take care of the album art… the works. Playlists are handled efficiently, too. It’s simple to create a playlist out of a new album you just purchased. Simply grab the album name, drag it over to New Playlist on the left, name it, and voila, you’re done.

The search function in the Zune software is fast, which is a nice change from the laggy iTunes search interface. There’s also plenty of views within the software to choose from, whether you want to see album art, or just straight up track and artist names. Plenty of options abound to fit your library sorting tastes. Also, if you have iTunes on your computer and install the Zune software, it will import your music information from iTunes into Zune, including your track ratings and edited ID3 tag information as well.

Note that podcasting support is not built into the Zune software, even though I’ve read that it’s to be included in a future release. For now, you might want to check out FeedYourZune to get your podcasts onto your Zune. (Thanks to TheElusiveFish for the podcasting image.)

I used iTunes for a long time prior to getting my Zune and I’ve found the transition to the Zune software to be an easy one. I’d purchased about 100 tracks via iTunes, so transferring those protected M4P files to Zune will require I burn them to disk, then rip them to Zune from said disk. For me, though, it’s a small price to pay. If you’ve purchased alot of music via iTunes, and are considering going with a Zune, you may have some trouble getting your purchased tracks (protected by Apple’s FairPlay DRM scheme) into Zune, as there is really no set method for doing so at this point. You can purchase a program called TuneBite that might be able to do this for you, but I’ve not used it personally.

At the end of the day, the question is, should I buy a Zune, the newcomer to the PMP playing field, over the tried and true Apple iPod. The only reason I’d say no is if you own a lot of music purchased through iTunes, because there’s really no standard method of getting your music over to the Zune. Otherwise, for the larger screen size, built-in radio, and wifi Zune to Zune sharing, I have to recommend checking out the Microsoft Zune for your next portable media player.

[tags]microsoft, zune, ipod, apple, feedyourzune, marketplace, worshipplus[/tags]

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