In 2005, a friend from Microsoft, who was then charting the progress of MSN Music and the software giant's other Apple-competitive products in the marketplace, passed along a secret: Microsoft was developing its own iPod killer in-house. There was no guarantee that the company would actually sell the device he said; indeed, at the time he figured the design would just be used as a proof of concept to show Microsoft's hardware partners how a good iPod competitor should look and feel. But he had a question for me: Were Microsoft to make such a device--and, again, absolutely no decision had been made along those lines--what would I expect of it?
I had pondered such a thing many times. By then, Apple's iPod and its associated iTunes Music Store (since renamed to the simpler and broader iTunes Store) had become ubiquitous in the market. Almost everyone, it seemed, had an iPod, and those few who did not, wanted one. Microsoft's hardware partners--Creative, iRiver, Samsung, and many others--just couldn't seem to field a device that garnered any attention at all, and Microsoft's online services partners--Napster, MusicMatch, and others--were even more hapless. Microsoft's tried and true business model, which succeeded in the PC business, had utterly failed in the digital media market. Apple, with a proprietary system that locked out competition and locked in consumers, had won.
I told my friend that Microsoft's device couldn't just be as good as the iPod. It had to be dramatically better. It had to offer obvious and immediate benefits over Apple's system and it had to be priced lower. In other words, if Microsoft wasn't truly serious about this endeavor, the company should forget about fielding its own device. If Microsoft were to sell a Microsoft-branded device that failed in the same ways as had Microsoft's partners before it, the company and its Windows Media technologies would never recover, I cautioned. One major defeat like that, I said, and the war was over for good.
My friend thanked me and, honestly, we never spoke of it again. He's moved on to other things, and I don't know if the Zune device Microsoft eventually offered was based in any way on the device I was told about well over a year ago, but insider blogs from the Zune team suggest they are only cursorily related. I can say this with certainty: Microsoft took absolutely none of my advice. The Zune, which was confirmed in mid-2006 and then released earlier this month, is a me-too device that provides only a small fraction of the iPod's functionality. It's bigger, heavier, thicker, and delivers worse battery life than the iPod, despite costing the same. The Zune is incompatible with music sold from the iTunes Store as well as all of the Windows Media-based online services.
And yet. The Zune isn't a complete disgrace. It does offer a few advantages over the iPod, including a bigger screen, a smoother, more grippable body, and unique wireless features that are currently useless but could become quite important in the future. And Microsoft says it is in this game for the duration: As with the Xbox before it, the Zune will be supported for years to come and updated with new models and features. The Zune we see today is just the beginning, I'm told. Microsoft knows it won't win major market share away from Apple this holiday season, and it's taking the long view.
That's all well and good. For now, however, we have the first Zune and can compare it to the iPod market leader. Does the Zune have what it takes?
Of hubris and Zune marketing
If you're at a party and someone looks at you and says, "Wow, we're really having a great time," chances are you're not really having a great time at all. Similarly, Microsoft's "aren't we cool" marketing for the Zune betrays the fact that Microsoft, the Zune, and the executives who spawned the device, are not cool at all. This was never an issue for Microsoft in the PC market, because most of the money made in that industry comes from huge corporations. But in the image-conscious consumer electronics market, you've either got "it" or you don't. Zune ... Not so much.
It starts from the top, from executive J Allard who--get this--is so freaking cool he changed his name from James to "J" in order to match his name to his Microsoft email alias, [email protected] I don't mean this as a personal attack--heck, he's probably a great guy--but Allard is the human embodiment of the Zune in the same way that Steve Jobs is for the iPod, so this is relevant. In recent years, Allard has not coincidentally remade himself into a slimmer, seemingly-less geeky, hip-looking ... hip guy, I guess. This, no doubt, makes him seem cooler to the Xbox and Zune crowds he needs to impress. (J Allard is also in charge of the Xbox 360.)
The same faux coolness exuded by J Allard is all over the Zune, its marketing, and its packaging. The Zune is everything, in other words, that the iPod is not (or nothing that the iPod is, if you look at it differently). But I've got a newsflash for Microsoft: You can't just announce that you're cool. You have to actually be cool. Apple, the iPod, and yes, Apple CEO Steve Jobs--the human face of the iPod--are all cool.
