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Review: Wireless sync, podcast integration give Zune an edge

  • Story Highlights
  • Flash-based 4GB and 8GB Zune players feature a 1.8-inch glass LCD
  • Has an easy-to-use interface and exceptional navigation control
  • The 4 and 8 players are PC-only devices that require their own software
  • The 4 and 8 are better suited for physically active (or clumsy) users
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By Donald Bell
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CNET.com

(CNET.com) -- Having survived its freshman hazing, the Zune is back for its sophomore revenge, and the iPod has every reason to be frightened. The Zune 4 (4GB, $149) and Zune 8 (8GB, $199) offer a leaner, lighter version of Microsoft's full-size Zune 80 MP3 player (80GB, $249).

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With a new hardware and software design, wireless sync capability, subscription music compatibility, and integrated support for audio and video podcasts, the Zune 4 and Zune 8 are poised to compete directly with the third-generation Apple iPod Nano.

Design

The Zune 4 and Zune 8 are Microsoft's first foray into smaller, flash memory-based MP3 players. Zune 4 and Zune are identical to one another in every way but storage capacity, and both come in red, black, green, and pink. Measuring a slight 3.6 inches by 1.6 inches by 0.33 inch, the flash-based Zunes are considerably slimmer than their 80GB hard-drive-based sibling. In the overcrowded marketplace of flash-based MP3 players, however, the dimensions of the Zune 4 and 8 are hardly noteworthy. That said, the Zune 4 and Zune 8 have a nice shape, which feels reminiscent of the first-generation iPod Nano.

One design feature that distinguishes the Zune 4 and Zune 8 from the competition is Microsoft's decision to use a glass-covered LCD instead of plastic. The 1.8-inch glass screen not only lends the device a sophisticated feel, it also provides a more scratch-resistant surface with less optical distortion than the ubiquitous plastic variety. Although the 1.8-inch screen seems minuscule compared with the opulent 3.2-inch screen on the 80GB Zune, the oversized font on the main menu affords a legibility rarely found on pint-size MP3 players.

Another unique design feature is a completely new navigation control that Microsoft dubs the Zune Pad. Think of the Zune Pad as a cross between a standard four-direction navigation pad and a laptop's touchpad. With the Zune Pad, users can navigate menus by either pressing or sliding their finger in four directions and select items by clicking the middle of the pad. We were initially skeptical about the Zune Pad's usability compared to the tried-and-true click pad of the first-generation Zune, but after just a few minutes we found the Zune's old interface to be positively archaic. Navigating lengthy song lists is a breeze, especially with an accelerated scroll kicking in when the pad is held down. The new Zune Pad interface also lets you skip through songs, photos, and radio stations with just a light brush of the finger. Buttons for play/pause and menu still flank each side of the Zune's control pad, and behave exactly as they did in the first-generation Zune. It's hard to say whether the Zune Pad interface is actually better than Apple's patented iPod wheel navigation, but it is certainly comparable. We found the Zune Pad made scrolling long lists of artists much easier than using a scroll wheel, but the iPod's center select button is more reliable than the ambiguously defined button found on the Zune.

The entire Zune product line uses a new graphic user interface that no longer looks like a rehash of the Portable Media Center operating system found on the Toshiba Gigabeat S. While the critically beloved "twist" interface of first-generation Zune remains, the main menu has been replaced with stunning, oversized text that takes readability to the next level. You can customize this same main menu with a background image from your digital photo collection. Existing Zune loyalists will be happy to know that Microsoft is offering the new Zune operating system as a free upgrade to all first-generation Zune owners.

We're also happy to see that the back of the Zune covered with rugged, matte-finished aluminum, etched with the Zune logo. Microsoft has also partnered with a handful of graphic artists to create custom-etched versions of the 4, 8, and 80GB Zunes, which can be ordered directly from Microsoft at ZuneOriginals.net.

