is now a little more than a week old and though many reviewers have panned
for a variety of reasons, I
it's an excellent portable media player.
It's not as bulky as you'd believe from reading reviews and blog postings;
it works well with its software counterpart Zune Marketplace; the GUI is
nicer than the iPod's; and so far the one thing that has charmed me the
most about the Zune is its excellent sound quality. Zune-based music is
punchy and alive.
The Zune is an excellent media player with a unique design,
outstanding performance, and very good integration with Zune Marketplace
software. But it could be much better.
But yes, I do feel the Zune is three-fifths baked, rushed to market to feed
the holiday electronics frenzy, and nowhere near its potential as a
Wi-Fi-enabled portable media device. CNET colleague Scott
was right about at least one thing in his recent Zune
flame: it is much like a prototype, though I believe this not from a design
perspective, but from one having to do with its feature set.
What is your opinion of the Zune?
I do think the Zune will shake and survive the criticism, lukewarm early
sales, and the bad vibes. It must in order to survive, and therefore
Microsoft, as much of a control freak it is about the Zune, will start
instituting new features to please its small but growing user base. A bunch
of pissed Zune users is the last thing Microsoft wants. Here's what team Zune needs to do to give it some street cred, and more importantly to make it
the best device it can be. Top ten things Zune could do better 1.
Enable hard drive use. Not having hard drive functionality drastically
reduces the Zune's perceived value. I mean, come on, if this thing sucks,
you can't even use it as a USB 2.0 data drive. And it's the first con
(maybe second) anti-Zuners point out. I imagine the team Zune will have
this patched up before the New Year. 2.
Give video your support. A nice 3-inch screen is a sad thing to waste.
Excluding the video clips preloaded on the Zune, there just isn't much
content to view. Support for WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 is a bit narrow for
most experienced users. A Zune newbie would definitely drop a few duckets
(I mean, points) for a TV show if Zune Marketplace had any to offer. If the
Zune supported popular formats such as DivX, Microsoft could grab a big
segment of the experienced user base who are on the fence about the Zune. 3.
Integrate Media Center. One great advantage PlaysForSure devices have
over the iPod is integration with a DVR, namely WindowsXP Media Center
Edition (MCE). I use it all the time to record my favorite shows; once I
sync my Toshiba Gigabeat S Portable Media Center, those shows can be viewed
by selecting the My TV option on the device. This is an awesome source for
free content that works with a Creative Zen Vision:M, Archos devices, and
even the iPod with the proper conversion
. The infrastructure for seamless MCE integration
already exists--you can almost envision the words My TV (or TV) sitting
underneath or within the "videos" main menu option on the Zune. I know that
legit video support is coming (see number 1), so perhaps Microsoft is trying to
prevent free content from cannibalizing Zune Marketplace videos. Microsoft,
you'll definitely sell more Zunes if you open this awesome feature up. 4.
Open up Wi-Fi. Everyone is clamoring for this one, and I believe this
has been up Microsoft's sleeves from the start. So instead of pressing,
I'll explain how opening up Wi-Fi would make Zuning much cooler. You should
have an option to sync with Zune Marketplace over Wi-Fi. You know, just in
case you misplaced your proprietary Zune USB cable. Your Zune also could be
updated in real time without ever removing it from your bag (though it
would need to be powered on). You could even stream music from the device
to a friend's computer. But the coolest application (without stretching the
Zune to include Web browsing) would be the ability to purchase or to download songs from Zune
Marketplace wirelessly. It's not as if it can't be done--just look at
. Launching with all this Wi-Fi goodness may not have
been realistic (to hit the holidays), but I guarantee you it would have
garnered more positive reactions to the Zune. 5.
Activate WMA DRM9 compatibility. It might be too late for this one,
though Microsoft should have launched with this feature. Microsoft's primary view
is that the Zune needs to be as closed off as the iPod if it's to succeed,
and there's definitely some merit there. I mean, Microsoft is sticking to
its guns on this one, though it has pissed many people off. Do we really
have room for yet another "format" of music? (Aside: the word
does not exist in the year 2006.)
But Zune's parents should have taken a page from SanDisk and Rhapsody by
creating a dual DRM player. Turning its back on a format that is widely
used (just not like iTunes' tracks) was a big mistake. There are probably
millions of tracks purchased from Napster and Rhapsody waiting to be played
on a Zune, but Microsoft wants us to repurchase those tracks. Just make it
compatible--you don't even have to promote it, just allow it to work in the
background and promote the heck out of WMA DRM 9.1 (Zune Marketplace
tracks). You would get such a lift by doing this one thing. 6.
Institute gapless playback. Seamless mixes are meant to be seamless.
Listening to an inspired crescendo in a dance mix only to encounter a
half-second gap is a major buzz kill. So Apple added this heavily requested
feature to its latest iPod line, and saving Archos, what's the hold up with
the rest of the industry? Not sure which method I prefer--Archos' Rio
Karma-like pure omni-gapless or Apple's programmed-per-album method--but
the Zune needs it. Zune Marketplace already features gapless playback so
perhaps Zune gapless is just around the corner. 7.
Add EQ in the playback context menu. Many users don't mind traversing
back to the settings menu to adjust the EQ to their liking. I'm not one of
them. I prefer to tweak EQ settings on the fly, and the playback context
menu would be the perfect place for an EQ shortcut. It's not as if Microsoft can't
do this. The Toshiba Gigabeat S, which utilizes a PMC interface that's
similar to the Zune's, has EQ settings in both the options and playback menus. 8.
Address Wi-Fi sizzle. If you're a Zune user, you know that when you
activate the Wi-Fi option (so you can locate and be located by other
Zunes), you also get an audible static pop or sizzle. It's particularly
annoying when you're listening to music. This sizzle just shouldn't be
there. Please issue a software update. 9.
Liberate Zune Pass users. I understand that the three plays or three
days rule is only possible with the support of the labels and artists. To
me, this limited sharing capability is cool and it works (plus it's an
excellent way to market the Zune Marketplace). Adding the rumored
feature is definitely a good idea (and shows off the
positive side of the ridiculed Microsoft points system).
So what if the song I'm trying to promote disappears after three days? Hopefully, it's good enough that listeners would check out my band's Web
site (note: theoretically speaking; I don't have a band). Even if the
song's been played three times, it will show up in the Zune Marketplace
software's useful in-box, so you can purchase it if the Zune Marketplace
decides to add it to its library. The same rules shouldn't apply to Zune
Pass subscribers who share Zune Marketplace tracks--those who have paid
$14.99 per month for the right to download, stream, and transfer most songs
in the Zune catalog. I use it and it's great, but you should be able to
swap songs without limits with other Zune Passers--they'd be able to get
the song for "free" anyway, so why not make things a bit more convenient
for your loyal and most valuable customers? 10.
Offer 60GB or higher. If you're planning on running on the same track
as the iPod, you've got to offer a high capacity model. Like 60GB, maybe
even 80GB. We'll probably see a 60GB version at CES to accompany the
arrival of the Zune Marketplace video store.
James Kim is a senior editor for CNET Reviews.