Is the press being too harsh on the Microsoft Zune?

Is the press being too harsh on the Microsoft Zune?

Summary: The Microsoft Zune multimedia device was released last week, but the press seems less than enthusiast about this new iPod competitor. Is the Zune really as bad as many people have stated or is there some good features in this first generation product?

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TOPICS: Mobility
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I was traveling all week last week and my RSS feeds and Mobius email list were chock full of Zune thoughts. Many reviewers, enthusiasts and gadget geeks were quite critical of the Zune, software, and other related issues (Universal Music Group blackmail). As a result of the negative press, I was planning to keep my hard earned cash in my pocket until a rumored widesceen iPod video device was released. As a two hour+ daily van/bus/train commuter I am most interested in finding a portable device to watch TV shows and video content and I think the current iPod display is just a bit too small for me at this time. However, I finished work early on Friday and took some time to swing by Target in San Diego to check a Zune out in person. About 15 minutes later I walked out with a brown Microsoft Zune. Target had a great deal where you buy the Zune for US$250 and get a US$25 gift card to use on your next purchase.

Brown Microsoft Zune

I picked up a brown unit because I think it looks nice and is different than the white and black that is so common today. I also like the green highlight around the edges. The Zune is a bit blocky and big, but the plastic finish feels great with a bit of a matte finish that appears to be very difficult to scratch. I read one report where a key was ran across the display without leaving a scratch, but until I decide if I am keeping this unit for sure I don't think I'll try that test out. You get a nice set of black earphones with magnets in the ends to keep them together when you stow them. A USB sync/charge cable and a slip case are also provided in the very cool packaging. The device has no buttons or ports on the sides or the back with the headphone jack and lock switch on the top and USB connection on the bottom. There is only two buttons and the directional pad on the front so you aren't confused with lots of controls. Check out Jason Dunn's unboxing details for all the details on the packaging.

I then had something like 6 hours in the airport to install the software and load up my Zune since there were a couple flight delays due to weather in San Francisco. I only had my MacBook with me at the time so I booted into Windows XP, connected via Bluetooth to my Nokia N73 and T-Mobile EDGE data network (there was no WiFi available where I was sitting in the airport) and popped in the Zune CD. The install process was simple and the only issue was that it took quite some time to download the updates and Zune Marketplace catalog with my wireless connection. I signed in using my Microsoft Passport account and gave my Zune the name Zbacca to go along with my Samsung Q1 Qbacca device. I also used my traditional palmsolo moniker as my Zune community name.

After the software is installed you are taken through a setup wizard and asked to connect your device and sync it up. By default, the Zune software will add My Photos, My Videos, My Music and other folders to be synced. You can choose to customize this and if you have a huge collection you may want to do this the first time you sync up. There is a setup page for Xbox 360 support, but since I don't have a 360 I skipped this page. The Zune comes preloaded with some video, music, and photo content so you can actually check it out without installing the desktop software. I proceeded to sync some photos, a couple videos I had already converted to WMV format, and a few songs. I also recommend checking out Jason's software install and setup process for lots of photos and details.

I do not have a large personal music collection so one aspect I like about the Zune is the unlimited music subscription option. You are given a 14-day trial with your Zune purchase and after that you can download unlimited tunes for US$15 per month. This is the same price as the other PlaysForSure services with mobile support and I think that is a fair price. If you want to buy individual songs you have to use Microsoft points and I have yet tried that process. After signing up for the unlimited trial, I downloaded some old favorites of mine and lots of Christmas music to listen to on the trip.

Another feature on the Zune that isn't on the current iPod models is an FM radio. I know many people probably don't care about a simple FM radio, but I really enjoy my local stations and the great thing about the one on the Zune is that is supports RDS. This means I can now see the artist and song title of the tunes playing on the radio, which is very helpful for me since I can't remember hardly any artist or song titles myself and now I can write down an artist or song and then go download the title on the Zune Marketplace. 

Zune will also pull in your iTunes playlists and unprotected content so until Microsoft releases a podcast directory service with Zune I just used my iTunes podcast playlist and all my podcasts, including some video podcasts, appeared in my Zune library. I then just dragged them to be synced and bam things synced very quickly. The Zune software automatically optimizes the video for playback on the Zune and the process is quite seamless.

I watched some video content, listened to podcasts and browsed my photos on my flight home and was very impressed with the audio quality of the device using my Ultimate Ears super.fi 5 Pro earphones. I personally found the device easy to navigate and operate, but as a mobile gadget freak I am used to lots of different interfaces. As soon as I arrived home I had my 12 and 10-year old daughters try it out and they both quickly stated how easy it was to move around on the device and listen, view, and watch content so I am confident that any person can pick one up and use it right away. I do like the way you can personalize the device with custom wallpaper and think that is a nice difference between the iPod.

