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Zune 2 Review, Part 3: Zune 4/8

Time changes everything. I recall a FedEx arriving at the hotel I was staying at in Los Angeles (for PDC 2005) two years ago, containing a gift from Apple: The first generation iPod nano (see my review), which, at the time, represented the then-current high water mark for portable audio. The 2006 iPod nano (see my review) was even better, though it utilized the same basic form factor. I awarded it a rare 5/5 stars, declaring it "the best small-sized portable media player on the market." This year, Apple updated the nano in more dramatic fashion with a third generation device that includes a number of questionable changes (see my review). However, I still awarded that device a solid 5/5 stars, because none of these unnecessary changes--CoverFlow and the weird "Halfie" UI among the most obvious--demonstrably changed the nano value equation.

That said, I feel like Apple somewhat abandoned the traditional music buyer with the 2007 iPods, which is odd when you consider that this crowd is, by far, the largest demographic purchasing portable media devices. The iPod shuffle (see my review), while cute, features too-little storage and has no screen. Meanwhile, the iPod nano's biggest advances are in non-music-related areas like video, games, and UI (the latter of which is a step back on this device). There's nothing new there for people who want a true music player.

Enter the Microsoft Zune 4 and Zune 8, which feature 4 GB and 8 GB of flash memory, respectively, and adopt the music-friendly form factor of the first and second generation iPod nano, albeit it with a twist: The Zune's screen is much, much bigger than that of those nanos, and indeed, when you look at those devices next to the new Zunes, the iPods look positively primitive by comparison. Did people really used to squint at that tiny, tiny nano screen?

Alas, they did. And now that Microsoft has brought its wonderful vertically-oriented screen down to a smaller flash device, there's a new contender in town. And this time, the Zune has what it takes to take on the best of what Apple has to offer in the highly portable end of the market.

Zune 4/8 vs. iPod nano

Let's compare the two, shall we? Apple currently sells two nano models, a 4 GB version that is available only in gray, and an 8 GB version that comes in gray, blue, red, green, and black. Microsoft also sells two flash-based Zune models, both of which are available in pink, red, black or green. Advantage Zune, especially if you want a 4 GB model. Gray? Ugh.

How about pricing? Turns out it's identical. The 4 GB iPod nano and Zune are both $149. The 8 GB versions of each are $199.

Let's talk tech specs. Both devices are positively Lilliputian and can easily fit in any pocket, so that's a wash: For the detail-oriented, the Zune actually weighs a bit less (1.7 ounces) than the iPod (1.74 ounces). The iPod nano includes a gorgeous 2-inch color screen with 320 x 240 resolution; the Zune's is slightly smaller but very comparable at 1.8 inches, also at 320 x 240, and also very high quality. The Zune now playing screen is dramatically nicer than that of the iPod, thanks to the vertical screen orientation.

Zune features integrated 802.11b/g wireless capabilities, with wireless sync (which we'll get to in a moment), a feature the iPod lacks. The Zune has an integrated FM radio, which is an added cost hardware add-on for all iPods. Microsoft rates the Zune 4/8 battery life at 24 hours for music and 4 for video; Apple says the nano achieves very similar life: 24 hours for music and 5 for video. So the Zune has better features (wireless, FM radio) while the nano may get better battery life, but only for video content. (Which is ludicrous on such a small screen anyway.)

While the Zune seems solid and is quite scratch-resistant, the iPod nano still includes that awful silver back that's been used on iPods since 2001. It scratches and smudges every time you look at it. The Zune, by comparison, does not scratch at all, front or back, during normal use. It features a high quality glass cover on the screen which, too, is scratch resistant. From a durability perspective, the Zune is the clear winner, and even its buttons feel more substantial than the nano's.

Format support? The Zune supports Windows Media Audio (WMA, including Lossless), WMA Pro, AAC, and MP3 audio formats, compared to MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless on the iPod. Both support JPEG images. The Zune supports Windows Media Video (WMV), MPEG-4, H.264, and DVR-MS (Media Center Recorded TV) formats, the latter of which is transcoded at sync time; the iPod nano supports MPEG-4 and H.264 only. In short, the Zune is a much more Windows-friendly device, though neither of these support PlaysForSure content, which is sold and rented by such services as Napster and Yahoo! Music (audio) and MovieLink and Amazon Unbox (video). Obviously, the iPod is compatible with iTunes content, whereas the Zune is not.

