Why the new Zune Pass should be irresistible

Why the new Zune Pass should be irresistible

Summary: The music industry has been stumbling and bumbling with subscription-based music services for years. This week, Microsoft announced a sweeping change to its Zune Pass music servicewhich gives you the right to download any album from the Zune Marketplace and convert 10 tracks to purchases each month. That effectively lowers the subscription portion of the service to 5 bucks a month. I’ve been using the Zune Pass service for the past five months and absolutely love it. The Zune software is superb, and the end-to-experience is better than anything Apple has to offer. In my opinion, Zune Pass should be irresistible to any serious music fan. But can it make a dent in the iTunes monopoly?


The music industry has been stumbling and bumbling with subscription-based music services for years, and I’ve been experimenting with them since the very beginning.

Zune Pass hands-on image galleryThis week, Microsoft announced a sweeping change to its Zune Pass music service (press release is here). The $15 monthly price tag is unchanged, as is the basic outline of the service, which gives you the right to download any album from the Zune Marketplace (an impressive collection, to be sure) and play it on any of three PCs or three Zune devices. What’s new is 10 free song credits per month, which allow you to turn a subscription-only track into a purchase. At the going rate of 99 cents per track, those 10 credits effectively lower the subscription portion of the service to 5 bucks a month. A 14-day free trial is available.

I’ve been using the Zune Pass service for the past five months and absolutely love it. The Zune software is superb, and the end-to-experience is better than anything Apple has to offer. In my opinion, the new terms should be irresistible to any serious music fan. I’ve put together an image gallery that gives a better idea of how the service works, so you can see for yourself.

Four years ago, I tried the granddaddy of subscription services, Napster To Go. At the time, the math made perfect sense for me. As I noted, I have a very large music collection that consists of more than 20,000 tracks from nearly 2000 albums and live recordings:

I’d say there are probably 400 CDs in my collection that I haven’t listened to in years and probably never will again. Some are just dated, but others were impulse buys based on an artist or a label. Sometimes those purchases work out well, but I can easily pick out a couple dozen CDs from my collection that I bought, listened to once, and quickly concluded that I had made a bad purchase. In some cases I was able to listen to individual tracks, either in a record store listening booth or in those 30–second clips on Amazon.com. But that was just enough to fool me into thinking I wanted to hear more when I really didn’t like the CD.

If I had had access to a download service where I could have sampled the entire recording first, I might well have avoided a few of those purchases.

But I canceled my Napster To Go subscription after a few months, because it didn’t work. Tracks I had downloaded to a portable player wouldn’t play, even though they were properly licensed. At one point the software stopped acknowledging my right to download music at all, and it took an hour on the phone with Napster support to get things sorted out. I had similar experiences with Yahoo’s subscription service last year before they sold out to Rhapsody.

By contrast, in five months of regular use of the Zune Pass service, I cannot remember a single glitch. Tracks I downloaded to a portable Zune player work every time, and I’ve added roughly 150 albums to my collection in five months without having to pay anything extra for the privilege. In addition to the 150 albums in that subscription collection, I’ve listened to dozens that I decided weren’t worth keeping, and I’ve purchased roughly 15 albums that proved they were worth paying for.

Mixview allows you to find music thatÂ’s related to a favorite artist or albumThe economics of subscription services are stacked in favor of the listener. One feature of the new Zune software I really like is Mixview (shown here), which lets you start with a favorite album or artist and then jump to related artists, influences, and other albums. Yes, you can do the same thing at the iTunes store or Amazon MP3. The difference here is that you can listen to an entire album, as many times as you want, before you decide whether it’s worth paying for. The subscription service doesn’t require any long-term commitments, either, which means you can use it for a month or two and decide for yourself whether it’s worth continuing.

The biggest weakness with the Zune Pass service is that it doesn’t work with iPods and never will. It doesn’t require a Zune device as long as you’re willing to listen exclusively via PC (or through Media Center extenders, which can play Zune subscription tracks through a home audio system using your wired or wireless network). But in a world where iPods have an effective monopoly on the category, it’s hard to convince people to try something new.