I think this is a decent first effort by Microsoft and am sure that software updates will improve the functionality of the device and Zune software, but there are a few things they could have done at launch to greatly improve the buzz around the device. For starters, they should have sent multiple units to reviewers and then offered two or four packs at Costco and other retail locations so people could actually try out the WiFi radio and pick up a couple Zunes for the family with maybe even a slight bulk discount. Every review and analysis I have read states that the writer wishes they could have tried the Zune-to-Zune sharing, but couldn't find any other Zune users in the area. Microsoft limited the WiFi functionality at this time, but should have at least made sure analysts and enthusiasts could have tested out the experience. I also wish the Zune desktop software would have been launched with at least podcast support integrated right into the software rather than having to rely on iTunes or other 3rd party software to capture podcasts. I am sure a video store will be launched in the next few months, but really wish that would have been available out of the box.

So while I don't think the Zune launch went as well as it could have, I also think the Zune is taking more of a beating from the press than it should. It isn't a bad first device from Microsoft, but Microsoft will now probably have to work a bit harder to convince people that they should choose a Zune over an iPod since you know Apple is going to come back soon with a wireless widescreen iPod themselves. Personally, the unlimited music subscription service is major feature for me and if Apple continues to refuse to launch such a service then the Zune may be my chosen device. As I stated in a previous post, I can use Yahoo! Music with my T-Mobile Dash so I really don't need the Zune right now and I may wait to see what software updates capture my attention. Then again, as gadget freaks we can't really have too many devices can we?

Topic: Mobility

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29 comments
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  • Fair comment, but not just iPod

    The Zune has indeed been widely criticized, but it isn't only the
    inevitable comparison with the iPod.

    I thought it was most telling that on the recent Engadget
    podcast (and those kids know their gadgets!), Peter Rojas and
    Ryan Block, who are at most ambivalent about the iPod if not
    actually hostile to it, actually said that they wouldn't recommend
    buying either a Zune OR an iPod this Christmas.

    Instead, they'd buy a SanDisk Sansa, which they consider the
    current best of breed of MP3 players in terms of design,
    convenience and function.

    I think that's a clue to the problem with the Zune: it's an iPod
    wannabe, but what is most successful about the iPod is it's
    reputation, which is simply not achievable without actually being
    better than an iPod. There are other products that in many ways
    are better, and by extension more worthwhile than the Zune.

    It's a bar any challenger has to jump and the Zune with so many
    failings - poor software, no USB mass storage support as an
    external drive, bulky size, lack of PlaysForSure support, WMV
    based video - is simply not up to, hence the dismissive reviews.
    mikataur
    • No bias? You are kidding, right?

      This from the blog that can't write a single review or commentary on a Microsoft product without adding a sneer or snyde comment - yet manages to turn the iPhone rollout into a multi-week long Apple love-fest?

      Block is often the worst one for this. Look at his post today (13 Nov) on the Zune. It's titled as a review, but it's nothing more than a rant about why Microsoft doesn't do things the way he thinks they should peppered with bizarre comparisons between the Zune and the iPod touch.

      He managed to rile everyone up enough that almost all of the comments posted were complaints about the bias in his articles, or complaints about how lopsided and surreal his 'review' was.

      Yes, the Zune 2 has some weaknesses, yet oddly - they happen in the areas where they WEREN'T just blindly copying Apple and are trying to do something different. Perhaps they're only weaknesses because you're looking at the Zune the wrong way - as an iPod otherran...

      The Zune 80 is slightly bulkier - like 5mm in the longest dimension - it's slightly narrower and like 1.6mm thicker - BUT .4oz *lighter* than an iPod classic 80. If you're so sensitive that 5mm longer or 1.6mm thicker is going to throw you off your stride.. well...

      Poor software is subjective. I've used Zune 1 and Zune 2 software and iTunes... I'll take Zune 1 over any of them. I find iTunes exceptionally clunky to use. PlaysForSure support is a non-issue for the same reason not supporting iTunes DRM is a non-issue. The Zune isn't targetted at existing PMP owners - but you can convert those files if you really need do just as you can iTunes files. So no advantage to either there. WMV is not up to? Incomplete phrase aside, I assume you mean it's not up to snuff compared to other codecs - well, guess what - Zune 2 supports MP4 and WMV isn't a codec - it's container. There are lots of codecs to choose from and Zune 2 supports WMV, MP4, H.264 and DVR-MS natively while iPod classic supports MOV, MP4 and H.264. Not much of a difference there.

