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Zune 3 Review, Part 3: Zune PC Software

Microsoft's late 2007 release of the Zune 2 software (see my review) was a revelation: By starting over from scratch, the company was able to create a clean, modern and beautiful music jukebox that was far more attractive than anything from the competition. But the Zune 2 PC software was subsequently missing some key features, features that were apparently lost when Microsoft abandoned the Windows Media Player backbone on which the original Zune software was built.

Over the intervening year, via both Zune 2.5 (see my review) and now Zune 3.0, Microsoft has made some nice improvements to the Zune PC software. And while I can't claim that they've fixed all of the issues they caused by starting over from scratch, the Zune PC software of today is demonstrably more mature and full-featured than the version that shipped a year ago. No, you still can't use it as your sole media player--it still won't play DVD movies, for example, or display in a true full-screen mode--but in all core areas--music, videos, podcasts, and device and services integration--Zune 3.0 is a much better product than its predecessors. In fact, it's evolved into my favorite jukebox.

If you're familiar with the Zune 2.x software, you'll grok Zune 3 immediately, because they're very similar. But as the third major release of this software, Zune 3 fills in some gaps from previous versions and adds a bunch of new features, many of which are quite useful. In fact, this generation of the Zune platform is most notable for its many software-based improvements, including the Zune device firmware, the Zune online services, and the Zune PC software. The latter is the subject of this part of the review, of course.

Zune PC software: A mile-high view

I originally described the Zune 2 software as "beautiful, unique looking, and useable," and that description applies equally well to Zune 3, which is a newer version of the 2.x Zune software. In general use, the Zune 3 PC software is thus very similar to the experience of using its predecessor. It features the same basic user interface, and looks unlike any other PC software I've ever seen. This is both good and bad: The Zune offers a friendly and intuitive environment for managing and playing music, especially, and it's certainly much nicer looking than Apple's stark and clinical-looking iTunes. But the Zune also has weird functional lapses that date back to the build-it-from-scratch 2.0 era, as noted above.

To understand the Zune software, it's important to understand how Microsoft approaches this market. That is, it does so very pragmatically: Because the vast majority of the market it targets is interested solely in music, the Zune is a tremendous solution for managing, discovering, and listening to digital music. But as you step outside this core area, Zune isn't as full featured. You can manage videos and pictures, for example, but these things are really only available for device sync purposes. So because Zune doesn't offer full-featured video or photo management functionality, you'll have to look elsewhere for that. Zune's handling of podcasts is adequate, however, and somewhat improved in 3.0. And the Zune PC software doesn't offer any support for audio books, though you can force-feed audio books onto your Zune with the Audible or Overdrive services (see part 2 of this review for more information).

This emphasis on the music experience is pushed even further with Zune 3: All of the major updates in this software are, in fact, related to music. Microsoft has also made smaller improvements to the software around personalization and integration, especially with the various online services the company now offers in the Zune product family. It should also be noted that the Zune PC software doesn't have to be used in tandem with Zune devices or, for that matter, those online services: It's a superior music jukebox application in its own right.

That said, you get a better experience the more you commit to the Zune ecosystem. For example, you could use the PC software to manage your media library and then sign-up to the Zune Social (which is free) to share your plays with others and get recommendations. The next step up from there is, of course, a Zune device, so you can take your music on-the-go. And the full meal deal can be had by adding a monthly Zune Pass subscription--at $15 a month--which provides wireless and PC-based access to most of the music in the Zune Marketplace, Microsoft's online music and video store. (I'll be discussing Zune Social, Zune Marketplace, and Zune Pass in the next part of this review.)

Major new features in the Zune 3 PC software

The Zune 3.0 PC software offers many major new features. Let's take a look.

Music discovery: Mix View, Channels, and Picks

The Zune 3 platform offers three major new music discovery features, one active and two passive. The active one is called Mix View, and it's available to all users of the Zune PC software. (That is, it doesn't require a Zune Pass subscription or a free Zune Social membership, though the latter makes this feature work better.) Here's how it works: You begin playing a song and then click the perhaps overly-subtle "mixview" link at the bottom of the player. The software changes from its normal columnar view into a new graphical Mix View with the current artist at the center of a graphical representation of related music, artists, and listeners. It looks like this:

"Mix View re-sorts your world with the artist at the center," Microsoft senior product manager Terry Farrell told me in a recent briefing. "It lets you go in and explore deeper, and find artists and music that are not necessarily in your collection, people too, including top listeners of the current artist, and friends."

