CD Players

Microsoft Zune 80GB Portable Music Player

ARTICLE INDEX

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Introduction

Microsoft has obviously seen the unprecedented success of Apple's iPod (this type of product is abbreviated as PMP for Portable Music Player, or DAP, for Digital Audio Player) and entered the market with the Zune 30 GB MP3 player last year. It had a larger screen than the competing iPod, but it was also . . . well not so sexy. It was a little chunky and was little more than a re-branded Toshiba product. All in all not a complete failure, but it did not even begin to dent the iPod market share.

That brings us to now, where Microsoft is a year older, a year wiser, and where they have introduced the Zune 2.0 lineup with 4 GB and 8 GB flash memory based models and the 80 GB hard drive model. The current review is on the 80 GB player, available in only one color, black. It has an MSRP of $249 USA.

The Design

Never have I seen such efficient packaging, in fact, it may be a little too efficient. The box size is so incredibly small, I actually had difficulty finding it right before my eyes on the shelf. It is tiny. That is not a bad thing, less packaging means less waste, less cost, and more room for inventory.

The box contains the Zune 80 GB player, a couple sheets of paper, a small manual, a proprietary USB connector, and headphones. That's it. No CD for software. Now this might not seem like a big deal if you have an Internet connection, but you are pretty much out of luck if you don't. It does say it on the box in small letters that Internet access is required.

Like most modern players, there is no AC adapter to charge the unit away from a computer. You can pick something up designed for a Zune or iPod which turns an AC outlet into a USB power supply for a fairly low cost if this is needed. Don't get an AC to USB converter designed for something else, as I had two that did not work (it just wouldn't go into charge mode using these). For me, the Music Power Duet available at Wal-Mart worked fine.

The headphones are well above the standard pack in fare and have an in-ear modulator (IEM) design, instead of the usual earbuds. No they aren't up there with the better Shures, Etymonics, or Ultimate Ears, but they are such a step above what is included with the iPods it is surprising. They will not isolate sound nearly as well as the above brands, and the fabric covered cord combined with nothing to keep the cord in place for over the ear (the way my Shure E4s ward off microphonics) means you will hear every movement of the cord over your body and clothes.

For mostly stationary use, this in-ear headset is more than adequate. In fact I would venture that for the crowd that doesn't spend time and money on separate higher end headsets, these may be some of the best they have heard. Surprisingly good is probably the most accurate description. They have a neutral sound, slightly light on bass.

Software and Setup

My largest complaint against the Zune 80 GB comes in the software department. The Zune, out of the box, is completely useless. It remains useless until you connect to a computer and download the latest software, install it on your PC, and have the PC ensure the Zune has the latest firmware.

Speaking of software, the Zune 80 GB requires that you use the Zune software in order to add or remove media. There is no other option at this time. The requirements to even use the Zune at all are a PC with Windows XP or Vista, and an Internet connection. So why use the Zune software? Doesn't XP and Vista have a built-in Windows Media Player? What about the Media Transfer Protocol (MTP) which is included? While my blood began to boil and having to use another program to do what should be drag and drop, I got my answer.

The reason the Zune needs to have special software is part of what makes it special in the first place. Unlike last year's Zune software, this one allows wireless syncing. Not only that, it adds a fully integrated podcast (audio and video) feature set with automatic updating. The final pro-Zune software argument involves the social aspect. Xbox 360 owners are familiar with Live, the friends network, and Gamertags. Microsoft took these ideas and brought them to the PMP (Portable Media Player) arena. In fact, if you have an Xbox gamertag, it is seamlessly linked along with those friends for the Zune.

It is actually really a nice feature to see music your friends are listening to, what artists you have been playing most, and best of all the ability to share songs right over the Internet (or in person wirelessly). Songs can be sent using this system, and the recipient can listen to them three times (no time limit) before the digital rights management (DRM) kicks in and deletes. This is a great idea to get artists discovered and your friends to hear the songs you love.

Aesthetics and Interface

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What a difference a year makes! The display is an even larger (3.2" up from 3.0") display, covered in scratch resistant glass, brushed aluminum back, new controls, and the player is down in thickness from 16.5mm to 12.9mm.

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Speaking of new controls, I am in heaven. Finally someone does it right: touch without a fingerprinted screen, combined with tactile feedback. Honestly, the interface is the best I have ever seen on a DAP or PMP. I thought the iPod was untouchable in this area, but I was wrong. The heart of the interface is the Zune pad, somewhere between a circle and a square, and it responds to pressing down like a normal five-way digital pad, but also can sense sliding or touch inputs. What it does is allow precise movement by tactile button presses and very quick navigation through long lists with the touch input. This is a very important feature to ensure that all the media (80 GB is A LOT of songs) are readily accessible. Basically, you give the pad a quick flick, and the artists fly by, and when you get close, you can press the pad down for a precise selection. It works very well.

zune-80-pmp-figure-4.jpg The basic navigation uses a crossbar style interface, left or right jumps between categories, up and down to select within. This is fairly similar to what is used on a Sony PSP or the PS3. The font for the main menu is gigantic. It makes for a clean look and something that stands out from the crowd. Podcasts, both video and audio, have their own area, and subscribing is very easy. Just copy the URL into the software under Podcasts. You can use any picture you like for your background, but the font and basic theme otherwise remain the same. The biggest things missing are the ability to delete files on the go and a real on/off button. The Zune stays in a standby instant-on state all the time. You hibernate, holding the play pause button, but it isn't really off, putting a slight load on the battery constantly. There is a little known "trick" to really shut it off: hold down the Back button and Down on the control pad. That is just a little too hidden and unusual in my opinion.