      Your comment is interesting in the you're playing the exact same game the Engadget people are: claiming a lack of bias but then misrepresenting or miscomparing the Zune to other products.

      The only legitimate complaint I think you have in the bunch is the lack of mass storage support - and that's why I had chosen not to get a Zune until a few weeks ago... when I realised I was carrying 500GB in my pocket in 2.5" pocket drives... and realised that another 30GB is irrelevent as hard drive space. Yes, it should be there - and yes, they are wrong not to have it there - but is that the right solution for the problem anymore?

      I don't think so.

      Apple to oranges, amigo.
      TheWerewolf
  • Zune is cool

    I checked out the Zune on day one and I have a friend who has
    one. It definitely makes for a strong competitor and it is the
    second best player. I still prefer the wheel on the iPod and
    iTunes is better music management software than the version of
    Media Player with the Zune skin. I am excited by the prospect of
    a feature/price war between Apple and Microsoft.

    If Microsoft wants to compete than they need to get into the
    flash based market. Apple has a whole line of winning devices.
    My personal favorite player is the new shuffle. It is the perfect
    device: It is simple, almost indestructible, and does what it is
    intended to do perfectly and with no B.S.

    I do not think that the current Zune will impact iPod much.
    jdawgnoonan
  • It's about time

    that someone questioned the transparent bias of the 'iPod-or-death' journalists. Thanks.

    And I bought my brown Zune at Target as well.

    Gene from ZuneChannel.com
    zunechannel
    • Are you a paid employee?

      I'm curious about all the comments I see in any article about the Zune from people listing their Zune websites. How many of them are enthusiasts, inspired to register a URL and set it up immediately upon purchasing this device, and how many of them are paid representatives of the manufacturer? Or are you someone trying to profit from sales of related equipment?
      tic swayback
      • True Enthusiasts or Microsoft Astroturfer?

        Looking at his website, I would have to say enthusiasts (fanatic). But I am amazed my the number of astroturfers promoting the Zune in forums.
        dave95.
    • The Zune will be a complete and utter failure !!!

      I read this story and I must say that the ZUNE will continue to get negative stories from everywhere .

      http://www.suntimes.com/technology/ihnatko/147048,CST-FIN-Andy23.article

      "In a world without walls and fences , who needs windows and gates."
      Intellihence
  • Well, my local electronics store

    is sold out and there are iPods on the shelf. No, I don't know if there were the same number to begin with, sorry.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
  • Zume

    I bought a Zume, partly as a statement; I live in CalTech-JPL-ArtCenter Land where all things Apple are SOOO cool; when I got into computers as a young lawyer, Apples and Macs were costly for the struggling and had no useful software for verbal people. The Mac users I knew were rich and full of attitude and only so glad to let you know it. Over the years I have have journeyed with IBM clones and all the peripherals. It has been an adventure, but not nearly as hairaising as that depicted in the snotty Mac/Apple commercials that purport to show how impossible IBM clones/Windows-powered machines are to deal with. Mine run like a dream. I wouldn't have bought an Ipod if they were selling for 50 cents. I am looking forward to setting up my Chocolate brown Zume tonight although I have a Microsoft Reader ebook on my Dell Axim that I'd like to finish too. Ah, choices, choices!
    Enertz
    Enertz
    • Yeah, and I bought a Rolax

      nt
      dave.leigh9
  • Widescreen iPod will be much costlier

    Just remember iPod widescreen will be much costlier at about $500(rumor) and is for different segment of market. The 30 GB Zune is for totally different market
    harsh_rohit9
    • more costly than you think....

      [i]the 30 GB Zune is for totally different market[/i]

      Yeah, one that does not exist.
      There will not be more than a small handful of people that want to
      watch movies on a 3" screen.

      and use it's media store that does not even sell movies or tv shows.
      Tigertank
  • why buy it then?

    At the end of your article you announce that you don't really need your zune. It makes you look like a bit dim. And a selfish consumer monkey hell bent on soaking up all the planet's resources, to boot.
    How is anyone supposed to respect your opinion if you waste hundreds of dollars on things you don't need or want?
    Gadgetfreek? f*cktard, more like.
    sfluendy
  • Coming in late

    This is always what happens when you put out a product to compete in a market that has been active for years. Apple has had 5 generations to improve there iPod, as has Creative and all the other digital music/video playing folks.

    I think Microsoft really missed the boat here for one large reason. Many of us (myself included) have put enough money into iTunes music that we simply can't consider anything that won't play it.