Let's examine this a bit more closely. Mix View essentially provides several floating squares. In the center and largest square is the artist. Around that are smaller squares. You'll see albums by that artist, related artists, related albums by other artists, and top listeners. The whole thing isn't particularly nice looking, to be honest. And it can't be resized in any way, so that it looks fine on a typical 1280 x 720 display but looks horribly small on my 1920 x 1200 desktop. I'd like to see something more dynamic with animation and certainly something more adaptive to the size of the application window.

To dig deeper, you can click on one of the other squares. When you do so, that item moves to the center and new, related satellite squares appear in a slightly different pattern. You can also mouse-over the center item to play it, add it to your cart in Zune Marketplace, or learn more. This is all very well and good, but it's not particularly intelligent. Mix View occasionally displays albums I already own, for example, and then offers to let me buy them (again) from Zune Marketplace.

Aside from this little issue, Mix View is a decent way to discover music. As is often the case with the Zune, it works best with a Zune Pass because this subscription service lets you immediately download anything Mix View recommends, heightening the music discovery experience. But even without a Zune Pass, you can at least preview new music and make a purchase decision that way. Mix View is also available from within the Zune Marketplace, in another nod to the superior music discovery features of this system when compared to market leader Apple.

The second major new music discovery feature, Channels, is more passive. But unlike MixView, Channels actually requires a Zune Pass subscription. "We've gotten a lot of feedback from Zune Pass subscribers who say that they're busy and can't track down stuff they like," Farrell told me. "They feel like they're not getting enough out of what they're paying each month."

To address this problem, Microsoft created the new Channels feature, which Farrell says is like a combination of playlists and podcasts. More specifically, Channels are regularly-updated playlists that Zune Pass members can subscribe to. They're created by partners--industry heavyweights, celebrities, and the like--and Zune employees, and updated every Tuesday. And as they're updated, the Channel playlists in your Zune PC software (and on your device) are updated to match.

The selection of available Channels is decent and has grown even over the three weeks or so since the Zune 3 software first appeared. You can find them in the new Channels section of the Zune Marketplace. From there, you'll see Channels like Billboard Chart Hits, Walk It Off (fitness related), and Top New Releases. But you'll also find, over time, some Channels that are created according to your listening habits. For example, I see Just For You Channels like "New Releases for You," "Rock Picks for You," and "Soundtracks Picks for You." (While writing this review and using this feature, I actually found out about a recent Goo Goo Dolls album I didn't know about; thanks Zune!)

If there's a problem with Channels, it's that they disappear each week. So if you get attached to a specific Channel entry, you'll want to remember to copy the relevant songs to a regular playlist of your own creation.

The third major music discovery feature in Zune 3 is called Picks and, like Channels, it's passive in nature. Basically, Picks sits in the background and analyzes the music you listen to. Then, it makes recommendations that are based on your listening habits. Unlike Apple's similar and much-hyped Genius feature, Picks isn't just a super-secret computer algorithm, though that's certainly part of it. Picks also analyzes the listening habits of your friends and those listeners who prefer the groups you listen to. The more you listen, the better it gets.

And please do take that last comment seriously: After installing Zune 3 on my PC, I had to wait a full week for the Picks feature to kick in and when it did, it only recommended one artist, New Age impresario David Arkenstone, that day. And since I own much of his decent work, the recommendations were for some pretty horrible albums. Grr...

Over time, however, Picks got more interesting. They're exposed on the new Picks sub-menu item under Marketplace in the player software (so I suppose Picks is technically a services feature, but I'll discuss it here because it's so related to Mix View and Channels). What you'll see is, in many ways, a more orderly Mix View-type display, with a grid of boxes full of groups and artists that Zune recommends. There are also lists of listeners like you (the poor bastards), channels for you, and songs for you.

