Walt Mossberg and Katherine Boehret

Singing a New Zune

Last year, when Microsoft Corp. introduced its Zune music player to take on Apple’s iPod juggernaut, the software giant struck out. While the Zune had a good user interface and a larger screen than the iPod, it was bigger and boxier, with clumsier controls, weaker battery life and more complex software. Its companion online music store had a much smaller catalog, a more complicated purchase process and no videos for sale. And the Zune’s most innovative feature, built-in Wi-Fi networking, was nearly useless and added little value to the players, which sold so poorly that Apple barely noticed.

Zune
The Zune Pad adds touch functionality for improved navigation.

But Microsoft is nothing if not persistent, and this week, the company is back with a second, improved round of Zunes. The chunky, older 30-gigabyte model remains in the lineup, but it’s joined by a slimmed-down full-size Zune that holds 80 gigabytes, and by a much smaller model that holds four or eight gigabytes. Prices range from $150 to $250. The 80-gigabyte Zune is available only in black, and the others come in red, green, black and pink.

We’ve been testing these new Zunes and find them to be notably better than last year’s entry. They are smaller, lighter and more attractive, and they include three big improvements. First is a new controller, called a Zune Pad, that combines buttons with a touch pad for scrolling. Second is a completely overhauled, simpler PC-software program and online store, the Zune Marketplace. Third is expanded usability of the built-in Wi-Fi, which allows you to synchronize your Zune and your PC without plugging in a cable and makes sharing songs between Zunes — its only function last year — slightly better.

zune
Zune’s Marketplace is visually attractive.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, Apple hasn’t been standing still, either. It now has its own large-screen, wireless model, the iPod Touch, with a radical “multi-touch” interface like the iPhone’s. The screen on the Touch is larger than the one on the bigger Zunes and is much sharper. Its Wi-Fi allows you to browse the Web, watch YouTube videos and even buy music without a PC — none of which is possible on a Zune — though the Touch is $50 more and holds much less content than the new full-size Zune.

Microsoft’s new Zunes are directly aimed at the iPod Classic, Apple’s full-size, high-capacity model, and the iPod nano, its compact version. But, here again, Apple has been on the move. The 80-gigabyte Classic, which costs the same as the 80-gigabyte Zune, is slimmer than the Zune and has a flashy new interface, if a smaller screen. And the eight-gigabyte nano, which costs the same as the eight-gigabyte Zune, now plays videos and is much smaller — yet has a larger screen. Neither of these iPods includes Wi-Fi.

In addition, Apple has spiffed up its iTunes software, adding various features, including the addictive Cover Flow, which allows you to flip through all your albums with just a flick of the mouse. Cover Flow also shows up on the nano, the Classic and the Touch. Even the new Zune PC software has no interface as compelling.

And Apple still trounces Microsoft in the selection of media it sells. The iTunes store offers more than six million songs, about double what the Zune Marketplace offers, and dwarfs Microsoft’s selection of Podcasts and music videos, as well. Plus, Zune Marketplace still doesn’t sell any TV shows, movies or audiobooks, while iTunes does.

Radio Feature

Overall, we still don’t think the Zune line beats the iPods and iTunes. However, one of the Zunes, the full-size Zune 80, could give the iPod some competition, especially among new digital-player buyers who aren’t invested in the iTunes ecosystem. For the same price, it offers a significantly larger screen (albeit with the same resolution), wireless syncing and sharing, and a built-in FM radio — an existing Zune feature that the iPod lacks.

We tested the $249.99 80-gigabyte Zune 80 against Apple’s iPod Classic with the same capacity and price and then did the same for the $199.99 eight-gigabyte Zune 8 compared with the iPod nano equivalent.

We didn’t get a chance to test the battery life on the new Zune models or that of the iPod Classic and nano. But Microsoft concedes that unless you turn off Wi-Fi — one of the Zune’s key advantages — its claimed battery life is lower than Apple’s claims. Microsoft estimates as many as 19 and 24 hours of music playback with Wi-Fi on for the eight- and 80-gigabyte, respectfully. Apple claims as many as 24 hours and 30 hours, respectively, on the competitive models, which lack Wi-Fi. In the past, Apple has generally understated its battery claims, while last year, Microsoft overstated its claims.

Easier Navigating

On both Zunes, the front hosts just three buttons: the Zune Pad, a back button and a Play/Pause button. Its menus are divided into Music, Videos, Pictures, Social, Radio, Podcasts and Settings; navigating through this menu list and hundreds of songs is made easier with the Zune Pad’s touch functions. To zip through a list, we flicked a finger up or down. The top, bottom, right and left sides each work as individual buttons, as does the center of the Zune Pad.

