Microsoft's Zune Only Looks Simple

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, November 19, 2006

The new Zune digital-media player may be an all-Microsoft production, but it feels like it came from two companies.

One's the smart, aggressive competitor that built the Xbox and Xbox 360 game consoles, carving out a franchise from scratch in a tough market. The other's the clumsy, lumbering giant that can't seem to avoid occasionally stepping on its own customers.

That combination won't help the Zune grab market share from Apple's iPod. Apple has dominated the market by emphasizing simplicity above all, and Microsoft aims to follow suit with the Zune, a wireless-enabled player that sells for $250.

But the Zune's relentlessly proprietary nature suggests Microsoft drew the wrong lessons from Apple: It matched the restrictiveness of the iTunes Store, not its utility.

The Zune player itself is the most appealing part of the package. About the size of a deck of cards, it comes in dark gray, brown or white and provides almost 30 gigabytes of hard-drive storage. It has an intuitiveness absent from most other iPod rivals.

Pick up the Zune, and its controls fall under your thumb: a back button, a circular four-way controller that resembles an iPod's click-wheel dial and a play/pause button. Once you realize that the central controller doesn't spin, its operation is pretty much self-evident: Press up or down to adjust volume; press left or right to skip to the previous or next song.

The Zune's bright, clear color screen, three inches across, allows more room to present its menus. That made building a playlist more obvious than on an iPod.

When you view photos or videos, the screen automatically switches orientation to a wide landscape mode. A built-in FM tuner offers an alternative to your music and can even display the program data many stations broadcast, such as song titles or call letters.

The rest of the Zune's design shows a similar elegance. Its headphones click together magnetically for tidier storage, while its grippy, rubber-like surface should resist scratching. The thing even looks clean, without the usual Windows logo or even the word "Microsoft." (Only a tiny "Hello from Seattle" on the back reveals its ancestry.)

The Zune, however, is a little thick and heavy, about six-tenths of an inch and just over six ounces with headphones. That added bulk comes from the Zune's major innovation, its wireless music sharing.

If you and a friend with a Zune are nearby -- we got this to work from 50 feet away -- you can beam songs to each other.

This isn't a permanent transfer; the Zune erases the song after three days or the third playback, whichever comes first. But it is a neat way to expand your music library, and eventually your tastes.

If you like the new music, you can flag it for later attention. When you plug a Zune back into your computer, its software will look for that song in your music library and Microsoft's Zune Marketplace.

With wireless on, a Zune's battery lasted through 12 hours of music playback; with that feature off, it ran for 13. This rechargeable battery, sealed inside, will wear out eventually, but Microsoft hasn't set a battery-replacement policy yet.

If Microsoft had stopped there, the Zune would be in fine shape to challenge the iPod. Instead, the company chose to limit the Zune to one program and one Internet music store.

The Windows XP-only Zune software is almost functionally identical to the new Windows Media Player 11. Like that program, it can't subscribe to podcasts or print out CD labels, but otherwise it handles most digital-music chores smoothly.

But the Zune program takes longer to install, counting time needed for a mandatory update of the Zune player's firmware. (Microsoft says you'll need to do that with Zunes sold this year.)

Incompatibility with other Windows Media-based online music stores should provoke a lot more angst. Zune software and hardware only play "unprotected" MP3, AAC and WMA files, plus Zune Marketplace downloads. They ignore anything obtained before from stores using Microsoft's formats. Rhapsody, Napster or MSN Music songs, audiobook loans from a library, Amazon Unbox video rentals--they're all dead to the Zune. This is a breathtaking display of corporate faithlessness, cluelessness or both.

The Zune Marketplace can't replace those other sources of Windows Media content, since it doesn't sell TV shows or movies. Its music library totals about 2 million songs, fewer than other popular Web music services, with most available for either rent or purchase.

Rentals can be copied to two Zune players, but they can't be burned to audio CD and will go silent if you cancel your $15 monthly subscription.

Purchases don't require a subscription and have the same usage limits as elsewhere; for instance, you can't play them on more than five computers at once and can only burn a playlist to audio CDs seven times.

But unlike other stores, the Zune Marketplace doesn't let you pay in U.S. currency. You must first purchase "Microsoft Points," a financial instrument Microsoft created for its Xbox Live video game service, then trade them in for each song or album.

Like a county fair that makes you buy food tickets, this system forces you to buy more than you need for the next transaction. The minimum Microsoft Point purchase is 400 points for $5, while songs go for 79 points each -- at the current exchange rate, nearly 99 cents. Album prices equate to $10 or so.

Beyond the arrogance of requiring Microsoft's own "money," the Zune Marketplace also shows sloppy workmanship. Its registration screen wouldn't accept three Washington, D.C., Zip codes. When presented with a shared song that I'd tagged (and which was in the Zune Marketplace inventory) its search function couldn't find it. And when I tried buying a new album, I only got six of 13 tracks and a message that the others "might not be available." (Microsoft said that shouldn't have happened.)

Microsoft has enough of a challenge without all these self-inflicted flaws. Do the folks there realize nobody's handing out extra points for difficulty?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro

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