Zune Diary: Software and syncing

Read other impressions of the Zune and you notice that writers reserve their most pointed remarks for the Zune software—both for what it lacks that iTunes offers and its performance (or lack thereof). After a few days of attempting to make the Zune work with its software I’m more than a little sympathetic to others’ frustrations.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Installation

The Zune package includes a Zune software installation disc. Plug your Zune into your PC’s USB 2.0 port and up pops the Found New Hardware Wizard. Insert the Zune disc and tell the Wizard that you’d like it to install the Zune’s software from the disc. After a longish delay, the Zune setup finally launches.

The software then wanted to look for updates. This too took many minutes. In the meantime I was treated to pictures of some generally attractive young people who, unlike me, had not grown noticeably older while waiting for Setup to locate updates. After finally making the connection and installing the updates, I was asked to restart my PC.

Once the PC restarted and the Zune software loaded I was told that the Zune required a firmware update. Microsoft has been slammed by other writers for requiring this update (“What, I just got this thing! What do you mean I need to update its firmware!?). To be fair, I’ve attached brand new iPods to my Mac and been alerted that a new version of its software is available. On the other hand, it’s not a requirement to update your iPod. In this case it is.

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Once the firmware is installed the Zune bears a new Community command—one that allows you to share (or “squirt,” in Microsoft parlance) tunes between Zunes.

Installation proceeded and, like just about every other Windows media application I’ve run into, the Zune software wants to control major media types—MP3, AAC, MPEG-4, and M4v files. If you blithely click through with the Express setting, the Zune software and not Windows Media Player (or iTunes, for that matter) will “own” these files. I’ve been stung by this propensity in the past so I chose custom installation and ordered the software to lay off. Likewise, the software would like to rip files in Windows Media Audio format. Because I prefer my audio files in a more flexible format, I spent some time in the Zune software’s Settings window to rip files in MP3 format at 192kbps.

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As has been widely reported, the Zune doesn’t support Microsoft’s PlaysForSure digital media standard, meaning that you can’t use the Zune with content downloaded from such services as the iTunes Store, Rhapsody, Napster, or Yahoo! Music. If you want to purchase music for your Zune, you either rip it yourself, obtain it in an unprotected format (say from eMusic as an MP3 files), or purchase it from the Zune Marketplace.

With the latter in mind, Zune setup asks you to sign into your Microsoft Live ID or create a new Zune Tag (which allows you to use the Zune Marketplace). This isn’t a whole lot more onerous than the iTunes setup but, again, Microsoft has built it into the installer and it looks like a requirement rather than a choice. iTunes certainly hints that it would be lovely to establish an iTunes Store account, but it doesn’t build the sign-up process into the installer.

Import

When the Zune software finally installed, it asked if I’d like to import my media—including the music in my iTunes Library. “You betcha!” The software set about importing some several thousand unprotected tracks from my iTunes library as well as pictures and videos (save those that are protected by DRM, which can’t be imported—files purchased from the iTunes Store, for example).

I waited.

And waited.

And waited .

And, oh my lord, I waited some more.

And I finally thought, “Ya know, this PC is pretty junked up with files. Something could be getting in the way and it’s only fair that I start with a clean slate so I have a better idea of real-world performance.” And I reinstalled Windows. Launching the Zune software I attached the Zune and it was nowhere to be found—the Zune software refused to recognize it.

So off I went to reinstall the Zune software. Along the way, Zune setup informed me that in order to get the latest version of the software I needed a newer version of the Microsoft Update software. This I had to download and install. I ran Zune setup again (and who at Microsoft thought accompanying this message with an image of a woman seemingly fighting off an attacker was a good idea?).

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Reinstalling the Zune software introduced its own glitch. The Zune was recognized, but recognized as belonging to a different PC. I was offered the opportunity to use the Zune as a guest user or to re-associate the Zune with my “new” computer. I chose the latter but had to tell the Zune software a couple of different times that this was my desire—it continued to see it as a “guest” Zune.

Once the software finally got it through its head that it belonged to my PC, it once again asked if I’d like to import my iTunes media. Yes again.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited .

And, oh my lord, it really does take this long to import tracks. And I left the PC for the evening in the hope that by morning my tracks would be imported.

The interface

At the risk of being glib, what the Zune’s appearance and the Zune software seem to have most in common is a desire to be as unlike the iPod/iTunes experience as possible. While I admire Microsoft’s attempt to differentiate the Zune and its software from Apple’s work, this attempt makes the software more difficult to use than necessary. Let’s break it down:

Minimal menus

The Zune software’s interface is a sort of mishmash of ideas. On the top of the window you’ll find a browser-like interface with arrow icons that send you forward or back through steps you’ve recently taken along with a navigation hierarchy—Playlists -> My Playlists, for example. In the middle right of the window you find a view button for changing how playlists are presented—you’re offered an icon, tile, or details (list) view. These views are inconsistent—available in some instances and not in others. For example, if you select a playlist you can only access the Details view. Choose something from the Library section and you can use all three views.

