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I Bought a Zune

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[EDIT] I would like to point out that this is my 11000th post on GameDev. Yes, eleven thousand.

I Bought a Zune

Yep. Been looking to get a new player for a while, and I've sworn off iPods. I was fond of the Zune already, and didn't find anything that seemed better for a reasonable price. To make a long story short, I love this thing and would absolutely buy it again.

The plus points first. The Zune itself is absolutely magnificent. It's light and reasonably sized. The screen is great, so much nicer than on the iPod. I don't know about colors so much, but it's larger and better utilized. The navigation works great too. I was always ambivalent about the scroll wheel. The Zune has a D-pad that follows your classic "start slow then get faster" pattern. The speeds are very well done, and sort of ramp up rather than snapping from slow to fast. It takes a little bit to get used to the speeds and timings, but once you do, it works great. It has the added touch that while you're scrolling at high speed, the screen shows the letter you're at. So you can watch that rather than trying to read one of the entries as they whoosh past, or stopping. There's all sorts of other little touches in navigation too -- the controls on Zune are 2D rather than 1D, which opens up some interesting tricks. When I'm viewing all the albums under a specific artist, I can hit left or right to switch to the previous or next artist. I don't have to back up to the previous menu level. That's really handy. Oh, and it has an FM tuner. Maybe I can listen to Car Talk for once. (No recording, sadly. Blame the RIAA and MS' lack of balls.)

The Zune software is great too. It's got a few weirdnesses where I preferred WMP 11. (I don't like iTunes, WinAmp, etc.) There's one key thing though that places the Zune software way the hell ahead of everything else on the market. You know the progressive search behavior that WMP 11 has? It searches as you type in the current list, and if it doesn't find it there, it opens up the search to the entire library. Well, Zune does that with the Zune store. It's a ridiculously fast way of finding music to download from the store. I can pull up songs, artists, albums, whatever on demand. iTunes is completely eclipsed by how easy it is to work with.

I decided to go with the subscription service for music. Basically, the deal is all you can eat for $15/mo, as long as you keep paying. I think the device wants to refresh its licenses against the internet every 30 days, but I'm not sure. So I picked up a 3 month subscription for just under $45. I've downloaded about 4.7 GB of music from the Zune store so far. I think that probably puts me somewhere in the thousand song range. Off iTunes, that would be about a thousand dollars. That sum of money would keep my subscription going for five and a half years. And I can pull stuff down at whim. I'd normally only buy songs I already like. Here, I'm literally just dragging entire albums at random onto my Zune from artists who I've been meaning to listen to for a while (U2, for example). And with 30 GB of space and no interest in music, I can keep going for a rather long time. I've slowed down drastically in downloading stuff, since I've got the things I really wanted -- and I've still got 23 GB left.

Of course, things are not perfect. Well, one thing is perfect. The Zune itself is pure brilliance, and I have no complaints. None at all. Coming from someone who likes to identify the faults with anything and everything, that's serious praise. I guess the battery life is not what some people would like it to be, but I don't need it to survive more than 7 or 8 hours. I bought a USB wall charger, and both trains and planes have power sockets nowadays. As for the wireless, screw it. I haven't tried to use it and I may not try for a long time. We all know it's basically worthless. Accessories are rather thin as well, but I prefer generic accessories anyway; ones that connect to the headphone out or the USB rather than the proprietary slot.

The out-of-box experience for the Zune software sucks. You know why? Because it doesn't work out of the box. I did as it asked, and everything worked fine right up until I tried to download music. Not so much. I had to follow these instructions to fix it. I should probably be a lot more mad about this than I am, but being a technical person, this kind of speed bump doesn't bother me that badly. There's one really glaring omission here, though, which I am not too happy about. As far as I can tell, the Zune software does not have the ability to stream directly off the Zune. So if you want to play music while it's hooked up to a computer, that computer needs to pull the files locally and play them. I'm hoping I've missed some option here, but either way, this is not good. (On the bright side, I can stream directly from the store online without downloading the files, so that's something.) Lastly, there's no Linux or Mac support worth mentioning, but of course you probably knew that.

The store isn't quite perfect, either. First of all, the subscription service does not give you free access to everything, just nearly everything. The glaring omissions? I have no Metallica or RHCP right now, and I can only get them legally via MS points. And Beatles isn't available at all. This upsets me, and I will probably go ahead and P2P the files. (Relax, I have the damn CDs, just didn't bring them.) I guess if the recording companies won't play ball, there's nothing to be done. Also, while it doesn't bother me much, there appears to be no video or podcast stuff in the store, at all. None. It's just music. While I understand that Apple's relationship with Disney* gives them a lot more leverage than Microsoft has, you'd think one of the most significant software companies on the planet could negotiate something. Or maybe they're just dragging their feet on the software side. I don't know.

I like the Zune. From a purely hardware perspective, I don't understand how anyone could prefer an iPod. It's absolutely no contest. (Unless you like crappy expensive speaker systems which can only talk to iPods, I guess.) I like subscription music. I like the Zune software. I just wish they hadn't done some of the really boneheaded stuff -- let me stream my damn songs!. It's so easy to fix, too. No new hardware releases, or anything. They can push firmware updates automatically, and they can push software updates automatically. So they need to DO it, and the sucker in me is hopeful that they will. Lucky for me, I enjoy massive hard drives and a relatively small collection of songs, so it's not something that is a huge problem for me. It's a stupid problem though, and it really mars the experience.

* As a result of the Pixar acquisition, Steve Jobs is now the single largest shareholder in Disney Corporation.
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My iPod was free, and works on my Mac. The Zune is neither.

If the latter were true, I'd probably consider buying one for the nice big screen so I could watch movies on it. You can watch movies on it, right? Am I stuck with WMV or can I use MPEG?

Is the battery removable?

I'm also somewhat uncomfortable with a certain percentage of the Zune profits going to pay record companies; it almost seems like an admission and subsidization of piracy to me, and I certainly don't listen to any of their music.

I use my iPod to automatically back up my Subversion repository in case something horrible happens when I leave home; is there support for the Zune to act as an external hard drive, or have they stupidly locked that down for piracy concerns?

Last, some models of Creative have the same connector as the iPod, so they can talk to iPod speaker systems and use the same charge cable, etc. I don't think they are software compatible, so iPod accessories that carry plug-in software with them won't work on the Creatives.

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Zunes don't mount as drives the way iPods do. They work through MTP (Media Transfer Protocol) with an extra encryption/authentication layer that screws over the open source guys. You can't stick anything onto it except through the Zune software. The Zune only plays WMV, but the Zune software has at least some ability to transcode. There may be third party tools as well. I haven't dug into this too deeply.

You're not going to see hacks like Wikipedia on Zune any time soon, or any of the other crazy stuff iPods do. I don't think PCs will be booting off them either. These are very distinct advantages of the iPod, for maybe a small fraction of a percent of the iPod carrying population. That's why I didn't bother to bring them up. I'm amongst the lamers who simply use it for music.

The Creative Zens allow you to actually partition a segment of the device away as dedicated generic storage separate from media. I know my brother rather likes that feature. Should it be on Zune? Hell yes, it's another stupid omission that is trivially updated. I'm just not bothered by it because it's not how I happen to use mine.

And no, the battery is not user accessible. Don't know why not. I'm hoping that there aren't battery death problems with Zune -- my Nano was in bad shape after a year.

I guess at the end of the day, the limitations of Zune don't bother me because they don't affect me. I can't defend MS on any count.

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