The way Zune is marketed is also a travesty. The "Welcome to the social" tagline is clearly meant to evoke the grammatically questionable yet enduringly homey "Think Different" campaign that Apple waged half a decade ago for the Mac. This is just one of dozens of Zune-related examples of Microsoft's Apple envy leading to outright and wholesale idea copying. To be fair, it's also one of the more subtle examples. Somehow, that fact just makes it feel dirtier.
"Welcome to the social" refers, obviously, to the Zune's wireless capabilities, which purportedly allow Zune users to share music and photos wirelessly, making these people part of a warm and fuzzy community of hippies, from what I can tell. Sadly, the tagline also betrays the key weakness of the device. Because so few people own Zunes in this iPod-oriented world of ours, each Zune is an isolated island of useless functionality, constantly sending out fruitless wireless signals, looking, hopelessly, for a non-existent buddy to connect with.
Closing my eyes, I can imagine intelligent and well-meaning Microsoft employees at the Redmond campus sharing music with other Microsofties each day, bathed in the warm feel-good glow of their Kool-Aid-swigging coworkers, knowing beyond all questioning that they have done A Good Thing. In the real world, meanwhile, the main effect this wireless feature has on Zunes is to cause the devices to deliver worse battery life. In fact, Zune sharing will be so rare that when a compatible device is finally (if ever) detected, most people will probably be scared rather than excited. Welcome to the social!
Microsoft is so aggressively courting the modern, post-grunge, kiddie-hippie crowd with this device, in fact, that they risk alienating the very customers they're trying to attract, the early adopter/gotta-have-it-now-tech crowd. We get it, we get it: You're cool, the device is cool, and by extension, we'll be cool if we buy one. Now back off, please.
The packaging: Opening your new iPod, er, Zune
Zune devices are packaged in Spartan, Apple-like boxes that don't utilize the Microsoft name or logo, unless you look at the small bottom side (likewise, the Zune Web site and advertisements downplay the Microsoft name in startling ways, given the company's name recognition). There was a joke video that made the rounds earlier this year, showing what iPod packaging would look like if Microsoft marketed the device (the video was made, ironically, by a Microsoft employee) and clearly the Zune team was aware of the problem. So the Zune packaging doesn't look anything like a Microsoft product. In fact, it looks exactly like an Apple product. Exactly. Like. An. Apple. Product.
In a nice (and, yes, Apple-like) touch, the Zune packaging provides a nice reveal moment via a pull-out drawer that extends out of the brown outer shell, exposing the "Welcome to the social" tagline I obviously love so much. This drawer provides access to the Zune device itself, which can be extracted with a nice (Apple-like) cloth pull-tab. On either side of the device, two small compartments flip open to reveal nicely wrapped and packaged accessories, including painfully cheap headphones (with old-school foam ear bud covers like a 2001-era iPod) and the USB sync cable (which introduces yet another proprietary dock connector on the Zune side of the equation). Aside from the 'phones, everything is pretty high quality: All the components are wrapped up nicely, and the sync cable has nice plastic protectors on either end. The vibe is one of (Apple-like) substance. You feel like someone really cared when they put the whole thing together. If you've never seen an iPod, you'll be super impressed.
Below the device and its included accessories, and accessed from the back of the box, is a second smaller drawer that provides a slipcase with some documentation, an Apple-like Zune window sticker (put it on your car, I dare you), and a bare-bones protective pouch (which, almost humorously, is itself in a protective sleeve of its own). There was no CD in the review unit I received, though one would fit (unlike with Apple's latest packaging) and I assume that's how retail packages are configured. Fortunately, you can download the necessary software online as well, and given how quickly this software will likely be updated going forward, it's not a horrible idea to just leave it out of the packaging, frankly.
According to the Zune's "Start" guide, there are just three steps to getting started with the device:
- Load the startup software.
- When prompted by the software, connect and charge Zune.
- Sync your music, videos, and pictures.
It all sounds so easy. Sadly, the process is quite a bit more convoluted than that. My first attempt at installing the software, on my main PC, failed, because I'm running Windows Vista and the Zune software is currently incompatible with Microsoft's yet-to-be-released operating system. (Too much has been made of this limitation online, pointlessly: Zune will work with Vista by the time the new OS is released to consumers on January 30, 2007, so this isn't an issue at all, actually.) Moving over to my Windows XP-based PC, I stepped through the Zune install process, as chronicled on my Microsoft Zune Screenshot Gallery. It's a lengthy process, full of feel-good messages and Zune's nuevo-hippie marketing images.
