Zune Diary: Out of the Box

Yes, Microsoft’s digital media player, the Zune, has finally made its way into my hot little hands. My Playlist colleagues and I have had our say on the idea of the Zune, now I turn my attention to the reality of the device—how it performs as well as how it compares to the iPod and iTunes. During the next few days I’ll issue reports as I progress. Today we start with the out-of-box experience.

Getting physical

Pulling the Zune from its solid cardboard box, the first thing you notice is that the brown-with-green-border exterior gives you the impression that the thing is made out of mint chocolate. To me it’s pretty ugly, but who knows, maybe brown is the new white and I just missed the memo.

Picking up the Zune I was struck first by its size—it’s a little wider, a little thicker, and a lot taller than a full-sized iPod. Where even the largest iPod fits comfortably in your hand, the Zune is a handful. I can jam a full-sized iPod into my front pocket and sit down comfortably. The Zune is tall enough that it’s less comfortable to carry this way.

And then there’s there’s the rough plastic finish. While it’s not prone to the kind of acrylic scratches you get on a full-sized iPod, it can scratch as well. The difference here is that with its flat finish, scratches aren’t quite so obvious. Microsoft includes a soft cloth case for the Zune to help protect its finish but, like an iPod’s sleeve, it provides no access to the controls so it’s useful only when you’re not actively using the Zune.

On the brown models the labels on the Back and Play/Pause buttons are hard to read indoors—the silvery characters are lost in a sea of brown. The 3-inch screen, which dominates the player, is plenty bright (you can choose from Low, Medium, or High brightness levels in the Display settings screen). And, as with an iPod, you can determine how long the backlight stays on—1, 5, 15, 30, or 60 seconds or always on. Regrettably, the display is either fully on or off. A display-bearing iPod’s backlighting will switch off after awhile, but it can still be read without backlighting in a bright environment. Not so the Zune. Once the backlighting shuts off, you can’t see anything on the screen.

Wheeling around

As has been reported extensively, the Zune’s wheel isn’t really a wheel at all. Rather, it’s a four-position rocker switch that surrounds a center button. When used vertically, the left and right sides of the switch act as next and previous controls. The top and bottom of the wheel control volume. The center button works similarly to the iPod’s center button—press it to execute highlighted commands or call up configuration menus. Because this rocker switch can’t take advantage of additional commands mapped to a scrolling function, the Zune requires two additional buttons that are placed on either side of the wheel. The left button is for moving back through the interface (operating like the Menu part of an iPod’s clickwheel) and the right button is for playing and pausing playback.

I mentioned the vertical orientation of the Zune because the functionality of the wheel changes when you use the Zune horizontally—when you’re viewing a movie or pictures, for example. In this position the wheel functions rotate as well—what was once left is now down and pressing the “now-down” button adjusts the volume lower. It’s logical that it would work this way, I know, but I thought I’d mention that, in this case, the Zune operates in a logical way.

The wheel takes some getting used to, particularly if you’re accustomed to the iPod. It’s far smaller than an iPod’s wheel and because it is, it’s easy to mistakenly press the center button when you intended to press one of the sides of the wheel.

It’s what’s inside

Unlike the iPod, the Zune comes preloaded with some music, pictures, and videos, giving you the chance to take the player for a spin before embarking on installing its software and syncing your media to it.

Although some have remarked that the interface is less intuitive than the iPod’s, it’s hardly a chore to get around on the Zune. The main screen offers entries for Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, and Settings (after applying a firmware update, Community, also appears on the main screen).

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Unlike the iPod, which places hierarchical menus within separate screens—Music -> Artists -> Artists Name -> Artists’ Albums—the Zune offers sort of über-menus that appear at the top of the screen. From here you choose to view your music by album, artist, playlist, song, or genre by pressing the next or previous buttons to scroll through these selections. Like the iPod, each screen is different depending on which über-menu command you’ve chosen. For example, select artist, scroll down through a list of artists, select one, and press center, and all the artist’s albums appear on the resulting screen. Choose an album by scrolling down to it, press center, and you move to a play screen where you can play all the tracks, add tracks to a quick list (akin to the iPod’s On The Go playlist), send the selections to a nearby networked Zone device, or select a track and play it.

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The play screen features a huge representation of the album cover (if the Zune doesn’t have the album art you see a colorful pattern). Press center while a track is playing and you can rate the track from one to five stars, show song list, shuffle or repeat the track, send it to another Zune, or flag it.

