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.

 




The Sound

 

Being involved with hi-fi home audio equipment, with exposure to higher-end sound, makes sound quality a high priority for me. I realize the weakness in some equipment, and the varied environments in which a portable is used, means an equalizer can be a desirable feature. While most hi-fi types frown on equalization due to processing artifacts like phase errors, I am a bit more receptive. Sometimes phase errors are more than offset when an environment you are in has big problems you can't address. Where am I going with this? Well, the Zune 80 GB is the first digital player I have owned without an EQ of any type. Not even a chintzy bass boost function. A far cry from the five band parametric EQ of my Rio Karma or even the five band user controlled EQ of my Creative Zen Vision: M. On both those devices I was a habitual EQ user to compensate for a distinct lack of bass.

Do I miss an EQ? Not at all. Basically the Zune 80 GB absolutely trounces both the Rio Karma and Zen Vision: M in sound quality. Both of those are regularly mentioned as one of the top choices in the PMP arena for sound quality. So what gives? Microsoft has stated that in addition to the errors that can crop up when EQ is used, it eats up a lot of processing power, meaning less battery life. The solution was a focus on the best quality sound without resorting to an EQ.

Normally I would chalk this up to the usual PR drivel, but in this case the proof is in the results. My former players sound absolutely collapsed compared with the wide soundstage thrown by the Zune. What I thought was an artifact of using earphones (Shure E4s), the "in your head" sound, was gone, replaced by a natural large soundstage with distinct separation of all instruments. The sound is very balanced, and the bass is stronger than other players I have used without an EQ. Basically, it sounds just right, right out of the box.

For some reason, many users like a heavy emphasis on bass, and if that is the case, you may be disappointed. Not because it is lacking (it is better than others without an EQ), but because there is no option currently to dial it up.

Is it completely perfect? Not quite. Just as with every single hard drive based player I have used, I can hear the drive spin when the player is paused or during a very quiet passage. Many people will state they can't hear it, and with most headsets, you can't. But using extremely efficient IEMs with a good seal (no background noise to cover it up), it is clearly audible through the headphone out. Not a deal breaker at all for me, just part of the usual thing with hard drive based players, but the sound quality in all other areas is amazing.

Video

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To be honest, my reason to start looking beyond my 30 GB Creative Zen Vision: M was two-fold. First, I just needed more drive space. While 30 GB seems like it should be sufficient, I have the vast majority of my music at 256 and 320 kbps, meaning I don't get a lot of mileage out of the space I have. Secondly, at least as important to me was video playback. While the Zen could play back video, the screen was only 2.5". The Zune 80 GB sports a 3.2" screen, not far off from the iPod Touch's 3.5" screen. This make a huge difference in the watchability of video content.

The screen is bright, has fairly accurate color reproduction, and huge viewing angles. One potential issue is that while the screen size has increased, the resolution remains at 320X240. This makes pixel structure more noticeable, especially when holding the Zune close to your eyes. However, video looks great at normal viewing distances. It is a compromise resolution, so it looks fine for most uses, while increasing the battery life, and keeping costs down. In addition, it is a very common resolution for many video podcasts and other devices, ensuring compatibility.

The Zune 80 GB supports audio video output through the headphone jack, using a standard composite splitter cable. You can buy the official branded product or grab one off eBay for under $5. If you want to up the ante, the Zune 80 GB supports component video out using the separate dock. That's right, full DVD resolution, progressive scan component out (see below for supported formats). You can sort higher quality high resolution video that will play back at 320X240 on the Zune screen, or up to DVD resolution, interlaced, over the inexpensive composite cable, or progressive over the components from the dock. In addition, everything normally on the screen is output on your external display, including the interface. This is one area the Zune has an unequivocal leg up on any of the iPods. If you really want to get fancy, you could put a Zune 80 GB in a dock and feed your display, leave wireless on, and have updated content delivered from your PC.

Codec Support

What good is a PMP if it can't play the files you have? Codec support is an important aspect of these players in my opinion. So what does the Zune support?

Audio Codec Native (Hardware) support:
WMA:, up to 320kbps variable bit-rate (VBR) or constant bit-rate (CBR), up to 48 kHz, WMA-pro to 384 kbps, and WMA lossless.

AAC: (mp4, .m4a, m4b, .mov) , CBR and VBR to 320 kbps and 48 kHz. FairPlay Digital Rights Management (DRM) is NOT supported for AAC.

MP3: VBR and CBR up to 320kbps and 48 kHz.

Video Codec Native (Hardware) support:
WMV, main and simple profile, VBR and CBR up to 3.0 Mbps peak, up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames a second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

Mpeg 4 (mp4, m4v) part 2, simple profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak, up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames a second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

H.264 baseline profile up to 2.5 Mbps peak up to 720 X 480 resolution at 30 frames per second or 720 X 576 at 25 frames per second.

Files which are transcoded at time of sync (software support): WMV-HD, H.264 HD, .mov video, DVR-MS. I have also noticed H.264 when not in the .m4v container will transcode prior to sync.

While that is quite the laundry list, there are two notable open source codecs which are missing: FLAC and Ogg Vorbis. While Ogg Vorbis is a fairly niche format, with plenty of competition from mp3, wma, and aac, FLAC is one of the most common methods to store lossless audio. With 80 GB storage and stellar sound quality, Microsoft should add support for this format. While they have their own WMA-lossless supported for obvious reasons, I believe the draw of this player with FLAC support would outweigh any slight impact on pushing a proprietary format.

Conclusions

This was one of the easiest reviews I have ever written. The pros and cons of the Zune 80 GB are very cut and dry: large glass screen, large 80 GB storage, stellar interface, amazing sound quality, integrated podcast subscriptions, wifi, video output, all big positives. The overly simple Zune software for your PC is a necessary aspect to allow for the new features. The lack of a "real" on/off control, no EQ, and no delete on the fly, keep it from perfection. That said, the Zune 80 GB has almost the perfect balance for me, and this player is very highly recommended (as long as you own a PC connected to the Internet).

As a side note, Microsoft has shown very good support, with two updates to the firmware during the first month, and continuing to support the 30 GB model by adding many of the new features seen on the 80 GB version. This gives the buyer confidence they won't be left in the dust when the next model arrives.