The Zune 80 is the most capable model but shoehorned between iPods. (June 16th, 2008)
Product Manufacturer: Microsoft
- Very large screen.
- Best non-clickwheel, non-touch control scheme yet.
- Zune 2.5 adds much-needed smart playlist, video, gapless audio support.
- In-canal earbuds included in the box.
- Bigger than iPod, but screen isn't any sharper.
- Sub-par battery life.
- Wi-Fi still significantly underused.
- Zune software still a half-measure: no new formats.
- No Zune Marketplace for Canadians on launch.
- Premium Headphones are simply adequate.
In the past several months since the second generation of Zunes went on sale, Microsoft has been busy addressing longstanding complaints about the Zune and its software: version 2.5 adds auto playlists, gapless playback, and other features that the iPod (and several other players) have had for awhile. With that in mind, we take a quick look at the Zune 80 and the new software not only to see whether they've truly caught up, but also to find out whether this Zune truly stands up against its smaller Zune 4 and 8 cousins.
Zune 80: the feature set and design
Feature-wise, the Zune 80's hardware is a near match for the Zune 4 and 8 that it replaces, and it's recommended that anyone wanting to explore the features in-depth read that review before moving ahead with this one. About the only tangible difference between the two is the Zune 80's support for TV output through an RCA cable connector as well as appropriate video docks; it's similar to similar differences between the iPod nano and iPod classic, but like Apple is a somewhat arbitrary decision to upsell users to the more expensive hard drive players.
Battery life is also slightly stronger, though this unfortunately is one area where Microsoft's technology clearly falls short. Where the iPod classic runs well past its officially rated 30 hours, the Zune 80 in our testing netted closer to 23 hours with Wi-Fi disabled, and 19 with the feature left on. Whether it's the larger screen size, firmware optimizations, or the particular choice of battery is difficult to say. As Microsoft rates its player at the same 30 hours as the Apple device, however, is somewhat unfair to users who have come to expect longevity ratings to represent a real-world minimum.
Many potential buyers will consider the similarity in features a good thing, particularly for the control scheme. The hybrid click- and touch-sensitive directional pad is still one of the best non-iPod interfaces tested here so far and gives both very fine-grained control and fast scrolling for large lists. Complaints still remain -- the scroll method isn't as efficient as a jog wheel, and the position is slightly less comfortable than on the more vertically-oriented flash Zunes -- but it's surprisingly straightforward and pleasant to use.
All the same, it also underscores the relative underuse of the extra screen size afforded by the larger player. The Zune 80's 3.2-inch screen is decidedly larger than both the small 1.8-inch screen of the basic Zune models as well as the 2.5-inch screen of the iPod classic; that makes it a much better candidate for watching videos and for viewing track information from a further distance, but at a 320x240 resolution, the player feels unnecessarily limited. Many newer phones with similar screens have a 400x240 or better resolution at the same size, and the absence of even a slight sharpness increase is odd. The iPod classic's screen may not be any sharper than that of the iPod nano, either, but it also isn't 1.4 inches larger.
That lack of change also turns the Zune 80's screen into a magnification of any flaws that would be partly masked by the very high density of the Zune 4/8 displays. There are times where the low dot pitch of the hard disk model is too obvious, and where the relatively low-color screen tends to magnify banding artifacts and other products of having anything less than a 16.7-million color display. Few players do offer truly color-rich displays, but any jukebox with such a large display and an emphasis on video should have an LCD to match.
It's undoubtedly an understatement to say that this larger screen, combined with the hard drive, makes the Zune 80 much larger. Compared to the smaller player, the full-size player is massive: the entire thickness of our earlier Zune 4 tester is less than that of just the backing for the Zune 80, and the width itself is also that much more noticeable.
The extra girth isn't surprising given the technical demands, and there will continue to be a subset of users that always demand sheer storage (as many as 20,000 songs) over size; however, these larger dimensions don't put the flagship Zune in the most favorable light compared to the iPod classic. Microsoft's device is noticeably thicker, taller, and wider. Both still fit comfortably in a pocket, but if size is an absolute concern, it's clear that the iPod is the more portable offering -- although it should be noted that the Zune's aluminum back is much less scratch-prone than the iPod's chrome and can more safely be used outside of a third-party case.
Aside from the more durable design, the Zune 80 does have an advantage over the iPod with its Premium Headphones, which are some of the few in-canal earbuds to come in the box with most music players. Their usefulness is less than what Microsoft suggests, however. Audio quality is still modest at best compared to the Shure E2Cs and most other in-canal earphones that, while more expensive, are arguably a more justifiable buy for budget audiophiles. The Premium Headphones' chief advantages are simply convenience features such as the magnetic backs (which keep the earbuds together when not in use) and the fabric cable sheath that prevents the tangles of rubber-housed cables.