Robert McLaws: Windows Edition

Blogging about Windows since before Vista became a bad word

Review: Microsoft Zune - Halo 3 Special Edition

DISCLAIMER: This review was not solicited by Microsoft, the equipment was purchased with my own money.

Recently, my girlfriend Nicole surprised me with a rather unexpected birthday present: a brand new Special Edition Halo Zune. I had never experienced a Zune before, so I was really excited to try it out. I've had it for about three weeks now, and I wanted to report my take on this device.

My previous music player was a Creative Zen MicroPhoto, which was a pretty decent device, but had a really crappy battery life. I had also used a couple different iPods before, but never owned one. So I have a little bit of experience with PMPs, but there are a bunch out there I still haven't messed with.

Unboxing
I have to say that Microsoft did a fantastic job with the packaging of this product. The outer packaging is clean and very attractive, and it opens up very nicely.

I posted some unboxing shots here to do the talking:

I think this is the kind of experience Microsoft was going for when they redesigned their software boxes for Vista & Office 2007... if only they weren't harder to open than a bottle of Advil. It's a good thing they got it right this time, and it was really fun to open.

Installation
Getting my Zune connected to my Vista machine was pretty straightforward. I really liked how it tried to download an updated version when it installed. I say "tried", because it failed the first time, and I had to download the new installer manually. But after I did that, setup was a breeze. It even updated my firmware right away, which I liked a lot.

User Experience - Device
I absolutely LOVE the device. The UI is very responsive, and (mostly) intuitive. The screen is bright, and the contrast is easy to see in any light. It feels great in my hand, and the matte finish is a welcome change to the cold lifeless feeling of the Zen. And it's practically impossible to get smudged up, unlike the iPod.

I do have some issues with the UI though. For one thing, it takes WAAAY too many clicks to start playing a specific song with the "Enter" key. Yeah, I know you can scroll the song list and then hit the play button, but that wasn't the most intuitive way to do it. Also, you can't delete stuff off the device. Which is super annoying... more on that in a minute.

User Experience - Marketplace
Truth be told, the Zune Marketplace experience is pretty bad. I think it's really lame that you can't play media that is stored only on your Zune inside the Zune Marketplace. And you can't browse the device physically (with the hardware buttons) when it's connected. That, coupled with the lack of a delete button or keystroke on the device, makes it nearly impossible to delete anything off of it with confidence. I have to first browse the device, write down the artist and title of what I want to delete, connect it up, and then delete it from the Marketplace. That really stinks. Especially since it came with a ton of crap from people I had never heard of.

Other than that, it's relatively easy to find artists and buy songs. I just wish you could pick the "Advanced" option of just using WMP11. A lot of the software just feels like an URGE ripoff. And seeing as how it's all powered by MediaNet Digital (formerly MusicNet) anyways... seems kind of stupid that enthusiasts can't have a little more choice if they know what they're doing.

 Syncing
Holy crap, I've never seen a music player sync that fast. I put nearly 2GB on the device in a little over a minute. That would have taken almost an hour on the Zen. Now, if I could only sync wirelessly...

 Overall Opinion

So rumor has it that V2 hardware is on its way soon. One of the things that makes the Zune waaaay better than the iPod is that it's software-updatable (I didn't realize the iPod had firmware updates, I had heard you had to buy new iPods to get new features) I'm really looking forward to seeing what capabilities the V2 software brings to the table. Some things I'd love to have:

  • Wireless Sync - already mentioned and self-explanatory.
  • Wireless Purchases - I want to be able to purchase and download music straight from an access point to my device. It would be really cool if Microsoft partnered with T-Mobile to offer free WiFi access to their hotspots if they're browsing the Zune Mobile Marketplace.
  • Wireless Media Center Extender - I'd like my Zune to be a full-blown Vista Media Center Extender. That way I could watch HDTV on my Zune without dealing with the DRM that my CableCARD applies to all of my recorded TV shows.
  • Wireless Xbox 360 Connectivity - I think I should be able to listen to music from my Zune on my Xbox 360 without having to directly connect it to the console.
  • Xbox Live Video Marketplace Support - I want to be able to copy SD movies rented from the Xbox 360 Video Marketplace to my Zune. That way i could load it up with movies before a trip and watch them on the plane.
  • Napster Support - I'm already paying for a Napster subscription for the Zen MicroPhoto, it would be really nice if I could use it with the Zune too. I understand the whole "closed system" thing (and the Zune Subscription), so you don't need to take me to task for it... it would just be cool.
  • Zune Phone - I love the way the Zune feels in my hand. I love the device experience. It would be great if I could get this same experience in a phone. (Don't even say anything about the iPhone, I've used it and I'm not interested.) Yes, I understand this would require additional hardware... unless the headphone jack already supports the same type of headphones-with-a-mic that my cell phone has.

So anyway, that's my opinion. How's your Zune treating you?

Posted on Aug 02 2007, 12:46 AM by Robert McLaws
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Comments

  • azz0r said:

    Still waiting for version 2 and a proper launch in the UK.

    Probably won't use the zune marketplace, would prefer it if it acted like a portable hd, plug in and play, drop and drag, zam and go.

    August 2, 2007 5:46 AM
  • Jon Abad said:

    Robert,

    You totally CAN browse and manage the Zune content while its connected.

    When connected, your Zune will be listed in the left tree below "Playlists", "Library" and "Marketplace". Click the little arrow pointing right to expand the options for it and you'll see "Sync results", "Artist", "Album" etc.

    You can then delete to your hearts content.

    Bonus explainer, The Zune allows you to have guest sync relationships to other PCs (3 total I think?) and this is how you can copy things on and OFF from the Zune while away from your home base.

    August 2, 2007 7:16 AM
  • glennyboiwpg said:

    Robert, i'm confused by your statement:

    " One of the things that makes the Zune waaaay better than the iPod is that it's software-updatable. "

    What are you refering to by "software-updatable"?

    August 2, 2007 8:47 AM
  • Master Devwi said:

    I agree with you.  I love the Zune and everything about it!  Most people don't get just how good the Zune is.

    (BTW, yes, you can browse through your device when it is connected.  It is on the left hand side in the navigation pane.  I don't think you can play music through it, but you can do that through your ZM Library, which should be an exact replica of your Zune's library.)

    August 2, 2007 12:08 PM
  • RL said:

    Robert, even though the Napster subscription is not compatible with Zune, the Zune subscription is Plays For Sure compatible.  Another nice feature is the library restore, should you lose a hard drive with your music (subscription and purchase) you can get a full download of all your tracks again for free (up to three times).  (What is it with the zune team and the number three?)

    August 2, 2007 12:16 PM
  • Jason Dunn said:

    Hey Robert, be sure to check Zune Thoughts in a bit, I've posted about your review and solved a few of your problems. ;-)

    Jason Dunn

    Executive Editor, Zune Thoughts

    www.zunethoughts.com

    Daily News, Views, Rants and Raves

    August 2, 2007 12:20 PM
  • August 2, 2007 12:31 PM
  • fu116eneral said:

    The product as a whole is phenomenal, however the marketplace seems... slow. Whether or not that is an individual computer power issue, it deserves some tweeks to improve flow.

    Great product, and I prefer it over the iPod for sure, especially with the V2 on the horizon. And a Zune phone is a good idea. No, a great idea.

    August 2, 2007 3:49 PM
  • Simmerl said:

    Does  it have a Clickwheel yet?

    August 2, 2007 3:51 PM
  • ViralSyris said:

    cant you just download from napster and then transfer the mp3s to your zune?

    August 2, 2007 3:52 PM
  • Anonymous said:

    >"One of the things that makes the Zune waaaay better than the iPod is that it's software-updatable."

    AFAIK the iPod's software is updated on a regular basis.

