So I gots me a Zune for Christmas after having some bad luck with Ipods throughout 2009. Actually, I had really good luck with my Ipod for 4 years, (you can read about that here) but when it finally went to Ipod heaven its new generation of replacements were cursed. The first one was stolen within 6 weeks, and the second one stopped working properly – the flywheel shorted out and even though it actually worked the sound would only work if you held your finger on the flywheel just so – basically, for all intents and purposes, it didn’t work. To be fair, it was a used/refurbished Ipod, but it worked fine for over a month and then suddenly one day it pulls this crap – so on one hand, I don’t blame Apple, but on the other hand, well they’re totally to blame. How does something work fine one day and just stop working the next? And that’s not even getting into the nightmare that is Quicktime which has taken over my computer multiple times with every install of Itunes.
Anyway, having had my fill of Ipod’s and Apple for a while I asked Santa for a Zune and Mrs. Smirk and the kids bought me one. So, I thought I’d do a little write-up about what I think about the Zune after a few months of use.
Note: When comparing the Zune to the Ipod, I intend the comparison to be against the Ipod Classic models and not the Ipod Touch. The Ipod Touch is a nifty little machine that does all kinds of stuff that neither the Zune nor the Ipod Classics can do, however the Ipod Touch’s limited hard-drive space make it something that, for me, is not really going to cut it. The Ipod touch’s web browsing capabilities are amazing, but that being said, the two people I know really well who have Ipod Touches after only a few months rarely use them and have reverted back to the their Ipod Classics almost exclusively for managing their music collections and listening to tunes. The largest Ipod touch is 32 Gigs for about $300. My particular Zune is 120 Gigs for just over $200, with Ipod classics also falling into that price-range.
Bottom line? Well there’s actually two parts to the bottom line, the machine and then the software, so we’ll go ahead and take them in that order.
Bottom Line #1: The Zune machine is awesome! It does everything a classic Ipod does, plus more! It has an AM/FM radio, and the higher end models actually have an HD radio tuner built in. Frequently I ‘ve been listening to an NPR report on the car radio and have arrived at my destination only to have to exit the car and miss the end of the report or whatever I was listening to. Not anymore with the Zune. I just pop the headphones on and throw the FM tuner onto NPR and leave the car without missing a thing.
The Zune screen is also much larger. So much larger in fact that while playing video on the Zune you actually turn it horizontal so that widescreen videos truly have the entire screen to fill up. I’m not a big fan of watching video on tiny machines, but I have to admit, the always funny College Humour videos are completely watchable on the Zune while I’m treadmilling which they weren’t on the Ipod. Both Mrs. Smirk and the kids will watch entire movies on their Ipods and I don’t know how they do it. Even the Zune’s considerably larger screen is still too small for me to devote a whole movie to. But, at nearly twice the size, the Zune does make it possible whereas I always thought of the Ipod Classics video capabilities as more of a novelty than a really usable feature.
To quote Ron Jeremy: “I prefer to be watched on a Zune so people get the whole enchilada…” (Actually Ron Jeremy didn’t say that, but I bet he would if I asked him to.)
Instead of a flywheel the Zune uses a large directional pad/button right in the center which sort of reminds me of the pad on the original Nintendo controller. This giant button, reacts to up, down, left, right and center presses. It also, like the Ipod flywheel, is touch sensitive. With gentle brushes of your finger you can go up and down left and right. The problem with this is that I kept accidentally turning the volume up and down or switching songs when I didn’t mean to. Well, problem solved, Zune allows you to turn the touch sensitivity off – which I did. Ultimately the Ipod’s flywheel is better, but the Zune’s navigation is entirely workable so its pretty much 6 of one, half-dozen of the other.
Bottom Line #2: The Zune software pretty much sucks! It’s slow, buggy, and hesitates constantly. When I open it, like Itunes it automatically begins downloading podcasts and such and when I close it, well it appears closed until I go to shut down the computer and Windows informs me that Zune is still running and unless I manually tell it to close the program the computer won’t shut down. Itunes is a great piece of software to manage your media library, the Zune software, however, is not. It actually does a great job of organizing, but the program is just so large and unwieldy that often just moving the mouse from one menu to another is a 10 second process. And as far as trying to click on anything, even just to page down the list of songs, often Zune doesn’t even react. Now, my computer may not be the latest and greatest thing, but it always ran Itunes just fine so I’m not going to worry about my specs. If Zune expects to compete with Itunes it should run on the exact same computers that Itunes currently runs on, non-bugged.
