Devil’s Advocate (A Zune Review)

zuneStatement: Apple’s iPod was the first MP3 player.

Clarification: That’s a lie. The device was preceded by at least the MPMan, Rio PMP300 and Compaq PJB-100. But in the minds of iPod’s vast audience, who have consumed over 173 million of them so far, it might as well be true.

The fourth generation iPod was my first MP3 player. Until this week I had never bothered with anything else. Apple architected an experience smooth enough to insure I needn’t allow my gaze to meet that of another brand. For years this relationship sustained itself, until the iPhone. More specifically, its App Store.

I, like many designers and developers, have a flaw quirk. Whenever I see something cool that has a perceptible process of creation, I have to toy around with it. Before the App Store, Apple’s devices had always been fenced-in. With the introduction of an SDK that nearly anyone could interact with, my critical designer’s eye suddenly began to analyze the form and function of my mobile application experience. Then Apple’s own design. Then the very foundations of what makes a digital media player usable at all.

In short, it forced me to be objective. But true objectivity is not born from blind devotion to any one company or product. There had to be something else, right? Sure, the iPod comprises a gajillion percent of the MP3 player market. But allowing that daunting statistic to influence the scope of my device usage would be to defy the lessons I learned from the Sega Dreamcast and Neo Geo Pocket Color. Both systems had their butts handed to them by market leaders (PlayStation 2 and the Game Boy Advance, respectively) but both were also really, really great.

It had to exist: a media player with a cohesive experience not requiring mountains of technical know-how to set up. A player with a distinctive presence not derived solely from Apple’s design aesthetic. It had to be good. It had to be small.

It had to not suck.

That’s when I saw this:

Cool! But the consumer in me still had one hurdle to jump. All I’d ever bought were Apple players—this made jumping from the iPod Classic to my iPhone easy When the Zune HD debuts, I want to know if Microsoft’s a company I can trust with my music. In the name of scientific inquiry and gadget geekery, I did what any respectible device nerd would do.

I bought a refurbished 4GB Zune for sixty bucks from Newegg. Here’s what I thought.

Presentation

zune_01_box zune_02_box zune_03_gear

Aside from the needlessly large “REFURBISHED” text printed along the bottom, the Zune box is nice (though irrevocably Apple-esque). The contents slide out from the brightly-colored base of the box, which makes for a very satisfying reveal of the device.

The rest of the interior felt a little less purposeful. Symbols on the inside denoting earbuds and a USB cable were promising, but yielded only a shared compartment where the accessories sat in disorganization. Another “refurbished” sticker on the device itself was ridiculously difficult to remove (my efforts to do so left a small quarter-inch scratch on the back). The impressiveness of the initial box opening was belied by the lack of smaller, additional “ah ha” moments therein. That being said, the accessories themselves are nice and spartan, and the inclusion of multi-colored earbud covers is a nice touch.

Hardware

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The device itself is actually smaller and lighter than I expected. The tallness of the screen gives it an appearance in-between that of a first generation and current generation iPod Nano. At first glance it really doesn’t look out of place alongside Apple’s products, especially given the similarity between the symbol adorning the iPhone’s home button and the Zune’s affectionately-dubbed “squircle.”

The finish feels less glossy than an iPod or iPhone and even less accommodating of fingerprints than the latest Classic and Nano. While lacking the rubbery texture of the previous generation, you can still get a great grip on it. The construction feels very sturdy and lacks any shoddy or plasticy feel; no need to worry about shoving this in your pocket quickly while on the go. Outer adornments are minimal: play/pause symbols on the front buttons; Zune logo, capacity and “Hello from seattle” on the back; hold button, USB output and headphone jack on the outer edges. Pretty straightforward.

It was out of juice when opened and, lacking an AC adapter, I decided to give the software a whirl prior to charging.

Software

From the first installation screen the Zune software establishes itself as unique and minimal. I can’t help but wonder if the irony is lost on Microsoft who have created a custom chrome for this software that is, despite their being responsible for the design of the Windows operating system, way beyond the scope of what Apple customized for iTunes. Every button, progress bar, text box and control is completely stylized and Zune-specific.

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Installation took a long time (as iTunes does) and required a restart (lame). Afterwards, you are prompted to either agree to or alter some fundamental options which will influence how the application finds and organizes your media, associates with filetypes and reports errors.
A Word of Warning (Dead Meta Tells No Data!)
If you ever plan on allowing your iTunes and Zune libraries to co-exist, don’t make the same mistake I did. On first launch, the Zune software will ask you to adjust some “Collection” settings. Scroll down to the “Media Info” header and uncheck the box labeled “Automatically update album art and metadata.”

