Engadget's Zune Review

Wednesday, 2006-11-15; 21:44:00

Well, so I guess this thing called a Zune was released today, and we've got reviews going all over the place. Engadget's review, however, seems to be the most thorough, and they had this to say at the end:

The Zune is a player riddled with a lot of small issues -- death by a thousand cuts. Do we think any particular one is a deal breaker? Well, even given our nightmarish software issues, not really. Do we think they should have worked out the kinks and sat out this holiday season? Probably, yeah. Do we think there's potential for betterment of the platform and especially the player through software updates? Given enough time, absolutely. Would we recommend the product for purchase, like, right now? Not a chance.

That's not how you want to come out of the starting gate when you are going up against the iPod juggernaut. When the iPod debuted, there was no one major player in the MP3 player or music download market. If I recall correctly, the iPod reviews were mostly good, with the caveats of price ($399 for the original) and Mac-only. But the Zune can't afford to start out with mediocrity: if it wants to even get a little nibble of a slice of that market share pie, it needs to be a solid competitor. None of the reviews from major news outlets I've seen have recommended the Zune over the iPod.

Some comments:

1) I have to admit that what Engadget is calling the "Twist" menu interface is intriguing. I've noticed that with all of the side features that Apple has integrated into the iPod, it's starting to become a bit of a chore to navigate to different menus. The twist interface takes out a click or two from changing top level menus, which is good.

2) On the other side of things, devices which allow you to change the orientation of the screen have always struck me as rather lame interface-wise. Specifically, users will always have to remember that button meanings change when the screen orientation changes as well. Perhaps this mythical wide-screen iPod will adopt the same thing as well, though -- who knows.

3) Everyone is yapping about how the Zune's Wi-Fi capabilities enable usage of the device to be somewhat "social", despite how crippled it is. What I think is interesting is that not one person has mentioned the fact that you can share your iTunes library on the local network; while this isn't the same as being able to share songs while not connected to a computer, I would argue that iTunes is much more social and usable: you can actually browse through someone else's library instead of just accepting single songs one at a time. I've discovered more music browsing other people's iTunes libraries at school than I have when people recommend songs to me (as would be necessary with the Zune's Wi-Fi sharing), since I'm the one filtering through the songs, not someone else.

Admittedly, iTunes music sharing is also crippled by the fact that you can't play protected AAC files and a single computer only accepts 5 connections per day, but I've not bumped up against either restriction that much -- although I can't say the same thing for others browsing my library: a substantial portion is in protected-AAC format, unfortunately. I've always wanted to simply strip the DRM using something like JHymn or something just for users who are browsing my library, but unfortunately none of the software options today really offer a practical and reliable way to strip the DRM in iTunes 7 without losing audio quality.

4) The one thing that I can say Microsoft got down pat is the name. It's not the "Microsoft E560 Digital A/V MP3 Player". It's the "Zune". That's it. Simple and memorable, just like the "iPod". It doesn't matter that "Zune" sounds weird -- it sounds just as weird as "iPod" did when Apple released it in 2001. I suppose in one way, Microsoft's name is even better: nobody is going to screw around with the capitalization of the product's name. (You have no idea how much it pisses me off to see it spelled "I-Pod" and "Ipod" just because the name is at the beginning of a sentence. Arg! So annoying.)

5) Interesting that the Zune's dock connector is remarkably similar to the iPod's dock connector. Coincidence? Perhaps not: maybe Microsoft is positioning the Zune so that a small adaptor is all it takes for iPod-ready cars and accessories to become Zune-ready. I mean, they both provide power and sync over the one cable, and both use USB 2.0, right?

6) Wait, what? The Zune doesn't actually play H.264 video? Huh? I guess Microsoft initially wanted to look like they were supporting open formats, but then when it comes to walking the talk, they don't. The Zune does actually play AAC files, though.

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