Here's what you have to step through:
- Launch the Zune software setup and read the intro message.
- Wait while the software looks for and eventually finds an update (despite the fact that you just downloaded the latest version).
- Read the EULA (End User License Agreement).
- Wait while the full Zune software setup is downloaded.
- Wait while the Zune software is installed. Enjoy feel-good messages and hippie marketing images. This takes far longer than you might expect.
- Finally, you can connect your Zune, using its proprietary, iPod-like connector.
- The Zune's firmware will need to be updated.
- Wait for the firmware to update.
- Provide a name for your Zune (as you do with an iPod). I chose "Paul's Zune" because I lack creativity.
- Determine if you will synchronize with video and photos (music is automatically synched).
- Setup your library. You can choose between "Express" (where Zune is your default player and the software connects to the Internet for media metadata information) and "Custom."
- Setup Xbox 360 connectivity. By default, the Zune software will use Windows Media Connect to stream music to the Xbox 360, but you can also stream videos and photos.
- Create your library: Zune software scans your system for media and creates the media library.
- Sync with the device for the first time: Content is synchronized between the Zune and the PC's Zune software.
- The Zune software launches and you have to setup a Zune Tag, which is identical to an Xbox 360 Gamertag (and can be used interchangeably) and is associated with a Passport account. I already have an Xbox 360 Gamertag, so I used that.
- Congratulations! Once you're signed up for Zune you can go to the Zune Marketplace (the online service), buy Microsoft Points (utter stupidity, see below), or get a Zune Pass subscription for a monthly fee. Curiously, there's no option for simply going to the music library. You'll have to figure that out on your own.
So how does this compare to the process of setting up an iPod?
Believe it or not, the two systems are somewhat comparable. Apple's iTunes setup process is also a multi-step affair during which you also need to install two other entirely separate software applications, QuickTime Player and Apple Software Update (at least on the PC; the latter application is already integrated into Mac OS X). And of course, the process of initially configuring an iPod for a PC or Mac is similar to the process Microsoft employs for the Zune. If anything, Apple is notably infamous for releasing update after update for iTunes, each new version of which seems to always ship a few months before its really ready.
Anyway. By this point, you've gotten the Zune plugged into your PC and it's charging. The Zune software is installed and can now sync any content you may have with the device. From here, there are two obvious things to explore: The software and the Zune device itself.
The painful process of installing and configuring your Zune will serve as a helpful preview to the pain you're about to experience trying to use the device and its sub-par PC software interface. Annoyingly also called Zune, the Zune software is quite clearly just a different front-end to Windows Media Player 11 (see my review), but missing many of that software's best features. And that's tragic, because Microsoft might have made a good argument for wanting to try and make a much simpler software solution than WMP11. But the Zune software just feels empty and incomplete, a fact that is made all the more obvious the more familiar you are with WMP11.
Stylistically, the Zune software looks like, well, a brown Zune: It's even got a simple UI with a click wheel-looking interface in the middle bottom of the window. This click wheel UI controls playback and is surrounded by related icons for Shuffle, Repeat, Stop, Previous, Next, and volume. And I would be remiss if I didn't at least point out that the Zune software adopts the most basic UI feature that any media player should use: You can start and pause content playback with the Space key. (This is a feature iTunes offers but WMP, even in version 11, does not.) Along the top of the application window is a toolbar of sorts with various, vague-looking icons. There's no proper menu bar per se, but you can view Zune's menu--which appears as a pop-up menu--by tapping the ALT key.
Because of its integration with Zune Marketplace, Microsoft's online service, the Zune software is far more reliant on this service than WMP11 is on any PlaysForSure-based online service. So when you first install the Zune software, you'll find yourself dumped into Zune Marketplace by default, which I find vaguely annoying, and since there's no clear "Media Library" link anywhere in the new UI, you'll have to hunt around to figure out how to get to your own music. As it turns out, the system Microsoft employs here is logical enough. It's just that it's so different from WMP that it's a little confusing at first.
