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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?
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Technology
Zune

But is the DRM as easily bypassed as iTunes's?

Abomunist

I think over 1/3 of the music on the Zune store is DRM free. However that's if you're buying songs individually. If you have the subscription of $15 a month I think you're limited to 3 computers and 3 zunes and you can't burn any of them onto a cd. It sucks but it's logical if you think about it. There'd be so much piracy because of that. I live in Canada though and have yet to use the store, wireless marketplace access, zune pass, mix view, etc.

SomeGuy

Give it some time Andrew. The Zune will eventually dissappoint you. After a year of technical difficulties (i.e., tech support, repair), I eventually got completely fed up and zuned off. I hope you have better luck.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/prefix/no-user-pic.gif alrightok

I've already gone back to my iPod Alrightok. I have a Mac and my roommate starting getting pissed that I had 10 GBs of music on his computer.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/thestorfer/1202393jpeg.jpeg andross

my zune just stop working out of the blue and i cant send it in because the s# is gone and they want me 2 pay half just 2 take a look at it this shiot is crazy F--k ZUNE

jerrod

I've had my Zune for almost 2 years now and still love it and have had no technical difficulties. They've been very good about updating their software for users so that I'm not left behind and can take advantage of new features as they become available...something I know you can only do by buying the latest iPod. The greatest feature of it that always makes iPod users jealous is that you can access the music on your device and drag back onto your computer. The road goes both ways and it ends up making for an easy back up to all the music on your computer.

Dane

Andross: The Mac is not unfriendly to the Zune, any more than Windows was unfriendly to the iPod before they ported iTunes to Windows. Microsoft simply never bothered to port the Zune's interface to the Mac.

The Zune failed for many reasons, and not being Mac-compatible was not one of them. The design of the original unit was horrendous. The DRM on rollout was oppressive, the song-buying paradigm ungainly. The WiFi Sharing "Social" is just as unimpressive in any city as it was for you--it was supposed to be the Zune's big feature, and it completely flopped. Even if Zunes were more ubiquitous, people still wouldn't be using the feature so much. The screen, while large, lacks good resolution.

And so on--but the main reason it has failed is because it's not the iPod. Like it or not, this is a competitive market, and the Zune simply is not competing. The iPod line is just too far ahead, the iPod Touch and the iPhone simply leave the Zune behind in the dust.

I met someone with a Zune last week--only the second time that's happened--and they saw me with my iPhone. They actually *sneered* at it, and asked me "what can you do with that that I can't do?"

An easy target, but I long ago learned to leave such situations be; I wished the person no ill will, and it was clear that they didn't really want to know what was better about the iPhone--and who was I to make them feel bad about their purchase? But really, come on. Set aside the telephone feature--you pay the carrier separately for that, after all. Aside from that--can you get email on the Zune? Browse the Internet? Does it have an app store with thousands of apps, more than a thousand of those being free? Can you use your Zune to control you PC with an app you can buy for a few bucks? Can you take photos? Use Skype? Use GPS with Google Maps or other apps which do all kinds of other useful stuff? And so on and so forth, the apps you can download especially making the iPod Touch and iPhone far more useful and feature-rich. The list of advantages is very long, and the only advantages I know of for the Zune are wireless syncing (which I understand drains the battery so much you have to plug it in anyway), and music subscriptions, which some people like but others see as something to avoid (as Yahoo Music and MSN Music customers discovered to their dismay).

You mention an FM Tuner--big deal. Just get the AOL Radio app on your iPhone, you'll have far more radio stations available.

Frankly, I'm amazed that the Zune has sold as much as it has--it simply cannot stand up in comparison.

BlogD

Holy smokes bro. That comment is almost as long as my review.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/thestorfer/1202393jpeg.jpeg andross

I've got the Zune 80, and had a Zune 30, and they've been great the whole time! I know about 8 ppl that have zunes at my high school, and sharing songs is pretty cool. But why zunes havent made it big time is that they don't have any advertizing. If they would advertize like apple, they'd get somewhere. too bad, since it is a great product.

Andrew Too!

I've been a zune user since the first version came out in 2006, i gave it to a family member to use once i got my 80 this past march, the original is still kicking after almost 3 years of use without any trouble, my 80 is also running sweet, as for the software sure it can use some tweeks but i find it well organized and easy to use.

As for the U.I on the zune, it's the best U.I out there on a hard drive media player.

zune is getting more popular each day.

wetworker

blog d sorry to shoot you down like this but the zune was made to become an ipod classic competitor which it does very well in competing with feature wise.

ghst

Blogd don't say the Zune has failed when obviously it hasn't. The Zune takes the iPod Classic and eats it for a mid day snack. I live on a college campus and I'm pretty sure I see new Zune users all the time.

The ability to share a little bit is better than no ability to share at all in my opinion. I don't consider the iPhone a competitor to the Zune since as you have pointed out they are completely different devices, Touch maybe but still that is almost like a half netbook. Compare the iPhone to WinMo. What is there to be amazed about when it comes to the Zune, it is probably one of the best hard drive based mp3 players on the market.

PS: You could also get a decent radio app like Pandora.

