Microsoft Zune 80 GB
Packaging & Contents
The new Zune packaging is slightly refreshing compared to the recent trend towards that tight plastic that you can't get through with anything short of a plasma cutter or blowtorch. It seems amazing that they can get the player, proprietary USB cable, "premium" headphones, and documentation into such a small package (as evident by the way it never seems to go back together quite as nice as it came), but it works.
I'm again frustrated by the lack of a simple pouch like the one that came with my Sansa e200. Is it seriously that hard to include SOME protection for a device that I just shelled out a quarter of a grand for? Even the new Sansa View which I had in my possession for all of a day went away from this simple yet appreciated accessory. This is especially frustrating when confronted with the lack of current 3rd party accessories available for any of the new Zune players.
The cable, while proprietary, is of decent length compared to the trend towards TINY cables in the industry. They seem to think that everyone has a laptop or that no one puts the tower on the floor anymore because they make the cables way too small to be of use to anyone other than laptop users.
As for the so-called "premium" headphones, they really aren't too bad. If I've said it once here at ABi, I've said it 1000 times, I'm no audiophile. dfkt or Enzo would be much more worthwhile in the headphones/SQ department. But I'll tell you what I've concluded. I don't know if the $40 sticker price is accurate as I feel I get slightly punchier tone from my cheapie Phillips earbuds, but they are certainly refreshing to have instead of the painful, one-size fits none, earbuds you get with most players. As a guitarist, I like to hear the high end screaming leads popping out at me versus the walking bass line. Don't get me wrong, that bass line is important, but I want it to be the accent, not the focus. IMHO, the low end tends to be more pronounced with the Zune phones than with my other phones. Since I'm home for the break, I can't tell you if this is all in the phones, or if part of it is the Zune cause I don't have my other phones around to test them. But I will let you know. The Zune phones come with different size adapters to fit all ears like most aftermarket buds do. The two have magnets that attract each other; nice touch.
The device & interface
Upon opening the box, I was quite pleased with the appearance of the Zune80. As a person who completely hated the design of the original, I wondered how the minor changes would affect my opinion of the aesthetics. The new Zune is a 100% improvement. While the doubleshot of the past added a touch of flair to what otherwise would have been a music playing brick, I always felt it was done as a band-aide to mask the fact that the Zune was boring and bland. The new Zune, with it's matte black front and matte metal back is much more sophisticated that it's 1st gen counterpart. The glass screen cover really makes the LCD pop. I would like to see a dedicated power button in the near future but that's being picky. The player could stand to be a tad thinner, but not Ipod Classic thin. I like the weight and slight girth to the Zune, it makes the player feel substantial and worth the money.
The updated interface is very well done. Although it seems like it's designed for the visually impaired, I can say that it's never hard to read. Ok, almost never. I'd like to see an option to change to dark text for lighter colored backgrounds. The "twist" interface is as efficient as ever. I love the ability to change from "Genre" to "Album" to "Artist" without having to go back a menu. It's a great idea that must make people go "duh!" when they use it for the first time; it's just so intuitive that you wonder why it's not done more often.
The Squircle is a beast. I reiterate what Enzo said in his review, but in general, I have less disdain for touch interfaces than he does. I have always had a soft spot for the iPod's click wheel but was never all that fond of the ZVMs touch strip for some reason. I find the Squircle to be a nice happy medium between the two and it just...works. The comparison to a free spinning wheel is the best I've seen. Similar to the scroll wheel on the new Logitech line of wireless mice. It spins free, the harder you flick, the more it scrolls/spins. Tapping with your finger stops the scrolling. It's great. Sometimes it can go up or down on accident when you try to center click. But you get more accurate with time. And, it's optional! You can turn it off if you hate it...great idea!
