Review: Zune 4 nearly the iPod's true rival

Microsoft comes close, does not take the crown (November 20th, 2007)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: $149 (4GB), $199 (8GB)

The Good

  • Genuinely easy control pad and software.
  • Tougher design than the iPod.
  • Podcast support and expanded audio/video formats.
  • FM radio and Wi-Fi sync handy (if limited) extras.

The Bad

  • Proprietary: no Mac support, no non-Zune DRM or software
  • Battery life, earbuds, and screen are slightly worse than iPod's.
  • Marketplace and Social features are underdeveloped.

unboxing and design: the first hints of improvement

Better a well-made imitation than a poor original, many people say: that certainly seems the case on first unpacking the Zune. Without retreading too much of the ground covered by my first impressions, the Zune box is an example of where following Apple's lead helps. The multi-layered box has an elaborate but uncluttered layout that makes the first opening a minor event. There are no painful blister-seal packs or ugly twist ties here: even the cabling is held together by recyclable paper.



A fully unpacked Zune box: guides, USB cable, earbuds, and earbud covers


However, the attention should rightly be on the Zune itself, and thankfully Microsoft has devoted much of its attention here as well. The original Zune 30 has a slightly rubberized "double-shot" plastic finish that, while durable, is not especially elegant or thick. With the flash Zune, Microsoft has learned its lesson, albeit from an obvious source. The Zune 4 and 8 share the same plastic front, metal back philosophy of the original iPod nano and are only slightly thicker at almost exactly a third of an inch. They carry an upscale, well-made look and are nothing to be ashamed of when taken out of a pocket, though I suspect the somewhat sickly green color option will match the Zune 30's infamous brown in terms of buyer's remorse.

Wisely, though, Microsoft chose not to make the same mistakes as Apple has done with its first- and third-generation models. The back of the Zune is anodized aluminum and makes a real difference for carrying the device without a case. Where Apple's chrome backing scratches almost instantly, my Zune's back is the same as it was when it first shipped. The advantage disappears on switching to the front, but it should be noted that Microsoft's plastic front and scratch-proof glass hold up about as well as the aluminum and glass for the iPod nano.



The Zune's refined (if simple) plastic front




Its aluminum back


The whole design feels sturdy without becoming heavy, and is easy to use. While this review will go into further detail about the controls soon, the tall but narrow design is genuinely comfortable and is easy to use without directly looking at it. Compare this to another would-be iPod challenger, the Creative's ZEN: the latter has four separate buttons besides the directional pad, some of which can be hard to reach and are less than intuitive than Microsoft's simple "back" and play/pause buttons. If there is a complaint about the design on a superficial level, it would simply be that Microsoft chose the safe route of imitating the iPod nano's design too conspicuously, even if its changes are either welcome (the aluminum back) or necessary due to patent law (the absence of a click wheel).



The familiar-looking bottom of the Zune


the user interface and the Zune Pad: two giant leaps

As much as iPod advocates like to tout the simplicity of the Apple player's software, the design is extremely hierarchical: if you have second thoughts, switching to a different album or a podcast often requires several clicks to back out of and delve back into the menu.

Since last year's launch of the Zune 30, clearing this hurdle has been one of Microsoft's strong points; regardless of whether you agree with the concept of requiring separate "back" and "play" buttons, the Zune interface has from day one made it easier to jump between categories by tapping left or right and scrolling through menus using solely up or down controls. This provides an easier way of glancing at a list without having to back out, and even helps avoid clutter: the podcast section (new to the Zune 2.0 firmware) lets you flip back and forth between audio and video podcasts with a single click, which is just not possible with the iPod.



The podcast section in the Zune interface


On the original Zune, however, this was partly an attempt to shore up the device's most glaring hardware flaw: its deceptively circular control pad. Perhaps one of Microsoft's least subtle attempts to ride on another firm's success, it resembles an iPod's click wheel but only works as a slow and not especially flexible keypad. While it can be held down to scroll, it ultimately leaves the Zune 30 feeling like an old iPod rival from 2003 rather than 2006.

The Zune 4, 8, and 80 fix this in one fell swoop with the Zune Pad. The surface essentially works as a hybrid directional pad and touchpad and really does appear to offer the best of both worlds. Clicking an edge advances it one step at a time, making it perfect for small lists and menus; but in large lists, it responds to gliding or swiping motions that let you reach a particular point in a list far more quickly. In combination with the menus, it makes using the Zune 4/8 almost trivially easy to use: it can move as quickly or as slowly as you like. While not necessarily better than an iPod nano, it lands much closer to the Apple experience than just about any previous device I have tested.

Having said this, there are a few issues with the interface that may irk some users, especially those contemplating a switch from an iPod. The updated Zune firmware is very easy to read, with oversized fonts, but also seems to prize form over function at times: unlike the iPod, users cannot see every option at once from the main menu. Many of the categories in submenus are also hidden by the larger fonts and will need to be memorized before they become familiar. The firmware is also somewhat slow to respond in places. Taking the device out of hold at the main menu takes a few seconds versus the near-instant wake of the iPod, and some transition effects clearly show frame rate drops. You also cannot simply click on an individual song or video and play immediately: Microsoft first provides a menu for extra play options, like adding a quick list, and can be slightly jarring to iPod converts expecting immediate play.

