Review: Microsoft's Zune 2.0 is much improved, but it's still playing catch-up

The media player has yet to surpass iPod, other competitors

The first-generation Zune media player that Microsoft Corp. released last year was a me-too product with a few nice touches. So the question with the new, second-generation Zune is whether Microsoft is ready to surpass its competition, most notably Apple Inc. and its iPods.

In a word, the answer is no. The 8GB flash memory, Wi-Fi-enabled Zune I reviewed is quite a decent media player. Microsoft obviously worked hard to get it to compare favorably to the iPod Nano, and it does do that, but only if you compare this second-generation Zune to the previous-generation iPod Nano.

In other words, this is the Zune Microsoft should have introduced last year. The new Zune is well executed and has a notably intuitive user interface, but it's not particularly compelling when compared with the new iPod Nano and some of Zune's other competitors.

<br></br>The newest Zune media players from Microsoft come in models with 4GB or 8GB of flash memory, and hard drive models with 30GB or 80GB. (Photo courtesy of Microsoft Corp.)

The newest Zune media players from Microsoft come in models with 4GB or 8GB of flash memory, and hard drive models with 30GB or 80GB. (Photo courtesy of Microsoft Corp.)

Out of the box

Perhaps the biggest news is that Microsoft released a flash-memory-based media player at all. One complaint about first-generation Zunes was that Microsoft released only hard-disk-based players, which account for a minority of media player sales. Besides the 8GB flash player I reviewed, Microsoft is also releasing a 4GB flash player and 30GB and 80GB hard-drive based second-generation Zunes.

Opening the box of the second-generation Zune flash player evoked a serious flash of déjà vu. In particular, I found the packaging and the size and shape of the device to be reminiscent of the previous-generation iPod Nano. To be fair, that was only a first impression. In fact, at 3.5 in. high by 1.6 in. wide and 0.33 in. thick (and weighing 1.7 oz.), the new Zune is a smidge bigger than the old Nano. That slight bit of extra bulk is largely used for Zune's generous 1.8-in. screen.

The display is clear and bright, although it's smaller than the new Nano's 2-in. display and significantly smaller than the recently released Creative Zen's excellent 2.5-in. display. A nice touch is that Microsoft uses glass rather than plastic to cover the display, which makes it a bit more smudge- and scratch-resistant.

Navigation is somewhat iPod-ish, but with some slick improvements. The Zune has an oval-shaped clickwheel, which Microsoft calls a Zune Pad. It has two buttons above it for moving forward or back to a previous screen, and for playing and pausing tracks. You can progress through menus either by pressing the up and down buttons on the clickwheel or by running a finger up or down its surface. While playing a song, you can increase or decrease the volume by using the same two methods.

The Zune Pad works particularly well with Zune's clear and intuitive interface. The top-level menu has, in large type, the main features offered by the device, such as music, video, still images and settings. After selecting one of those top-level options, a group of submenus appears horizontally across the top of the screen.

For instance, if you select Music, the next screen lists subcategories such as Artist, Genre and Playlist horizontally across the top. You cycle through those options by using the right or left buttons of the clickwheel (or by sliding your finger horizontally). After selecting a subcategory from the horizontal list, the contents of that subcategory appear vertically below the horizontal list. This slick system makes the Zune easier and more fun to use than its competitors.

Before using the Zune, you first must load the Zune software, which you download from the Web. The software enables you to not only sync with the Zune wirelessly or via a USB cable, but also to manage your media collections and to participate in what Microsoft still calls The Social, which will be discussed a bit later. Overall, the software is simple and intuitive.

Battery life is rated at 24 hours for uninterrupted audio playback, about the same as all of the Zune's major competitors.

Some nice extras

The Zune also comes with some extras, some minor, some more significant. It is colorful -- it comes in red, black, pink and olive green. That makes it about as colorful as the iPod Nano and more colorful than the new-generation Creative Zen and Sansa View, which come only in black.

The Zune switches automatically between portrait mode for basic operation to landscape for video and images. It supports WMV, .MP4 and even H.264 video files, which means you can record TV shows with Windows Media Center and then sync them with the Zune software. However, while video playback was smooth with few, if any, dropped frames, even the youngest eyes won't watch many videos on such a small screen.

Audio support is also strong, with playback of, not surprisingly, Microsoft's WMA format, MP3 and, somewhat surprisingly, unprotected AAC. AAC support means you can listen to music on a Zune that you've purchased from iTunes and burned to a CD, although you can't listen to music that has simply been downloaded from iTunes. However, if you want to join a music subscription service, your options are limited to Zune Marketplace -- it doesn't support other subscription services, such as Rhapsody or Napster.

Audio playback quality was solid. I found the midranges particularly solid, and the low end well defined, but I detected some flatness at the high end. For instance, high-hat symbols didn't sound quite as alive as they do on other players, such as the iPod Nano and the Creative Zen.

A feature that recommends Zune compared with the iPod Nano is the FM radio. However, Zune's other wireless capabilities are more of a mixed bag.

The first-generation Zunes were dissed because although they were Wi-Fi-equipped, all you could do with that Wi-Fi was exchange songs -- with a lot of restrictions -- with nearby Zune users. That assumed, of course, that there were nearby Zune users.

Some of those sharing restrictions have been lifted, but, practically speaking, this type of sharing is still not likely to happen often. However, you can now use the built-in Wi-Fi to sync with your desktop computer rather than using a cable, which is a nice convenience at times. Synchronization can be launched either from the PC software or from the Zune itself, although launching wireless sync from the Zune means going a couple of layers deep into the Settings menu.

High user demands

But while wireless syncing is nice, a more useful wireless capability is still missing -- the ability to acquire online music via Wi-Fi. SanDisk Corp.'s Sansa Connect can do that with Yahoo Music Unlimited, and Apple's iPod Touch can do that with the iTunes store. The ability to acquire music wirelessly makes a media player far more useful, and fun, while you're mobile.

The Zune's inability to perform that task is particularly curious given how vigorously Microsoft is aping the iPod/iTunes closed ecosystem for acquiring media. That is, like iPod/iTunes, Zune doesn't work with services other than Zune Marketplace. The ability to acquire music wirelessly would be an important future addition if Microsoft is serious about catching Apple.

Another omission is the fact that Microsoft isn't offering -- yet -- a 16GB version of the flash-based Zune player. New-generation players from SanDisk and Creative Labs are offered with that capacity, although Apple's iPod Nano, which Microsoft is most obviously aiming at, doesn't.

Microsoft has, however, made some progress in addressing one notable failure from the first generation. Previously, The Social primarily consisted of exchanging music with nearby Zune users. Now, it primarily focuses on the Web, with Microsoft hoping that a community of Zune users will emerge online to share playlists and music, which can be synced to the Zune using the Zune software. You can still share music with nearby Zune users, but Microsoft's new idea is more realistic in terms of creating a community.

While Microsoft has made solid progress with the Zune, the device still isn't compellingly more attractive than its competitors. And at $149 for the 4GB version and $199 for the 8GB version, it's priced identically to the iPod Nano against which it is competing. Even though it's a solidly executed media player with a top-notch user interface and some other nice touches, the new flash-based Zune doesn't stand out from a crowd of highly competent and better-established competitors.

Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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