Album art is TREMENDOUS. As long as you have loaded your files with high res art, they look amazing with little to no distortion. I have my embedded via mediamonkey and it works like a charm (more on that later). The art easily takes up seemingly 75-85% of the "Now Playing Screen". The rest is black with white text to display tag information and the progress bar. This makes the text MUCH easier to read than the Sansa View's "white text on light blue background" idea. The rating system as we've all heard has gone to a Yay, Nay, or No Opinion system (aka, Heart, Broken Heart, Nothing). Love it or hate it, it can be discussed in the thread around here. I would like the option to go to a more complex rating system, but I don't know if that could ever happen in the future, fingers crossed. Shuffle seems to work much better than on my Sansa e200. Just an observation from the time I've spent with the player.
Video and pictures look very good on the Zune's spacious LCD. I can't really compare the screen to the Ipod or other players since I only have a Sansa, but I am more than satisfied with the quality. I would have no trouble watching videos, even full length movies on the Zune. The FF/RW works very well and very quickly. Though it may be slightly difficult to stop accurately at a certain section. The ability to customize the background is a nice touch that I was never afforded on the Sansa (no, custom theming doesn't count! :-P).
Radio is great with RDS being a VERY nice touch. I wish I could somehow scan inbetween the strongest stations, or at least set the sensitivity level. There are some local stations that come in strong enough to listen to, but they are not detected by the Zune cause it's looking for the absolute strongest stations. That's a slight bummer. Maybe allow the user to flick for a "strongest station seek" and click for a incremental change.
I have not used the wifi yet, so I know not of it's usefulness, speed, or effectiveness.
Frustratingly enough, the Zune has to be "unlocked" before you can do anything with it. This means you need an internet connection. You have to download the software (it does not come bundled with the player). After the initial frustration, the rest of the experience went fairly smooth. I prefer media libraries like the former Yahoo! Jukebox or WMP9 or even Itunes. Just gimme a plain, old fashioned list. The Zune software goes the way of the new WMP from which it is based and gives you dimensional lists, as i like to call them. Don't click on anything and you see all songs and all albums. Click on an artist to see only their songs/albums. Click on an album to see only songs from that album. It's ok; just not my personal taste.
Basically, this means that for me, the Zune software is only for syncing the Zune and it will NOT be my media player of choice. But it DOES sync the player well. My only problem was with multiple albums called "Unknown". I think it had to do with having the option selected to Apply missing album information, but when I sync'd the first time, all artists that had tracks with "Unknown" in the album tag were sync'd with the same album art (oddly enough, the Zune chose Will Smith's Willenium art. I do this when I have songs from mixtapes, or bootlegs that don't really have an album. I fixed this by turning off the update tags option and fixed the art on my own via MM. Which brings me to a pretty cool discovery. With the Zune software and MM open, the Zune will update as I updated tags in MM. So when I add art to an album, the software will sense the change and those files will automatically update. This saves me from having to wait till I'm done and then sync a few hundred files all at the same time. So when I'm done update the art, I'm literally already done updating the player. Very nice!
I did add pictures to the player with no problem. I have not added videos cause I really don't have any videos to add yet. If it goes as easy as the music, I'll be really happy.
The new Zune80 is a gigantic step in the right direction for Microsoft in it's attempt to challenge Apple and even Creative for a share of the market. With Creative's abandoning of the hard drive market, Microsoft is in great position to take some of the market since Apple seemingly mailed it in the with new Classic so they could focus on the Nano, Touch, and iPhone. Adding an option for darker menu text on at least the main screen when using a light background is just a personal request. Allowing for an incremental radio seek would be nice for those of use with some stations that are not quite crystal clear but still "listen-able". In addition, I'd kill for a pouch! Something free to protect the player in the slightest way, or at least some good third party cases. An equalizer would be nice too, but I probably wouldn't use it. Also, the option for a more complex rating system would be nice. I'm worried that we may not see a third generation HD Zune because of the seemingly daily leaps in flash technology. By next year, we could have some high capacity flash Zunes and the large screened Zune could be a thing of the past. With such a vast improvement over the original, I'd love to see what MS could do with a third rendition. Either way, I'm extremely happy with my Zune80 and I'm hoping it will last me until the time when we have cheap 128gb, large screened, flash Zunes to review!
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