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Zune HD Review, Part 5: The Big Picture

In Europe this week for a Microsoft launch event, I've been reflecting on the Zune HD, and while I wasn't originally sure I needed to write a wrap-up of sorts for this multi-part Zune HD review, it occurred to me that some concluding thoughts were in order. There's more to come, actually--next month, Microsoft will release the Zune video interface for the Xbox 360--but there's already so going on with this fourth generation Zune, and I'm of mixed feelings when I consider whether it's a success.

I think the problem here is that the Zune has always been too much of a compromise. The first Zune was created in the iPod's image, literally, and was as such a pale imitation of what Apple had already created. Of course, even the first generation Zune had a few advantages over Apple's offerings, with an FM radio, a subscription service, and better use of the device's onscreen real estate (with beautiful, nearly full-screen album art).

These trends--copying Apple while offering a few additional advantages--continued in each Zune generation, and it's happening again with Zune HD. Microsoft was late to the touch-screen game by about two years, for example, but it leapfrogged Apple by using infinitely superior OLED screen technology, and by providing HD radio support and 720p HD video output (with an optional dock).

But the Zune HD soldiers on with the same weird limitations as its predecessors and as Apple expands and enhances the iPod lineup and its surrounding hardware, software, and services ecosystem, the gap only widens. Today, the Zune HD is offered in only one country worldwide, the United States, and when I asked Microsoft about this, I was met with a cooler-than-usual response that offered little to no hope that the company took this product seriously enough to offer it outside its own locale.

It's not just availability. Because the Zune has never really been successful, there are only a handful of hardware accessories (cases, docks, cables, and so on), while the iPod hardware ecosystem is an industry unto itself. And don't get me started with automobile access: Virtually every single auto maker on earth offers iPod compatibility, and iPod car kits are commonplace. If you want a Zune in your car, you're looking at generic MP3 solutions (USB or line-in inputs) or just a tiny number of Zune-specific solutions, none of which are readily available.

The effects of this disparity are enormous and impossible to ignore. You really have to know what you're getting into when you choose the Zune HD because you're pretty much on your own when you do. It's what being a Mac user was like 7-8 years ago: The people who chose this option understood the challenges and lack of support but thought the underlying hardware and software was excellent enough to make it work.

Mac users, of course, have been rewarded for their patience and loyalty. I don't believe this will ever be the case with the Zune devices, sorry. And while I do use and recommend the Zune HD highly, especially to music lovers, I also feel the need to remind people that you need to go into this decision with your eyes wide open.

This doesn't mean that the Zune is "doomed" or whatever. But I do feel that the Zune device will always be a niche player in the market and, more important perhaps, an increasingly irrelevant part of Microsoft's wider strategy for the Zune platform. This, too, is an important thing to understand, and a huge difference between the first Zune of 2006 and the fourth generation Zune platform or 2009. Three years ago, Microsoft was offering a new digital media platform centered on and around a portable MP3 player. All of the PC software and services that constituted the Zune platform of that day were there solely to support that device.

That is most decidedly not the case today. And when you look at the Zune HD--awesome as it is--you have to understand that the Zune HD is really just a part of today's Zune platform. There isn't a pyramid with the Zune HD on top. The Zune HD is just a piece of a wider puzzle, and an optional one at that.

Today's Zune platform consists of many pieces, none of which sit above the others. We have the Zune PC software, which is excellent even if you never access any other Zune services or buy a Zune device of any kind. (In fact, the Zune PC software is so good, it's the one part of today's Zune platform that I can recommend without reservation to any Windows user.) We have the device line, which now consists of a single form factor. And we have a burgeoning set of online services, including the excellent and affordable Zune Pass subscription, the Zune Social online community, the Zune Marketplace (which has been bolstered by more video content, though it still falls far short of what Apple offers on iTunes), and the new and vastly improved web site, which offers particular value to Zune Pass users who wish to access the Zune Marketplace music library away from their own PCs.

The problem, of course, is that many pieces of this puzzle have yet to be fleshed out, and there is much more coming down the road in some indefinite future. Microsoft has told me firmly and clearly that Zune is now its overreaching entertainment service brand for the entire company. Going forward, it will be brought to other businesses within Microsoft--including, explicitly, Xbox and Windows Mobile, and, implicitly, Windows itself. Microsoft sees Zune as the way it will deliver rich entertainment experiences around music and video, no matter where those experiences may occur.

This sounds very exciting and it speaks to a future of consistent, excellent, digital media experiences across the so-called "three screens and the cloud" (PC, TV, smart phone, and services) that Microsoft is currently touting as its overall consumer focus going forward. And Zune is literally the brand that the company will use to promote the most interesting and (I think) important consumer offerings.

