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Bad Zune News

March 23, 2011 Leave a comment

Zune HD

R.I.P. Zune

Today is a sad day for me, and as it turns out, probably not a huge number of others. While watching the latest Windows Weekly (yes, I am a nerd), I heard it finally confirmed. The Zune is no more. You can still get them, but there will not be another Zune. That’s the news coming out of Microsoft, allegedly internally yet still denied publicly. Bloomberg is reporting this as well, and I wish I could say they’re probably wrong, but they most likely are not. This really is sad, because although Apple’s offerings do offer some advantages, my own Zune experience has been overwhelmingly positive in the long run. This little cheap baby (39.95!! refurb!!) has been to hell and back, and still runs beautifully. In fact, it even has a huge crack in the screen. Still works perfectly, still looks good and still sounds fantastic with my headphones of choice. (while in fact, my headphones simply didn’t sound as good on an iPod Nano I tried a while back) I also grew to love the interface with some small caveats. First, the podcast integration was a little wonky, and I missed some of the things my previous players had, such as “most played” and “rarely heard” automatic playlists.

It’s even more frustrating because if they would give it more time, and perhaps just a tiny, teensy-weensy price drop, even if it’s a short lived one, along with more major media ads pointing out it’s advantages (Zune Pass is fantastic, and while not free is as close to a true Spotify as you’ll get while waiting for the popular streaming all-you-can-eat service to come to the US, at 14.95 a month WITH 10 monthly free mp3 downloads you can keep included in the price), it has a chance at a chunk of the market share. Apple WILL dominate for the foreseeable future, especially with the prices being so reasonable while continuing to innovate. You just cannot deny that the iPod touch is a whopper of a deal for what you get now. But not everyone wants to plop down OVER 100 bucks for an mp3 player(for an 8g Nano, even refurbs are about 129.00). And for around 60, they want a screen and if possible more than 2 gb ( although the shuffle is 44.99 at 2gb) . There’s no doubt that if you want the Apple … experience?… the price of entry is much lower than it ever has been.

It’s all a matter of personal tastes, no matter how much Apple-Trekkers will try to tell you differently, but after trying the iTunes and iPod interfaces, I prefer the Zune software and interface by a huge degree. Something just feels right about it all. It will be missed. We’re losing it far too soon. Perhaps they will simply offer a windows phone that can be purchased at a reasonable price that is simply a Zune HD with added features like a camera for stills and videos. I just hope that if this is the way they go they do not lose the HD radio. Sure, there’s not a lot of good programming out there in HD Radio, but it’s going to be around for a while and the offerings will improve with time. (especially as College and Indie/Non-Commercial radio jumps on) Time will tell. I hope this isn’t the last we see of the Zune brand, as long as the Zune software comes along with it and is improved.

However, sadly, I have lost a certain amount of trust with this move and I will soon be the proud owner of an iPod Touch. I just can’t invest in a player that, even discounted to 150 bucks or so (The price for a 16gb Zune HD is now about 164 bucks, and is sure to drop now), will not be improved/developed for, will not be supported and delivers a service I love that may just go “poof” in the near future after that investment of time and money. No thanks. I’d rather spend the 15 bucks a month at iTunes on apps and tracks, or maybe even skip part of that and buy some wi-fi hot-spot access. Besides, have you seen the display on that thing? The retina display is wondrous! I’m sure some people will snatch up those cheap Zune HDs when the price drops and they clear them out finally, but I’m bypassing it and jumping finally into the cult of Apple. Now I must procure the employment to support my new habit. That IPad 2 is lookin’ mighty fine, and why bother getting one of those without a Macbook Air to go with it?  So I must be going now.

Goodbye Zune, we hardly knew ye.

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What’s, uh, the DEAL with headphones? (finding a nice pair)

April 10, 2010 2 comments

Headphones

Huge Headphones are the best!

Remember the good old days when you could try headphones before you buy them? All that sticky earwax stuck to the cushions, the gigantic padded ear cups, the thundering bass provided by the drivers that could fit in them? How about that slightly wet sensation you felt after putting them on, indicating a recent test by a maybe less-washed consumer before you? I guess there were upsides and downsides to the process. But at least you knew what you were getting before you shelled out the cash for them. Having personally spent a decent chunk of cash for a pair in the not too distant past, only to find out when I got home that they had horrible bass without pressing them so hard into your head manually that it often lead to a headache, I feel for you. Even high-end manufacturers are guilty of delivering huge technical promises and delivering what sounds like old am radio speakers glued into tiny cardboard boxes. Enough is enough!! Not only that, but I’ve found the consumer reviews of particular pairs to be about as reliable as the claims on packaging! One pair I purchased got multiple rave reviews on Amazon, but when I got them they sounded like absolute garbage, were uncomfortable and stopped working after about 3 weeks. (one ear just stopped working, and I’m NOT unusually rough on headphones) Typically, the ones that truly sound good are either huge and really goofy looking OR tiny but in the price range of about 200 dollars or MORE! And one pair I actually got a chance to try from a really well-known brand (it was about 89 bucks) sounded like crap warmed over with a towel wrapped around the drivers. NOT GOOD!

So what’s a music lover to do?? Well, at home I tend to stick with closed-cup, studio monitor headphones I’ve grabbed at a discount at actual music stores. Places like Guitar Center or your local, mom and pop source for musician’s equipment. Why? Because they usually sound about twice as good as the headphones you get at the bigger stores that claim all kinds of premium quality and features. And they typically range in price from..

$HOLY CRAP HOW ARE THESE SO CHEAP??.99

to

$way too much for something that’s going to get tangled and screwed up way too soon for the price of an average car payment.99.

Take your pick, but I choose the former. Those things are shockingly good. And the prices can be fantastic if you catch them during a sale. As you know, however, they are usually huge and not pleasant for away-from-home listening.

But for iPod or Zune use? That’s where things get tricky. The ear-buds that came with my Zune were horrible. But I expected that in advance so I grabbed a random pair of under-20 dollar headphones off the rack and took them home. JVC, slightly over the ear, padded cups.  I believe THESE are the ones. For once, I got lucky and they sound damned fine for a pair under 20. They are not a miracle, or outstanding by any means. But they sound really good and are very comfortable on my abnormally large, hard-to-buy-a-hat-for head. At Fry’s I grabbed them for about 14 or 15 dollars. Do any of you fine readers have suggestions for a nice pair? Any unbelievable deals under 30 bucks? How about stories of expensive pieces of crap? Did you try the same over-priced ear-buds that I did? Were they priced at about 200 bucks and sounded about as good as the ones you see in discount bins? Do you know of any sites where decent , trustworthy reviews can be found? Please share and I hope my suggestions helped you.

Image Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/veldaz/2267528360/

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NO links are affiliate or ad links in this blog entry. And I have no affiliation or partnership with any of the companies mentioned.
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Why I Love my Zune (and why it’s tough love)

April 3, 2010 5 comments

Zune with Packaging

The Zune with packaging.

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.

Image Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/penmachine/2681955214/in/set-72157606246514414/

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