    August 2, 2007 3:54 PM
  • What I meant by "you can't browse the device when connected" was that you can't use the hardware buttons to navigate the UI on the Zune's screen. I couldn't get Zune Marketplace to sync the out-of-box music back to my computer, so I couldn't listen to it on there. I couldn't listen to music stored on the Zune through the Zune Marketplace (you can with Napster) so I couldn't figure out which of the default songs I could delete unless I made a list on paper while disconnected. It was a hassle.

    And yes, I realize now that the iPod gets firmware updates. I originally thought they didn't, and that wasn't because of Microsoft's marketing machine.

    August 2, 2007 4:16 PM
  • Anonymous said:

    Sure about that?

    Anyway, I must admit, the Halo-style design is gorgeous.

    Still not worth having to cope with Microsoft's DRM system. No offense. ^^

    August 2, 2007 5:04 PM
  • Michael Ricke said:

    about deleting music all you have to is flag the song in the mini menu while a song is playing(to get to that you press the center button and bam! a mini menu) This mini menu allows you to shuffle, repeat, or other things. You can flag a song and when you connect your zune to your computer it will show your flagged items and you can delete them

    August 2, 2007 5:44 PM
  • Sean said:

    can I download songs i've previously put on my computer to it ( I heard u couldn't! )?

    August 2, 2007 6:54 PM
  • Shawn Oster said:

    @Sean: You sure can.  My Zune is completely full of music I had way before the Zune.  Whoever told you that you couldn't put previously owned music on a Zune was greatly misinformed.  I suggest buying music from eMusic.com, no DRM, just straight MP3.

    @Robert: I had to chuckle over this, "Especially since it came with a ton of crap from people I had never heard of."  Ahh, what a breath of fresh air to see how open people are to new music, no wonder the air waves are filled with mostly junk :)  I'm just giving you a hard time.  Personally I love finding new bands and music and that's one of the things I love about zuneinsider.com's MP3 Friday, where a guy on the Zune team posts links to free MP3's he's found on the Internet.  I ended up liking Bittersweet and CSS both quite a bit from the pre-loaded content.

    I also found your "...to delete anything off of it with confidence" pretty funny only because I'm the same way, you can obviously tell we're super nerds.  Most people just trust the software that if it says it's not on your Zune then it's not there and has been deleted.  Me, I'll do a full device format every few months and resync everything on the off chance there is some hidden song taking up a precious 4mb.  Paranoid.

    I've posted a few times how I feel about my Zune, my latest is here:

    <a href="http://a-simian-mind.blogspot.com/2007/07/living-with-zune.html">Living With Zune</a>

    In summary I *love* the hardware but the software has to go.  Even though I enjoy a lot of the interface styling it has all the same limitations as WMP which down right annoy me.

    Another trick about deleting, you can flag songs like one poster said or what I do is rate podcasts I've already listened to with one star (push the center button and the mini-menu allows you to rate) and when I resync that rating comes back into the software.  Now I just delete all songs with a single star.  This works great as I listen to the BBC World Select podcast and those can pile up, this helps me know which ones I've listened to.

    August 3, 2007 1:00 AM
  • August 3, 2007 1:10 AM
  • Aaron said:

    Hi Robert

    I really enjoy your site for the news and knowledge of MS you provide but I must admit that I just glazed over your review for this because of your self-confessed 'sniffing the MS powder'. Theres just no way I could trust a review about an MS product from you. Im not meaning this to be harsh, or in anyway a put-down of your approach to your site. Just some feedback from a regular reader.

    - Aaron

    August 3, 2007 6:39 AM
  • Shawn Oster said:

    @Aaron: I'm curious why you don't think you could trust Robert's review?  Besides of course the obvious that a "review" is only ever a person's opinion, hence why no reviews are really that valid.

    Beside the philosophical I'd actually trust Robert's opinion's *more* because he has a proven track-record for being very frank about Microsoft.  For as many positive articles that's he's written about MS he has just as often been highly critical.  He has what people call "critical perspective".  Everyone is biased slightly in some direction and if they're not then they probably don't know enough about the subject to actually give you a reasonable review.