Here's how it works. At any one time, the Zune software can display only one media type, and it supports just three types: Music, video, and pictures. You select the media type using the Music, Video, and Pictures icons in the upper left corner of the Zune window. If you're in Music, you'll see links in the associated lists for playlists, library, and marketplace, which let you access your local playlists, media library, and the Zune Marketplace, respectively. But if you're in Video or Pictures, you'll only see playlists and library listed because Zune doesn't offer these content types for purchase or rent online.
As a pure media jukebox, Zune is similar to WMP11, but not as powerful. You can't connect other devices to the software, and you can't connect to non-Zune online services. Zune does offer the same nice view styles as does WMP11, including the new stacks and tiles views. There's a bit of silliness behind the scenes, however. If you get into the Zune Options window, you'll see that this software is basically just a rebranded version of WMP11 (again, with features removed) and the Options window itself has barely been updated since WMP11 other than to remove non-relevant features and add a Zune logo and purple and orange color stripe. Yippee, right?
As an online service, the Zune Marketplace is a joke. Instead of adhering to the normal 99 cent-per-song pricing model utilized by Apple and all other online services, Zune Marketplace uses Microsoft's questionable "Microsoft Points" system, which is also used on Xbox Live. The problems here are almost innumerable, but I'll mention a few obvious examples. First, you can't just buy a song. Instead, you have to buy bundles of Microsoft Points first, and then feed off of that reserve whenever you want to make a purchase. The minimum purchase is 400 Microsoft Points, which costs $5.00. No 99 cent micropayments for you, Zune boy.
Second, because songs and albums are priced in Points, Microsoft is obscuring the true cost of this content. A song on Zune typically costs 79 Microsoft Points, which, yes, is about 99 cents. But it seems like less because it's just 79 Points. And that's not right.
Furthermore, because you're buying Points in 400 Point increments, you'll almost never actually be able to clean out your reserve of Points. Thus, you've given Microsoft money you'll never get back, or receive content for. That, too, is not right.
Finally, Microsoft is also pushing a subscription service for the Zune called Zune Pass. This gives you access to all of Zune Marketplace's 2 million songs (compared to almost 4 million on iTunes) for $14.95 a month. I'm a fan of subscription services, but this is just too expensive, sorry: Microsoft should price this service at $9.99 or less for it to be even moderately successful. And how come Zune Pass uses dollars when everything else is locked into a silly Points system?
Beyond these issues, Zune Marketplace is a lot like iTunes (or MTV URGE, which offers similar WMP11-like views), except that it offers far fewer songs for sale and doesn't offer any non-music content at all. No, I can't imagine why you'd bother with it either.
The Zune hardware itself is of surprisingly high quality. A brick-like device, the Zune is actually much thicker than a comparable iPod, and a bit heavier. But unless you've got an iPod to compare it to, or are intimately familiar with Apple's products, these facts are unlikely to cause many complaints. In truth, the Zune is nicely-sized, and fits well in the hand. Indeed, thanks to a superior choice of exterior materials than Apple uses, the Zune actually feels better than does the iPod. It also lacks the iPod's curiously sharp upper edges, which contributes to this effect as well.
There are three Zune colors available: White, black, and brown, the latter of which is a "differentiator" rather than a true advantage over the iPod, which comes only in white and black. Regardless of the color choice, the top surface of each Zune is encased in a Lucite-like material that both protects the device and gives it a glass-like look. It's quite pleasant, actually.
As with an iPod, the Zune is a simple looking device, with a minimum of buttons and other controls. The front side features a surprisingly large display, which is vertically oriented and obviously quite a bit bigger than an iPod display. (It is not, however, technically widescreen, thanks to its 4:3 320 x 240 resolution.) Below that are three controls: A Back button, a click-wheel, and a Play/Pause button. The click-wheel is round and is clearly meant to resemble the iPod's wonderful scroll wheel. Unfortunately, the Zune click-wheel works nothing like a scroll wheel and is in fact just five buttons (Up, Down, Left, Right, and Select) hidden behind a circular control. On the flipside, the click-wheel actually works quite well, but we'll discuss that in just a bit.
Though the layout of the Zune's front surface is quite similar to that of an iPod, the Zune's larger screen provides less space for the click-wheel, which is quite a bit smaller than the iPod's scroll wheel. Frankly, it's a layout Apple would do well to copy: A large screen is more important than a large user control.
