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.
a note on the Zune's Canadian launch
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.