The fact that the Zune software is such a nightmare is a double shame as a ton of the ideas built into it would be really fun to enjoy. For instance, when you do play your music on your computer using the software it will pull images of the artist and display them full-screen on your monitor like a visual scrapbook of sorts.
In short, instead of being able to use the software as it was intended, I only use it to manage the actual Zune machine.
That being said, unlike the Ipod, the Zune software has managed to convert all of my Divx/AVI video files for play on the Zune automatically. Apple, perhaps sensing the superiority of the Divx/AVI video format, will not allow the files on to its machines and anybody who wants them on their Ipod will have to download a third-party converter and convert them one by one. (And for anybody who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, feel free to visit http://www.stagevu.com and check out the video selections. If you don’t already have the software on your computer you can download it at http://www.divx.com ) Special Note: The Zune software does not at first want to convert these files for play on its machine. The trick is to leave your player plugged into your computer during the sync process for several hours. As it begins to sync the files it will convert them. It is a long process so you do need to leave your machine plugged in for, literally, hours.
I also wanted to mention that one of my real worries when I switched from Ipod to Zune was how easily my music collection would transfer. Fortunately this was a breeze. Once I downloaded and installed the Zune software it automatically searched my computer for media files and imported them into its database. Done and done. Awesome. Also, whenever I download new music from random places on the internet I merely put the file into the “My Music” folder and within a few moments the Zune software finds it and it moves automatically to my player. This is opposed to Itunes with which I had to manually import the file to the software and it would not automatically sense it.
Lastly, the real loss for Microsoft here is that they are trying to make Zune not just a personal music player and media manager software application, but an entire media-centric brand. On Xbox Live all of their movie and music downloads are coming from the Zune marketplace. In short, Microsoft is trying like hell to catch up to Apple’s marketing prowess. The Zune media player is a superior music player to the Ipod Classic, but the Ipod Touch stole any spotlight it might have had. Furthermore, the horrendously slow software could be a deal-breaker for a lot of the potential buyers. Basically, the only ace that Microsoft has in their hand right now as far as the Zune brand goes is the Xbox. A serious re-working of the Zune software is definitely in order – or at least maybe a “lite” version of the software that doesn’t have so many bells and whistles but would actually run on any computer out there, XP and up, quickly and efficiently.
In closing, I would completely recommend the Zune over the Ipod Classic hands down. The file transfer process was painless and easy. And as long as you’re fine using the Zune software only to manage your player, like myself, you’ll be more than satisfied. However, if you are the sort of Ipod person who is constantly using the Itunes to play, buy and toy with your media collection, you may find the Zune software a poor substitute.
I do think that when I upgrade to a more powerful computer with Windows 7 (I’m currently on XP) that some of my software problems will cease, but like I said, if Microsoft really hopes to compete it’s software should run just as well, if not better than Itunes. And since Itunes has always run perfectly fine, I think its fair to expect that so should Zune.
Here’s some random stuff:
Microsoft always has cool artists and animators working on its stuff. When you first buy a Zune this ultra cool 45 second intro video is on it.
Likewise, when Microsoft updated their Xbox 360 Dashboard in November of 2008, you downloaded the update and then the machine restarted and this awesome animation was the first thing you saw:
I actually also still vividly recall the Windows XP launch commercial featuring Madonna’s Ray of Light back in 2001. Admit it, XP blew yer socks off back in the day:
Lastly, here’s a neato Microsoft ad that blends live action and animation similar to the Zune and 360 videos.
Apple always seems to get credit for vague unmarketable things like “creativity” and “freedom”, but Microsoft doesn’t seem to be stingy in hiring the best artists and creative thinkers to market and display their products. Apple needs to suck it. I totally support you, – yes YOU, reader – going into your nearest Apple store and re-arranging all their bizarro, life-size, cardboard cut-outs of store clerks into perverted positions.