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When you hold down one of these up and down buttons while scrolling through a long list, a large letter appears on screen indicating where you are in the alphabet. The longer you hold down the button, the more scrolling accelerates. Today’s 5G iPods and 2G iPod nanos offer a similar feature.

Photos and videos

While music works in the vertical orientation, photos and videos are viewed on the horizontal. The 3-inch screen seems much larger than the screen on a 5G iPod but it doesn’t offer greater resolution. Its resolution is the same as a 5G iPod’s screen, it’s just that its pixels are larger. This means that while the screen is indeed roomier, it can appear less crisp as artifacts are more apparent when projected by these larger pixels.

Like color iPods, the Zune can display slideshows of pictures stored on the device. In this regard it offers both less and more than the iPod. On the Less side of the ledger, you can’t choose from among a list of transitions. The Zune uses a single dissolve transition. Within the Pictures setting screen you can configure the Zune to display pictures for 3, 5, 7, 10, 15, or 30 seconds.

On the More side, the Zune lets you zoom in on images by clicking the center button while viewing the image and selecting Zoom In. Once zoomed in, you navigate around the image with the toggle wheel to move up, down, left, and right. You can also select an image, press center, and make that image the Zune’s desktop pattern/wallpaper. Nice.

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Navigating through videos works much like music navigation. Briefly press next or previous while the video plays and you jump in 30 second intervals. Hold next or previous and you scrub quickly through the video.

Radio, radio

The Zune includes a built-in FM radio. And it’s not bad. My basement office is rough on radio—few stations can penetrate its walls. The Zune pulled in a number of stations that my office stereo can’t touch. Granted, some were noisy, but I was impressed that it could play them at all.

And the radio interface makes sense. Use the next or previous buttons to move up and down the FM radio band (a quick press moves up one notch while holding the button down scans to the next available station). When you find a station you’d like to save as a preset, just press and hold center for a few seconds. Preset stations are marked with lines on the line that represents FM frequencies and can be browsed either through the radio screen or by pressing and holding the next or previous buttons. Pressing the play/pause button mutes the radio.

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Should you take your Zune abroad you can continue to listen to radio. Within the Zune’s Radio settings screen you have the option to choose North America, Europe, or Japan. Doing so allows the Zune to tune to a variety of frequencies.

Sound story

The Zune includes a set of black and silver earbuds similar to what Apple ships with the iPod—serviceable but not producing impressive sound. The Zune’s wheel control reveals another weakness in regard to volume control. Instead of letting you adjust volume in tiny increments as you can with an iPod, the Zune offers 20 volume levels. Most people will find the difference between, say 10 and 11, neglible. Pickier listeners (me, among them) may wish they were allowed something between the two.

A setting of 10 is plenty loud but if you insist on damaging your hearing, a constant setting of 20 will eventually do the trick. In other words, the Zune can deafen you with the best of ‘em.

Within the Music settings screen you can choose from among eight equalizer settings—none, acoustic, classical, electronic, hip hop, jazz, pop, and rock. By comparison the iPod offers 23 EQ settings.

Unlike the most recent display-bearing iPods the Zune doesn’t support gapless playback. As with earlier iPods the Zune inserts a tiny gap between tracks that were originally designed to flow into each other. Bummer.

Summing up

Looked at purely as a hardware device that plays music, slideshows, and videos, the Zune is a mixed bag. Its larger-than-the-iPod’s display is nice and bright. I like some of the eye-candy of the interface and while it’s no iPod, it’s easy enough to get around on. I’m pleased that you can zoom in on images and designate any image as a background pattern. And having a decent FM radio built-in is a plus.

I find the Zune too big and too unattractive. But, again, I’m not part of the target demographic for the player. Younger users may find its size and look perfectly acceptable.

The lack of a real live spinning clickwheel hurts the Zune. Because the display is so large, the rocker wheel has to be small and, for my tastes, it’s too tiny. It’s too easy to press the wrong button. Plus the lack of a spinning control means you require additional buttons for functions that are normally handled by the iPod’s Menu and Play/Pause buttons on its clickwheel. Bouncing between the Zune’s wheel and its play and back buttons isn’t nearly easy as controlling every function from a single wheel. And because you can’t scroll in small or large increments, you’re stuck using preset adjustment intervals to accommodate a switch rather than a dial—volume and brightness control has to be pretty broad and when scrolling through a long list you can’t change the acceleration speed.

Next time: Software and syncing

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