This review appears in the February issue of PC Advisor, available now in all good newsagents.
Microsoft's potential iPod assassin has already hit the shops in the US, but the timing of the Zune's appearance in the UK remains shrouded in mystery. So are European consumers missing out on a gadget that's, well, unmissable? Not exactly.
For a first effort, the player shows a considerable amount of polish. But Microsoft needs to provide more in terms of features and execution if it's to challenge Apple's dominance of the MP3 player market.
Pricing is a big unknown, but you can expect the Zune to cost around the same as an iPod with a similar capacity – it has 30GB as standard, so that should translate to a price tag of about £190. The FM tuner gives it an advantage over the Apple player, and the Zune supports unprotected AAC files, which is a nice touch for anyone who's been ripping CDs using iTunes' default settings.
The player is a bit larger and heavier than the latest 30GB iPod, but its bright colour screen is half an inch larger than the iPod's.
Microsoft has been hyping up the device's Wi-Fi facilities. However, all this actually allows you to do is connect to another Zune player and beam tracks or photos to it – where they'll remain for a maximum of three days or three plays. This really seems to be of limited use compared with the idea of, for example, connecting to your own desktop PC and accessing the MP3 library on it. Allowing you to connect the Zune wirelessly to Microsoft's new MarketPlace service would be an even smarter move.
The first time we synched the player (after installing the included desktop software, which is basically a customised version of Windows Media Player 11.0), a dialog box popped up, searching for updates and then announcing that a firmware update was available (a day before the device was officially released to the world, no less). After we downloaded the software and installed the update, our Zune player was ready for its inaugural synching.
Unfortunately, the early firmware update fell short of solving all the synchronisation glitches. When we transferred our first group of files, several simply wouldn't synch. Worse yet, the Zune desktop software refused to simply skip those files. Instead, it hung until we clicked Stop Sync, unplugged the player and deleted the offending file.
A player with promise
Once we got past those early annoyances, the Zune proved to be an interesting device. Its interface takes full advantage of the great-looking 3in colour screen. The portrait-oriented display permitted Microsoft to build an interface that combines horizontal and vertical scrolling, with many top-level menus displaying horizontally across the top of the screen, while lists of tracks or track information run vertically.
When you browse through albums, Zune displays thumbnails of the associated art – not hugely useful, but a nice touch. Rather than the album view, we chose to drill down through artists first. So we would have preferred for Microsoft to take a cue from WMP (Windows Media Player) 11.0 and add some visuals to the artist list, preferably replicating WMP's 'stacks of album covers' look.
The Zune's interface is remarkably snappy. It skipped almost instantaneously through tracks in a playlist or during shuffle play, even while loading the associated album art. And although the Zune's circular main control looks like the iPod's touch-sensitive Click Wheel, it's actually a four-position directional control with a central select button.
The audio was decent – on a par with the most recent iPods and Creative players. As a hard-drive-based device, this earned one of the best scores for total harmonic distortion and a very good mark for signal-to-noise ratio. Still, we kept wishing it had a more granular volume control: there's only 15 steps to choose from, so often one level is too soft and the next one up too loud.
Videos looked crisp and clear on the 3in screen, and again, the extra bit of display space makes an appreciable difference over the course of extended viewing.