Thanks to friend of the blog/podcast Ken I now have a 30 GB Microsoft Zune on indefinite loan. I got it the day before Thanksgiving. Because of all the videos I had in my backlog it took two days of syncing and transcoding for it to be completely ready to go. I started actually using it on Sunday and have some thoughts on it.
As a point of reference for people who haven’t been paying attention or are drive-bys, I have never owned a hard drive based iPod. I had never owned an MP3 player until the podcast era, and I suffered through the first six months of it without any player at all. Since then I have owned in order: a 512 MB iPod Shuffle (broke twice, once under warrantee); a 512 MB mobiBLU cube (broke); a used 512 MB Lexar LDP (never really used and now is DOA and won’t power on); a 4 GB Creative Zen V Plus. The last is the only one that played video and the only one that still works.
First, a rundown of pros and cons. Here’s what I like about the Zune:
- The screen is quite nice for watching video
- The playout to a TV also works fine and is quite watchable
- I can’t really think of another thing
The downsides are plentiful:
- The UI is not very good, and requires navigating in places that it really shouldn’t
- The podcasting support is not only ridiculous, but is a value subtraction – more on that later
- The wifi sharing is useless since I’ve never once seen another person with a Zune
- Neither videos nor audio marked as podcasts can be put in playlists
- The videos require transcoding to WMV format, and some fraction of them result in unplayable files on my device. I’m not as bothered as some by the transcoding process, which seems fairly transparent and which I score a draw
- It’s pretty clunky and ugly, as some have remarked it seems like the kind of MP3 player the Soviets would have invented
- The fast forwarding is not progressive, ie it doesn’t get faster as you go along so going to minute 60 of a 80 minute file takes forever
- Only podcasts and videos can be resumed, regular audio files can’t and there is no bookmarking functionality that I can find
- The management application is pretty flawed and setting up and editing playlists is really cumbersome
- The delay going from file to file is noticeable. When playing songs that should be gapless, it pauses up to 5 seconds going from one to the other
Like I said in Twitter a few days after getting it, “This is not an iPod killer. It’s not even an iPod hurter.”
Since I use this almost exclusively for podcast listening, you’d think I’d be happy that it has podcasting support “baked in.” Well, I’m not. There are three classes of files on the Zune, “Songs”, “Video” and “Podcasts” with the last having audio and video subclasses. You can add songs to a playlist, nothing else. You can resume videos and podcasts, not songs. The weird discrepancies in what you can do from different classes of files is puzzling because it makes the way the device handles change from file to file. Worst of all, I can’t find any sort of way to do continuous playback of files it marks as podcasts. It’s worse than just having to navigate with the device from show to show. You have to do it between every single episode even within the same series. Considering that I and most people who listen to pocasts do it in part or entirely while they are driving, having to constantly futz with the player to get to the next file is a complete no go.
Now, in an apparent effort to be helpful, the Zune software will mark as a podcast anything you have downloaded externally if the ID3 genre tag is set to “Podcast.” This means that the stuff I had downloaded went about 80% into the audio file collection and 20% into the podcast category. It was so annoying that I had to turn the Zune software off, download the files, and run a script that set every genre tag to something other than “Podcast” in order to prevent them from automatically added to the podcast section.
There is a podcast directory component of the Zune marketplace that seems like a complete clone of iTunes. It’s hard to search, not very complete at this point and generally cumbersome. I know Rob Greenlee is in charge of this portion of the project but as it stands today I can’t imagine it being useful to anybody. Even if it was, picking something to subscribe to means it will come down in the unusable portion of the device and thus I don’t really want to do it.
My brother was telling me how cool he finds it that the iPhone and iPod touch both know their orientation and adjust accordingly. The Zune is the opposite. When you play a video, it switches from portrait to landscape automatically. When the video ends, you are back at the UI always because it won’t play continuously. However, it automatically goes back to portrait which leaves you looking at it sideways like a dolt. You can either turn the device, navigate to another video and turn it again or you can operate the UI sideways. Neither of these are great user experiences. Why the hell doesn’t the UI turn sideways until you leave video mode? Why doesn’t it just play the next video unless you stop it? Either would be more satisfying than the way it is. I am, however, getting caught up on my Something to be Desired which is a positive.
Here’s what they could do to make me happier. Make both video files and podcasts playlistable, so they could be set up for continuous playback in an order I specify and make the track to track transitions happen seamlessly. Improve the playlist handling of the management application. The way Creative does it is just fine, look at that and copy it. The former seems like it could be easy to fix in firmware without even being that dramatic.
I got so frustrated with the audio handling that I decided to continue to use the Zune to watch the videoblogs I’m subscribed to but to go back to my Creative Zen for audio podcasts. Being able to just set up my playlist on a tiny device and listen to them was such a relief after trying to make the Zune do what I wanted. It was only 4 days but it seemed like so much more. That’s right, the biggest joy I got from it was when I stopped using it. Now mind you, for video it is way easier than the Zen plus has a screen of much higher resolution and much larger size. Now I’m doing the two device thing. I watch videos on it at my desk at lunch or on the couch at home, which is pretty much it.
Here’s a write up on the deficiencies of the Zune. What I noticed and find hilarious is that one guy wonders why, if the Zune is so bad why were people stampeding to get them? What he fails to point out is that the 30 GB regularly $250 MSRP devices were on sale for $79.99. That’s much cheaper than the cost of the components, I’m sure. I’m pretty happy with it as a video only device for free but even at free, not happy enough to continue using it as a podcast listening device. Had I paid $250 for this device, I’d be outside Steve Ballmer’s office with a pitchfork and a torch trying to storm it with a mob. I’d love to see Rob Greenlee whip their podcast support into shape because as it is presently, it would be better if all of it was removed.
My final analysis: At $80 for the 30 gigabyte version, it is a marginal buy. At $250, you should not even consider it.