Features With subscription music support, video playback, Wi-Fi music sharing, a high-quality photo viewer, an RBDS-enabled FM radio, and composite video output, the features on the first-generation Zune were already impressive. The second-generation Zunes maintain all of the compelling features of the original and also includes new features such as audio and video podcast support and a unique ability to automatically sync content over a home's wireless network.

Ever since Apple rolled podcast support into its iPod and iTunes products back in 2005, no one has been able to match their seamless integration of audio and video podcast discovery, subscription, and management tools (although Creative's Zencast alternative gets close). With the latest refresh of the Zune PC software, first- and second-generation Zune owners can now enjoy audio and video podcasts with the same ease as their iPod contemporaries. Podcasts now have their own directory within the main menu of the Zune, which is subdivided between audio and video podcasts.

The Zune PC software also includes a new podcast tab that allows users to browse through a growing library of podcasts. If your favorite podcast can't be found in the directory, the software lets you both recommend the podcast for inclusion and lets you add the podcast manually by copying and pasting its URL into the Zune software. In the end, podcast downloads, auto-sync preferences, and subscription management match that of iTunes. In fact, Microsoft takes podcast integration a step further by allowing users to unsubscribe from podcasts directly on their Zune -- a great feature for podcast junkies who want to tidy up their subscriptions on the go. (Editors' note: Microsoft removed the podcast unsubscribe feature from the Zune's initial firmware release due to instability. Microsoft plans to reintroduce the feature in its next firmware update.) We're also happy to see that the Zune includes a playback resume option that automatically bookmarks your place in a podcast when you can't listen to it all in one sitting.

The Zune 4 and Zune 8's piece de resistance is their ability to wirelessly sync content from your PC over your home Wi-Fi network. The feature requires a one-time setup to familiarize the Zune with your home network, after which it will remember to look for the network automatically each time you plug it in for a recharge. If you're within range of your wireless network but don't feel like recharging your player to trigger the wireless sync, you can also initiate the sync manually by digging through the Zune's settings. Of course, you can always connect the Zune directly to your computer using the included proprietary USB cable, but the wireless option is a neat trick.

The Zune 4's and Zune 8's audio, video, photo, and radio features are largely unchanged from the first generation--not a bad thing, really. The Zune's music player supports MP3, WMA, protected-WMA (Zune Marketplace only), WMA Lossless, and AAC music file formats. The continued support for AAC opens the door for iPod converts, although you won't be able to transfer DRM-protected iTunes purchases or Windows' older DRM-9 files.

The Zune supports WMV, MPEG-4, and H.264 video formats natively at a DVD-quality 30 frames per second rate. Windows Media Center users will be happy to know that the Zune also imports DVR-MS recorded video content. Although the Zune's screen displays at a 320x240 resolution, video files stored on the Zune can be as large as 720x480. Unfortunately, the Zune 4 and 8 do not share the same TV output feature included on the 80GB Zune, so the support for 720x480 files is pointless.

The Zune 4 and 8 display RBDS (Radio Broadcast Data System) station information, distinguishing their FM radio as one of the best on a handheld device. Depending on the broadcaster, the Zune's FM radio displays a station's call letters, genre, and occasionally shows the currently playing artist and song information. Users can also switch between European, North American, and Japanese radio bands from the Zune's radio settings menu. The Zune's radio depends on a connected pair of headphones (any will do) to act as an antenna, however, so don't be surprised when the radio doesn't work while the Zune is connected to an AV dock.

Aside from its wireless sync capability, the little Zunes' most notable feature is their ability to share music and photos between users. With the latest version of the Zune PC software, the social aspect of recommending music and showing off your music interests can now reach beyond Zune users who are within range of your Wi-Fi antenna. Zune users are now encouraged to set up their Zune Card, a Last.FM-style Web page that reveals your listening habits and favorite songs to the world, and opens up the opportunity to discover and recommend new music through interaction with other Zune users. The new Zune Card online community may be a bit much for some people, but plans to integrate the Zune Card for use with larger social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace may provide an automatic way to update your friends on your musical tastes.