Taken together, Mix View, Channels, and Picks represent a major leap forward for music discovery. I've used these features to rediscover music from my past (some of which has actually held up quite nicely) as well as new music. This is quite a feat for someone who's over 40 years old, believe me. I don't actually spend any time in a Best Buy or wherever looking for new music. But these features--and the surprisingly useful Zune Pass--have really helped me turn the corner on finding new music. This is an area in which Apple continues to struggle, and while the new Genius feature in iTunes 8 is a laudable effort, it falls well short of what Microsoft is doing with the Zune platform.

Now Playing

In Zune 2, Microsoft debuted a new Now Playing screen that tiles album art across the background of the application window. This view continues in Zune 3, but Microsoft has augmented it two major ways. First, it's now interactive, so you can now click on album art to learn more about the current album and artist. Secondly, for many artists, the Zune software provides an alternative Now Playing screen that has to be seen to be truly appreciated: Basically, the application window fills with a series of high quality photos of the current artist while animated information about that artist--biographical information and more--moves over that imagery, accompanied by colorful effects. It is absolutely stunning.

Or, I should say, it's absolutely stunning when it's available. Many, many artists don't get the new Now Playing treatment, including many that are considered A-list bands. Microsoft says it will be adding new artists to this system over time, but I've yet to notice any new ones appear.

Improved search

As with Zune 2, Zune search results appear in an interesting two-column view in which artists, albums, and songs from your collection appear on the left and results from the Zune Marketplace (which can include artists, albums, songs, music videos, playlists, and social members) appear on the right. Two things have changed, however.

First, you can now filter the search results using criteria like artists, albums, songs, music videos, playlists, and social members, which can be handy if you've performed a very general search and would like to minimize the number of hits.

Second, the search box in the Zune PC software application now provides automatic search results. "People were having issues with misspelling," Farrell said. "So we added IntelliSense technology to the search box. As you type, a drop-down appears with search suggestions."

Other changes to the Zune PC software

In addition to the major changes outlined above, Microsoft has made a number of other small improvements to the Zune PC software.

Instead of the kind of artsy "phyta" theme that the Zune PC software used by default with Zune 2, a new plain white "zero" theme is used by default in Zune 3. This new white look and feel has been replicated across all of the public-facing Zune services as well, including on the Web. Note, however, that if you upgrade from a previous Zune version, whatever theme you've configured will be used instead. Zune 3 also includes a second new theme, "slate," but I wish there was a simple way to specify other background colors or themes. Maybe next time.

In the major Zune content sections--music and videos, that is--there are new view style options, which are exposed via a new third menu on the right of the application window. For example, with music, you can utilize artists, genres, albums, songs, and playlists views. These view styles are all a little different. So in the default artists view, you see a grid of small album art. Switch to genres, and the album art is still small, but it's grouped by artist. Switch to album view and suddenly the album art is very large. Songs? It's a list of text in columns. So is playlists. What's still missing is a very obvious feature: A way to change the size of album art. In each view that does display album art, you can't make those albums larger or smaller. You're stuck with the size Zune gives you. It's not a big deal, but again, on a high resolution display, being able to make the albums bigger would be very helpful. My eyes aren't getting any younger, after all.

The top level Zune menus have been changed to address new music discoverability features. A Channels sub-menu now appears under Collection. Picks and Channels now appear under Marketplace.

With over 2 million people now participating in Microsoft's Zune Social community service, the addition of Social functionality into the player is a key addition. I'll be discussing this in the next part of the review, but it's worth noting that virtually all Zune Social functionality is now available directly inside the PC software application. You no longer need to go to the Web for most commonly-needed features.

Final thoughts

The Zune PC software has improved to the point where I wish Microsoft would just bite the bullet, get rid of Windows Media Player, and make Zune the default media player in Windows. That will likely never happen for a variety of reasons, most of which are political, but of course the Zune still can't interact with non-Zune devices, play DVD movies, or work in a truly full-screen mode (that latter omission is quite odd, I think). All that said, the Zune PC software is now the best digital music player available on Windows, and you should consider using it whether you have a Zune device or not. If you care about music above all else, the Zune platform, generally, is now superior to anything Apple offers, and that's very much true of the Zune PC software specifically. This fact alone should be enough to get you to at least consider moving to the Zune. If you're interested in more than music, Apple still has the edge, and that's true especially when you move beyond the PC software to its devices and iTunes Store. But Microsoft's increasingly mature Zune software is excellent. And that's true whether you use a Zune device or not. Highly recommened.

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