Is the press being too harsh on the Microsoft Zune?

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?
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

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?

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