Yesterday, I went to Target to check out the Zune. I got a chance to play with it for a little while. Here's my thoughts.
First of all, I have to say, I was impressed with the user interface of the Zune. The screen was very colorful. It has some nice animated transitions between menus. I liked how when you play a song, it always shows the album art at the top of the screen and the song info below it. It is nice to see both the album art and the info at the same time. It's a good use of the screen real estate. I liked how when you play a video, the Zune automatically rotates the picture 90 degrees. This basically makes all videos widescreen. This makes it a lot more enjoyable to watch videos. Another thing I liked was the fact that the controls of the Zune are not labeled. This may sound like a strange thing to like, but when you consider the fact that it can operate in both portrait and landscape modes, if the controls were labeled in one mode, it would make it confusing in the other mode. The sound quality was excellent. The video quality was excellent. The FM radio reception seemed quite good too. Now that I've covered the things I like, time for the things I didn't like.
This thing is bulky as hell. It's a lot thicker than the iPod. I fail to understand why Apple can make such small, slim, well put together devices, but noone else can. Surely they all use the same hard drives. It's just a matter of fitting the battery and chips in there in a compact, light way.
The controls are confusing for someone coming from the iPod world. The Zune has a round control. This round control obviously is meant to remind people of the iPod's click wheel. The problem is, it's actually just 4 buttons hidden behind a round cover. It doesn't rotate or work in a circular fashion. It's a very confusing set of controls. I kept trying to spin the control like the iPod, but it never works. Yeah, I know it's dumb to expect it to work like the iPod, but old habits die hard.
I frankly think the color of the case is downright ugly. No, I haven't seen the infamous brown Zune, but I did see the black one. It didn't even look black. It looked more like a dull gray to me. Microsoft should know by now that looks are everything. Now that I've covered the hardware problems, let's look at the software problems.
The Zune software does not run on Windows Vista! It is unbelievable that Microsoft would design software that does not run on the new operating system that they released on almost the same day as the Zune!
The Zune online store is way too complex and is designed to take unfair amounts of your money. at the Apple iTunes store, when you buy a song, it's $0.99 per song. Simple, easy and cheap. On the Zune online store it doesn't work this way. There you have to buy 'Zune Points'. You can only buy Zune points in increments of $5.00. Each song is still about $0.79, but in order to buy a $0.79 song, you need to spend $5.00 minimum. This means that you are essentially forced to buy at least $5.00 worth of songs at a time. This to me, is an unfair way to force customers to buy more songs from their site - thereby making them more profit. The Zune online store also doesn't, as far as I know, offer any TV Shows or Movies to buy to put on your Zune, unlike the Apple online store.
The Zune does not play PlaysForSure music. PlaysForSure is essentially Microsoft's DRM system that many online music stores use. For example, I am a member of Yahoo Music Unlimited. They sell songs using Microsoft's PlaysForSure system. Imagine if I had spent large amounts of money buying songs essentially from Microsoft, and I can't even play them on Microsoft's own music player? This makes absolutely no sense.
The Zune has a poorly implemented wireless music sharing feature. This wireless music sharing feature is designed so that if you send a song to another Zune, it adds DRM to that song sent, regardless of whether or not it ever had DRM on it to begin with! This DRM then restricts the receiver of the song to only listen to the song 3 times in the next 3 days. Once that limit is up, the song is gone. Now these 3 times you listen to it count from the first time you play the song, even if you only play it for a second. One wrong move and your newly received song is useless. Plus, the fact that it adds DRM to all songs shared, is potentially in violation of the law! Many songs (such as podcasts) are NOT copy protected and in fact peope are encouraged to share these songs. These songs are licensed for free usage. By adding DRM to them, you are violating that license and potentially the law. If you were an unsigned band and you wanted to pass your music on, forget about the Zune. By the time someone gets around to listening to your 'free' music, the song has expired.
The other incredible thing about this wireless functionality is that it ONLY works for sharing songs. You can't share videos (yet. Microsoft has said they plan on adding this feature). You can't wirelessly sync your Zune to the computer. I could also see an interesting potential for connecting an RSS reader to the Zune. That way you could read and store your RSS feeds offline. The fact that this wireless functionality is crippled is another glaring lapse.
The Zune has absolutely no support for subscribing to and listening to podcasts. Podcasts are an incredible new type of recorded 'radio' program that is very popular on the iPod. Many of these podcasts can run as long as an hour or more. This would be a great feature to have because, by giving people a source of lots of large 'music' files to listen to, you would give people a need for a larger storage capacity on your music player. This means people would buy more and larger music players. Apple gets this. Microsoft doesn't. These days, podcasts are about the only thing I listen to on my iPod. They are an endless source of new and interesting stuff to listen to. I learn a lot listening to podcasts and I hear a lot of new music listening to podcasts. You can't do that on a Zune.
There is only one size Zune. That is the 30GB model. This 30GB model costs $249 (to match the price of the 30GB iPod). Originally, they were going to sell it for $299, but had to lower the price to be competitive with the iPod. The problem is that this thing is big, bulky, and to many people too expensive. If all you want is a small device to listen to a few songs at the gym, you won't buy this brick. Apple, on the other hand, has several cheap, low capacity iPods - the 1GB Shuffle for $79, and the 2GB, 4GB, and 8GB Nanos for prices ranging from $149-$249. Apple has a 30GB iPod to match the Zune, but they also have an 80GB iPod for those people (like me) who want to carry around a lot of stuff. Plus, if you really start to get into video, you are going to need a lot of space.
All in all, the UI shows promise, but the implementation of the entire package is sorely lacking. I'll be sticking with my iPod for now. I will be keeping my eye on the Zune in the future to see how Microsoft progresses with this, though.