The lives of others: My two weeks as a Zune user

    I’ve only had my Zune for 17 minutes when I encounter a problem: It seems my Zune and my MacBook don’t get along. In fact, I’d venture to say my Mac hates the Zune. It doesn’t even acknowledge that it exists, even when the Zune’s USB cord is plugged in and all up in its business.


    You can’t really blame Microsoft (makers of the Zune) for that, though. The higher-ups at Apple don’t want anyone taking iPod money out of their hands, so they make the Zune and the Mac as unmixable as Slipknot and Katy Perry fans. Luckily, my roommate owns a PC (he wears tweed, and is generally lame), so I wasn’t left with a useless Zune.


    I’ve got to confess something. I’ve owned an iPod for the last four years and have no plans of switching MP3 players. But I jumped at the chance to try out a new version of the Zune for a number of reasons. Chiefly, I’m intrigued by the fact that the two Zune owners I know (one, a former co-worker; the other, a guy I sat next to in a class two years ago) both claimed I was being a sheep for just buying whatever new iPod was out. I found it interesting that the general pull for Zune ownership on the part of the two guys (and Zune Guy, for that matter) was that the Zune wasn’t an iPod — not that it was cheaper, had a better music selection and a great FM tuner or was a better device. It’s kind of like hating Radiohead: You only do it because it will get a rise out of people who are firmly in the other camp.
    But the Zune is more than the anti-iPod. It’s actually a solid device — and maybe the better choice for people who are looking for a true music-oriented gadget.


    For all the dancing commercials and astronomical sales, the iPod has always been about moving the stuff on the iTunes store, not about musical discovery (like Napster originally was) or about trying things out for the fun of it. But the Zune, through the Zune Pass subscription service, is firmly about the discovery process of music.


    For about $15 a month, Zune Pass subscribers get unlimited access to nearly all of the music in Zune’s music library. The tracks are downloaded as MP3s but become unplayable if you don’t pay the fee. At first this seems excessive, but I downloaded around two gigs of music in the first 35 minutes  I had the Zune. That amount of music would have roughly cost me $250 on iTunes. Plus, it allows for music decisions on a whim: You can pick from thousands of songs under the Zune Pass plan without ever feeling like you could be wasting money.


    The Zune also comes with wi-fi compatibilities, allowing users to download tracks directly onto it. This came in handy when I suddenly had the urge, at my bank, to hear the Fugees’ “Ready or Not (Salaam’s Ready For the Show Remix).” With a few clicks and a minute download time, I was living like it was 1996 again.


    But here’s where one of the obvious failings of the Zune comes in. One of the “big” features of the Zune is the ability to swap music with other Zune users over wi-fi connection. Problem is, barely anyone has a Zune, so that feature goes unused. (I can really only speak for myself here, though. I live in St. Cloud, Minn., and used it around the city and never found another person who had one, and I turned it on in Minneapolis, Minn., with the same results. I know I don’t live in a population hub, so this feature could be awesome in NYC or L.A. for all I know.)


    The success and ubiquity of the iPod has undoubtedly been helped by how easy the iTunes program has been to use. Zune’s music store leaves much to be desired in this regard: A search of an artist will yield a list of every single album that has ever been put out by said artist (like iTunes), but unlike iTunes, Zune’s store lists albums that they don’t have at their store and albums that are out of print and not available anywhere. A search of “Talking Heads,” for example, will give you the remastered and original versions of all their albums. Not that Zune’s store has the original versions for download; it just wants you to know that the band has remastered their albums. This is great if you’re looking to see a band’s career arc (classic albums mean more and more reissues) but annoying if you just want to listen to “Once in a Lifetime.”


    As far as the physical attributes of the Zune go, those are pretty standard and unremarkable. Instead of a click wheel, the Zune has an ovular-shaped touch pad. The screen’s display is sharp but prone to glare (just like the iPod’s). The set-up within the Zune is also pretty much the same. Your music can be viewed through playlists, artists, albums, or songs. These things would have seemed remarkable in 2000, but now (again, thanks to the iPod) they are expected from every MP3 player.


    Overall, the Zune is like the iPod’s ignored and under-appreciated little brother. It’s the Stephanie Tanner to the iPod’s D.J. But you have to wonder: Given the pretty decent functionality of the Zune and its great music subscription services, if it had come out first and not been frozen out of Apple’s computers, would it be the MP3 player that everybody owns?