On the top of the Zune, as with an iPod, you'll find a lock switch and a headphone jack. The bottom of the Zune, again like an iPod, features Microsoft's proprietary new Zune connector slot, which connects to the included Zune sync cable to charge the device via a USB port on your PC, with the separately available Zune Dock, or with a number of other Zune accessories, which are being sold by Microsoft and various hardware partners (see below). The Zune connector is yet another iPod rip-off: Apple's iPod connector and the related "Made for iPod" logo program have proven so successful that it's no wonder Microsoft is trying to emulate this feature.
The back side of the Zune continues the Spartan traditions of the other surfaces. There is a Zune logo in the upper mid-section and not much else. Near the bottom, below the device's serial number--which is admittedly much, much easier to read than an iPod's serial number--you'll see some tiny, barely legible text. It reads "Hello from Seattle. Model 1089. Assembled in China." Now, that's all cute and everything, unless of course you're familiar with Apple's similar messaging. "Don't Steal Music," Apple's iPod packaging reads. "Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China." Yep, even the cute, seemingly friendly note on the back of the Zune is basically an iPod rip-off. I'm sorry if I'm beating this to death, but seriously, there seems to be nothing about the iPod that Microsoft is unwilling to copy. It's pathological.
Using the Zune
In use, the Zune offers a wonderfully large display with highly-readable text floating over customizable background images, a nice advantage over the iPod, which features a much smaller screen, equally legible text, but no background imagery. The main menu features entries for Music, Videos, Pictures, Radio, Community, and Settings, and there are Vista-like icons at the bottom of the screen for Wi-Fi signal strength and battery life. (Everything on the Zune menu is actually in cool-esque lower case, but I've capitalized menu entries here to make them more obvious.)
You navigate through the Zune menu using the device's various controls. The click-wheel's directional buttons let you move through the menu, Select is used to choose the currently-selected item, and Back can be used to move back up through the menu system, like Back in a Web browser (or Menu on the iPod). It's all very logical and easy to use, and once you get over the fact that the click wheel doesn't scroll, you'll find that it works pretty well. Indeed, the device even offers two of the iPod's latest features: A menu accelerator that speeds up navigation through long lists (like Songs) the longer you go, and an overlay feature that helps you understand where you are in the list as you scroll.
The Zune menu is logical and clear-cut, though the Zune apes the horizontal menu system Microsoft first shipped in the Portable Media Centers and then later in the Windows Vista version of Media Center, which some people may find confusing. Here's how it works: Most Zune menu sections include both horizontal and vertical navigational elements. You use the Left and Right buttons to navigate through the horizontal menu elements (which are along the top of the screen) and Up and Down to scroll through the vertical menu elements.
If you select Music from the main menu, for example, you'll see that the horizontal menu has entries for Artists, Playlists, Songs, Genres, and Albums. If Artists is selected, the vertical menu includes a list of the artists of songs stored on the device.
The Videos and Pictures menus work similarly to that for Music. Radio, meanwhile, loads a full-screen radio display, which is actually quite nice. You can seek through the stations by clicking Left and Right; to enter the selected station into your presets, click Select. You can also turn off seek via the Add to Presets menu and then use Left and Right to manually navigate through the FM radio band. (Curiously, no AM choice is offered.)
A Community menu item will leave you feeling lonely: Here you can view information about your own Zune ("Me"), nearby Zunes (good luck with that), and your Zune Inbox.
While playing content, the Zune provides a fresh looking display that utilizes the large size of the screen to good effect. For music, the display is used in its normal vertical mode, with the upper three quarters of the screen dominated by the album art. Below that, you'll find a cool Zune timeline, which resembles a glowing white ball on a line, the name of the song, the band, and the album. On the bottom right are white symbols for such things as Repeat, Shuffle, and, beside the wireless and battery icons, Play/Pause.
You can access a handy menu by clicking the Select button in this mode. From this menu, you can configuring Shuffle and Repeat, choose to send (or "squirt," as Microsoft calls it) the current song to another nearby Zune, or flag the song.
Content playback is one of the few areas where the Zune is superior to the iPod. Thanks to the larger screen and good use of on-screen real estate, the Zune playback experience is excellent. Ditto for video, where the displays switches to horizontal mode, forcing you to turn the device sideways. But this is nice because the Zune's large display is a natural for video content. Indeed, the Zune display is decidedly superior to the iPod's if you want to watch video. Unfortunately, you'll have to supply that video content yourself, as Microsoft doesn't offer any way to acquire video content for its new device.