But how will this impact you in the real world? Sadly, almost not at all, at least not anytime soon. The only Zune release we know of that will occur outside of the traditional Zune platform is the Zune Video functionality that will be added to the Xbox 360 in November. Microsoft says this is not just a rebranding of the current (and weak) video playback functionality that's currently available on the video game console. To prove its point, Microsoft notes that the Zune video functionality adds new features 1080i HD video content, "instant on" video streaming, and a merging of the Zune Marketplace and Xbox Live Marketplace video (TV show and movie) catalogs. Oddly, the Xbox version of this service offers some advantages over the Zune PC software: For example, when you choose HD content from the Xbox 360, it will be made available at 1080i, whereas HD content on the PC is limited to 720p.

I can and did argue that these improvements didn't require a Zune branding. To which Microsoft can (and did) respond that their work on the console provided an Xbox-like experience but with a "Zune flavor." More important, of course, is that this is just the first step. Microsoft started with video because it seemed like it was the obvious place to begin, given that the Xbox 360 is Microsoft's primary living room interface. There are 20 million of those things out there, after all.

I get that. But the slow way that Microsoft is pushing Zune outside its boundaries is a bit alarming. It seems like the company could have (and should have) delivered on Zune-based music and photo experiences on the Xbox 360 this year as well. And as anyone who's ever used the Xbox 360's bare-bones media playback controls will tell you, such an upgrade is desperately needed.

I long for such a day. The thought of something like the Zune PC software running on the Xbox 360 is terribly exciting, and it would make the Xbox 360 the obvious choice for digital media enthusiasts. Why this isn't happening, or at least happening more quickly, is unclear.

And that's before we ever get past the console. Last week, Microsoft shipped its brand new Windows Mobile version, Windows Mobile 6.5, on dozens of handsets around the world. But Windows Mobile 6.5 comes with a years-old version of Windows Media Player and not a modern Zune solution. As with the Xbox 360, I imagine how awesome Windows Mobile could be if it came with Zune device-like media playback experiences. Microsoft's platform would suddenly be desirable, and not a laughing stock.

And then there's the PC. In two weeks, Microsoft will unleash its most eagerly-awaited Windows version in almost 15 years, Windows 7. But for all the excitement around Windows 7--and I must include myself in the not-so-exclusive crowd of people who are indeed excited about Windows 7--this OS still ships with old-school Windows Media Player and Windows Media Center software. Yes, WMP has gotten a nice update in Windows 7, but come on: There's no online store story anymore and nothing it does couldn't have been handled better by the Zune software instead. Media Center is a bit more complex. It's gotten a rather tepid update in Windows 7, but it does include unique TV recording functionality that, while little-used, is still outside the bounds of what's available on Zune.

I've called on Microsoft in the past to get rid of Windows Media Player at least, and I'm doing so again. The time is now to remove this legacy deadwood from Windows and replace it with a modern and superior platform. Fortunately for the software giant, that platform already exists. It's called Zune. And maybe that's what they'll do in Windows 8. It can't happen quickly enough in my opinion.

Where this is heading

While the future of Zune extends across Microsoft's relevant consumer businesses, the Zune platform of today is really just an evolved version of the Zune platform we've known (and in some cases, loved) for three years. Promises are nice, but they're not reality, and if you're considering the Zune HD today, you need to take that reality into account.

It's not a pretty picture. I don't like to have caveats attached to every recommendation I make, but the Zune platform still comes with plenty of reservations, buts, and ifs. There is no way to make a blanket statement about any of this, except perhaps for the PC software. Here's how it boils down in my mind.

Zune HD

Apple markets its best-selling iPod touch as a portable media player, a pocket computer, and a game player, and there is no way to argue against any of that; it does all three of those things pretty damn well. By comparison, the Zune is an excellent portable media player only. If you are into music, particularly, and want to explore and discover new music, the Zune HD beats the iPod touch, hands down, especially when combined with a Zune Pass subscription. If, however, you want to purchase non-music content online (movies, TV shows, and so on), the iPod touch is served by a vastly superior online store. It is also backed by a pervasive ecosystem that will keep you swimming in whatever hardware accessories, cases, car kits, or other add-ons you may desire. There is nothing like that on the Zune. It's not even close. The one exception, hardware-wise, is that the Zune HD has a nice (optional) dock that can output in HD but offers only basic device access. And of course if you add an Xbox 360 to the mix, things get a bit better now (and will get a bit better again in the near future).

Recommendations: : The Zune HD is a superior music player but falls short for other media types and for non-music-player capabilities. If apps, Internet services, games, or other non-music functionality is a concern, you'd be crazy not to get an iPod touch.

What I'm doing: I've chosen the Zune HD as my media player going forward, and on the current trip to Europe, I loaded up two Zune HDs with my music, audiobook, and podcast collections as well as a selection of rented, purchased, and ripped-from-DVD movies and TV shows. I will continue to maintain an iPhone and/or iPod touch, however, to keep up with the doings on the Apple side of the fence and to take advantage of the unique pocket computer/game player features that only the iPhone/iPod touch provides. This is not an option for most people, of course.

\[ Read more about the Zune HD in my review. \]

PC software

The Zune PC software has evolved nicely over the past three product versions (the first one was an anomaly and was based on Windows Media Player) and is now mostly superior to anything offered in Windows Media Player or Windows Media Center. (Unless of course you want to use Media Center's TV functionality.)