The user interface is mainly unchanged from last year and still works very well, requiring an economical number of steps for each action.

Zune’s black, red and green colors are fine, but rather masculine — the latter reminded us of camouflage. But the pink was a glaring shade more appropriate for My Little Pony; it looks like an afterthought.

We initiated wireless syncs with the Zune software program, plugging the player into our PC the first time but leaving it disconnected each time after that. Wireless syncing took a little longer than with a cord and must be initiated by the user from within the player’s settings. One frustration: Presumably to save battery life, the Zune disconnects from the network periodically and then must reconnect the next time you want to use the Wi-Fi. Also, the Zune can’t wirelessly sync if you’re at a public hot spot that requires you to log in or pay.

Intelligent Syncing

This year’s Zunes also introduce a concept Microsoft intends to build on: intelligent, or automated, syncing. If you have your Zune set to sync only some of your music, not all, and drag an artist’s name onto the Zune icon in the PC software, the software will thereafter automatically sync every song you add to the PC from that artist. Microsoft believes many people would welcome such automation.

Mossberg

The Zune’s FM radio is well-designed and easy to use. Using the Zune Pad to flick left or right along the station grid, our Zunes detected numerous static-free stations, and we marked certain stations as presets by holding down the center button. Each radio’s digital data appeared on-screen, including the artist and song title.

We shared songs between our Zunes, beaming tracks from the 80-gigabyte to the eight-gigabyte and vice versa. A wirelessly shared song can be played by the recipient three times whenever they choose. Microsoft has removed the three-day time limit that applied last year. A minute of playing time, or half the duration of a song (whatever comes first) constitutes one play. At first, it took our Zunes a couple tries to recognize one another, even though they were both set to share music. And we noted that invitations to accept shared music don’t include any information about the music, so you could get stuck downloading an annoying tune or one you already own.

Photo Finish

Photos and videos looked great on the Zunes — about as good as they do on the comparable iPod nanos and better than on the iPod Classic because that iPod model’s screen is much smaller than its Zune counterpart’s. However, album art, which is often lower-resolution than normal photos, looked grainier on the big Zune than on the big iPod. And none of the Zunes came close to the stunning photo and video quality offered on the iPod Touch and the iPhone.

We didn’t get to test Zune’s a la carte point system for buying and downloading tracks because it wasn’t up and running yet. Neither were music-video downloads. We each had Zune Pass accounts, which work like subscriptions. If the Zune account stops, all content acquired during the user’s subscription is lost.

Album Focus

Navigating through Zune’s software can be a tad confusing. Four categories at the top left of your PC’s screen are meant to help: Collection, Device, Marketplace and Social. Collection shows your downloaded or owned content and focuses a bit too much on albums, which are becoming less significant with the ever-growing popularity of digital music. One example of this is the Collection’s default center panel shows album art sorted by date added.

Zune Marketplace’s artist pages really shine. Upon selecting a band or artist, a rich, full-screen background image of that group or person appears on the page with lists of songs floating atop the image. Various still photos of each artist are included; we found 10 for Mary Chapin Carpenter and 15 for Nelly Furtado.

Zune
A full-screen artist page for Avril Lavigne on Zune Marketplace

After listening to a Yo-Yo Ma album in her music collection, Katie wanted to download additional performances of the famous cellist from the Zune Marketplace online store. But, unlike iTunes, Zune’s software program doesn’t offer a way to link directly from your Collection to Marketplace for buying more of a certain artist or another song from an album you already own.

Another navigational hiccup in Zune’s Marketplace is its inability to bookmark searches. If, after searching in Zune’s online store to buy and download more Yo-Yo Ma, Katie looked in her Collection to see which piece she played last or liked most, then returned to the online store, her Marketplace store search would be lost and she’d need to start over. The iTunes store bookmarks your place during searches, allowing you to navigate through any other part of iTunes before returning to the idle search.

Zune tries to compensate for this glitch by identifying songs in the online store that you already own — either bought through Zune Marketplace or from other sources — with an “In Collection” label so you don’t accidentally buy content you already own. Likewise, if a song in your Collection is already synched to be on the player, a tiny Zune icon appears beside that song title.

Unlike iTunes, Zune software can’t create smart playlists. And it only offers two views, Browse and List, versus three in iTunes: Cover Flow, lists, and lists with album art.

Microsoft has greatly improved the Zune hardware and software this time. But it seems to be competing with Apple’s last efforts, not its newest ones.


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