To me, the surest sign of success for the new Zune service will be if Steve Job decides, after years of dismissing the idea, to add subscription support to the iTunes store. Rumors of an iTunes Unlimited service appear every few months, but so far at least, they’ve failed to materialize. Can Microsoft make enough of an impact this time to change that approach?

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Mobility

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • zune software/firmware

    i jsut want ms to add the ability to delete a song. picture or wahever from the zune inerface. i shouldn't have to connect it to another device to delete content.

    what if my zune is full. someone i know has a track they want me to listen to, so they want to transfer it to me via wiereless. i don't have any room. what do i do? tell them to wait until i go home and get my pc?
    i think it's stupid not to be able to delete something.
    • delete, no, pre-ration social space...

      I own a zune and am concidering a second. I have a flash for audio/work and want to get a 120 for video/car. When it comes to deleting songs and such, i agree, there needs to be that option, but there is, by default, a 3-5% pre-allocation for shared music via the social or non-primary PC transfers. They thought of that... on my 8GB flash, theres 350mb thats open for social activity. (btw, it can be turned off or throttled to a higher or lower %)
    • same with ipod

      It's the same with an ipod, at least with my nano. I've wished the same.
      Larry Seltzer
  • "No one seriously considers buying a Zune"?

    I beg to differ with you. I own 2 Zunes and there are 4 of them in the family. Along with 2 iPods and one Sansa.

    Oh, We have Windows and Apple computers in the house. So, I am an open minded user.

    I just think that MS has really done a nice job with the new Zune, the software, and the experience.

    It's much nicer then the iPod/iTunes experience.

    To me this is not a race to see who has the most market share, it is about personal preference.

    And, by my testing and use, the iStore/iTunes experience sucks compared to Window Media Player, Windows Media Center, and Zune software. Especially, Windows Media Center with Xboxes for extenders.

    So, yes! There [b]ARE[/b] people who seriously consider buying a Zune.

    • Hear, hear!

      My family proudly owns three Zune's connected to a Zune Pass.

      We have owned iPod Shuffle's and iPod Classics and prefer the Microsoft product.
      • Zune Interface

        I prefer Zune also, BUT -
        When is SOMEONE going to provide a "docking station" for the Zune?
        I have started the search, for the "Family" Christmas present, and would like to be able to drop my Zune into a cradle, and listen to it on my BOSE system!
        • They have one already

          Microsoft makes it, and they just lowered the price. Works fantastic.


          Ed Bott
        • Zune Docks

          There are several Zune docks available. I've got the awesome Kicker ZKick Z500. Sounds absolutely incredible. Shakes the hardwood floors in my house if I crank it up. No distortion. Charges the Zune, and it's got output for connection to TV for watching Zune videos, podcasts, etc. on TV. It's also got a 3.5mm input jack for the unlucky iPod owners out there. My next Zune dock will be for my bedroom, the iHome clock radio Zune dock. There are a couple from Altec Lansing, but those aren't very good.
    • WMP & MCE?

      I have a Zune and I do think that it along with the Zune software is decent, I have to disagree about it playing nice with MCE and WMP. Playlists and album art for example in the Zune software are not compatible with WMP or MCE which is essentially why I decided on going with a Zune. I really wish MS would do something about this so my playlists are the same everywhere.

      I do think MS "can" be competitive with the Zune though and you see that with each firmware release that adds new features and value.
    • Yeah, OK

      Windows Media Player sucks. Period. Oh, and you said you have "Windows and Apple Computers in the house. So, I am an open minded user.".

      Do you really? So how do you use your Zune on your Apple computers? Hmm... Oh, you can't.

      You CAN use an iPod on Mac and MS Windows and get a cross platform experience. You can also use 3rd party apps if you don't like iTumes the app.

      Zune sucks because it is lock to MS Windows-only. MS Audio doesn't sound as good as AAC and MS Audio just can't be trusted. I remember the "plays for sure" marketing lie. I got bit by that. Essentially MS left tons of users with a device that "doesn't play for sure, or at all".
      • Dude, seriously

        I too run both systems & have had an ipod & a zune80. Much prefer Zune. Of course since my macbook purchase in '06 I have become a apple detester because of their elitism... but thats another story.

