Why I Love my Zune (and why it’s tough love)
A while back, I was looking for a new mp3 player with a budget of around 200 bucks. I found myself at the local Fry’s Electronics, browsing around when I glanced at their print ad for the week displayed. There on it was a Zune (only 4 gigs, but still..) for 39.95 WITH a free docking station thingee for free thrown in. Well, I kept my extra cash and went for it, in spite of my concerns over Microsoft products. Now, I do not usually review hardware, so bear with me. I just felt so strongly about the positives and negatives about this product, I felt I would be able to help others who are searching for mp3 players and do not trust the usual resources for reviews. And no, it’s not the latest and greatest. Matter of fact, this particular Zune has been around for a long time in electronics hardware terms. Not everyone can afford the latest and greatest. This review is for those people. So if you’re the kind of person who probably already has an iPad on pre-order, this might be a waste of your time.
First, the positives. Why? Because I think they outweigh the negatives.
I love the way it feels in my hand. It doesn’t feel unbalanced or fragile. Matter of fact, it is anything but fragile. I’ve dropped it hard on concrete from a good height so many times I’ve lost count. Each time I’ve expected to pick it up and find its glass front cracked and it’s display wonky. Never happened.
I like the way it looks. In spite of all the design-worship associated with Apple products, I personally find them well designed, but a bit out of time. They always seem , to me, to resemble something out of a 70s catalog geared toward pot or coke-head bachelors living in a studio apartment and driving a van with a waterbed in the back. The kind of guy that had a perm, owned more than one mirror with the Coke-A-Cola logo on it and dated a girl who was 17 when he was 31. That white plastic, “this is what WE think the future will look like”, sterile look. You can love it all you want, but I’ve grown to find it more cheesy over the years. This thing is sleek, black and functional. Simple. It feels balanced in every way.
I like the software! The software runs well on XP, which shocked me. I expected it to feel bloated, slow and more restrictive than it turned out to be. The interface for the player and the sync software are both intuitive, simple yet flexible. On the player, it’s pretty slick. I have yet to run into problems like crashes, weird behavior or road blocks of any significance. Not so with the Creative player/software I’d used in the past. That stuff was bloated, crashed often and in spite of it being fairly customizable, not very intuitive or visually interesting. In one case, I found out much later that in spite of its “expansion port” for SD cards, you could not make a playlist or even play tracks from BOTH the internal memory AND the SD card. You had to actually take the card out to access songs on the internal memory. One or the other, not both. Fail. There’s no expansion on my Zune, but I prefer that to having it be half-assed.
The battery life is unreal. I’ve never run out of battery life, months in. It appears to charge via USB from half to full in about 10 minutes or less. Most of the time, I get enough of a charge for a 4 to 5 hour night of listening by just plugging it in and syncing. It then sits on the USB port for maybe 5 minutes, tops. About once a week I let it stay plugged in for a few hours to get a full charge. The rest of the time, it gets close to being drained, but never gives me any kind of alert saying it’s close to dead. Then when I turn it back on, it appears to have a quarter charge again. This may be different for someone who does not sync daily. I do. So that may make a difference.
If you can find it for a price similar to the one I snagged it for, it’s a damned good deal for a durable, reliable little workhorse of a player.
Now, the negatives.
NO EQ! How did they manage to make such a high quality little player and not include SOME kind of rudimentary EQ?? Anyone familiar with how headphones can vary in quality and especially “colour” can tell you how important an EQ can be for a portable player. (more on the “deal” with headphones in another article) There isn’t even a “bass-treble” control. Major oversight. In spite of this, the player sounds fantastic on a decent set of ‘phones. Perhaps this is something that was fixed with a firmware or software update. Perhaps. Which leads us to the next issue…
I cannot, after several attempts, reboots, firewall re-sets and full permissions, get this thing to update software OR even let me sign in with an account. That’s right. I’d love to try out the Zune Pass. But for some reason they do not like my PC or ISP.. or something. So I guess they just do not want my money. So in spite of being able to connect to several wireless networks with the player itself, I have no account to sign in with. This, for me, is a minor issue since that was not something I had in mind when purchasing a player in the first place. So it’s not a huge loss for me, but it’s a bit of a loss for them. Zune pass looks like a good deal, I’d love to try it and can even imagine keeping it. Each time I try, it says it failed and to “try again later”. I have. It still fails.
Another small issue has to do with Various Artists collections (such as the various playlist torrents). No matter HOW the tags are written, it sees each track as a separate ALBUM by that artist. So, to hear.. say.. Blalock’s Indie Rock Playlist for April, 2010, I cannot just select it as an album (even if the album artist is various artists OR Blalock’s etc etc OR even the album name is Blalock’s etc etc) and listen. Nope. I have to make a custom Zune playlist to listen to it and only it. Pain.In.Ass. I make those all the time anyway, so it’s not a huge complaint. It just feels like something that could be easily fixed.
The last and maybe least of the negatives is the deal with podcasts and audio-books. If I had an account and could connect the player or the Zune software to any kind of Internet, I could just subscribe to podcast RSS feeds and grab stuff that way. Instead, I have a folder I drop individual podcasts into. It works great! ….
..as long as the ID tags were written correctly , identifying its “genre” as “Podcast”. Harumph. So, in many cases, especially if the podcaster is trying to be cute and funny by calling the genre of his or her show “poetry” or “dog whistles”, I have to hand-edit the ID tags to correctly read “podcast” with every show I download. Not a huge deal, I’m used to fixing that stuff. But it can be a pain in the ass if I’m trying to load up the latest TWIT show with a genre tag of “tech news” instead of “podcast” (hello!! I think we know it’s tech news! get it right! it’s a PODCAST! ok, not really mad..sorry) when I have 5 minutes to leave for work. Same goes for audio-books. Those things are hugely popular and very well-known. People love them. Why is it I have to screw with the tags and call them “podcast”s in order for them to sync??
These may seem like large negatives, but most of that has to do with the fact that I complain well. It IS a great player for the price. And I will be buying a Zune HD when I get the chance. I just hope by then, some of these small but obvious issues will be ironed out a bit. I mean, I’m cool with editing ID tags forever as long as I can have an EQ. The iPod may be elegant to some, and honestly the software IS slick. But if you’re a Windows user, iTunes is a bloated, slow, pain in the ass that crashes more often than Windows ME ever did. And show me a 4 gig iPod for 39.95 with a docking station and a gorgeous color display. I could find one using Google product search for 49.00 , but it was a refurb with no docking station(Nano, 3rd gen). The Zune is a great deal.
That’s my 2.5 cents.
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