Mitch

i have 3 zunes and 1 iPod. zunes are AMAZING and have never had any issues with them. my iPod however is a piece of crap. if people would step out of their comfort zone for once and buy a Zune, they would see how much nicer it is

Matt G

Sorry, folks, but saying that the Zune competes *only* with the iPod Classic doesn't cut it. That's like saying that John McCain was only competing against Ralph Nader, and therefore won because he got more votes.
The iPod Classic is a secondary model which remains only to satisfy those who still wish to have a large-capacity HDD. The Zune broke that paradigm when it released Flash-based players; if what you say is true, then The Flash Zunes would not exist.
You cannot rationalize the failure of a commercial product by claiming it does not compete against devices it clearly competes with. If someone gets an iPhone or an iPod Touch, they obviously will not be getting a Zune; thus, they compete. Using certain features (like a touch screen) to differentiate doesn't cut it; one could just as easily say that the iPod Classic does not compete with the Zune because it does not feature WiFi.
As for the Zune "getting more popular each day," sales figures do not agree with you; Zune sales have been flat. They sold one million units during the first nine months, and one million units during its second nine months. That's what you call "flat." During the same period, Apple sold 76 million iPods, which does not count iPhone sales; additionally, iPod sales are increasing over time, unlike the Zune.
The Zune will appeal to some, of course; every product, no matter how small its share, will have its own fan base, and those fans will insist the product is better. And for them, it *is* better, in a subjective sense. If you love your Zune, I will not try to argue that *you* should like the iPod or iPhone better. But that does not obviate some fairly clear and decisive feature comparisons and open-market results.

BlogD

Zune users do not mess around.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

Jeesh. This is getting out of hand.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/thestorfer/1202393jpeg.jpeg andross

Andross:

Heh. Not familiar with PC/Mac or iPod/Zune battleground discussions, eh? Trust me, this is nothing. Nevertheless, I am trying to be (a) civil, and (b) grounded in objective empirical evidence. But as you can see, this can be a hot topic for those invested in whichever DAP platform.

BlogD

BlogD,
You politics analogy is a bit off, there aren't three different sizes/versions of Ralph Nader. And Barack Obama didn't have a 6 year campaigning head start on John McCain. Technically, the iPod touch has no Zune based competitor. Generally one does not compare flash-based DAP's with hard drive based ones for a reason, they appeal to different market segments and have different price points. An 8GB flash player (nano or touch) is not in the same league as a 120GB hard drive player (zune or classic). Would you compare an Ibiza Rhapsody (30 GB hdd) to a Creative Zen (16 GB flash)? For you to make the Zune v. Touch comparison is akin to a heavyweight fighter picking a fight against a welterweight competitor. Sure, they're both boxers but one is in a different weight class than another. Sure, they could be in the same ring for a fight but it would be an uneven match. Your second post ignores the recently updated Nano's entirely. Where do they fit into the equation?

http://www.insidethecircle.net/2008/10/overrated-underrated-products.html

someone thinking different

You CAN ABSOLUTELY synch your ZUNE to your MAC! (More on this later...)

Isn't it amazing how passionate people are about their music players? I have first-hand knowledge though. I spent much of my life repairing broken ipods. Ipods have huge market share because they are well marketed devices and have some great desktop software to support them. Ipod was NOT an Apple invention. Apple bought the rights to the design. (BTW - anyone want to use another MP3 player with Itunes? Google Ipod Agent and you can! Not Zune though!)

Ipods are not very good devices. There I have said it! They are at best mediocre and unimaginative. In fact, a Blackberry Pearl can wipe the floor with an Iphone in terms of features and multi-media ability.

Now as for the Zune. It is a great device. It happens to be very solidly manufactured and was originally a Toshiba design. The Ipod is made by Foxcon a low-end manufacturer. Starting with the sound processor, and ending with the UI the Zune is superior in every way.

And the future of MP3 players is cloud computing. The ability to interact with the internet and play content that is NOT on your player. The Zune has had this in the genus of its design right from the start. So think of the Zune as ahead of its time. The Ipod Touch is almost there but I believe the failing grace of the Touch will be the touch screen which is a weak point in the design and is a point of failure.

Now how can you integrate a Zune onto a Mac? Two ways. Parallels or Virtualbox any version of Windows on your Mac and run Windows. OR use Wine (www.wine-hq.org) which I have heard works with a few caveats. There is a movement afoot to incorporate Zune into LINUX and when that happens the code will likely be migrated to Mac OS.

Finally the Zune and the Ipod are the only two MP3 players that are comparable with each other because they are

mp3 evangelist

TAXI>>Your work is a strong, realistic reflection of the environment and of life. How do you think people today have come to regard artworks with social commentary and awareness? To that end, how does that motivate your work?

Fiodor>>First of all, I believe that any person should be able to express their views on any social or political subject. Some people protest, some write articles for print or online media. Yes, I am also quite busy, I do not have time to go to demonstrations. But I have my own opinion and I love drawing.

My latest personal project is a series of posters against the price strategy of Apple. I also do not like the aggressive advertisement. Young people spend their last pennies for a 4 Gb iPod when they could buy an mp3 player of any other brand with 8 Gb memory and a removable flash-card. But for them having a “no-name” player isn’t cool enough. With a stylish white headphones you become a member of closed “vip club”. Yeah, probably in 2003 iPod was a super-exclusive gadget, but nowadays most of its owners are simply victims of brands-name and globalization!

It reminds me of the Nazi propaganda in 1930s. At that time, every German girl wanted to have a baby by Hitler.

Sure, I know that many mac-fans do not like this comparison and do not see any relation between Apple and Nazi. But I don't care about rational approach and logic. I do what my intuition and heart tell me. It is really great to think independently and to have your own opinion, I must to say. Think different .

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mao

Andross:

See?

BlogD

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