Product Review: Microsoft Zune


Microsoft’s Zune Takes on the iPod, and doesn’t lose.

First things first: the Microsoft Zune™ is a rival to a little machine you may have heard of called the iPod.

Aha. The iPod. How ironic that Microsoft — subject of antitrust lawsuits over the overwhelming market share of its PC operating system Windows — is now struggling for a foothold in the marketplace dominated by the mighty iPod. From a market-share standpoint, Microsoft’s Zune is to Apple’s iPod as Apple’s Mac OS is to Microsoft Windows.

But enough about market share. What exactly is the Zune, is it any good, and should it be considered a real apples-to-apples (heh) alternative to an iPod?

The Zune boasts a couple of advantages over iPod Video; you’ll have to decide how much value they offer to you.

Introduced last November, Microsoft’s Zune is a portable media player. Key features include a 30GB hard drive (at an average encoding rate of 128kbps — a.k.a. quality “good enough for pop” — that means storage of about ten thousand songs), a beautiful and crisp three-inch QVGA (320×240) color screen, and Wi-Fi connectivity. Roughly the size of a deck of playing cards, the Zune includes a USB cable (for data transfer and charging via PC) and earbud-style headphones (which cleverly include magnets to hold left and right together when not in use).

Sound quality, is, of course, excellent; that’s rarely an issue with digital media players. The earphones transmit well. Picture quality on the screen is stunning for its size (3″ instead of the iPod Video’s 2.5″). The unit is quite user-friendly (few operating instructions are included, and few are needed). The unit’s design is visually reminiscent of the iPod, with its “wheel” controller, but the Zune’s wheel doesn’t function the same way. Still, navigating through the menus (music, video, pictures, etc.) is quick and intuitive.

A list of compatible audio file formats shows little difference between the Zune and the iPod Video. The Zune will play WMA files where the iPod won’t. The Zune plays video in WMV, and its software will convert from MP4; the iPod plays Quicktime. Anyway, blah blah blah; from a technological standpoint, the Zune and the Video iPod are reasonably comparable.

The Zune does boast a couple of advantages; you’ll have to decide how much value they offer to you. The Zune includes a radio receiver. This nifty feature allows users to scan the FM dial for their favorite station; not unlike satellite radio, a digital signal sent by many stations allows real-time display of useful information. A station’s call letters, format (e.g. “classic rock hits”) and the current song’s title and artist are displayed. This radio feature adds a level of versatility to the Zune. The iPod has no radio.

The other selling point is fascinating in concept but problematic in practical terms. The Zune’s Wi-Fi feature ostensibly allows users to share audio, video and pictures with other users (in addition to other Zunes, users can share files with Xbox 360s). The thing is, until the Zune gains a larger market share, users wishing to exploit this feature might be left feeling a bit lonely.

The Zune software is excellent, though it’s unsurprisingly similar to Apple’s iTunes software. Zune software is a modified — and arguably greatly improved — version of Windows Media Player. The unit and software link to Microsoft’s answer to iTunes, the Zune Marketplace, where songs are available at roughly $1 per track (the going rate for most digital music these days).

The nearest competitor to the Zune is Apple’s 5G, widely known as the iPod Video. Suggested retail for the Zune is $249.99, the same price as iPod Video’s 30GB model.

So which to choose? I asked a number of young teenagers — iPod owners all, as I couldn’t readily locate a Zune owner — which player was superior. Without fail, they all answered “iPod.” I pushed, asking why. Circular logic came into play: “the iPod is better because everybody’s got one. Everybody’s got one because the iPod’s better.” In truth, if one can look beyond marketing and concentrate on features and usability, Microsoft’s Zune digital media player is a full-featured unit, well worth the price. Selection should come down to how it feels in your hand, how you like the interface, even what colors you like (the Zune is available in black, brown and white). Striking an irony-laden blow against monopoly, I chose the Zune over the iPod, and couldn’t be happier with my decision.

NOTE: This feature orginally appeared in an issue of Skope Magazine in early 2007. The Zune provided four and a half years of flawless performance; in May 2011 it died suddenly. I replaced it with a Sony Walkman MP3 player. — bk