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.
Zune 2.5 software and the Zune 80 firmware
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.