While the Zune is one of the more full-featured MP3 players on the market, it lacks some competitive features. If you're looking for a voice recorder, line-input recorder, or FM radio recorder, you'll need to look elsewhere. Without support for Audible audio books or audio file bookmarking, the Zune is also not our first choice for book lovers. Considering the restrictive capacity of the Zune 4 and 8, we would have liked an SD memory card expansion slot as well. Still, far and away the most shocking feature omission in the latest crop of Zunes is an audio EQ control.

Software

Using the Zune also means using the Zune's PC-only software. The Zune software has seen a major overhaul from its earliest days, with a shockingly clean and bright interface. New icons lining the bottom edge of the software make playlist creation and content syncing much more intuitive. Fans of Windows Media Player will definitely need some time to adjust to the new file and category organization, but we believe the new system is more intuitive.

As with iTunes, the main benefit of the Zune's dedicated software is the ability to integrate an online music store (Zune Marketplace) alongside your own music library. The Zune Marketplace is also seeing a refresh, with added DRM-free download content, more attractive artist pages, better genre-based editorial content, a podcast directory, and more granular subcategories within genres. The Zune Marketplace is still missing the TV and movie content found through competitors such as iTunes, but it does offer music videos. Expect Microsoft to make another big push for its all-you-can-eat Zune Pass music subscription service to coincide with the launch of their MP3 players.

Performance

The Zune's Achilles' heel is its built-in Wi-Fi antenna. As any laptop owner knows, a Wi-Fi antenna sucks a lot of juice and can wreck battery performance. To optimize the Zune's battery life in spite of its Wi-Fi capabilities, Microsoft decided to ditch the built-in audio equalizer found on the first-generation Zune. While one can argue that EQ presets are simply a Band-Aid for poor quality earbuds, there's just no way to feel good about having a perfectly good feature ripped away from a product. We cut Microsoft a little slack on excluding EQ from the 80GB Zune because they bundled it with high-quality dynamic driver earphones. Unfortunately, the basic earbuds that come with the Zune 4 and Zune 8 just don't compare. Listening on our full-sized Ultrasone HFI-700 headphones, we were more than satisfied with the Zune's fidelity (especially considering its support for the WMA Lossless audio format). That said, bass addicts, control freaks, and people with partial hearing loss will certainly be disappointed with the Zune's lack of sound enhancement.

The 1.8-inch screen used on the Zune 4 and 8 is adequate for short video podcast content, but nowhere close to the luxurious, movie-worthy 3.2-inch screen found on the 80GB version. With flash-based MP3 players such as the Creative Zen and Sansa View offering larger screens along with memory expansion and EQ, the value of the Zune 4 and 8 is not as cut-and-dried as its high-capacity kin. Despite its size, however, the Zune's glass-covered, 320x240 LCD presents excellent viewing angles, with above-average clarity and color. Zune's support for Windows Media Center DVR content is a bonus, but you probably won't want to watch an entire TV show on such a small screen.

The battery life of the 4 and 8GB Zune is about average for this type of device, but we expected much better. With the Wi-Fi feature turned off, Microsoft rates the 4 and 8GB Zune's battery life at 24 hours for audio, and 4 hours for video. Those numbers aren't bad, but we doubt many users will think to turn off the Wi-Fi feature. Once testing is complete, we'll update this review with results from our CNET Labs.

Final thoughts

With every MP3 player manufacturer coming out with their own takes on the video-capable, flash-based MP3 player, Microsoft's spin on the theme is somewhat predictable. Wireless sync and podcast integration give the Zune an edge over its competition, however. Still, we're much more enthusiastic about Microsoft's high-capacity 80GB Zune. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved. CNET, CNET.com and the CNET logo are registered trademarks of CBS Interactive Inc. Used by permission.

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