But speaking of the Zune, it is now time for all the reasons NOT to buy (or ask for) one this Christmas.
First, a little primer: This week Microsoft released their Zune music player in order to directly compete with Apple’s commanding lead in the personal audio market. They want some of that big, big pie that Apple made not too many years ago, and has, for the most part, kept all to itself. The Zune is the most recent in the long list of supposed “iPod Killers”, and honestly, if any company could kill the iPod, it would probably be Microsoft. But never fear Apple faithful - I simply do not see that happening anytime soon. But we haven’t reached the commentary phase yet. I am still being objective. So back to the point - what is the Zune? Simply put, it is a portable music player that comes with a 30GB hard drive. It has a three-inch color screen, plays video, shows your photos, and allows Wi-Fi transferring of songs to other Zune players nearby. The Zune comes in three colors - white, black, and brown, and is controlled by what looks like an iPod clickwheel, but is actually just four directional buttons on a circular disc. Microsoft has created the Zune Marketplace - like the iTunes Store - for purchasing your music (and later, movies). There is also jukebox/syncing software that lets you manage playlists and listen to music on your PC (it is not currently Mac-compatible). Oh, and FM radio, I guess. Woo.
Okay, enough of the unbiased discription. Now is where the review part of the review happens. (Disclosure: I do not have a Zune. I have not seen or touched one in person. If you want to send me one to do a more proper “review” please go right ahead. I can be contacted at kevinmichaelkeating AT gmail DOT com. What this means is I am speaking nothing but the truth. Buy a Zune at your own risk, but not after reading this review all the way through. If you don’t, you will regret it. And, even if you do read it, and decide “Hey, it doesn’t sound that bad,” you’ll probably regret it.
So here goes. I am now going to abandon paragraphs and things for the super-popular list format.
- Brown? What?!! What kind of retro-hipster freaks are you targeting Brown to? Are you planning on making Zune the “Official Media Player of the UPS” for crying out loud?! Eww.
- It is bigger than the current iPod (even compared to the 80GB version).
- It is heavier than the current iPod (even compared to the 80GB version).
- It has a shorter battery life than the current iPod (which doesn’t even begin to approach the 24-hour life of the new iPod Nano).
- Crippled Wi-Fi sharing that restricts shared music to three plays or three days before deactivating and prompting you to purchase it. This applies even if you are the artist who recorded the song and want to share it with your Zune-carrying friends.
Corollary to 5: Where are you going to find someone else with a Zune so that you can share? Are you seriously going to approach a stranger and try to send them the newest Timberlake tune? Do you want that random guy/girl on the subway to punch you in the face? (Worst pickup line of the new millenium: Is that a Zune in your pocket...) But seriously, for Microsoft to make the main feature of the device (the file sharing) something that relies completely on the device becoming ubiquitous is a major gamble. Without it, the Zune is basically a bigger, less pretty, and more socially irresponsible iPod.
- What looks like a clickwheel ain’t a clickwheel. It is a multidirectional click pad (four poles, plus center) that works in a context-sensitive way. What does that mean? It means that you won’t always know what to push to do what you want. Sometimes left will go back a song, sometimes it might changes menus, sometimes it might vote for Al Gore. Not cool. And because you have to flip the player on its side to watch video, that means the directions switch by 90 degrees. Confused yet?
- Wait, you have to turn it to watch videos?
- Installing the Zune sucks.
- You can’t use real money in the Zune Marketplace. You have to buy blocks of points (79 points equals 99 cents - easy conversion, right?) in increments of $10 (starting at $5 for 400 points). How much music do you have to buy to totally use up all your points? I won’t do the math, but the answer is: A lot.
- The application crashes all the time.
- If you buy a subscription plan (something like $15 a month lets you listen to unlimited tracks - though you can’t burn them to disc or keep them if you stop your subscription), certain tracks from what sounds like a lot of albums aren’t available. Meaning, you need to plop down at least five bucks to purchase the popular tunes individually. That is not cool. EDIT: I have no gripe about the subscription model - lots of places do it like that. But disabling certain songs unless you purchase them individually is not cool.
- None of the songs you bought in the iTunes store are playable on the Zune.
- None of the songs you bought for other players via Microsoft’s OWN PlayForSure format are playable on the Zune. This is absolutely insane.
- It doesn’t have calendars, contacts, podcasts, notes, games, etc. Not that I use those, but for some people those things are big.
- Lots of the album art is too small for the screen, and it looks bad when scaled.
- No Mac support. I suppose it could work if you have a new one and can boot XP from it. But I’m not sure about that. This is an oversight that goes way beyond competition, and way beyond PC marketshare. There’s a lot of potential users (Zunies? Zunesters? Zuners? Zunesketeers?) who happen to use Macs at home, and may have older-gen iPods and looking for a replacement. And what about all the people who have recently switched to Mac after trying and loving an iPod? Doesn’t MS want to win them back? Guess not.
- No small version. The iPod Nano is the biggest selling mp3 player, and the iPod didn’t really start to take off until the Mini was released. Why couldn’t Microsoft have developed a cute little device for the kiddies?
No true smart playlists. Way to give power users the boot.I guess these are just ultra-hidden.
There’s more, but for now I think that will suffice. Maybe if I actually try one out I’ll post some more thoughts. Ultimately, I think this is a case of too little - too late. Microsoft has introduced a less-functional, less powerful version of a mega-popular product, and included only one innovation that is seriously crippled to begin with! If they had truly wanted to compete with Apple for a share of the market, we should have seen a cool-looking device that offered more disk space with a slimmer profile, better syncing, more options and features, even cheaper music(!) and eliminated some of the crazy DRM that pisses me off about Apple from time to time. Instead MS has agreed to pay Universal a dollar for every Zune sold. Clearly they aren’t bending over backwards for the consumers (as Apple appears to do by fighting to keep prices stable) - it looks like the opposite, in fact.
Feel uncomfortable with Microsoft's watching your every move in Zune? Opt out. Say "No." Stand up for your rights.
Unless you make the affirmative choice to keep Microsoft out, you are by default enrolled in Microsoft's "Zune Customer Experience Improvement Program." This program assumes you want to improve Microsoft's bottom line (and nosiness) by allowing it to monitor your Zune software usage.
Please don’t get anyone a Zune for Christmas. If they ask for one (which they might, poor souls), say it is too much money (which it is) and buy them something else cool. Then, sneak a fabulous iPod Shuffle in their stocking (only $79 and awesome! I’ve touched it, so I know.) Really. Don’t make this a bad Christmas for anyone.
Buying a Zune = Coal in your stocking next year and Baby Jesus Crying
If any of you lovely readers happen upon one, let me know what you think! Disagree? Let me have it in the comments!
Thanks to Engadget, TUAW, TechCrunch, Digg, David Pogue and lots of other sites and writers whose previews and reviews I’ve read and cite as influences of this post.