Recommendations: : I strongly recommend that all Windows users at least try the Zune PC software and would point out that it only gets better if you couple it with one or more of the Zune online services.

What I'm doing: I use the Zune PC software semi-exclusively to manage my music and video collections. (The one exception is that I have to use iTunes, of course, for my iPhone and iPod touch.) What I mean by this is that I rate songs with Zune. I purchase content from Zune (when it's available). I download and manage podcasts with Zune. This is my hub for music and video.

\[ Read more about the Zune 4.0 PC Software in my review. \]

Zune Marketplace

While Microsoft has made advances with its online store over the past few years, it still trails iTunes dramatically in all areas. The one possible exception is music, where the Zune catalog is at least competitive and is delivered in DRM-free and highly compatible MP3 format. But Apple also offers DRM-free music, and it is delivered in a superior AAC format, one that is now broadly compatible if you're a Windows 7 user. (AAC works fine in Zune regardless.) Look past music, however, and it's no contest: Apple has vastly superior offerings for TV shows, movies, podcasts, audiobooks, and other content, and of course a ginormous collection of iPhone/iPod touch games and applications. It's no contest.

Recommendations: : The Zune Marketplace is not a reason to choose the Zune platform, but it is something you will have to deal with if you do opt to go Zune. One point in Microsoft's favor is that its music collection is available in DRM-free MP3 format. But then, that's true of many services. You should simply buy music from the service that offers the best deal, and since there's no penalty for shopping around, do so. (And if you have moved to Windows 7, consider iTunes for music as well; its AAC offerings offer superior sound quality.) For video, there's little to recommend here, but that may improve in the future.

What I'm doing: I shop around for digital music and generally choose between iTunes, Zune, and Amazon MP3. I do use Zune Marketplace in tandem with Zune Pass, of course, and for its Channels and Picks, though both features require an investment in Zune Social and/or Zune Pass as well.

\[ Read more about Zune Marketplace in my review of the Zune online services. \]

Zune Social

Microsoft's online community has done for music what Xbox Live did for gaming, and while it's an underrated part of the Zune platform, it's a big selling point for music lovers because it connects you to others with the same musical taste and can help you discover new content. I'm curious to see if this service will ever offer similar discoverability for other content types (like movies or TV shows).

Recommendations: : Zune Social is worth the investment if you're a music fan. Of course, this service makes even more sense if you buy into the full Zune experience with a Zune Pass and, possibly, a Zune HD device.

What I'm doing: As I get older, I find it hard to discover new music, and while I'm not sure if it's apathy or my busy schedule, I can report that I've found a bunch of new music courtesy of Zune Social and Zune Pass. I find this incredibly useful.

\[ Read more about Zune Social in my review of the Zune online services. \]

Zune Pass

If you are a music lover, Zune Pass is the place to be, and of course it gets even better with the music discovery features available through Zune Social and Zune Marketplace. Plus you can fill up a Zune HD device quite nicely with just subscription-based music, finding new content each month and reducing the effective cost of the service to $5 a month when you factor in the ten free songs you get. It's a great deal.

Recommendations: : Music fans will find that Zune Pass is reason enough to go Zune. There's just nothing like it on the Apple side, and while it's possible to find subscription music services in the PlaysForSure world, those services are dogged by inferior software and devices.

What I'm doing: I subscribe to Zune Pass and will continue to do so.

\[ Read more about Zune Pass in my review of the Zune online services. \]

The improved web site is one of the truly pleasant surprises in the new version of Zune platform. Previously, this site served as a typical information hub for the Zune, and offered access to web-only features like Zune Originals. But now you can access the Zune Marketplace's music (and podcast) content from the site. For non-subscribers, that means 30-second song previews, which isn't too excited. But couple it with a Zune Pass subscription and you can suddenly start queuing up playlists from a collection of several million songs. That's pretty exciting, especially for those who would like such access at work, but aren't allowed to install software such as the Zune PC software. And Microsoft gets bonus points for making it work with competing browsers. This may be the closest Mac users ever get to the Zune.

Recommendations: : As with the Zune Marketplace, isn't a reason to consider the Zune necessarily, but it is a wonderful perk for those who do need this functionality.

What I'm doing: I haven't yet run into a situation where I need to access Zune Marketplace content from the web, but then I work from home and configure my own PCs.

\[ Read more about in my review of the Zune online services. \]

Final thoughts

Overall, the Zune platform of which the Zune HD is just a part is excellent for what it is but still incomplete and lacking when compared to Apple's offerings. That's a sad statement, because parts of Microsoft's platform--the Zune HD itself, Zune Pass, and the Zune PC software--are fantastic. Some of it is clearly superior to competing parts of the iPod/iTunes ecosystem. But some of it isn't. And when you factor in the sheer scope of the Apple side of the fence, it's hard to make an argument for something that is smaller, does less, and is not very well supported. I do use the Zune and will continue do so. But I feel less certain about recommending this path to others, and I find that a bit troubling.

I look forward to a Zune that I can recommend without caveat. But we're not there, not yet.

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