Like iTunes, the Zune software has a source list along the left side of the window where you’ll find tabs for music, videos, and photos. In the source list below you find entries for playlists, library, and an attached Zune (when you’ve selected the music tab a Marketplace entry also appears, which provides access to the Zune Marketplace). To see the assets within a certain media type, click the Library entry. Below this entry you can narrow your search—choosing recently added assets, artists and albums (for music), actors (for video), and keywords and date taken (for photos). Below the playlists entry you’ll find entries for all your playlists. Click a playlist and its contents appear in the main window.

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To its right is an Options menu that offers a series of commands and submenus. From here you can add folders to your library, open files, and configure options for playback, your library, CD ripping, CD burning, and syncing. Choosing More Options from one of these submenus opens the Options dialog box where you can configure the program’s preferences. Most of the program’s power resides in this menu. Why Microsoft chose to hide these options here instead of creating a nicely labeled menubar is beyond me.

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A Sign In button comes next, which allows you to sign into the Zune Marketplace. When sifting through your music collections you sometimes see links that lists albums and tracks from a particular artist in your library, but also what’s available from an artist in the Zune Marketplace. I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t figured out how to make these entries appear consistently (but maybe that speaks to the confusing interface).

Finally, on the top right of the window are four icons: Create and Edit Playlists, Burn Files to Disc, Sync Data To and From Your Zune Device, and Watch What’s Now Playing. At the bottom of the screen you find controls for play controls.

Creating playlists

When you click Create and Edit Playlists the right side of the window adopts a Create or Edit a Playlist pane and yet another pop-up menu. Click this Playlist Options pop-up menu and you can choose to create a new playlist or edit an existing playlist. Choose the first option and a highlighted Untitled Playlist entry appears. Type in a name for the playlist and drag entries from your library to the area below to add tracks to the playlist.

If you choose an existing playlist its contents appears in this pane, allowing you to add or subtract tracks from it. Again, you have yet more commands to choose from a contextual men, including the option to add selected tracks to a different playlist, rate the tracks, move them up or down in the list, and open the file location.

If I haven’t made the point clearly, let me do so now: All these pop-up- and contextual menus make it difficult to do anything quickly with the software. While iTunes takes little time to learn I found myself constantly questioning how, in the Zune software, I got from Point A to Point B the last time and right-clicking like mad in order to stumble across the answer.

I could pass some of this off as my simply not spending enough time with the software, but it’s more than unfamiliarity. The software simply isn’t intuitive. For example, I searched high and low for a feature that mimics iTunes’ Smart Playlist feature—a way to assemble playlists based on a set of conditions (Song is by Artist X, Album is Album Y, Tracks are longer than 2 Minutes, for example). It should be found somewhere in the Create and Edit Playlists area, right? Wrong. You have to right-click on the Playlists heading in the source list to bring up a New Auto Playlist window. That window is full of arrow icons and links, making it difficult to tell exactly what you’re doing. Again, it’s certainly different from Apple’s approach, but not in a good way.

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Syncing

The Sync Data To and From Your Zune Device function isn’t much better. Click it and an icon of your mounted Zune appears in the right pane. You’ll learn the capacity of your Zune (27.7GB) as well as how much free space is available. Care to know how much storage is used by each kind of media—music, photos, and videos? As far as I can tell (and, again, the option may be hidden in there somewhere) you can’t. In fact, the Zune software won’t even tell you how much space a playlist or your library consumes, leaving you to drag a playlist to the sync list in the hope that it might fit. (Note, however, that when you drag a playlist into the list of items to sync, the Free Capacity thermometer does display an orange area indicating how much storage it will eat up on the Zune but doesn’t display the actual figure. Instead you can learn the size by subtracting the current free storage (17.6GB free, for example) from the previous amount of free space (20.5GB, for instance).

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When you finally get around to configuring your media so that it’s ready to sync to the Zune, pressing Start Sync begins the process. When you do so a list of tracks being synced to the Zune appears along with a progress bar next to each track. Unlike importing tracks from an iTunes library, syncing tracks to the Zune happens fairly quickly. An overall progress reading is displayed at the bottom of the window (14% Synchronizing, for example).

Summing up

After the many “nice unbiased review” comments that resulted from my first Zune Diary entry I understand that I risk being labeled an Apple fanboy by coming down hard on the Zune software, but I have to say it.

This is an unholy mess.

If the software had been designed by a kid working on his first big project, fine, cut him some slack and know that he’ll strive to do better next time. But this software was supposedly designed by a mature team of designers and engineers who must have looked at iTunes and thought, “Okay, so maybe we can’t reskin iTunes, but surely we can make something nearly as functional” and then, seemingly, turned around and did exactly the opposite.

From installation to importing to organizing this is a shameful effort.

Next time: Zune Marketplace

Previously: Out of the Box

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