Thoughts on the Zune

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
  • Ummmm
  • Yeah
  • 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.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Zune”

  1. while you’re on the topic, I saw this the other day – the zune battery life sucks too 🙂

  2. dave says:

    That 22 hours without wifi is for audio only. I can personally attest that with this nearly brand new, barely used Zune fully charged at 6 AM I could not get a full day of listening plus an hour of video at lunch. By the end of the work day it was almost pooped out and couldn’t play audio for the drive home.

  3. Rachel says:

    If you’re really into podcasts maybe try the ibiza Rhapsody.

  4. Ken Kennedy says:

    Awesome review, Dave. Sounds like we’re close to same place w/ it. I think I /could/ have used it as a vcast device, but the obstacles MS threw in the way (transcoding everything, special software, yada yada), ultimately made it too much of a PITA for me. Luckily, though, I got it as a conference goodie (by far the biggest one I’ve ever gotten, and one I was very uncomfortable about taking until my boss assured me there was no issue). So I’m not out the $250 either.

    On the positive side, watching you work at it HAS gotten me back into watching videos…on Miro (desktop) and my Nokia 770. I LOVE the Nokia…it’s only downside is only 500MB RS-MMC card, so media management is more of a task. And I’m really glad you’re getting enjoyment out of it; your blog and podcast have been a huge positive in my life for years now, and the Zune is a trade I’m happy to make in return. Here’s to many more years of blogposts, podcasts, and other geeky fun!

  5. Alex Klein says:

    Just wondering if you were using a Zune 30 with the old Zune1.0 software or with the new Zune2.0 software.

    If it was the old one, a lot of stuff has changed.

  6. Rob Greenlee says:


    We realize that Zune’s podcasting support needs many improvements. I appreciate your review and feedback on it. We are in the planning stages for next generation and improvements to the current podcast experience. I have been here just 7 weeks and most of the current podcasting implementation was completed prior to me starting here. We do have some very smart people here working on the podcasting experience. Keep in mind that we are just getting started with podcast support in the Zune.

    Sure, we are trying to catch-up to Apple’s 3+ year lead, but we are going to innovate and improve on the competitive experience. All I ask is that you keep an open mind about the Zune efforts at creating a competitive podcast offering. This process will take us some time to do.

    Rob Greenlee
    Zune Podcast Programming Lead

  7. dave says:

    Rachel, that device looks every bit as usable as you’d expect from a media player designed by a refrigerator company.

    Ken, thanks for this device. Despite my pan on the podcast front (currently), I think it really is an awesome video device.

    Alex, both the management software and the Zune firmware should be as up to date as possible. I had no CDs so everything came from the website a week ago.

    Rob, I appreciate the position you are in and have every confidence in you. I will definitely stay abreast of the advances and keep an open mind. I truly want to love this device and will as soon as it lets me. I’m happy to beta test if you have pre-release stuff you want feedback on. Thanks for taking this in the spirit I intended it. We go around about once a year, but I have great respect for you. Hope you knock this one out of the park!

  8. Danny says:

    The Zune does have a lot of room for improvement before it is ready to be my only media device, no question. The handling of podcasts per Rob’s comments above is a prime example. But this is MSFT’s way. They come into a market late, pattern the competition by iteration, and ultimately deliver a very solid Windows version of almost any product. I bought my Zune for $90 from and would, like you, be ready to have someone’s head if I’d been foolish enough to pay a penny more. And yea I too only use it for video podcasts. For now. But there are a few features you failed to mention that show a lot of promise IMO.

    With the updated firmware, I can walk into my house after work and with a couple of clicks set my Zune to sync with my wi-fi and it will, while I change clothes and clean up, download all of the new video podcasts that were added during the day while I was away. There is no other portable media device to my knowledge that can do this and it is a feature that I treasure. This allows me to plop down on the couch having never docked or even neared my PC and watch, via RSS feeds, all the tech news as well as local and national news casts that have been aired just hours before.

    You may not have an XBOX 360 but if you did, there is another level of features that allow you to share media with your XBOX or the XBOX of others. Old farts like you and I may yawn at this but the kiddies are all about this kind of communication as a platform. Pure speculation on my part, but I believe that the Zune will interface with the Windows Home Server in the next version.

    I would also point out that you can set the Zune software to watch any folder on your PC and sync accordingly. So you can continue to use your favorite PC-based podcatching software and, if the software is smart enough to automatically set ID3 tags such as genre, avoid playback issues. Of course I totally agree that the inability to create podcast playlists is ridiculous. They missed an easy to code and very useful feature with that one.


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