Product Review: Zune

A Zune side by side with a 30GB iPod
A Zune side by side with a 30GB iPod

With several MP3 player choices on the market and Apple’s iPod leading the way as the weapon of choice for most music enthusiasts, how could Microsoft’s Zune share any percentage of the marketplace? Well, when Microsoft announced the product in September, we all found out the Zune would be different from the rest, integrating wireless technology for Zune-to-Zune sharing of files, but shares the same type of iTunes-like closed Zune Marketplace ecosystem.

The player’s Wi-Fi chip is an extremely cool feature, allowing it to seek out and be seen by other Zune users, and share music and photos in the same room. But, despite the coolness factor of this tool, it still has its limitations. A shared song allows three plays of a song within three days, but shared photos are limitless. Without saying the Wi-Fi should be expanding in the future.

One gripe right off the bat users will find when begin to tinker with the device is that it is not compatible with some media formats, including protected WMA-DRM9 and WMV files, so tracks purchased from online stores such as Napster, or Urge, which will force seasoned MP3 player users to go elsewhere, while it may not bother beginners, thanks in part to the excellent UI and nice integration with Zune Marketplace software.

At 4+ x 2.5 x 0.7 inches, the Zune is a bit bulkier than the 30GB iPod, it’s size doesn’t make that much of a difference, being that it too has 30GB of storage as well. The size of the Zune’s 3-inch screen by far makes of for its slightly bigger case.

Although the screen is not as large as some true portable video players, it is efficient enough to watch video, view your photos and navigate through the device’s menus with ease. It is very colorful and bright enough for outdoor use.

The controls are crisp and easy to push and use to navigation from screen to screen. After using the Zune, within minutes any user can pick it up with ease.

As far as playback, the Zune will play back MP3, protected WMA (the Zune-kind only called WMA-DRM9.1), and unprotected AAC. It will not play WAV and other protected formats, so if you have tons of tracks from online audio stores, you might have some work on your hands, but you can purchase a $14.95-per-month ZunePass for unlimited downloads.

Video support is worse though, according to Cnet. At launch there was no video content available for purchase on the Zune Marketplace, but with more than two million tracks available, that should keep you busy until video is more widely available for the Zune. It does support WMV natively — Zune software will convert MPEG-4 and H264 files to WMV — but it does not support DRM video, so, no Amazon Unbox and no Vongo. It also doesn’t DivX or XviD either, so you’ll have to find a third-party conversion method.

It has a ways to go as far as video support before it becomes a competitive video device, but as the Zune community grows, Microsoft is sure to expand its features.

With photos, users are limited t JPEGs and the Zune software will not convert other formats like it does with some of the audio and video.

The device’s FM-radio interface is very simple to use with not much to it really. On-screen, you see a linear, dial-like line with the station above it in large numerals. There is also a built-in RDS (radio data system) feature that will display the station, the genre, and sometimes the song title on certain compatible channels.

The Zune’s battery life is said to be at 14 hours of audio playback. But, according to several reviews from product review sites, it is said to have about 13+ hours of playback for audio and more than 3.5 hours for video.

It comes in either black, white or brown, and there is one limited edition red color as well. It retails for $249.99.

Overall, the Zune is perfect for beginner MP3 player users, and might frustrate more advanced user. But with a solid foundation and room for improvement, the Zune looks to have a bright future ahead of it and future releases seem like they can only improve.

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