It seems that Microsoft’s definition of “Only add missing information” is different from mine. It’s really an “Only add information that we feel is more accurate than what’s already there” option. The next time I opened iTunes, I was confronted with thousands of songs with “updated” meta information and obliterated album art. If you’re like me and have invested time in carefully organizing your library, this will be tremendously frustrating. I was able to restore from a backup, but you might not be so lucky. You have been warned.

zunesw_artist

I really like the way Zune organizes your content. Your topmost tier of navigation corresponds to your media source, including your collection (media library), marketplace (store), social and, if connected, device. Immediately below that is the content type, including music, videos, pictures, podcasts and channels (radio). Below and to the right of that are sorting options that change (or are omitted in some cases) based on the media type. Perhaps the most useful piece of navigation is the universal search box, which quickly became my favorite method of finding content on my system or in the Zune marketplace.

Content will commonly be displayed in columns which, when an item is selected, will focus the items in adjacent lists, similar to iTunes’ browser pane but much more visually pleasing. It sounds more complicated than it is; this “drill-down” method of content selection ultimately decreases the learning curve required as you transition between content sources, including the marketplace.

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The music collection is where this interface really shines. Browsing becomes an immensely visual process, with lots of large album art to look at, big friendly song titles and a clever visualization in which a red blur throbs to your music at the bottom of the window. You’ll find your listening experience is rarely interrupted, even when previewing tracks in the Zune marketplace.

zunesw_marketplace

Aside from Microsoft’s wonky points-based purchasing system, the aforementioned marketplace rocks! Browsing the store often feels exactly like browsing your collection (think Lala). You can listen to an “album” of thirty-second previews while clicking about haphazardly. You can view an extended bio of any artist, as well as view related work with a socially-fueled recommendation engine that kicks the crap out iTunes’ deplorable equivalent. The catalog is broader than I would have expected (Example: Macbreak Weekly is available in their podcast section).

Moving content around different areas is fairly simple. In the bottom-left corner there are three icons, representing a Zune, a CD and a playlist. To add stuff to your Zune, you drag it to the Zune. Wanna burn a CD? Drag it to the CD. Add a playlist? You guessed it: The playlist icon. If any of these devices are not connected or a playlist is not selected, the icon will appear as line art (transparent). In this state, media added to the Zune and CD will be applied when their respective devices become available. If no playlist is selected, a new one will be created.

Here’s a quick screencast showing these features in motion:

Awesomeness aside, there are a lot of things Microsoft can improve upon. In contrast to the novelty of viewing one’s music collection, the video and picture collections are almost shockingly lame by comparison. That being said, iTunes’ video browsing is pretty terrible as well. I’m not sure which is the lesser of two evils in this case.

One can also feel a bit ungrounded in this interface. While the hierarchy between content locations is clearer in the Zune software than in iTunes, the latter’s simple sidebar navigation wins out (especially when creating and managing playlists).  In a somewhat Apple-like move, the Zune software works best when you trust it to do its thing. Monitoring and meta fetching works pretty well, but you have little control over it, which may upset power users unwilling to drink massive amounts of the Zune kool-aid. As dorky as Apple’s spreadsheet-like song list appears at first glance, it’s a very efficient way of allowing you to view and tweak every aspect of your library’s organization. Extended use of the Zune software, especially in tandem with the marketplace, did yield a zen-like feeling of pure listening pleasure I haven’t found any direct analog for in iTunes.

Choosing between the two media players is a bit like choosing a political candidate. Neither are perfect, but you probably have a prior investment in one over the other. Both options do a great job of speaking to their base. iTunes feels iPoddy, Zune feels Zuney. Depending on your device, you’ll enjoy the accompanying player.

Best metaphor ever.

Interface

zune_06_onThe Zune itself is hard to despise, but also hard to get over-the-top ecstatic about. A little homely at first boot, you’re one wallpaper change away from customizing the whole thing (my “wallpaper” was initially set to pure black). 99% of the interface is comprised of text, allowing your chosen image to show through in a matter similar to the transparent taskbar in Windows 7. This can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your choice of wallpaper (I’m beginning to wonder if the mass exodus of Zune haters is simply the result of users picking really off-putting pictures). It definitely differentiates the Zune, but also makes it appear less purposeful as the iPod’s interface and, until you’ve tweaked it, less impressive.