    I've argued this point with many people recently but the facts don't lie. Apple makes a ton of money and has sold a ton of songs/videos/shows on iTunes. For the average Joe the only way they know how to carry that content around in there pocket is to buy an iPod. Unless Microsoft can change that it'll keep many of us buying iPods for years to come.
    jtshaw
  • I'm sure the Zune is a pretty good device

    The problem, and the reason you're seeing what appears to be harsh criticism of the Zune, is that it's nothing special. It doesn't seem, in any way, any better than what's already on the market, whether it's a Sandisk, an iPod, a Zen, an Archos, an iRiver, etc. You have Microsoft, one of the wealthiest companies on the planet devoting their resources to making a new device. You've got an overwhelming amount of hype, of press releases, of ads, of paid shills posting in newsgroups. Yet the device itself is pretty much the same as every other device on the market. The only separator is the wifi, which is generally considered crippled and as you point out in your article, it's impossible to even know how it works since you only own one.

    Perhaps it's more disappointment that you're seeing, rather than any bias. After all the pronouncements, all the hype, to quote Peggy Lee, "is that all there is?"

    If I were entering the OS market with a plan to displace Windows, I would probably need an OS that's much, much better than Windows to get people to switch. The same criteria applies to the iPod's market. MS is going to have to do better if they really want to succeed here.
    tic swayback
    • Unlimited subscription is big difference between iPod

      I agree that it appears the Zune is similar to existing devices, especially something like the Creative Zen Vision:M. I think the WiFi is going to be a defining feature and as more and more devices get into the hands of users this will hopefully be much more useful.

      I personally do not own that much music so the unlimited subscription service is HUGE for me. People have posted that Apple has something like 3.5 million songs while Zune has 2 million. However, to listen to the 3.5 million songs on iTunes you would have to pay $3.5 million and to listen to the 2 million songs on Zune you only have to pay $15 per month.

      I do think that the user interface and backing of Microsoft are also big factors that should help continue to improve the Zune experience over what we see on the Creative, iRiver, and SanDisk models.

      Last night I tried to put video content on my iRiver Clix, but everything I tried didn't work. It only took me a few seconds to get that same content on the Zune and the video was very enjoyable.

      It isn't perfect, as I mentioned in my thoughts, but it also is quite decent and I think I'll sell my iRiver Clix and T-Mobile Dash to pay for the Zune.
      palmsolo (aka Matthew Miller)
      • Better than Plays-For-Sure?

        Again, the unlimited subscription thing is already available for many, many players from many many stores. So once again, the Zune offers nothing new that makes it superior to what's already out there.
        tic swayback
  • It's the screen

    Wi-Fi is intriguing, to a point, and the FM is nice to have as built-in rather than through a pricey accessory. But the real grabber for the Zune is its screen. People who have actually used one find its a much better viewing experience - not just for videos and photo slideshows, but for navigating through music - than iPod.
    Apple has to be looking at its design and questioning why it needs almost half of the front of the video iPod for the scrollwheel. That's a lot of real estate that could be put toward a larger screen.
    Harvey
    Editor, Zunerama
    hchute
    • Why buy a Zune then?

      If the big benefit is the screen, then why not buy one of the many players out there with much better, much bigger screens than the Zune offers? Many of the Archos players offer vastly superior viewing experiences when compared to Zune.

      ---Editor, Zunerama---

      Once again, I must ask the question--are you a paid employee of Microsoft?
      tic swayback
      • Re: Why buy a Zune then?

        Excellent point tic!

        hchute, go buy yourself a 42" or bigger widescreen TV if the big benefit is the screen and stop saying anything that you genuinely feel about the Zune. You should be shameless to say anything positive about the zune even if it fits your subjective needs and likings. And please dont give me that "I like brown" crock.

        And dont for a minute think tic is an Apple/iPod fanatic. He has been talkback-ing on every article/posting on zdnet concerning Zune with the sole intention educating the people about the virtues of avoiding Zune. He is not paid by Apple and he has no vested interest in Apple. All he wants is a superior experience for everyone like the one provided by Apple. For proof that he is not paid by Apple, note that none of his posts have a link at the end - he just spends enormous amounts of time here educating the masses about the evils in the society (like Zune). It is rare to get unbiased criticism like his these days.

        Sheesh! Get real people. Dont get scammed by scumbag, convicted monopolist, turd-brown device making companies whose software is riddled with bugs and music crippled by DRM. Listen to the man - he knows what you need better - notice that he ticks way back. Dont be zuned, like he warns.

        tick tock tick tock
        tick tock