Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Zune - A review

I decided I wanted to get a hard-drive video/music player so I put a Zune on my Christmas list this year. My wife obliged and I'm now the proud owner of a brown Zune. So why a Zune and not a video ipod? One reason is that I have over 5000 songs in wma format, and I don't want to re-rip everything in mp3 format. For another, the main reason I wanted one of these wasn't to cart my music library around, but to play videos, and I liked the larger screen. Yes, I know it has the same resolution as the smaller video ipod screen, but at that size, I'd rather have the extra half inch than a slightly sharper picture. And last, I'm intrigued by the wireless capability. As everyone who's interested in this kind of thing already knows, it's basically useless for the time being, as the wifi can only connect to other Zunes to do that song sharing thing (I refuse to call it squirting). But that's a software limitation, and I fully expect it to be fully enabled either officially by Microsoft, or by a hacker.

If you're looking for reviews and opinions online about the Zune, it's hard to get past people's bias. There's so much existing antipathy toward Microsoft, especially from the hardcore ipod crowd, it's hard to get an honest opinion. I am neither a lover or hater of either Microsoft or Apple. I just want what works best for me. I have held and played with my niece's video ipod for a few minutes, but I've never owned or used any kind of ipod, so I don't have any ipod bias. So here we go.

There are basically two parts to the Zune, the software on the pc and the device itself.

The software - It blows. There's really no other way to say it. It takes for-fucking-ever to install. I've installed it on 4 different pcs and it took as much as an hour on each one. And if that's not bad enough, on some pcs you first have to install an update to the Microsoft update software itself. And after you install the Zune software, guess what - that's right, you have to restart the pc. Now look, I use a lot of Microsoft software, and I have no problem with a lot of it, but so far the Zune software is like a bad parody of all the problems with Microsoft bloatware. It's slow, it insinuates itself all over your pc without telling you, it locks up.

Ok, after it finally installs and it's running, how does it work? Well, again, it's slow. It takes a long time to connect to the Zune and a long time to browse once you've got content. The interface is kind of confusing, although not bad-looking. And, of course, it's the only way to get stuff onto the Zune. One bright spot, when syncing supported file types, it's very fast. I can get several gigabytes of wmv video loaded in a couple of minutes. But rather than creating a whole new bloated software product, they should have just created a Zune plug-in for Windows media Player, which I actually like and use all the time.

A couple of notable missing features from the software - it doesn't support Microsoft's exisitng DRM. How stupid is that? It doesn't really make a difference for me since I refuse to buy music with DRM, but it's just an example of what makes people hate Microsoft. Another bigger problem, it doesn't let you use it as a portable hard drive. Yes, there are registry settings you can edit, but even then, it's difficult and slow. So overall, I give the Zune software a big fat F.

The device - As I mentioned above, I have the brown Zune. I like it. It's different but not flashy. It only looks like poop to the Microsoft haters. I like the rubbery feel of it and the simple design, which is obviously influenced by the ipod, as is almost every media player on the market today. The round wheel is not a touch click wheel, but it's easy to use. The screen is big and bright and the picture is plenty sharp. The volume is also good. The main reason I got this was to watch tv shows while I'm on the treadmill at the gym. It works great for that. It was easy to see the picture and to hear the sound. Operation of the software on the device is easy. There's a simple menu, the device responds quickly and the video plays smoothly. I also fooled around with the FM radio and it's also easy to use and sounds great.

The biggest problems with the device - as I mentioned, the crippled wifi. If Microsoft enables this, it could actually drive some people to buy it over the ipod. Imagine if you could connect to the internet and download songs and video on the go and sync wirelessly with your pc. Second, there doesn't seem to be any way to manage content on the device directly. Maybe I haven't found it yet. There's no reason I shouldn't be able to delete files, move stuff into different folders and create playlists on the device itself. That wouldn't be as big a deal if I didn't have to deal with the shitty Zune software. I give the device a B+.

Overall, I would say I like the Zune itself, but I hate the software. If you do try to cut through all the BS on the web, I think this is what you'll find. It's certainly not going to make most people want a Zune over an ipod. By the time I'm ready for a new device, if they haven't fixed some of these problems, I'll definitely be buying something else. Until then, I'm content to enjoy the good things and try to work with the bad.

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Toast said...

This is funny: I have a video iPod and a v-Cast phone, and I've never used the video capability on either. In fact, several times in the past, I've remarked on how odd this video miniaturization trend is. I simply couldn't grasp how anyone would want to watch video on such tiny screens. And yet, here you are, Exhibit A for who this market is serving.

Learn something new every day.

Chris Howard said...

Yep, and it's realy nice with the kids. We were at the post office for 2.5 hours yesterday getting passports for the kids and the zune kept them both quiet the whole time. And of course, I like it in the gym. I guess you and I are really opposite on this issue. I also got a slingbox for Christmas and I can watch tv on my pocketpc phone now too. It's great when you're waiting for stuff. And the quality really surprised me.

John Howard said...

Does this mean you're finally going to watch The Wire, the best show on TV?

Chris Howard said...

I'll get to it. I have seen the first two. They were ok. I read someone said you would be hooked after 3 episodes. I don't know about that, but I trust your judgment so I will watch the rest.

John Howard said...

Well, it's definitely good early, but my opinion of it as the best show on TV wasn't solidified until Season 4, which just ended, so keep that in mind.