        As for your "Zune doesn't work on Mac arguemnet" Guess what? My old zen touch doesn't work on Mac. My Zen stone doesn't. I have tried other PMP devices that the Mac will not recognize. Now, when you have one device that will not work with a myriad of other devices the fault usually lies with the one device, not the others. I think its more of a deal of Apple keeping a closed ecosystem, again, that is keeping Zune off of Mac. But when your software runs on an OS thats on over 90% of the PCs... theres not to much to worry about.

        As for Zune audio not sounding as good as AAC, that depends on your bitrate. The DRM'd songs (stupid) are @ 192kbps while the AAC songs are @ 128kbps. You can also get non DRM mp3s which are @ 256kbps.

        I now have 5 free games on my Zune. I can sync wirelessly if I want. The screen is bigger & easier to watch than my old ipod. Is it the perfect device? No, but its really good. And its only 2 years into its lifespan. Once people like you can get over you "Oh my gosh, is connected to MS!" phobias, I think we could really see an awesome consumer product flourish.
      • someone is a little bitter.

        I think we have to take this guy at his word. If you have some honest serious feedback give it but dude. Why do you have to say this guy is lying? I don?t own a Zune but I would consider it. We have all iPods in my house and I can?t stand the iTunes interface. We live with it and we get by. I personally use the YP-P2 and am very happy but would consider a Zune when it comes time to replace it. I look for features not proprietary hell. That said I may consider iTouch for the games.
      • The iPod MUST work with Windows

        Otherwise the iPod would not be where it is. Most people have Windows.
        It's simple math.

        On the other hand MS has decided an investment on developing the software for the Mac platform is not worth it.

        I'm don't completely agree with that assessment, since IMO making inroads into the iPod fan base could win some people back.

        But anyway, my point is that the iPod's "playing-nice" with Win is just because Apple HAS to make it that way.
        • Apple Playing Nice?

          Have you ever used iTunes on Windows? If you call that playing nice, then I'd hate to be your enemy! iTunes is an awful evil piece of bloatware that cripples every PC that is unfortunate enough to come in contact. Every iPod user I know hates iTunes. It's so flaky and inconsistent, it's slow, it crashes, and it cripples the whole PC. Zune software, on the other hand, seems to work pretty well without impacting typical performance.
          • I agree

            That's why I used quotation marks in "playing nice" ;)

            I also think Zune is a slick piece of software for many reasons.
      • Not quite true...

        [b]Do you really? So how do you use your Zune on your Apple computers? Hmm... Oh, you can't. [/b]

        Yes.. You CAN get the Zune to sync with a Mac... Two words:


        Ok.. So it's cheating - sort of - but it should work as well as with any other PC.
  • Actually

    [i]No one seriously considers buying a Zune.[/i]

    Actually, I am considering it for my son... for Christmas. Just don't tell him.
    • Zune Good


      My son loves his. He is always playing games on it
      now that that option is available. It is the original
      model but still works so he can use it until it craps
      out or makes enough to purchase an updated model.
    • It's an excellent system

      By that i mean both the player and the Zune software.
      The 2-D browsing is a nice way of organizing things
      Flipping through large lists, the speed-sensitive Zune pad is great, wireless syncing is really convenient, Channels are cool (even though I wish they had more variety there), and the free games are a nice bonus.
      The software is much snappier than iTunes, and is visually quite pleasing. I hate how iTunes makes me feel like I'm inside the space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I love how you you can have the Zune software show dynamic pictures of the artist who's song is currently playing take up the whole screen. I actually had some people over and hooked up my computer to the TV to play some music. Everyone could just see who's song was playing by looking at pictures, rather than having to read from a list (the artist name, album, and song do float in the foreground as the pictures themselves float around and change colors; I find it quite cool, but I guess it's up to the user).

      Now these new subscription terms are an excellent deal. I actually tried the free Zunepass trial before the new terms and liked the servide, but I didn't think it was worth the $15. I thought to myself that I could do $5, and this is what they've essentially done. I'll probably sign up for it now.
  • Speak for Yourself

    4GB Zune at $99 retail puts it in reach of products like Sansa 4 GB players price and feature wise. I am seriously thinking of finally getting a mp3 player, and right now it looks like it will be a Zune.