    You also show yourself to be more highly biased than you accuse Robert of being by "glazing over the article".  Instead of actually reading it and deciding for yourself what you think he just made an assumption of what his take would be and that it wouldn't be valid.  If you actually do read this site and enjoy it then you must trust his opinion at least some what or agree in part with some of his views, so why pick this one time to suddenly decide he's not worth?

    Anyway, no disrespect, I'm just curious since I see this mindset quite often in the blogsphere and always wonder what's behind it.

    August 3, 2007 12:03 PM
  • Aaron,

    I appreciate your feedback. You should go back and read the whole thing though. It's not just a blank check of my affection. I hate the Zune Marketplace, and I think I was pretty clear about that.

    Just because I love the company doesn't mean that I love everything about them. I'm pretty vocal about my criticism, I just don't always blog about it. And the whole "snorting the Kool-Aid" thing is supposed to be a joke.

    August 3, 2007 4:00 PM
  • Aaron said:

    Hi Shawn

    I guess it comes down to why I come to this site. I dont come here for the reviews because I expect them to be favourable to MS regardless of the experience. I am no way saying Robert cannot keep his opinion, but after reading this site since the longhornblogs days, I know Robert to be a passionate MS fan. So it kind of depletes the trustworthiness of a review, IMO. Dont get me wrong, I see this on all kind of blogs, I wont be running out to buy a mac after reading a review on an apple fan site. What im trying to get at is I come here for the news and insightful information Robert provides, and ill stick to the 'independant' tech review company sites for reviews.

    Hi Robert

    Yes I do know you call MS out when they get it wrong, and that is one of the reasons why I respect your site as a great source of what MS is up to. Please refer to what I have written above about where im coming from. Anyway keep up the good blogging, ill continue to read.

    Cheers - Aaron

    August 5, 2007 10:14 AM
  • Bob Jones said:

    You didn't realize the iPod has firmware updates?

    I see, seemingly the only way a person can be a Zune advocate is if they're ignorant about everything else. We can further extrapolate that your ignorance extends to operating systems too, and thus, are not qualified to comment on such topics.

    August 5, 2007 12:59 PM
  • Uki Ross said:

    Bob... realy think trice before commenting someones qualifications.

    Well I have my ways with M$ but If such people like mr. McLaws are not qualified to comment M$ products than who is? And I never visit this site looking for objectivity, just some info from the world I'm nota part of (using mostly mac).

    My regards to Mr. McLaws

    August 5, 2007 2:03 PM
  • Bob Jones said:

    I meant his lack of qualifications in making comments about other operating systems, although I question the wisdom of anyone who chooses Windows, as given the more I know about Windows and its underpinnings the more I appreciate Mac OS X.

    August 5, 2007 10:33 PM
  • Uki Ross said:

    Yep OSX is a platform For an incredible soft (say Final cut, shake etc.) and its stability makes it well.... unmatched but.... I belive there are enhusiasts of M$ products too. Why is showing others that "my os is better tahn your os" sych an important thing to some people, get a life, be creative and who cares if it's osx, windows o linux. If someone is sooo deep in M$ things like mr. Robert than well... I belive that he is qualified to make his own statements about their products. And questioning someones wisdom... doesn't give you a good opinion either. just relax and enjoy working with OSX (like Ido :)

    August 6, 2007 3:54 AM
  • Matthew Loraditch said:

    so if it was purchased with your own money, it wasn't really much of a gift was it? :P

    crazy thieving women, stealing all our money! ;)

    August 7, 2007 1:10 PM
  • Fritzly said:

    Just to double check if I understood correctly:

    I can copy songs, not downloaded ones just copied from a CD to the computer, to the Zune and when I get to my second residence transfer it again to another computer?

    TIA

    August 8, 2007 3:17 PM
  • Dave said:

    Didn't know it was out yet, is it better than Halo 2?

    August 9, 2007 11:33 AM
  • August 20, 2007 4:03 PM
  • August 28, 2007 1:37 PM
  • here said:

    Having access to measureless sources touching on this is super.

    September 28, 2007 8:06 AM