Both the Zune 4/8 and the nano come with a pair of el-cheapo headphones and a sync cable. And both Apple and Microsoft sell better headphones, a dock, and other accessories if you're interested. One note in Apple's favor: The iPod nano supports video out, albeit it with a set of AV cables that are not currently available. The Zune 4/8 do not support video out.

From a user interface perspective, the Zune 4/8 is vastly superior to the nano, the latter of which features the performance-challenged "Halfie" interface. The Zune's main menu is huge and very readable, and the now-mature two-dimensional sub-menus, which let you scroll both up and down and left and right, fit a lot more content onscreen at once in more easily digestible ways. With Apple's devices, you're always diving into sub-menu after sub-menu, and then tapping Menu repeatedly to get back out of the hole you've dug. On the Zune, you dive in one level deep, into Music, or Videos, or Podcasts, and you're done. You never get lost. I like that, a lot.

Overall, I think I see a complete wash. In some areas, the Zune comes out ahead, while in others the nano is superior. How you think about these devices, therefore, should be guided by your needs and the respective ecosystems. While Apple's iTunes Store is closed off to non-Apple hardware and software, it does offer unparalleled selection, with music, music videos, audio books, podcasts, TV shows, movies, and other content. The Zune Marketplace, meanwhile, offers just music, some music videos, and podcasts. TV shows and movies are coming, but that's of little interest here in late 2007: Apple's supporting ecosystem is just dramatically superior. From a pure device perspective, however, I feel the Zune has the slight edge. This is a nicer device than the iPod nano, and it's certainly more in line with the needs of Windows users. (Not much more, however: The Zune's lack of PlaysForSure support is arguably its Achilles Heel. This is a feature that could have put the Zune 4/8 over the top.)

Unique features

OK, enough of the comparison. What makes the Zune 4/8 truly unique? Aside from its interesting if overly-simple integration with the Zune PC software and services, these little flash-based devices offer a number of unique features that are worth highlighting.

Customizable home screen

This isn't new to the 2007 Zunes, but it bears mentioning: Unlike with the iPod nano, you can customize the Zune 4/8 home screen with any photo or graphic, allowing you to make the device more personal. I usually place a favorite photo there, and I have to admit, it just makes a huge difference when the devices comes on.

Scrollable navigation pad

A new scrollable navigational pad, the Zune Pad, replaces the four button clicker that was found on previous generation devices. This pad is vastly superior to the iPod nano's Click Wheel for scrolling through long lists of artists, songs, or other content, and it speeds up as you go. It works logically as well: You can flick your finger across the surface up and down or left and right to scroll, change the volume, change tracks, and so on, depending on which part of the UI you're in at the time. Best of all, the Zune Pad still works like a standard four button clicker if you want, so you can click Up, Down, Left, and Right on the pad as well. And if you find the Zune Pad's scrolling feature too sensitive or not to your liking, well, you can turn it off. Nice.

Wireless sync

While only Apple's most expensive iPods (the iPod touch and iPhone) support wireless functionality of any kind, none of them support wireless sync. Not so with Zune: Now, all Zune models, including the older Zune 30, can sync wirelessly with the PC. There are a number of reasons why this is interesting and desirable, but I'm more interested that Microsoft not only implemented this useful feature, but did so in the best possible way. Here's how it works.

Typically, to sync a Zune with the PC, you would connect it via the Zune sync cable. This institutes an automatic sync, so that any new or changed content on the PC is copied to the device, while any "3 play" shared content on the Zune (see below) is copied to the PC. This is how things generally work in the iPod world as well: For sync to occur, the device needs to be physically tethered to the PC.

The Zune supports wireless sync, however, so it can be synced to the PC using 802.11b/g wireless technology as well. Obviously, this kind of sync is slower that a USB tether. It's not particularly battery-friendly either. For this reason, the Zune will not automatically sync wirelessly with the PC unless the device is powered somehow (either by a dock or a USB sync cable that's plugged into electric power with an optional power adapter). You can, however, trigger a manual wireless sync via the device's user interface, found in settings, wireless, sync now. (You must configure the device for wireless sync in advance via the Zune PC software, a quick and painless operation on the Zune 4/8, which is compatible with the latest wireless security standards.)