It's surprising that Microsoft doesn't let you manually switch the device between horizontal and vertical modes. It seems like a number of people would prefer to always use the device horizontally.
Battery life seems respectable, though you could clearly improve matters by simply turning off the wireless receiver (and thereby removing one of the Zune's supposed advantages). Reports I've seen suggest that the Zune gets worse better battery life than the iPod regardless, which is surprising given the heft of the Zune (which I take to mean it includes a larger battery).
Things you can't do with the Zune
While the Zune seems to have all the basics covered, there are a wide number of iPod features that Microsoft has conspicuously not added to the Zune. These omissions make the Zune far less desirable, in my own opinion. And the list of missing features, sadly, is quite long.
Unlike the iPod, the Zune doesn't support Audible-compatible (or any other kind of) audio books, video games, downloadable movies, TV shows, music videos, and other video content, or podcasts. In fact, the only kind of commercial content that Zune supports at all is music, which is all well and good, but with iPods migrating into all-in-one multimedia devices, the Zune seems decidedly old-school.
One of the big rumors that swirled around the Zune this past summer was that Microsoft was going to jumpstart iPod defections by allowing iPod owners to transfer all of their iTunes-purchased content into Zune-compatible versions for free. This service never materialized, and it would have made all the difference in the world. As it is, Zune offers little benefit for those who have never purchased an MP3 player of any kind and absolutely no benefit to those who have heavily invested in Apple's iPod ecosystem.
One of the best things about owning an iPod is the wealth of accessories that is available, regardless of which model you own. On the flipside, one of the best things about owning a Zune is that there are so few accessory choices that it's easy to make a decision about what to buy.
OK, I'm sarcastic. But there really isn't much to the Zune accessory market at this point. Microsoft sells a handful of expensive add-ons, including a Zune Dock (looks and works like an iPod Dock), a Zune A/V Output Cable (looks and acts like an iPod A/V cable), a Zune remote control (ditto), a set of Zune Premium Headphones (which are nicer in-ear models than the stock set), a Zune AC Adapter, a Zune Gear Bag, and a Zune Car Charger. The company also sells a variety of packages that combine these accessories into logical, easy-to-buy sets. For example, the Zune Home A/V Pack combines the Zune Dock with the Zune remote, AC Adapter, and A/V Output Cables. There's also a Zune Car Pack with FM Transmitter and a Zune Travel Pack.
On the third party front, companies like Altec Lansing, Belkin, DLO, IME, Monster, Speck, VAF, and Vaja have each released a handful of accessories, all of which will seem familiar if you know anything about the iPod market. Frankly, there's not a lot there, but as with the Zune itself, Microsoft and its partners have pretty much covered the basics.
The problem with the Zune from a potential user's standpoint is that it provides only the most basic functionality one can get from an iPod while failing to match the multitude of advanced features one enjoys by joining the dominant iPod club. In this way, the Zune/iPod relationship is like the Mac/PC relationship, but reversed: Those who choose the Zune will miss out on all the advantages of the thriving iPod ecosystem, including its many additional features, a choice of devices, a choice of thousands of accessories and add-ons, access to an online store with massive collections of music, movies, TV shows, music videos, podcasts, audio books, and games, and all the other things that make the iPod so wonderful. There are no integrated automobile solutions, no upcoming airline solutions. It's just you and the Zune. Welcome to what social? Excuse me?
Microsoft tells me that it's aware of these problems and is working to bolster the Zune with new capabilities over time. The device will no doubt attract a certain amount of third party support, though it seems obvious now that the Zune will never be in the iPod's league. But consumers don't buy products based on future promised advancements, nor should they. If history has proven anything, it's that the best future enhancements will likely require as-yet-released Zune devices, stranding early adopters even further. So yes, Zune will get better. That doesn't help potential customers today.
Overall, the Zune is absolutely decent. It's got a nice, large screen, a simple menu system, and intuitive controls. It gets good battery life, and does provide the most basic functionality that most people expect. It is, in other words, completely average. But since you can buy a lighter, nicer-looking, and more capable iPod for exactly the same amount of money, and can find other iPod models that meet different needs at different price points, you should almost certainly avoid the first generation Zune. It just comes with too many compromises.
The bottom line is that Microsoft should have waited until it had a more compelling product to sell. I can't imagine what they were thinking.