The "now playing" view is a mixed offering. While it makes better use of the screen area -- album art fills the screen instead of the small portrait on the iPod -- the time elapsed/remaining numbers are written in a dark gray text that becomes almost impossible to read when the backlight is turned off. The progress bar is also harder to read without a deliberate glance.



The "now playing" view for music and podcasts


And as helpful as the Zune Pad may be, the controller is prone to mistakes. An unintentional brush against the side may register as a movement, and a tap to the center (which acts as a select button) sometimes generates the same effect. Apple's click wheel is generally more accident-proof. Thankfully, Microsoft allows users to turn the touch-sensitivity off if it becomes too much of a problem.

audio and video playback quality

The onboard chipset for the new Zune is very capable of reproducing high quality sound, but nothing special: in my comparison tests using Shure E2C earbuds, the Zune may occasionally produce slightly less detail than the iPod but tends to be slightly louder at 50 percent volume. The latter may be helpful for particularly high-end earphones that need more power to generate bass without losing their accuracy. One helpful addition is support for Windows Media Lossless files, which should help audio purists match the quality of Apple Lossless or FLAC formats on rival devices.

Unfortunately, Microsoft here has skimped on costs and saddles the flash Zune with a very basic set of earbuds. With a good fit, the buds are serviceable, but only just; there are far better earbuds available for relatively little, and I suggest most users trade up. Tauntingly, Microsoft's own Premium Headphones ($40) produce much better sound and actually come as standard with the Zune 80 -- an important consideration for the cost-conscious who are still interested in paying extra for worthwhile audio.



Default earbuds for the Zune 4 and 8


Microsoft claims FM radio as one of the Zune's advantages, but the usefulness of this addition is mixed: it can be convenient when an album finishes before you reach home, but like any portable radio, the reception is less than perfect on this smallest Zune. While sometimes reception was clear, at other moments it would refuse to pick up known good stations or would produce interference that might not have been audible with speakers or a stationary radio.



Tuning radio on the Zune


Video is also slightly tarnished by cost decisions. While the new Zune thankfully adds native H.264 video playback and will even play DVD-quality (720x480) video, the output itself is less than ideal. I noticed visible blockiness, color banding, and dithering effects in several videos, especially in dark scenes. The 1.8-inch screen is extremely sharp -- the same 320x240 as many larger players -- but it becomes clear that size comes at the expense of accuracy. And while the size is acceptable for music videos and short video podcasts, even the 2-inch iPod nano screen is better for long-form clips. TV Out is not an option on these smaller Zunes.



Watching video on the flash Zune


wi-fi: better, but still a waste

The irony of Microsoft's "social" theme for the Zune's wireless feature on launch is that it has rarely been useful. Unless living near Microsoft's Redmond campus or in a major US city, the Zune-to-Zune local sharing feature has often been superfluous: more often than not, users stare at a blank "nearby" list. Moreover, the sharing restrictions also discourage all but the lightest use. Even with relaxed rules, the automatic application of a three-play DRM limit on even unprotected files shared over the network means that bands cannot expect to give away their music through the Zune or expect much additional airplay.



What users often see when looking for nearby Zunes


This year, Microsoft has added Wi-Fi sync to the equation, though it too has its limits: for the feature to work, users have to both plug the Zune into a power source (such as the official dock) and manually start the sync process. Admittedly, this can be useful for an owner that plugs the Zune into a dock near a stereo or keeps a power charger near the door for a quick exit, but it defeats some of the convenience of the feature. There is no way to set up the Zune to automatically download new podcasts, for example, and a user hoping to quickly add a new album to the mix with the Zune still in their hand have no choice but to plug in.

Internet-based features are almost entirely absent: aside from an inbox for messages from the Zune's social network (more on this soon), Wi-Fi is once again only used for local features. Without a way to browse the Zune Marketplace or any other online content, the Zune's signature feature will almost certainly be turned off minutes after opening the box.

the new Zune PC software, the Marketplace, and the Social

Microsoft has at least made significant strides with its use of the Internet for the Zune's PC side. The original software was fairly crude, but the new software is sleek and arguably more attractive than iTunes, especially for new users. There are few ambiguities as to what you see or what is happening at any given moment; unlike Apple's software, it will show the progress of a sync or a CD rip even while playing music or browsing the Marketplace.



Viewing content on the Zune in the PC interface


There are limits. No smart playlists are available in the initial release; the software is also clearly biased towards albums and does not let you choose music by the genre or view the individual progress of a download without first visiting that section. There is also no minimized mode that displays track info from the taskbar. But as an everyday front-end to music, the Zune software is certainly functional and may even be desirable for those tired of Windows Media Player or the poor substitutes that often come with other devices. Unfortunately, Microsoft has not made a Mac client and is not expected to change its attitude anytime soon -- a stance which, while understandable, may prevent a few sales of Zunes to whatever base of Mac users might exist that is frustrated with the iPod.

