Microsoft Zune Media Player

Reviewed by: Jack Reikel, February 2007
Published by: Microsoft
Requires: Windows Vista, or Windows XP Home, Professional, or Tablet PC Edition with Service Pack 2, or Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with Update Rollup 2 and Oct. 2006 Update Rollup; 1.5 GHz or higher CPU for video, 512MB RAM or more for video playback
MSRP: US$249.99

Jumping into the MP3 and video media player fray a day late and a dollar short, Microsoft has released the Zune Media Player. The 30GB device has a very sharp, bright, 3" color screen suitable for photo and video viewing. The player apparently operates under Windows CE and runs the Microsoft Portable Media Center audio and video playback software. The Zune looks like a cross between the Creative Zen and an iPod 30GB. The control interface is located on the lower third of the front face, with the rest taken up by the 4:3 ratio screen.

Microsoft has been accused of a lot of things. However, it has never been accused of getting a product just right as it comes out of the gate. The Zune is no exception. Make no mistake — audio, video and FM playback quality is excellent. The major complaint about the Zune is it's lack of backward compatibility with current Digital Rights Management (DRM9) encoding/encryption. So if you've already got a large collection of purchased DRM'd music, the Zune won't play any of it. Obviously then, the Zune is aimed at first-timers in the media player market. Open the Zune box and you'll find the player, desktop software on CD, a charge/sync cable, a soft storage bag and the ubiquitous crappy earphones apparently identical to all of the ubiquitous crappy earphones supplied with all of the other media players on the market. Note to manufacturers (including Apple): stick a crowbar in your wallets — lever out an extra dollar — use the cash to supply decent earphones with your media players.

The Zune does an excellent job of audio reproduction whether you're listening to MP3 music files or poor quality, low bitrate podcasts. Zune works with Windows Media Audio Standard (WMA): Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate; MP3: Up to 320 Kbps, CBR and VBR, up to 48-kHz sample rate; Advanced Audio Coding (AAC—which can include MP4, M4a, M4b, and MOV): Up to 320 Kbps, Low Complexity (LC), up to 48-kHz sample rate. So what's missing? If you guessed Media Center support, WMA-DRM9 (like, all of your current, protected WMA purchases), Ogg and several other things, you'd be right. You can't purchase music for the Zune anywhere online except the Zune Marketplace. Millions of tracks are promised and there's a titanic pile to search through already.


The built-in FM radio is a highlight of the Zune and it works well. As a matter of fact, we liked it a lot, not in the least because it was handy whenever we got bored with our song playlist. Just jump to FM and keep hitting autoscan until you find something you like. It's a simple but effective design and the actual receiver/tuner seems to work cleanly in dense urban areas. We didn't notice any sign of interference or drift.

Photos look great on the Zune screen and the rudimentary slide show feature works reasonably well. You can show any photo file format you want as long as it's JPEG — that's it. The desktop software doesn't offer any other format option. Slideshow support is limited by only a single transition type, a very narrow display time range and not much else. We could hope for a lot more functionality in future software and firmware updates to take advantage of the lovely display quality.

Video is handled mainly through Windows Media Video (WMV): Main Profile, CBR or VBR, up to 1.5 Mbps peak video bitrate, 320 x 240 pixels, 30 frames/sec, with Windows Media Audio up to 192 Kbps, 44.1 kHz, stereo audio; Simple Profile, CBR, up to 736 Kbps video bitrate, 320 x 240 pixels, 30 frames per sec., with Windows Media Audio up to 192 Kbps, 44.1 kHz, stereo audio. So what's missing? If you guessed, DivX, XviD, Amazon Unbox, Bongo, Media Center support, and very little video available for purchase through the Zune Marketplace, you'd be right. Unfortunately, all of the commercial video that's becoming available as of this writing looks mostly like library titles — old stuff in other words. New stuff is promised and you can also use unrestricted WMV files now. You can convert H.264 to WMV using the desktop software.

The desktop synchronization and organization software is called Zune Marketplace. Use it to connect to the online Zune Marketplace store with its touted 2 million song library (we didn't count). You can rip, burn and assemble all sorts of playlists. We didn't have a chanced to try it, but you'll also find a Media Sharing feature in Zune Marketplace which can be set up to stream audio and video to your Xbox 360. Microsoft has taken a page out of its own Xbox book by coming up with yet another points purchasing system. Buy points, then use the points to buy a song or album or video. The verdict? It's dopey. And it's different from Microsoft's existing system. Our advice? For both music and video, subscribe to a ZunePass for US$14.95 per month, which is comparatively cheap (something which Apple should do too actually, in addition to all the other things you can do in iTunes) and prowl around to your heart's content.

Cons: No backward compatibility with the rather large mountain of existing Plays-for-Sure/DRM 9 content! Existing libraries of purchased music and video (from Napster, Urge, Rhapsody, Wal-Mart and many other online music and video content providers) will go unheard and unwatched on the Zune. This is foolishness beyond description and it's impossible to determine why Microsoft made the decision to implement what they call DRM 9.1 and ignore all of the purchased DRM9 music that's already out there. To complete this review properly, we had to purchase new tracks because none of our existing DRM tracks would work. Unprotected MP3s work perfectly of course, but the gross incompatibility with a rather expensive library of purchased music is deeply irritating. We did not do any testing of the Zune-to-Zune WiFi feature, but — call us old and stodgy if you want — the Zune WiFi seems mildly useless with its lack of video sharing, Zune Inbox-only control over access and some other issues. No Podcast section or features built into either the Zune or the Zune Marketplace, a curious commission considering the growing popularity of podcasts.

Pros: The Microsoft Zune is an excellent piece of playback hardware and appears to be physically well built. If you're just getting into online, portable media stuff now, you can purchase a ZunePass for fifteen bucks a month and play to your heart's content. Audio and video quality are excellent and the Zune screen has got to be one of the best on the market as of this writing. Controls work well and most are thoroughly intuitive and packed with features. Although the Zune is a bit larger than competing players, after a week of tossing it around between half a dozen 'testers', the unit remained unscathed and working perfectly despite the singularly rough treatment. Perhaps a little bit of extra size is a good thing from time to time? With its larger screen, video/movie watching at lunch time was actually better on the Zune that it is on our iPod 30GB unit. Acceptable battery life of 9 hours during a WiFi-enabled test session of mixed audio and video content (which beats the pants off the iPod by the way). The WiFi is almost useless except for file sharing with another Zune, so unless you're socializing with other Zune owners, turn it off. Good FM radio performance via an easy to use interface. The Microsoft Zune is a portable media player for anyone who doesn't already have a lot of money invested in DRM music and video. Recommended (just).

KSN Product Rating:




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