Navigating the Zune is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, the learning curve one might find get with the iPod’s scroll wheel is almost non-existent here for a few reasons:

  • The “back” and “play/pause” buttons are located off of the scrolling device, allowing for greater tactile differentiation.
  • You can move your fingers any direction in the large “squircle” and the interface will navigate appropriately.
  • Should you dislike or be unable to pull off the sensitive trackpad-like scrolling on the squircle’s surface, it clicks down in four directions like a D-pad, allowing for a sort of usability fallback.
The ability to move in multiple directions opens up a lot of interesting navigational opportunities, such as jumping from artist to artist by swiping left or right. On the other hand, one of the iPod’s strengths is the thumb-friendly navigation. All of the iPod’s controls are located in the path your finger is already on while traversing the menus. The Zune never hurt my thumbs or felt uncomfortable to use, just a little bit slower having already learned the ways of the scroll wheel. That being said, I still feel like the Zune is ultimately more intuitive. It should also be noted that these observations will be completely moot with the introduction of Zune HD, but it’s something to consider if you’re interested in owning the device today.

Like the iPod (and most digital media players), the Zune lacks a screenshot capture feature, so I’ve taken a quick webcam video of the interface in action:

The problem with the Zune is that it embraces some really innovative features that feel beyond the grasp of the current hardware. I was shocked to discover the marketplace (with purchasing capability) was fully accessible over the device’s built-in wi-fi. The wireless sync feature is impressive as well. Also intriguing is the social aspect of the device, allowing users to see what their friends are listening to on the go, in the app or online. But all of these impressive capabilities orbit the Zune hardware which is no more capable at playing music than an iPod. Why tediously search an online music store with a directional pad when I can do so quickly and easily on my PC, netbook or iPhone?

Conclusions

With all of the jeers and jabs the Zune has received since its introduction, I’ll admit I was expecting the worst in some ways. What I found instead was an extremely capable device with a direction all it’s own, suffering from several smaller flaws but mostly one large one: it is not an iPod.

Should you get one? The 120GB Zune has greater screen real estate than the comparable iPod Classic, which could influence video-conscious buyers. Avid music purchasers with a hunger for discovery should certainly explore the Zune Pass, a great deal if you spend at least $15 a month on digital tunes anyway. You could be swayed should you decide to love the Zune software; you’ll find an extension of that experience in the device. But beyond those cases, there are not enough unique, everyday features to seriously challenge Apple’s ubiquity. Of course, we sort of knew that already.

I introduced this review with mention of the Zune HD. Unlike the iPod Nano and Classic, the Zune’s interface is begging to make the jump to multitouch, virtually as-is! More promising still, the wireless network features of this device would feel natural (even versatile) in a touch environment. If Microsoft can push this experience further while incorporating the richness and innovation of their Xbox brand (minus the red rings of death, thank you), they may have a device that offers more than an alternative to the iPod Touch. We may want a Zune HD to compliment our iPods and iPhones.

And I would probably buy one.

(For a great look at the potential of the Zune HD, check out Ross Rubin’s Engadget article on the subject.)

Responses

Peter Wooley says

That may be the most in-depth Zune review I’ve ever read. I’ll admit it, I thought it would be clunkier, bigger, and slower. The software didn’t even look too bad.

Being a 3rd Generation iPod nano owner, it’s still pretty small, and the screen is nice. I simply don’t use the nano for video and I blame the screen size for that. From the screencasts, the overall performance of the device also feels smoother than the 3rd Gen. nano. When navigating the iPod menus quickly with music playing, the nano can chunk out as it attempts to retrieve the album art to display in the background.

I’m glad you took the leap, so I can save my $60 towards a shiny (and sharp) Palm prē.

Responded

Tyler Sticka says

Interesting. I believe my iPod is the same generation as yours (one behind the current iPod Classic) and I, too, have noticed some sluggishness in the interface that isn’t present in the Zune. To be fair, the iPod utilizes imagery in more complex ways (more prominent album art in browsing, animation in the home menu, cover flow, etc.) but whether or not that’s a benefit to usability or aesthetics alone is certainly an argument to be made.

Sadly, Palm has now stated that, while Verizon will probably get the prē at some point, they don’t think it will be in the six month window that was mentioned. I would not despair, though; there’s already at least one other piece of WebOS-powered hardware on the horizon (the Centro-replacin’ Eos) so chances are you’ll be getting some glassy goodness your way soon.

Responded

matt says

I finally broke down and picked up a 4GB Sansa Fuze a month or so ago – it’s interesting to me how ubiquitous the clickwheel configuration has become, even if the resemblance is only superficial. It’s almost as if consumers now expect (or designers perceive that consumers expect) any serious .mp3 player to look like a knock-off iPod. The Zune certainly looks like it’s a respectable device, though. Good call, doing this writeup!

Responded

Tyler Sticka says

I think the proliferation of iPod-esque circular touchpads (whether strictly cosmetic or not) is to promote the use of the opposable thumb, which naturally pulls off radial motions but feels oddly constrained when forced to move linearly. I’ve briefly played with a Creative Zen Vision:M and found it to be much more of a thumb killer due to its non-circular touch area.

I just looked at the Sansa Fuze and man does it look like an iPod.

Responded

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