Product Review: Zune 2 (4GB/8GB)

The Zune 2 is Microsoft’s second version of its answer to Apple’s iPod, its main competitor in the mp3 player realm, offering the ability to play back music, videos, photo slideshows, and listen to radio, all in a very slim iPod Nano like body.

Its first generation counterpart was awfully big in comparison to other similar products on the market, and although advanced users found some of its features frustrating to use, the beginners seemed to love it, thanks to its lustrous viewing screen.

This time around, it seems as though Microsoft took the gripes about its first try and made mods to please consumers — creating second generation slim upgrades, available two models, two smaller Flash versions to compete with iPod Nano users and two larger versions as well.

WHAT’S IN THE BOX

Zune 2 (4 gig or 8 gig)
Headphones
Zune Sync cable
3 pairs of foams headphone covers
Manual & product guides
Software CD

FEATURES

FM Radio
QVGA display
WiFi (now with wireless sync)
WMV, H.264, and MPEG-4 video support
MP3 and WMA audio
Track sharing (up to three plays and now with the ability to pass along shared songs)

DESIGN

As mentioned in the intro, the Zune (4 and 8 gig versions) come in a very small and sleek Nano-ish body, available in red, black, green, and pink. It’s Microsoft’s fist attempt into the smaller, flash memory-based MP3 player. It measures at 3.6 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.33 inch, and are considerably slimmer than their 80GB hard-drive-based counterparts.

It offers a glass-covered LCD instead of plastic, which helps set it apart from the rest. The 1.8-inch glass screen provides a more scratch-resistant surface with less optical distortion than plastic variety in the market. The very small screen, however, is hard to watch videos on, especially if you’re used to watching it on the spacious screen of the first generation Zune. But, with an oversized font used on the main menu, navigating to find what you need is a cinch.

The Zune 2’s unique navigation pad dubbed the Zune Pad is very nice. It’s a “cross between a standard four-direction navigation pad and a laptop’s touchpad” in the words of CNET. With the pad, users can easily navigate between menus by either pressing in the direction you wish to go or sliding their finger in four directions and select items by clicking the middle of the pad. Very simple and a breeze to use.

THE GOOD

The new flash-based Zune has an exceptional navigation control as previously mentioned, that coupled with the sleek and slim design are both pluses. Some of the other benefits of choosing the Zune 2 over other MP3 players out there are its wireless syncing, which now allows sharing among other Zune users within the area via WiFi. The first-generation Zune’s features were very impressive, and the second-generation is as well. It maintains all of the features from the original, but also adds new ones such as audio and video podcast support and a unique ability to automatically sync content over a home’s wireless network.

The ability to wirelessly sync content from your PC over your home Wi-Fi network is very handy. The feature requires a one-time setup to familiarize the Zune with your home network, after which it will remember to look for the network automatically each time you plug it in for a recharge. If you’re within range of your wireless network, but don’t feel like recharging your player to trigger the wireless sync, you can also initiate the sync manually by scrolling through its settings. Though it provides a USB for this, the wireless option continues to make things very easy for the user.

But despite this new capability, one of the most appealing features on the slim new Zune is the ability to share your music and photos between users. With the latest software, which can also be updated online with the first-gen Zune, you can now share music, but the tracks you share can only be played a total of three times — sucks we know. But the new service on the Zune Marketplace where a million DRM free tracks are available for download is nice.

The device’s radio feature is also very nice. It displays RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) station information on the screen during use, distinguishing their FM radio as one of the best on a handheld device. Depending on which station you are currently listening to, the Zune’s FM radio displays a station’s call letters, genre, and occasionally shows the currently playing artist and song information. It also allows for users to switch between European, North American, and Japanese radio bands from the Zune’s radio settings menu.

THE BAD

One gripe up front is that the Zune (4 and 8 gig models) are PC-only devices that require their own software. iTunes developed their software with both Windows and other operating systems in mind, so if they did it, Microsoft should have too. It would only help. So, Mac users, the Zune’s software can only be used in Windows sorry.

While the Zune is one of the better MP3 players on the market, it isn’t without its shortcomings in terms of features. It does not have a voice recorder, FM radio recorder, etc. And with the small amount of storage the small Zunes offer, it would have been nice to offer an SD memory card expansion slot, but that didn’t happen either.

Another option that is lacking in a built-in audio equalizer, which was found on the first-gen Zune, but not this new one. EQ presets help when you have cheap headphones, so to dispose of this feature was a no no. But, the 80GB Zune come with high-quality dynamic driver earphones, so that helps with that version of the device.

And as mentioned before, the very small screen won’t be used too often to watch long videos of movies, but for something short, it’s fine, and boasts an above-average clarity and color. The larger Zune should be purchased if you’re looking to watch movies.

THE VERDICT

While this slim version is nice and added some nice features from their last try (wireless sync for example), it didn’t quite beat out the iPod Nano in our opinion. But, its larger sibling in the 80 gig Zune is definitely a competitor worth mentioning. But, would we recommend switching from your iPod to the Zune? Maybe not, but it definitely is a worthy alternative.

The Zune 4 gig and 8 gig are priced at $149 and $199 respectively. For more information, visit Zune.net.

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