Now, you may be wondering why you'd want such a thing. But I've already run into a few areas where this can be quite advantageous. First, many people are now in the habit of charging their digital devices in a central location, perhaps using one of those charging stations you may have seen. This way, when they head off to work in the morning, everything is charged, ready, and accessible. By enabling wireless sync, you can charge your Zune with your smart phone and other devices, and not worry about carting it over to the PC every couple of days to sync manually.

Another arguably more interesting use for this technology is home AV. Many people keep a device dock next to the home theater so they can use their portable media player with the best stereo in the house. (Note that because the Zune 4/8 doesn't support video out, this scenario would only include audio content like music and podcasts with this particular device.) If you keep your Zune out by the home theater with an AV dock, you can ensure that it's always up to date, as it will be silently syncing back to the PC in the other room while it's docked. That's classic.

Finally, I'd add that many users simply forget to sync. Enabling this feature, all you have to do is charge the device within range of your wireless network (i.e. at home) and it will sync. Smart.

Now just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I don't think it makes sense to wirelessly sync a new, empty Zune. But you can certainly perform the first sync with the USB sync cable and then sync wirelessly after that. It's a great option, and a huge differentiator for the Zune.

3 plays, this time with fewer restrictions

With the first generation Zune, Microsoft offered a bizarre and limited "3 plays, 3 days" wireless sharing feature that I believe was used, yes, exactly 3 times outside of the Microsoft campus. Rather than dwell on that embarrassment, let's look at how this system has changed in 2007: Now, all Zunes support a no time restriction version of this sharing feature, which lets you send audio content to other Zune owners wirelessly, as before. But now that content will expire after 3 plays, yes, but not after 3 days. Like most Zune owners, I don't actually intend to take advantage of this feature (and it is surprisingly slow), but I do credit Microsoft for at least trying to take the solitary act of listening to music into a more social act.

Subscription service support

This isn't new to the 2007 Zunes either, but again, it's worth mentioning. Unlike the iPod nano, the Zune 4/8 supports a subscription music service, the Zune Pass, on Zune Marketplace. For $14.95 a month, a figure that is about $5-7 too expensive in my opinion, Zune owners can download almost any of the 3 million+ tracks on Zune Marketplace and listen to them while their subscription is active. If you're still young enough to want to discover lots of new music, this is the way to do it, and over time you can hone your on-PC collection to only those songs you truly like.

It comes with content

OK, you might not be into the music, pictures, videos, or podcasts Microsoft stocked on the device, but at least you have something to enjoy on the way home from the store. Unlike with any iPod, Microsoft actually supplies each Zune with a variety of content, which you can sync back to your PC or simply delete. It's up to you.

What's missing

No, the Zune 4/8 isn't perfect, though I feel it's pretty close. Here are a few outstanding issues.

Most crucially, the Zune 4/8 lacks any kind of EQ support, which was also a big complaint by users of the first generation device. I don't personally use EQ, but I've gotten enough queries from readers to know it's a big deal. The Zune doesn't have it.

Microsoft doesn't ship a carrying case with the Zune 4/8, as it does with the Zune 30, and that's a shame. Though this device is far sturdier than the iPod competition, you should have a carrying case or bag of some kind for storage purposes. And like the iPod nano, the default Zune earbuds are pretty basic. They're so shoddy, in fact, that they actually come with ear bud covers. That's so 90's.

The Zune 4/8 doesn't support video out, as does the iPod nano. This functionality is available on the Zune 30 (which is limited to 320 x 240 video) and the Zune 80 (which supports up to 640 x 480 video as God intended).

Final thoughts

Microsoft had a seemingly unobtainable goal with the Zune 4/8: Take on the market leader, a device that also happens to be the most well-appointed portable music player in the world. Surprisingly, the company hit a home run: The Zune 4/8 is quite definitely the equal of the iPod nano, though it should be noted that each device has its own unique strengths. The Zune 4/8 is more durable, and includes an integrated FM tuner and wireless sync capabilities, while the iPod is backed by the awesome iTunes Store infrastructure and iPod ecosystem.

I view the Zune 4/8 as a pure music play, though of course you can enjoy video content on it as you would with the iPod. As a pure music player, the Zune 4/8 is, perhaps, the finest device on the market at this time. When you combine it with the simple and elegant Zune PC software and Zune Marketplace, you see the makings of a winner. Considering that the Zune of last year was mostly the butt of jokes, that's no small accomplishment. Highly recommended.

Next up: Zune 2 Review, Part 4: Zune 80.

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