The Marketplace is a strange mix of extreme detail and glaring omissions. Microsoft's catalog is far smaller than Apple's at about 3 million songs versus 6 million, but is also far cleaner and is almost obsessive in its attention to music: a visitor to the electronic section, for example, can drill down to sub-genres such as breakbeat or techno and find a ready-made list of recommended titles. Some artists also have rare EPs, while others are offered DRM-free that would normally be protected on iTunes. However, the sheer lack of albums (or any video content) will leave some users to ripping their own collection instead; as before, the Zune does not support any protected format except for the Zune Marketplace, locking the Zune out from Napster and other stores using Microsoft's own Windows Media DRM scheme.



An individual artist page in the Zune Marketplace.


Podcast support is a long-awaited addition to the Zune hardware and software, and for the most part it works much as does Apple's solution: users can brows a directory of podcasts Microsoft provides online, add their own, and sync it automatically with the player. Aside from the lack of a dedicated download meter, it works seamlessly.

I do have issues with Microsoft's new Social service, however. Effectively replicating the gamer cards and service from Xbox Live, the Social is supposed to let users compare their music tastes and interact with each other. While this may occasionally be a bonus, the competitive spirit that makes Xbox Live so successful is not present with the Zune and reduces the incentive to link friends to your Zune Card (profile) or embed it in a blog, except perhaps to brag about a very eclectic taste in music. The service also has problems recognizing music to add to your Zune Card: in several days of use, virtually none of the albums I ripped were posted on my profile despite being recognized in the software with full album art and track titles.

battery life and photo support

For a company which pushes its wireless features so strongly, Microsoft is unusually hesitant to post battery life for any of its players with Wi-Fi turned on. It may be that the results are less than flattering: with wireless left on but unused, my flash Zune's battery life dropped from its rated 24 hours (with wireless off) to 15 hours, 15 minutes while doing little else besides shuffling songs. A user actively sharing files could expect less; regardless, long-haul travelers should simply turn the Zune's wireless off if they plan to be away from a computer or a charger for more than two days.

This is somewhat disappointing. While the iPod nano does not have the choice of wireless in the first place, it does have a larger screen and a thinner profile that should in theory reduce its battery life; in testing, however, it actually exceeds official claims by several hours. The iPod touch is difficult to compare, but does use its extra size (and cost) to last longer than the flash-based Zune in real conditions.

Image viewing on the Zune is at least strong, if close to that of the original Zune. Slideshows are relatively simple compared to the iPod, as transition effects are limited to dissolves, but there are far more options as to what can be done with a given shot: besides sharing over wireless, users can zoom into any shot for a closer view or set it as a background for the entire interface. Even the iPhone and iPod touch are limited to seeing their wallpaper in only a few circumstances. Microsoft could learn a lesson from Apple, however, by including an accelerometer in the Zune: the device always insists on viewing photos from a landscape view, which forces owners to tilt the Zune on its side even for tall portrait shots. This is far from a deal-breaker, but worth noting for artists who regularly carry their own work.



Browsing the top level of the photo library


the final question: is it time to buy a Zune?

It would be easy to criticize Microsoft for more consciously chasing after iPod owners with the Zune 4 and 8, especially as the new models bear an uncanny resemblance to Apple's now discontinued second-generation model. In some regards, this is accurate: for now, the Zune's distinctive wireless remains underused, if less of a gimmick than it has been. The Social and Zune Marketplace are also less than ideal and feel like they are built for a stereotypical indie music fan in place of a wider audience.

Microsoft is also regrettably persuaded that capturing the iPod's success also involves imitating Apple's proprietary copy protection format and software. Conditions have improved with the advent of MP3 purchases, but if the Zune succeeds it will hurt Microsoft's own partners the most -- those that trusted Microsoft to support them with PlaysForSure. MTV's URGE store (which formed the basis for the early Zune Marketplace) is already a casualty of this.

There is also the ethical question of supporting the new Zunes knowing that Microsoft is likely paying Universal a royalty for each device regardless of whether or not customers ever buy music from the label themselves.

In spite of these factors, the new flash Zune is a pleasant surprise and genuinely benefits from most of Microsoft's development efforts over the past year, even if some of them are clearly reactions to Apple's designs. At least in black, the new Zune is attractive, durable, and finally easy to use in both hardware and software. It is also second only to Apple in terms of podcast management; this is one of the few players outside of the iPod line that I can recommend to Windows users who virtually depend on podcasts to get through work or a commute.

There are clear areas where Microsoft could have improved the design: a better screen, better battery life, stronger wireless features, and a few minor interface changes would have helped the device fare better against the newest iPod generation. With these in mind, however, the new flash Zunes (and to some extent, the Zune 80) have made giant strides compared to the Zune 30 and are certainly more capable than many of the players that sit nearby on store shelves.

by Jonathan Fingas


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