Thursday, September 18, 2008

And now for something completely different: Zune

This post is a followup to a post I made way back in March, 2007 about the iPod. Let me warn you that it has (almost) nothing to do with games and it'll probably sound like a paid advertisement. It's not.

First let me give you a little bit of background. I used to use an iPod. My first iPod broke several years ago after being dropped roughly three feet onto a cement stairwell floor. I replaced it with a lovely shiny black iPod with more space and a really nice color screen. I was happy with my iPod. I even occasionally purchased songs through iTunes. Life was good.

Last Christmas I received an 8GB Zune as a Christmas present. I played with the device a bit. I liked it but not enough to want to leave my iPod behind. Still, I kept it around since it was solid state (no hard drive) which makes it a little more resistant to drops than my hard-drive-using iPod classic. I figured it would be a good choice to take skiing or to the gym. I was less afraid to drop the thing you see. But I still much preferred my iPod. See that previous post for some of the reasons.

Then a few months ago a sad thing happened. My iPod broke. Somehow it developed a short circuit in the adapter port that caused it to stop functioning reliably. That left me with a difficult decision. Should I buy a new iPod? Should I upgrade to an iPhone (super cool device but damn that's one pricey toy if you factor in the monthly fees)? Perhaps get a Nano or an iPod Touch?After weighing all of my options, I eventually decided that I'd be better served to just switch to using my Zune. Sure, the software wasn't quite as good and it only had 8GB of storage, but the hardware was very nice and I just couldn't justify spending another $300 or more when I already had a device that, when all was said and done, was probably more than good enough for my needs.

So, I reinstalled the Zune player (the PC software that's Zune's version of iTunes) and was pleasantly surprised to find that they had finally gotten around to putting in an auto playlist feature. It's not as full featured as the iPod's. In fact, it's really limited. But at least it's there. The software has some other annoying limitations as well but then iTunes has its set of limitations too. Neither of them does exactly what I want. I will say this though, the Zune player is very pretty.

Next I went out and got the latest Zune car kit and, while it isn't perfect (no FM system is since the FCC doesn't allow them to broadcast with enough juice to come in perfectly clear) it isn't too bad and it's actually kind of attractive. It's more than adequate for my morning commute.

But things really started getting good when I decided to go ahead and buy into the Zune Passport service. For a reasonable monthly fee, I can download almost any track from the Zune Marketplace, which is a considerable amount of stuff. Now there are subscription services for iTunes too but none of them is as tightly integrated and slick as Zune's. Sure I don't actually own any tracks I download this way but I have the option to buy them if I really feel the need and as long as I keep up my subscription it's just as if I did own them. I've downloaded HUNDREDs of tracks this way; way more than I ever did through iTunes. This is an audiophile's dream. It's like being a kid in a candy store with a blank check.

But wait! There's more! Two days ago Microsoft released their version 3 Zune update. Not only did they add a bunch of cool new features to the Zune player, a pile of new features also got automatically downloaded to my Zune device too. Unlike Apple, each time Microsoft updates the Zune, they update everybody's Zune with all of the new features; not just some of them; all of them. It's as if I had just gone to the store and bought a brand new player. Very cool! And they added some very cool features. For instance, any song that you hear on a radio station (provided the station broadcasts a RDS signal - which almost all do nowadays) can be tagged for download through the Zune service (even wirelessly if you're set up for that). Like what you're hearing on the Zune's built-in FM radio? Just a couple of clicks on the pad and it's yours. And they also added a couple of games, which is cool.

One of the cool new features you may have heard about is called Mixview. Listen to a song in the Zune player on your PC and click on the Mixview button. You'll be presented with a really attractive screen with the album you're listening to in the center and a cluster of squares all around it. Some squares will be other albums from the same artist. Others will be albums by artists who influenced or were influenced by this artist. You'll also get a couple of icons representing other Zune owners who listen to this artist a lot. Click on any of these other icons and that icon will be moved to the middle and other icons will be placed around it. You can explore various relationships like this for hours. It makes it super easy to find new stuff that you might like. I've found all sorts of new songs and artists this way. It's way more attractive than the new iTunes feature that does the similar thing and since Zune has placed an early emphasis on keeping track of what their customers listen to (if they opt-in) they have a huge database they can draw on to help them build these relationships.

And there was one more little surprise which I really didn't expect. When I plugged my Zune into my car kit for the first time after the latest release it upgraded the firmware in the car kit! For instance, now when I play a song with my Zune attached to my car kit, it broadcasts the title information on the RDS sideband! Pretty nifty!

So what about those playlists that I ranted about in that earlier post? Zune's playlists still aren't nearly as full featured as what I had on the iPod. For one thing, they don't update on the device itself. Also, you can't build playlists that use other playlists as input. This still disappoints me a little bit. However, since my Zune is only 8GB I couldn't put my whole music library on it anyway so I've changed my paradigm a bit. Now I use only two auto playlists. The first contains a random selection of 1000 songs from my collection marked "like". The second is a list of the last 2000 minutes worth of songs that I most recently added to my collection. Both of those playlists are set to sync to my Zune so that every time I dock my Zune I get a different mix of songs I like and I'm sure to have all of the stuff that I recently downloaded (and therefore am interested in hearing more often). Putting the Zune on shuffle gives me an experience that's almost as good as that carefully crafted mix I had on the iPod. In fact, it's close enough that I'm quite happy with it. It's enough music that I'll never play it all between docks and it leaves enough room on there for my podcasts and the occasional movie as well. All good.

So there you have it. I've moved to Zune and I've actually learned to enjoy it; perhaps even prefer it! Does this mean that I've been assimilated?


At 4:25 PM, December 31, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

UPDATING YOUR PLAYLIST ON THE ZUNE. I've noticed several inquiries on line about this - yes, you can do it. Open your ZUNE SOFTWARE and attach your device. Click on "Device" and DELETE THE PLAYLIST YOU WANT TO UPDATE FROM YOUR DEVICE (Make certain you are viewing Device and not Collection). Then click on COLLECTION. Add/delete/move things around. When you are done, simply drag the updated playlist back to your ZUNE. You should be good to go again!

They need to add an auto sync feature for playlists in their next upgrade - that would be helpful.

I love my ZUNE. My 11 year old daughter has an 80G, my husband has a 16G, and I have the 120G. Podcasting and videos are awesome.

At 5:15 PM, December 31, 2008, Blogger Steve said...

No. You missed my point. My point was that the list won't update _itself_ on the Zune device. In other words, I can't have a playlist change without connecting it to my computer. What you are describing is not at all what I was talking about. But thanks for the input anyway.


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