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.
While the external design hasn't changed much since the Zune's rebirth late in 2007, the software has undergone more than a few changes and has instantly become much more useful for playing media both on-device and off. The most noticeable change seen in testing has been Microsoft's emphasis on videos. Americans finally have access to a video download store; more immediately useful are sections in offline mode for organizing videos, which are overdue but give all Zunes a definite advantage over most non-Apple players (even some advanced models from SanDisk and other top rivals) for handling tasks other than audio.
Several other changes also do go a long way to boost the software's appeal. Users can finally browse by genre, edit detailed track info after import, and can make smart playlists that add songs as a collection changes. The playlist feature in particular has been around for a few years but is still quite rare in any device that doesn't have its own custom software, and it's a crucial differentiator: a Zune 80 owner can create large playlists that reflect an exact mood, while a Zune 4 owner can create a list just large enough to fit a given collection.
The feature is also key to a new ability to "subscribe" to a fellow Zune user's Zune Card and (if using the Zune Marketplace) buy or download songs that aren't already in a collection. It's something of a gimmick for most, but it does let you discover music you haven't heard without having to spend the time browsing online stores; it's best for Zune Pass subscribers who can download any of these songs outside of any extra charges.
Most of these features translate only indirectly to the actual Zune 80 itself. Like most players, the Zune 80 can't make smart playlists on its own, nor can it automatically download a friend's songs automatically over its own Wi-Fi link. These are both unfortunate, though they're not surprising given that Zune 2.5 is ultimately a mid-year refresh rather than a fundamental overhaul of the players. Nonetheless, the Zune 80 does let you browse by genre, and gapless music playback is present both in the PC software and onboard the handheld proper -- a feature that will no doubt please fans of many electronic and progressive rock artists.
Still, as much as the spring update helps towards establishing Microsoft's credibility as an own-device manufacturer, it does leave a lot to be desired in terms of features. Audiobooks as a whole are still unsupported, and Audible support has been promised but is yet undelivered; there's also no support for protected Windows Media music and video. Amazon MP3 and even iTunes Plus go a long way to expand the choice of pay-only media, but it's still unnecessarily harmful to the online ecosystem to limit the Zune to a single protected format.
Wi-Fi continues to go sorely underused on the Zune with the new update. It's not just the lack of a a Zune Card sync feature; the pre-existing Zune-to-Zune sharing and wireless sync features are too dependent on exact conditions to really be helpful. There are only two million Zune owners and thus few are likely to run into each other to swap songs, while Wi-Fi sync requires a power source and is only truly likely to help owners who regularly cradle a Zune a significant distance away from their PCs.
Along with the new features, the Zune 2.5 upgrade represents the first time the Zune is being sold outside of the US through a Canadian launch (the player should be available as you read this). Most features of the American player and software are functional and even work cross-border: a Canadian user can add an American as a friend on the Zune Social and see each other's tastes in music.
However, Microsoft has unusually chosen to launch the Zune in the country without the Zune Marketplace being ready for the near future. It's an unfortunate move, and while understandable given licensing problems, substantially limits the appeal of the Zune beyond its role as a basic media player. Without special subscription features or access to a protected music store, Canadians will have little choice but to use their own CD collections and a handful of protection-free online stores to load their Zunes. It only serves to underscore the importance of having everything in place for a foreign launch; if a player is truly integrated from top to bottom, that should also include store access.
The Zune 80 can be recommended as an alternative to an iPod classic or the few remaining hard drive players left in the market, though its focus is actually quite different than for the iPod classic it's invariably compared against. It shines best when used primarily for video podcasts, paid TV shows, and other movie formats where there are few (legal) alternatives for short-form clips and visual quality is only a part concern; it's certainly easier to hold this Zune at a distance than Apple's hard drive device.
The Zune 2.5 software update also certainly makes the Zune 80 a credible power user's media player, albeit not in every category. There's now much more control over how songs are fed and presented to the player, although the lack of diverse audio format support (not to mention Linux or Mac support) limits its accessibility.
Even with the improvements made to the Zune 80 since its launch, the device with the Zune 2.5 software still has the unenviable role of having to compete not just against the iPod classic and other large-capacity players but also the iPod touch. Price and storage keep the two isolated for now, with an 8GB iPod touch costing $50 more for a tenth the free space as of this writing; nonetheless, the touchscreen iPod is the metaphorical elephant in the room. It has a larger and higher quality screen, and unquestionably makes better use of Wi-Fi than Microsoft does with the Zune today. A discounted iPod touch could well make or break the decision for a user who wants a device for video above all else.
And no matter what new or better features are built in, the Zune 80 is still largely dependent on Microsoft's ability and willingness to add features independently of new hardware launches. The 2.5 overhaul is a promising sign that the company won't simply remain complacent, but it quite simply can't afford to do anything less. Every Zune still omits features that need to be in place to reach a wider audience. Until the Zune's feature additions are either lock-step with or ahead of those from others, it will be hard to lure customers away from Apple beyond those that don't like either iPods or the iTunes ecosystem.